Monday, February 20, 2012

Accidental Education

"He had to take that life as he best could, 
with such accidental education as luck had given him". 

I am a university professor. Universities facilitate efficient and systematic learning, so I teach classes, design courses, and develop curricula. Universities have tremendously benefitted technology, the economy, health, cultural richness and awareness, and many other "goods".

Nonetheless, some important lessons are learned strictly by accident. Moreover, without accidental surprises, education would be a bit dry, sometimes even sterile. As Adams wrote: "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught."

An example. I chose my undergraduate college because of their program in anthropology. When I got there I took a chemistry course in my first semester. I was enchanted, by the prof as much as by the subject. I majored in chemistry and never went near the anthro department. If that prof had been on sabbatical I might have ended up an anthropologist.

Universities promote lifelong learning. College is little more than a six-pack of knowledge, a smattering of understanding and a wisp of wisdom. But lifelong learning doesn't only mean "come back to grad school". It means perceiving those rarities and strangenesses that others don't notice. Apples must have fallen on lots of peoples' heads before some clever fellow said "Hmmm, what's going on here?".

Accidental education is much more than keeping your eyes and mind open (though that is essential). To understand the deepest importance of accidental education we need to enlist two concepts: the boundlessness of the unknown, and human free will. We will then understand that accidental education feeds the potential for uniqueness of the individual.

As we have explained elsewhere, in discussing grand unified theories and imagination, the unknown is richer and stranger - and more contradictory - than the single physical reality that we actually face. The unknown is the realm of all possible as well as impossible worlds. It is the domain in which our dreams and speculations wander. It may be frightening or heartening, but taken as a whole it is incoherent, contradictory and endlessly amazing, variable and stimulating.

We learn about the unknown in part by speculating, wondering, and dreaming (awake and asleep). Imagining the impossible is very educational. For instance, most things are impossible for children (from tying their shoes to running the country), but they must be encouraged to imagine that they can or will be able to do them. Adults also can re-make themselves in line with their dreams. We are free and able to imagine ourselves and the world in endless new and different ways. Newton's apple brought to his mind a picture of the universe unlike any that had been imagined before. Surprises, like dreams, can free us from the mundane. Cynics sometimes sneer at personal or collective myths and musings, but the ability to re-invent ourselves is the essence of humanity. The children of Israel imagined at Sinai that the covenant was given directly to them all - men, women and children equally - with no royal or priestly intermediary. This launched the concept and the possibility of political equality.

The Israelites had no map of the desert because the promised land that they sought was first of all an idea. Only after re-inventing themselves as a free people created equal in the image of God, and not slaves, only after finding a collective identity and mission, only then could they enter the land of Canaan. Theirs wanderings were random and their discoveries were accidental, but their formative value is with us to this day. No map or curriculum can organize one's wandering in the land of imagination. Unexpected events happen in the real world, but they stimulate our imagination of the infinity of other possible worlds. Our most important education is the accidental stumbling on new thoughts that feed our potential for innovation and uniqueness. For the receptive mind, accidental education can be the most sublime.


  1. The best example I can think of, of finding something one did not set out to look for, is when the Indian prince was notified that at some other place in the world than India, Indians were found. He ordered a ship to set sail and find out more about it. The ship, not far away from India yet, ran into an island that had not yet been discovered. The prince called it Serendip. That is where our word serendipity comes from.

    It must be too obvious to me that I cannot think of why I believe that Truth and Truth alone, will make new discoveries possible in the grand scheme of a research program we once started. It is simply what lets itself be independently confirmed one way and another. So if we stumble upon outcomes that are nice or even good to know, chances are that they fit our research paradigm and are evidence for the Truth of its main- or derivative hypotheses.

    Randomization is even required in field- or lab experiments, to compare explained variance of new, to that of old hypotheses. It indicates how robustly the new belief or hypothesis can explain what is happening and make us understand how to handle any (dangerous) situation. Theology is part of this, at least in the sense that we control our own fate.

  2. A lot of inventions are accidental too, sometimes you look for a breakthru in one area and you end up with a big breakthru in another.

    Bertrand Russel in (I believe) "The Outline of Philosophy" mentions an experiment with a monkey in a room and some bananas on a shelf he could not reach. Several pieces of cane were around, all of about equal length, but the bananas were not reachable by any one of them.

    The monkey fooled around for hours, tried this and that, all failed, until he had the idea of sticking the narrow top of one cane into the wider bottom of the other and getting a stick of cane stick of about twice the length, which did the trick.