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Learning to Be Happy
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

Indian educator Sugata Mitra shoved a live computer into a hole in a slum building wall in New Delhi, India. He watched from afar as five- and six-year-olds—illiterate children with no clue what the Internet was—happily gathered around, teaching themselves to browse. His hunch was right, their innate curiosity quickly grabbed hold of them, pulled these kids into the exotic weavings of the web. Eager to take this further, Mitra searched for remote, similarly disadvantaged populations in India. Bingo: Four hours after seeing a computer for the first time, groups of children with wide toothy smiles had learned by themselves how to record their music—on the Internet. India, the world’s largest democracy, is trying to break out of its cycle of poverty. Mitra's findings could definitely help. Way to go India! You may outpace China and even the United States as an economic force in the coming decades.

Conjuring the spirit of Socrates, who believed that all children had certain innate knowledge, Mitra smiled triumphantly, “Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet irrespective of who or where they are.” These children were working in small groups, mixing challenges with fun, cooperative teamwork helped the learning come quicker and easier.1

Mitra started to make the tasks harder, for instance, challenging students to translate languages using a speech-to-text computer program but providing no further guidance. Two months later he came back and the kids’ accents had turned British! After several more months, the teachers started to report that, not only did their students now speak better English, they were improving in many areas of study. Mitra playfully challenges conventional education when he says, “They were Googling their homework! If there is stuff on Google, why would you need to stuff it into your head?”

Were early human brains stuffed with stuff? How did we humans organize thoughts and ideas before there were languages we could speak, read and write? Consider everything you juggle in your own head. Now consider getting all that stuff done without ever writing anything down. Were early humans more mystical in their connections? While Homo sapiens undoubtedly had language far earlier, these early versions of us were probably stuck remembering only the simplest of things. We only started to integrate thinking—to develop and communicate elaborate strategies and ideas—after the left and right hemispheres of the brain learned to talk to each other, roughly in the fourth millennium BCE. It’s no coincidence that this was around the time humans started to develop oral languages as we understand them today. Like the Holland Tunnel connects New York and New Jersey, this anatomical change started the long path towards conscious awareness we’ve been driving towards ever since (full disclosure: I’m from New Jersey, live in New York).

Going way, way back, the ancient Sumerians were linguists and it was through Sanskrit that grammar gave language structure. But early writing was used primarily for record keeping. You needed a scribe and the components were hundreds of heavy carved tablets of pictograms each one with its own complex meaning. And maybe you needed a cart and a donkey to carry all this around. Pretty darn complicated. An integrated, simplified system that would allow the brain to work a lot faster was clearly needed to pull Western cultures forward: The innovation of vowels in a compact 24–26 letter alphabet (thanks Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians!) was just what we needed.

A modern toddler of two knows 250 words, and can use a word correctly after hearing it only once. At two-and-a-half that child’s vocabulary has doubled and continues to expand geometrically. But while the human brain has evolved to have an innate understanding of language, it is not yet “designed” to read or write—there are no genes or areas set aside in the brain for those skills. So all children have the task of carving out their own neural pathways and circuitries through study and practice. Each child develops, as a result, a unique process for decoding language. And this affects the kid’s ability to organize and learn maybe for his/her entire life. As a result every person’s perspective on the world is as unique as their fingerprint.

Language made another great leap forward when we evolved from a talking/hearing/seeing/remembering tradition to a new way of amassing knowledge—written text. But this change was very troubling to some early scholars. Plato, like Homer the blind poet, came from the Greek oral culture. He fretted that people would stop taking in knowledge that they would no longer probe and question if they didn’t memorize. He feared people would think they understood but stop short of “knowing” because if everything were readily available in print they would get lazy. “I’ll get back to that pile of papyrus later,” people might say. He feared people would never attain true wisdom. Thousands of years later, we are seeing Plato’s prophecy fulfilled; the amount of real information we “hold in our heads” seems to be pretty minimal. The modern mnemonic is narrowed down to the printed word on a screen or printed page, which is often, let’s face it, indiscriminately given way, way too much authority. In contrast, pre-literate cultures (the few tribes that still exist) have no alphabets, no history and no man-made inventions of logic or math. They remember through experience: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting and intuiting information. When was the last time you smelled a page or screen to remember it?

Whether we do it or not, rote learning is still pretty important, as unlikely US memory champ and author Joshua Foer2 points out, since that's how “stuff” ends up being stored in other parts of your brain for us to use later on. Garbage in, garbage out. We are, after all, reliant on a tidy organization of our millions of folders holding millions of files of long-term memories, facts, skills, et cetera in different parts of our brains that may be accessed when needed as part of our complex critical thinking process. And you know what? We don’t actually know where a lot of these folders are kept. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.