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Managing Progress Intelligently and Playfully

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What does it take to create progress sustainably? Obviously; innovation is a key requirement, and so it would appear that the unending increase of knowledge is of inestimably great value to progress. If humans are ever to achieve the kind of future envisioned in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, it will happen only because people realize that being smarter is the key to creating a brighter future. This works both ways, because it is equally important for researchers exploring the frontiers of Science to go on searching for the secrets of the Cosmos, and for both average and exceptional human beings to value and experience the benefits of lifelong learning -- an unending increase of knowledge -- if that kind of future is to be achieved. The greatest deterrent to this grand achievement is the fact that we have come to regard knowledge as a mere collection of facts, instead of a way to find out or figure out what is real. This is why I've chosen to focus on the value of play as a gateway to learning -- because it works both for students and educators, and for researchers exploring the frontiers of Science.

The Foundational Questions Institute chose as a topic for last year's essay contest, "How should Humanity Steer the Future?" and this is a pivotal subject for all progressive thinkers, as well as for scientific researchers and futurists, so there were both humanitarian and scholarly essays on how today's humans can better work in the present to create a desirable future. If we manage progress well, we can create a brighter future for all of humanity, but if we make poor decisions in the present, we could jeopardize or completely eliminate that possibility. Today's humans have an awesome responsibility to future people, because our decisions are so far reaching, having consequences that span the globe. Now that we inhabit every inhabitable part of the globe, and with a growing population, there's less and less of the Earth available. This was a major focus of several contest essays. But my own (4th prize winning) essay was focused on how a playful approach to learning is essential, if we hope to assure the continuing increase of human knowledge, and how this endless journey of playful learning can lift us into the stars.

I've been privileged to learn some of what I know directly from top experts, including a few Nobel laureates, by attending lectures, having conversations face to face, and through correspondence. Remarkably; I heard a similar message from prominent Physics researchers, regarding their work, and from Educators, Learning and Cognition experts, Neuroscientists, and others -- that play is essential to how humans learn about reality. This is well-known to those studying early-childhood development. It was a bit surprising though, after reading "The Biology of Transcendence" by Joseph Chilton Pearce (which emphasizes the value of play to learning); to attend international Physics conferences, and then hear lecturer after lecturer speak about how the ability to keep the process playful is what allowed them to make important discoveries, advance our knowledge of Physics, and learn about how the universe works. Since that time; I have seen that the same rule holds true for innovators in almost every area of Science or Technology, in Math, and for other subjects.

Subjects like History or Geology can largely be treated as a collection of facts -- because major portions of what is known do not change. But even there, one finds a dynamism when features of the historical and geological record are emerging, which only later is 'written in stone,' and becomes a fact. If you try to impose the paradigm of prediction and control on some areas of research and development, it can stifle progress quicker than anything -- so insisting on projects consistently meeting incremental deadlines can destroy innovation, even with the best of experts, equipment, and ideas. Anton Zeilinger commented in one lecture that he once told his employers "If you want results, don't expect results," after repeated insistence from administrators about the need to create an immediate outcome. The thing is; we don't all have the clout of Zeilinger, but all scientists and developers need to have their hands and brains unfettered from undue pressure -- in order to actually create progress. This is difficult for administrators to grasp, in some cases, because they have been mainly trained in management and business techniques designed for a very different working environment, and they don't completely understand the needs of innovators.

The way to boost innovation, and create the unending increase of human knowledge, is well-known, but it has become unpopular to state that it involves educating and empowering the public to learn all they can. A couple of essays in last year's contest stated explicitly that providing free education at the College level to all who wanted it was the key to a robust economy, because it fosters progress, and boosts innovation. But the mood today is that any higher education beyond what is needed to do your job is wasted and wasteful. This is why progressive thinkers must rally to inspire the rest of the world that the very opposite might be true, because more education is almost always better for society. I've had people tell me that the meaningful work only starts when you get your second PhD, but this practice called habilitation -- common in Europe -- is rare for researchers and professors in the United States. This is sad, but it seems to emanate from the prevailing opinions about what an appropriate level of training for different positions might be. The problem solvers of today still must know more than those who created its problems, however.

In today's world, the traditional esteem of scholars, teachers, and professionals has eroded considerably, and the ability of these people to act as role models is compromised, as a result. But we really don't value higher education so much anymore either. Too many kids fail to learn because their parents were not encouraged to learn more or to value higher education in their own lives. Of course; College is terribly expensive, and loans can cost even more than the cost of school itself, but this has resulted in institutions of higher learning being under more and more pressure to assure that students are fiercely guided into areas deemed most profitable for employability, so Colleges can demonstrate a good return on educational investment. But when those schools are increasingly compelled to provide only the specific skills and knowledge for a given line of work, and to pare down teaching students general knowledge or how to think and learn better, this does a disservice to the general populace, that subtly erodes our personal freedoms and frequently leaves people adrift, when the demands of various industries change. Humans are not like automatons that can only memorize facts and procedures, but what makes us better is not being exploited by modern society, and its importance to our survival has been downplayed. The value of hard work in some tasks might make people believe that it can accomplish anything, but this is untrue, because other tasks can only be handled by a playful mind exploring possibilities.

A playful approach to learning allows us to activate higher centers in the neocortex, which only happens when tossing different ideas around in your head, and does not occur for memorizing and recalling facts. This is something my departed friend Pete Seeger seemed to do endlessly, and was seldom afraid to talk or sing about. He and Toshi were advocates of lifelong learning and higher education, and Pete was a playful thinker even in advanced age. We discussed how his father had grave concerns that Science and Technology gave to despots the power to destroy us, and how Pete remained optimistic, figuring that knowledge was a double-edged sword, and if people learned enough more we could devise a way beyond such problems. But most people are not even aware that Pete was an intellectual, as well as a Folk singer and Banjo player. The fact that he was still optimistic about the future late on, when most people would have given up, is one of the reasons I remain inclined to feel that we can make things better. However; I also know that humans must manage progress better than we do today, if we want a future worth living in.

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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