Education for Protopia: Why Play Is Vital to our Survival

“Culture arises and unfolds in and as play”.

— Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian 1872–1945

A Time Between Worlds

Zak Stein (philosopher of education) has famously noted that our educational system is stuck in “a time between worlds”. It’s a time that has begun to shed the Modern educational frameworks, but no Protopian or Metamodern framework has emerged to fill the void.

(“Metamodern” can mean either the society beyond modernity, or the time between modernity or what comes after, depending on who you ask. I discuss this here.)

There is today the opportunity to shape the development of Global Education for the next decade—right at the nexus in world history when:

  • the Global Southmatches the Global North in a large variety of ways;
  • the East and Westtruly meet and integrate as a Global society with several centers; and
  • the world transitions into the Internet Age; a society dominated by information technology, robotics, AI, with a corresponding series of global risk factors ranging from technological disruptions to climate change to pandemics and large flows of displaced refugees and other
    threats to human rights.

It takes no leap of the imagination to see that the education of the world’s diverse populations can and will decide the fate of nations, the global community, and humanity at large. The responsibility—and creative potential—to get education right even extends beyond our current humanity, as effects
of our choices today inevitably cascade into future generations and the biosphere.

This series of nine articles is based upon extensive research into the farther reaches of the landscapes of global education. What is on the horizon? What are prominent, brave and creative thinkers and practitioners thinking, saying and doing? And what can be done?

This Article Series: A Map of a Paradigm

How do we tip the scales of educational realities for a Protopian outcome at a planetary scale?

We are leaving the old world behind—industrial and dominated by Western powers—for a world that is postindustrial, digitized, and truly global. This means that we are also leaving one view of education in the past and welcoming another; a new paradigm of education.

What, then, is a useful map of education’s frontiers, anno 2022? My answer: A paradigm map.

A paradigm is not the same as an “idea”, or even as “values”. A paradigm is a large pattern of interconnected and mutually reinforcing ideas, presuppositions, and values—and the pattern is partly invisible to all who think according to that paradigm.

The reason that we focus on creating a map of the paradigm, is that we, through our research and experience, have come to believe that in order to substantially transform and develop education, one has to understand and address the paradigm itself.

Here is how our argument goes:

  • There are several different fields of education, each with their own key thinkers, agents, and innovators.
  • If you create a major reform or innovation within any one field, the underlying assumptions and practices of all the remaining fields will work against the change you wish to achieve because they still function according to the old paradigm.
  • Only through concerted efforts that are meaningfully coordinated across the different fields can the overall spell of the old paradigm be broken; throwing the systems and culture of education into a new orbit—as it were, “escaping the gravity” of the old paradigm.

The map presented here consists of eight pathways, each within a separate field, through which education can—and, we have reason to argue, as you will see—should be transformed at all levels of society.

But the eight pathways are not arbitrary. They make up, we argue, a larger, interconnected whole. I have come to believe that these eight pathways must be successfully understood, developed and coordinated by key agents in the world. I hope that you are such an agent and that these ideas may be of service in your work.

A Planetary Definition of “Education”

Before we go on to the eight pathways, let us begin with the basics: What, if anything, is education?

My contention is that education, in the strictest and primordial sense, is play.

Within the animal realm, cubs, kittens, chicks, and little monkeys, all play. Children of homo sapiens, left to their own devices, play. The behavioral explanation for this may be the inherent joy of playing, the intrinsic motivation of performing a task for its own reward. The evolutionary purpose of this same reward (the reason nature has selected for it), however, is that something is learned, and that something increases the chances of survival.

At least two of my interviewees (interviews done as preparation for this article series as a part of former but unpublished work), Peter Gärdenfors (cognitive scientist) and Alexander Bard (cyber philosopher), have both emphasized that play, in many ways, is a kind of imitation, whereby learning is achieved. Species that depend on more learning for their survival have longer periods of childhood, growth and learning. Play is also a way to form bonds, upon which collaboration and relationships can be built.

Non-adulthood—i.e. childhood and youth—is defined by growth; the growth of faculties to feed, procreate and protect. This growth is both of the physical body and of skills that ultimately always depend upon the use of that same body. Play gives way to work, work being different from play in that it serves the purpose of acquiring resources, such as food and shelter.

In humans, culture constitutes patterns of knowledge that are inherited over generations. This includes such cultural technologies as spoken language, writing, and arithmetic. These technologies, in turn, cannot be learned only by spontaneous imitation and play. The play must somehow be organized and systematized, so that its outcomes of learning will resonate with culture.

Education, then, is the naturally occurring tendency to play, albeit extended into a more systematized realm of culture; it is play connected to a larger whole. Education guides play—sometimes at the expense of oppressing its spontaneous expressions, sometimes by successfully harnessing the will to play and bewondered curiosity we all harbor—and shapes it into culture.

Primary education introduces the playing child into the culture of a civilization. Secondary education bridges the child into adult participation within a larger cultural context. Higher education and research ideally marry the curios child within the adult—still learning—to the farther reaches of civilization’s knowledge; within a few years, after the Masters level, the adult can do their own ground research, producing knowledge hitherto unknown by anyone; expanding upon the realm of culture.

So, the child grows into culture and adulthood, the adult grows as a person and in knowledge and experience, and culture itself grows as a result of the creative spark—the inner child—of adults. But education, all of our studies and experts unanimously agree, risks extinguishing the inner spark, suffocating the natural playfulness of the child. And yet, our economies and our very civilization can only adapt if there are minds and hearts at play, if people and their cultures truly grow. How, then, can education be redefined to better harness play, and thus serve creativity and growth?

In starkly changing environments, growth is a necessary condition not only for thriving and flourishing; it is necessary for survival. Humanity, then, is presented with a seemingly strange conundrum: Play, or perish!

I invite you to consider a near future time when “the survival of the playful” is the order of the day. Which nations will stimulate their children into the best learning practices, using which ideas and technologies? Which first movers will spark childlike curiosity in their growing adult populations? Where—and how—will a multifaceted continued adult development flourish throughout the lifespan, so that populations may best handle the complex issues of our time? Which cultures and regions will spur growth and thus shape global civilization, contributing to its survival? Only by rescuing playfulness can we survive and thrive;

education is play;
play is growth;
growth is survival.

From the Old to the New Paradigm of Education

The old paradigm” of education builds upon a lot of ideas that were creative and progressive a century ago, and ebbs and flows of different understandings of learning and education have come and gone over the decades. Some have emphasized the growth of children through stages of learning, others have emphasized that knowledge is relational and contextual, and that learners are shaped by their environments. Some have emphasized empowering weak and marginalized populations, others have emphasized the creative spark of the few and especially talented.

Yet, none of these were truly invented to tackle a society that is global, transnational, multicultural, post-industrial, and thoroughly digitized—these being changes that have arrived with such speed and force that they have left educational institutions in a state of future shock, i.e., they have not been able to adapt accordingly.

A simple analogy for seeing how education has been resistant to change and development is offered by Justin Van Fleet (Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education): Compare a hospital of today to a hospital a century ago; it is quite different. Compare a school of today to that of a century ago, and they are quite alike.

Schools, and education at large, have proven more difficult to develop than our systems of medical care—despite the earnest efforts to experiment with forms of education around the world.

Thus, there is still to be invented “a new paradigm of education” to suit these new life conditions. The many interrelated and underlying suppositions of “the old paradigm” are still to be unearthed and properly challenged at scale.

Indeed, the efforts to do so have been many—and not always futile—but the old paradigm persists. In this series of articles, I attempt to offer yet another, hopefully not futile, attempt. One that could establish and stabilize what I call a Metamodern and/or Protopian society (which are terms that I and others use to describe desirable potential futures).

The Eight Pathways to Protopian Planetary Education

The aim thus presents itself to the global community: To find a pathway from the old to the new paradigm of education. Unsurprisingly, we find, this path is a complex one, and it thus includes eight different pathways, each of which can and should be successfully coordinated with the others. The eight pathways are:

  1. Ecological Relatedness. Since so many of the shared global challenges are of an ecological nature, climate change being only one such aspect, the education of the future must somehow reconnect human beings to the biosphere, both through new knowledge and through new forms of experience of ourselves as part of nature.
  2. Technological Disruption. Since technology and information change the life-conditions so dramatically, the educational systems must take into account how technology not only brings new potential, but also new sources of harm and disruption, and it must seek to counter and work around these challenges.
  3. Technological Potential. But technology does, naturally, not only offer challenges; it also offers untapped potentials. Thinkers and innovators around the world are working to leverage the potential of information technology—and algorithms—to reinvent the tools of education, which in turn makes possible new forms of schooling and learning.
  4. Human-to-Human Relations.In our interviews we have put a lot of emphasis on sensitive, holistic, and subtle experts on personal growth and relationships; these emphasize learnings from the human potential movement, from intimate experience with relational work, from indigenous cultures, and even from spiritual and emotional healing practices. How can trust and teacherly authority be cultivated and leveraged to support play, education, and personal growth?
  5. Human-to-System Relations.But human educational relations always arise in the context of how education is organized. We have found few defenders of the classical pulpit teaching styles, and many engaging and promising examples of different ways in which schooling and education can be organized—more in line, perhaps, with the emergent life conditions of the Internet age. This involves, not least, to foster closer interconnections between education and the worlds of healthcare, governance, and business.
  6. Meta-Skills.There are also challenges to the curriculum; what should children learn, and how can people be best prepared for life-long learning, adaptation and growth through adulthood? In a global environment that is more complex, and in which disruptions and potentials occur with increasing frequency, it is more difficult to predict the exact skills and bodies of knowledge that people will need and benefit from. Hence, an emphasis on “meta-skills” becomes more important; i.e., identifying and prioritizing the cultivation of those traits that provide the greatest dividends to individuals and societies.
  7. The Rise of the Global South. The old paradigm of education has been, to a significant degree, shaped by the dominant powers of the 20th century. From a postcolonial perspective, this can be viewed as distorting the view of the world, focusing too much on Western culture and history, depriving many populations of their due recognition as contributors global society. Those who can see a more multipolar world, relate to it, and apply a more global perspective, will undoubtedly be at an advantage. There is also reason to believe that countries of the Global South may be, in many ways, better placed to redefine education and reap the benefits of being first movers.
  8. Education on the Move.Large populations are displaced in waves of migration, meaning that citizens fall between the cracks of state structures, and that many children are left without proper education while growing up in refugee camps or on the move. It is a global challenge for all countries to fill these gaps and to use the best of technology to reach these populations with educational resources, so that they can more easily join and be integrated into communities and economies around the world.

No single country, organization or group can by themselves master all of these pathways; different networks will need to take the lead on each of them. And they do, arguably, depend on each other.

In an afterword to this series, I labor to present interconnections between the eight pathways. I offer my own best attempt at a synthesis: a holistic vision of the field of education, an early map of the new paradigm of education—one that is infused with Metamodern sensibilities and conducive to Protopian societies.

I invite you to critically assess this map, and then use it as a backdrop for your own strategy in building alliances and communities of knowledge that will reinvent global education.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.