Join Dr. Grauer on Indonesia's serene Lombok Island for this story that rethinks intelligence through the lens of nature's vast sensory world and the limitations of modern education. This is a journey that inspires you to remove some limitations on how we might all bring about change.
Ways Of Knowing
by Stuart Grauer
Yesterday I arrived on the Island of Lombok after two days of hard travelling. I woke up and ambled (on my motorbike) by the school to see what I see everywhere. Here in Indonesia, I observe children playing freely, seemingly in tune with their senses. Children seem to possess an innate sense of understanding that seems to get lost by adulthood. Why?
We have all this intelligence, so what are we doing with it?
In my lifelong study as a teacher on human intelligence, I’ve increasingly pondered over our limitations, especially in light of recent national and geopolitical events that seem to limit and bitterly divide us rather than connect us—unlike the unbridled unity observed in the schoolyards across the globe. This stark contrast raises questions about the nature of our intelligence and how it is nurtured within educational institutions. At times, I wonder if our intellectual growth is prematurely capped, and whether our focus on human intelligence might be too narrow.
The wonder of human perception is limited. Yet, in the broader mosaic of living things, some creatures soar beyond our confines. We can only perceive about 1 to 2% of the light spectrum. Birds and insects have the remarkable ability to see ultraviolet light—a spectrum completely invisible to us but invaluable for their survival, aiding in foraging and mating rituals. Similarly, certain species of snakes possess the extraordinary capability to detect infrared light, which they utilize effectively to locate and hunt down their prey.
Our hearing is confined to frequencies between about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Dogs can hear higher-pitched sounds, and elephants can perceive infrasound, both beyond our auditory range. Our sense of smell is vastly inferior to that of dogs, whose olfactory sensitivity surpasses ours by tens of thousands of times.
Even our sense of taste pales in comparison to certain animals, like cats, which can taste amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Our sense of touch is less sensitive compared to animals such as rats and mice, whose whiskers can detect minute changes in air currents and surfaces.
Remarkably, some animals possess magnetoreception, a sense of the Earth's magnetic field for navigation, which is absent in humans. I wish I had that through some years I spent out at sea, sailing! Aquatic creatures, like sharks and platypuses, can detect electric fields. Fish can sense pressure changes through their lateral lines with a finesse we cannot match.
Here in Indonesia, on a surf trip, this is the second country I’ve visited this year where the air is filled with prayer chanting five times a day. This practice hints at a realm of knowing that I don’t think I have much access to, even if it is explained to me.
The intelligence we claim is incomplete and the presumption that human intelligence is the ultimate makes us less.
The intelligence we claim is incomplete and the presumption that human intelligence is the ultimate makes us less. Likewise, even among humans throughout history, certain peoples have exhibited wisdom we struggle to understand or dismiss as fringe. Education can choose to explore our current ways of knowing or challenge the boundaries of our understanding. Unfortunately, many schools I’ve encountered over the past 50 years have only done the former.
At the Red Cloud Indian School, my friend Roger White Eyes has served not just as a teacher of Native American language and culture but also as a Medicine Carrier. At The Grauer School, Pastor Bill Harmon and Clayton Payne remind us that knowing extends beyond intellect through their World Religions class, as do our arts classes, which engage additional senses. In history classes and faculty workshops, I’ve explored ancient practices that expand our awareness. If you examine this week’s great Grauer School Newsletter, you can see this being done to a fair extent. All these show off our small school advantages: Spring 2024 Expeditions Overview, Wellness Wednesday, Middle School Artwalk, Winter Parent Social, Grauer Literary Society, High School Theatre Department play "Reckless", Grauer Holiday Service Project for Meals on Wheels, Grauer Parent Hiking Club, Challenge Success Survey, Learn Twice As Fast, and of course Grauer High School Surf Team!
Today, we witness acts of bravery and compassion amidst global conflicts and political strife. At the same time, human identities are hardening, deepening divisions world-over and making our intelligence seem relatively small. Schools can feel like lonely places when we focus on all this conflict. We can address this by fostering a sense of belonging and broadening our intelligence, as we are attempting to do with the Challenge Success surveys, which place the value on connection rather than the traditional academic values. The parent values reflected on that survey this year are particularly heartening, and I encourage you to study some of our findings in Dana Abplanalp-Diggs’ Head of School column in the Grauer School Newsletter this week.
As neurobiologists have explained, when we become entrenched in being right, we succumb to aggression and division. Only the strong identities go to war and form hardened boundaries. I know we need these identities for survival, but now we seem to be using them to make survival harder. What is the role in school for this?
Intellect in schools is often synonymous with mastering numerous disciplinary requirements—more boundaries. I question whether segregating education into subjects without exploring their interconnections is a problem. This curiosity is why I love expeditionary learning, which embraces intelligence as sensitivity to the environment—and then expands that environment.
It’s disheartening to see our world divided into identities and disciplines that constrain thought and perception. Our educational system mistakenly focuses on working memory as the primary measure of intelligence, neglecting the wider array of human consciousness and, increasingly, sensitivity to the shrinking natural world. We know our biology limits our intelligence, but we choose to limit it ourselves, perhaps at least as much.
As Aldous Huxley once said, “When all things are perceived as infinite and holy, what motive can we have for covetousness or self-assertion, for the pursuit of power or the drearier forms of pleasure?” Our schools often overlook the full spectrum of perceptions and intelligences, branding them as ‘magic’ or ‘scientific illiteracy.’ But isn’t the history of humanity replete with engagement in the mysterious?
Isn’t the history of humanity replete with engagement in the mysterious?
This afternoon, I end up at Tanjun Aan surf spot with kids who are just elementary school ages, on their little boards, ripping on waves, and we just play together all morning. (I don’t know why they are not in school.) This is not the way they become as they grow up in most places I visit. The natural attunement will be educated out of most of them.
Technology is a bit of a digression from my main point, but I can’t resist tying in a mind-blowing passage I read this week from D. Graham Burnett, Alyssa Loh and Peter Schmidt in the New York Times: "We are witnessing the dark side of our new technological lives, whose extractive profit models amount to the systematic fracking of human beings: pumping vast quantities of high-pressure media content into our faces to force up a spume of the vaporous and intimate stuff called attention, which now trades on the open market. Increasingly powerful systems seek to ensure that our attention is never truly ours."  That’s pretty heavy, but what other species is intentionally dulling their own sensitivity to the environment?
If teachers and students do not attempt to find more expansive, connecting ways of knowing and, subsequently, dissolving some of the us and them concepts tearing parts of the world apart, who will?
By integrating the functions of the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex, we can transform instinctive reactions into considered responses, and maybe beyond, into some new realms of consciousness.
By integrating the functions of the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex, we can move our students and selves from working memory (the mentality schools obsess on) to the generation of behavior motivated by our values. This integration allows us to transform instinctive reactions into considered responses, and maybe beyond, into some new realms of consciousness.
To make this happen, I have only the most general nudge: I recommend trying to engage with mystery in whatever you teach or study. Let’s expand rather than limit. It would take a long time to see this wish through, so this is only food for thought. It’s a good time to let go of some limits that keep dividing us.
 Powerful Forces Are Fracking Our Attention. We Can Fight Back., D. Graham Burnett, Alyssa Loh and Peter Schmidt, New York Times, November 24, 2023.
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