It is many years since I read material on the theory of education, and this book on the subject came into my hands through the kindness of our new neighbor, who also happens to be the author. But it is no standard book on education, far from it, as it is presented in the form of an account of a fictional voyage to a distant land (something akin to Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ and Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’) together with a raft of revolutionary ideas about what education consists of and what role it should play in society.
The book starts with a description of the narrator being ‘surf-wrecked’ off the coast of north America, incidentally displaying admirable expertise in the terminology and technique of wind-surfing. This brings him to the imaginary island of Uscolia, where a highly advanced society with unique ideas about education and socialization has emerged. What follows is a series of narratives designed in the form of Russian dolls, with conversations taking place at the level of the society in which the narrator finds himself as well as at the level of the book’s initial starting point and a subsequent discussion among visitors staying in the local hotel. This can be a trifle confusing at times, but the main point is to examine and justify the distinctive approach to education that permeates every aspect of life on the island, starting with the education of children from early infancy.
The basic premise of the Uscolian theory – and this even appears on the back cover of the book – is that ‘all newborns are created equal, but a day later they no longer are.’ In other words, the task of moulding a child’s brain begins at birth, if not before, and it is to this end that from the outset tiny babies are exposed to all kinds of stimuli, starting with language, as is generally the case with humans, but also involving music and tactile experiences. Building on the concept that native fluency in one’s first language is learned by hearing and responding to messages received in the mothertongue, the idea is that using this approach it is also possible to learn other languages and skills, and even acquire knowledge in many fields, using the child’s natural curiosity and ability to learn. Another basic premise is that the human brain’s capacity to absorb information is infinite, and that most people use only a fraction of their abilities. In effect, in the Uscolian system there is no such thing as direct teaching, but rather an approach that enables a child to work out for him- or her-self what it is that interests them and how to pursue these subjects and solve problems, generally doing so in cooperation with other children of various ages.
The idea of independent learning is conducted by means of ‘studios’ in which children interact with one another and share their enquiries by developing projects. All this is done without a teacher of any kind being involved, though there does seem to be some kind of supervision, or rather monitoring, by ‘helpers,’ whose task it is to facilitate the children’s exploratory activities. Thus, at some point we find one of the helpers ‘talking’ mathematics to a very young child, and it is assumed that this will enable him to grasp the relations between numbers and mathematical concepts.
This all seems to be very idyllic in the context of the world in which we find ourselves today, but, as in all utopias, the idea seems to work. In addition, the concept of criminality or delinquency either does not exist, is ignored or is channeled into ‘positive’ activity.
The most interesting part of the book comes at the end, where Gabriel Lanyi describes how he and his wife implemented their ‘Uscolian’ theories of education when bringing up their own child, Ariel, who is now aged twenty and studying music in London. They evidently invested a great deal of thought, as well as energy, originality and ingenuity, into applying their ideas about the optimum environment for the development of the child, starting with specific musical education, which could perhaps be more appropriately termed ‘immersion,’ and providing him with the tools and surroundings that would enable him to pursue any interest he showed in any subject. O fortunate infant!
In an ideal world I believe most parents would do the same for their children, though few parents are equipped with the mental and physical resources displayed by the Lanyis. However, as far as I can recollect, when my own children were born my husband and I were far too preoccupied with making a living, forging a career, and simply surviving to be able to develop sophisticated ideas about education. I reckon this applies to many, if not most, young parents. Maybe we were too young and inexperienced, but despite everything, our children have grown up to develop their own wonderful and unique abilities and personalities. It seems that innate ability and resilience still have a role to play.