Of Monkeys, Moving Castles, Wasabi, and Water Deities

A Submission to the Correspondence Round Table on May 25, 2020, for the Institute for Strategy of Education Development of the Russian Academy of Education, and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Boris Vulfson, a Russian scientist and a founding scholar of the field of Comparative Education.

The Minedani Bridge, Okutama Lake, Tokyo

To learn, we must begin with observation, then a response—a question, or a greeting, or perhaps even a compliment. To learn we must begin from the outside and work our way in. Attuned. Absorbed. With curiosity and open minds. If we do so, we discover that wonder exists exactly where we tend not look, in the millions of spaces between what we see, every second of every day, in every part of the space around us, within our grasp, or light years away. That is where we begin. Discovery, understanding, meaning, and purpose, follow.

Learning takes courage and holds the potential to upend social consensus and the comfort of all who hold fast to it. It breaks from the common sense, the community, the security of belonging, and the peace of mind provided by shared values and perceptions. Education, decontextualized, is the learner’s path of least resistance. It provides formulaic definition to the world, and creates perceptions of safety, belonging, and inclusion. It is, to Ulysses, the Lotus and the demise of Men. To Dostoyevsky’s Kolya Krassotkin, it leads to casuistry and prescribed truth, erroneous and inaccurate. It is a derivative of reality tuned entirely by assumptions and presumptions: “I like to watch such realistic scenes, Smurov,” said Kolya suddenly. “Have you noticed how dogs sniff at one another when they meet? It seems to be a law of their nature.” “Yes; it’s a funny habit.” “No, it’s not funny; you are wrong there. There’s nothing funny in nature, however funny it may seem to man with his prejudices.

Learning should begin with the authentic. In kind, observation should begin at the source; and, penetrating more deeply, it should seek to understand the mechanics, physics, history, grammar, syntax, and order of what is observed. All are critical to formulating reliable determinations of truth and reality. Who, or perhaps what, is best positioned to determine truth? The agents of discovery? The precedents set by those before them? And what indeed is the truth sought? And to add to these challenges, neither objective nor subjective analyses alone are enough to uncover truth. It is a combination of both that provides us with the soundest understandings, since what is ultimately true in human terms is a factor of both environmental and socio-cultural influences intertwined.

Seeking truth takes courage. It indeed can be perceived as a threat since it suggests potential undermining of pillars supporting status quo. In kind, finding it requires the courage to break from the common sense, to venture into darkness, to attempt to bring light to the raw and untamed unknown. To understand, truly, requires qualities that are loudly heralded but that are also, more than not, bridled within  our systems of Education—perseverance, courage, independence, dedication, creativity, insight, entrepreneurial spirit, critical thought.

What we consider to be reality is more than often based on gaps and inaccuracies in what we contend to understand. Hamlet laments this: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Most of us live out our lives within worlds largely construed by and built upon the experiences of others. What we each claim to know is, to (perhaps very) limited degrees, authentic. What we believe to be true is, for the most part, an imperfect amalgam of things fed to us by ubiquitous media forms that impinge upon us at every waking moment, erroneous, uprooted, incomplete, biased, convenient, politically expedient, and decontextualized. Our understanding of the world is largely a reflection of things we are told and shown by external sources, and most assimilate that knowledge wholeheartedly, often without question or critique.

Our youth is spent in schools learning from spaces and from resources critically deficient in their capacities to provide us with authenticity of experience. There was likely never a time when this was not the case. However, modern education systems have seemingly diminished the importance of one entirely practical component of education that had survived centuries, if not millennia, when learning was tied more intrinsically to doing—to learn to farm one would farm, to become a builder one would build, to become a master meant to begin as an apprentice.

Indeed, it is precisely within all that surrounds us, and often within what we contend to know, that we find the unknown. That’s where the adventure of learning begins.

On a recent drive through Tokyo, we traveled west along ultra modern expressways and onto a smaller route that wound its way up, higher and higher, through a vast and lush verdant forest filled with cedar, maple, birch, wisteria, bamboo, and many other species of wild (perhaps once domesticated) trees, bushes, and plants. It rained, and the foliage gleamed with rainwater that coursed down leaves, stems, branches, the ground beneath, in rivulets, down hills, along roads, in gutters, into rising stream beds, into rivers, ponds, and lakes, and finally, presumably, to the ocean. The road twisted and turned higher and higher up the green hillsides, through tight valleys, along the narrow ridges, passing occasional solitary homes with roofs of red tiles or meter deep straw thatch. Surrounding these homes and nestled into these steep valley slopes were terraces of tea and rice plantations that hinted at the livelihoods of the inhabitants. The road continued along this magical path, higher and higher, to a narrow mountain pass an altitude that exceeded 1100 meters where alongside the road a family of a dozen or more monkeys casually groomed one another and paid us little attention as we passed.

Continuing our adventure through Tokyo, we dropped into an adjacent valley surrounded all the way by the same pattern of weather, geography, greenery, and habitation. We descended into a series of tight mountain gorges and the Okutama Lake system that fills them. The road winds along the banks of the multipronged lake, across the striking Mita, Miyama, and Minedani bridges, a series of silver, grey, and red arched and trestled structures, and provided us spectacular views of the surrounding hills and forests. In the center of the lake, perched on the highest point of a small peninsula, the Ogouchi Shrine overlooks the entire natural panorama. Enshrined within it is the guardian deity of capital water who watches over the massive reservoir critical to the lives of the unknowing millions only a few tens of kilometers away. Upon reaching the end of the lake, the road descends, past the Ogouchi Reservoir Dam, and into a valley where the Tama River flows eastward through forested and rocky gorges towards the Tokyo Bay. We passed by a mysterious grey tin-paneled ramshackle factory, the Okutama Industrial Hikawa Limestone Plant, surrounded by lush greenery rising from the river and up the side of the valley and reminiscent of an industrial age passed and purportedly the inspiration of the castle featured in the story of Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, a fantastical tale by Miyazaki Hayao.

Shortly thereafter, we veered sharply to the left up a much narrower old, unknown, untraveled, steep mountain road that soon became an overgrown dirt track. From there we began the hike up a narrowing mountain ravine, following its stream upwards. A few hundred meters further, the gravelly bed of the steep creek suddenly widened into a series of small diversions and manicured terraces walled in by larger boulders lining either side. At the topmost terrace we met David tending to his Wasabi plantation.

On this Tokyo experience, we learned from David that the Wasabi industry in the region is in a process of rejuvenation after decades of inactivity. Throughout the Edo Period to the few years following World War II it had thrived, but afterwards slowly declined. Many if not most of the region’s Wasabi plantations were abandoned, deteriorated, and, but for a few, died. Their revival in recent years was stimulated by a corresponding rebirth of local pride and passion to bring back to life what was once a defining characteristic of the region. Having chosen to call this mountainous region home, David became part of the fabric of the community, and within himself discovered the passion and aptitude for this horticultural cum cultural challenge. We continued our journey, with questions, with preconceptions, after having experienced a part of Tokyo we had no idea existed, nor likely would ever have, had we not, ourselves, for whatever reasons, been drawn to explore. Authentic learning had just begun, and it is against this backdrop precisely that the aforementioned and particular deficiency in Education can and must be assessed.

Understanding begins in experience, since through experience we confront things to which we could never otherwise be exposed. And through that discovery, and the grounded inspiration it provides, our attention is captured, we desire to understand, and as a consequence, we ask questions that, rising from context, are pertinent and grounded. As a result, we experience learning in its purest form.  We would never have been aware that Tokyo was not simply anything other than one of the world’s most densely populated ultra urban centers. We would never have known of the diversity of life, flora, and fauna that exists within its boundaries. We would never have been aware that wild monkeys are not only prolific in Tokyo, but beyond that live free in vast unpopulated and densely forested mountains. We would never have learned that the Wasabi industry had once thrived here, satisfying Tokyo’s own massive market need for that very product. We would never have learned that this industry died in part due to reforestation, in part due to the introduction of an alien and invasive species of tree that altered the natural conditions that originally allowed the industry to thrive, in part due to the emergence of massive commercial enterprise elsewhere. We would never have learned there is so much more to learn.

Traditional formal education is rarely contextualized. We learn through the study of academic subjects in their purest forms, we learn by studying theory, and we learn through stories about others told by others. We learn through detached (and inherently incomplete) simulations. We isolate elements of understanding believing that, independent from one another, they retain their validity. We learn math as math, writing as a mechanical and rule-based skill, chemistry in isolation, and biology as an independent stream of thought.  We learn computing as a language of code that enables the efficient manipulation of data. We learn how to draw birds and trees and faces and the human form. However, we are rarely provided the opportunity or the encouragement to learn these in the combinations that they naturally occur. In formal education we observe nature in isolated units extracted from their natural interconnectedness, and as a result are provided with what are perhaps an inaccurate, or entirely unlikely, portrayals of reality. We should all be as steadfast in our passion to seek truth as Kolya himself: “Learning impractical and disconnected skills [is] not ultimately meaningful. However, should you learn them, learn them well. And if you learn them, learn also their utility… or at least strive to find it…. In the first place I am capable of thinking for myself without being taught.”

Greg Culos
May 22, 2020