Why Education Should Be Humanity’s Central Focus
Magazine / Why Education Should Be Humanity’s Central Focus

Why Education Should Be Humanity’s Central Focus

Book Bites Politics & Economics Technology
Why Education Should Be Humanity’s Central Focus

Leslie Valiant is the T. Jefferson Coolidge Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at Harvard University. He is also the recipient of the Turing Award and the Nevanlinna Prize for his foundational contributions to machine learning and computer science.

Below, Leslie shares five key insights from his new book, The Importance of Being Educable: A New Theory of Human Uniqueness. Listen to the audio version—read by Leslie himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Importance of Being Educable Leslie Valiant Next Big Idea Club

1. The basic capability that distinguishes humans from other species is educability, a capability defined in terms of information interactions with the world.

Unlike other species, we spend much of our time looking at our cellphones, reading fiction, watching movies, or seeking information that may help us. It is as if we were machines intent on soaking up information. We are like machines that can be educated.

There are three basic capabilities that specify ways of acquiring knowledge from our environment and applying it to particular situations. The combination is defined as “educability.” One component is the method of learning from examples. It captures the idea of learning from one’s experience and has been shown in current AI systems to be powerful. However, educability is a broader capability than that, which I hypothesize is the distinguishing human characteristic. It also includes an ability to incorporate a system of beliefs based on others’ experiences.

2. We humans can be distinguished from each other by the beliefs we have acquired through our educability—but we have a commonality once these beliefs are stripped away.

All beliefs and information we finish up knowing and believing are important. They determine how we make a living and what choices we make in everyday life. There is much benefit in having a diversity of skills in a population, and it seems that some diversity of beliefs is also inevitable.

“How do we choose which beliefs to adopt?”

It seems important, therefore, for us to understand what humans have in common before the veneer of beliefs and knowledge is superimposed. It is equally important to understand the mechanism by which this veneer is acquired. For example, how do we choose which beliefs to adopt?

3. Education must have a deep scientific basis and need not be pursued as a largely best-practices endeavor.

The field of medicine has a practical mission but is supported by a fundamental scientific basis provided by the biological sciences. The field of education has a similar practical mission but currently lacks a scientific basis comparable to biology.

For education, there are many current efforts towards determining by experiments and surveys which competing approaches work best in practice in the classroom. This is laudable. However, it remains difficult to predict which results are generalized to which settings. Understanding the learner’s process during education would provide another dimension of understanding education, analogous to how the biological sciences support medicine. The study of educability offers a new approach to this endeavor.

4. It is possible that our ability to be educated can be improved.

One cannot ask whether our ability to be educated can be enhanced without defining what we mean by this ability. Such a definition is at the heart of this conversation. Further, suppose we are to declare that we have an intervention that enhances an individual’s educability. In that case, we need a way of measuring it. Such a measurement would need to detect how much knowledge has been acquired during a one-hour test or a one-semester course that was not present at the start.

5. Our abilities to acquire and process information far outstrip our abilities to evaluate the validity of the information. We are, therefore, easy prey to those who seek to influence us.

Our evolutionary inheritance came from a world that was neutral to our learning processes. When our ancestors learned to find food, warmth, or shelter, the world was not fundamentally lying about what food, warmth, or shelter were. This made us trust the information provided by the senses. It was effective to be trusting.

“There is a fundamental difficulty in verifying descriptions of events far from us in space or time.”

In the current world, many are trying to influence our beliefs by providing manufactured information, whether by traditional propaganda methods or deepfake digital means. The individual needs to be hardened against this onslaught, which digital communication has made too easy.

We may find fault in those who spread false information, but part of the solution is to recognize that there is also a basic weakness in ourselves. This weakness is more than a freak byproduct of evolutionary inheritance. For example, there is a fundamental difficulty in verifying descriptions of events far from us in space or time. If we hear a news report about an event half a world away, we are usually in no position to go there and launch our personal investigation.

Our educability has been our main asset in developing our civilization, and it enables the rapid spread of useful knowledge. However, it becomes a liability if information that is questionable but not detected as such is added to the mix.

To listen to the audio version read by author Leslie Valiant, download the Next Big Idea App today:

Listen to key insights in the next big idea app

the Next Big Idea App

app-store play-market

Also in Magazine