Unlearning Our Western Mindset Through A Child’s Eyes

“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” —Mark 10:15 

This passage has long troubled Western (especially American) Christians. What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child?  Whatever your position on Jesus—a Jewish radical, the Son of God, or an Eastern mystic—the advice to receive the Kingdom of God, as a child, is one that doesn’t fit cleanly into our Western Mindset. (To be true to my goal of helping us see things through the lens of a child, I am trying—although failing—to forgo the scholarly practice of using a bibliography to prove my point. Dear reader, please take these thoughts and think on them for a while. Let them be digested.) 

The term Western Mindset is based on the idea that truth can be derived through logical, rigorous debate. This core belief and understanding stems from the Greeks, and gave rise to the three great strategies of persuasion: logos (facts, logic, and reason), ethos (authority, credibility, and character), and pathos (appeal to emotions such as fear, pity, and anger). The evolution of these ideals into our Western Mindset is not a neat, linear process, but the way that it shakes out (especially as it relates here) is an over-reliance on rational-verbal phenomena that can be experienced physically and understood through natural laws or rules. This includes bibliographies and citations, a hyper-focus on labels and reductionist thinking, and an aesthetic that appreciates order, uniformity, and linearity.

An over-reliance on our Western Mindset creates several obstacles to human flourishing. The first is an outward-based dependency, which is the notion that we must look to “experts” for instruction and guidance for deeply personal pursuits, such as learning, spirituality, and growth. This mindset has created a culture that desires a one-size-fits-all, or “universal best practices,” that everyone should adhere to. Finally, this mindset has led to a desire for orthodoxy, which is followed closely by dogma, thought-policing, and binary thinking.   

The evolution of these ideals into our Western Mindset is not a neat, linear process, but the way that it shakes out (especially as it relates here) is an over-reliance on rational-verbal phenomena that can be experienced physically and understood through natural laws or rules.

To illustrate the downsides to the Western Mindset, this essay will ramble down the nature trail, picking up pebbles from education and learning, farming and permaculture, human capital research and feedback, and even religion, as it attempts to sketch out (in stick figure form) how life can look when we learn, grow, and receive as a child. In other words, embrace self-reliance and “natural” methods of searching out and obtaining truth. 

Expert- or Self-Directed Learning

Let’s begin with our current education mindset. The act of teaching is often described as filling up students’ cups with knowledge. Therefore, the more time spent in school, the more learning will occur, right? However, recent studies from schools across the Eastern pond (the Finnish especially) suggest that more time in school actually leads to less learning

As trivial as forcing finite, mind-bound mortals to use the “right” label to describe the infinite One, the British managed to take our education system one step further towards the banal. The Babylonian-Greco-Roman-British empires (yes, I skipped a couple) absolutely depended on having scribes in every corner of their empire that could read, spell, write legibly, and perform basic arithmetic. The roots of our educational system do not come from a desire to think or produce creative children—schools have debate teams and chess clubs for that sort of thing—but to manufacture “educated” children of sufficient quality so as to pass inspection.

Children are supposed to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic in classrooms, but conventional schooling may not even be necessary for that. According to the great educator John Taylor Gatto, “It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on.” Considering the 12,000 to 15,000 hours American children sit in school, or the significant benefits to delaying structured learning, perhaps there is more to learning than we believe. If not a universally-applicable, time-dependent, linear process of gathering up pieces of knowledge, how does learning happen? It is true that repetition leads to increased memorization, but is that learning? 

Can you remember learning English (i.e. your native tongue)? I can’t, and despite receiving A’s in every college and elementary English class (including a five on the AP English exam) I could never understand and articulate those complex English grammatical rules (what is subjunctive?) until I learned a second language as a young adult. Despite not knowing the rules—and notwithstanding the many painful hours I spent learning and relearning rules in English class—I’ve been able to “hear” incorrect grammar since the 1st grade. 

Well did Wordsworth write:

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things—
We murder to dissect

Children have a decidedly different mindset. They know they are ignorant, but rather than let that cripple them, their self-awareness creates a desire (insufferable at times) to understand. Much like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), children are ever on the lookout for new knowledge, while adults tend to respond to new or contradictory information as the caterpillar in the chrysalis. However, it is possible to break free of our mental armor and patterns of classifying, ranking, and labeling. From personal experience, doing so has led to an amazing freedom of thought, coupled with the ability to hold contradictory thoughts without experiencing cognitive dissonance.  

Rather than viewing learning as filling up an empty cup, we should perhaps consider it as building upon an existing foundation. Recent research on the brain suggests that learning “is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.” The reasons for this are not all clear, but emergent studies suggest that during our first few years of life our body produces considerably more brain cells, and more connections, than we can ever utilize (a process called synaptogenesis). We then spend the next twenty-odd years culling out unused pathways and reinforcing those well-trodden paths of the brain, much like my running trails in the midland forests, which disappear in a surprisingly short time. 

Additionally, as opposed to looking for a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, it might be best to look inwards to comprehend and cultivate those unique patterns inside each of us. Mother nature has been whispering this truth to us through the eternal variety in all things, from sunsets to snowflakes. Our profound uniqueness may be one reason why children’s self-directed learning is so successful, as it allows children to find and rely on their strengths without falling prey to looking to an authority figure for how and what to learn or—perhaps worse still—comparing themselves to others’ style and pace of learning. Learning may be much more like watching a tree grow fruit rather than grafting new branches onto it. 

Human Capital Research

Our workplace interactions are similarly plagued by the Western Mindset’s desire to rank, label, and judge others, something which we are quite poor at doing. Some companies like Netflix prize their culture of public, harsh feedback. The myth is this: harsh feedback will cause employees to learn what they did wrong and improve their performance. 

This is a problem, though, for at least two reasons. One, our Western Mindset causes us, as givers of feedback, to build our foundation on faulty data. Our judgment of others is reliant on a host of biases, emotions, and one-sided perspectives that don’t tell the full story. An oft-repeated study found that 60 percent of employee feedback is a reflection of the individual manager, rather than the employee. Second—and perhaps more importantly—is our response to negative feedback. Negative feedback causes our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response) to light up, which throttles our ability to think creatively about anything beside the immediate threat (in this case, the negative feedback). In effect, we respond by closing ourselves off to potential learning, change, and growth. 

One alternative to harsh feedback is to build on employee strengths.  Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note that all throughout our lives “people grow far more neurons and synaptic connections where they already have the most neurons and synaptic connections. In other words, each brain grows most where it’s already strongest.” Pioneering research by Richard Boyatzis finds that positive feedback activates those areas of the brain that signal open hopefulness, inspiration, and creativity. As individuals looking to grow, and as managers, friends, and parents looking to improve those around us, perhaps we should focus on what’s working and find ways to intelligently cultivate that. (Meditation, for instance, can have an intense neural impact, increasing our ability to focus, empathize, and even fight diseases!)

Permaculture vs. Traditional Farming

We see a very similar juxtaposition between the Western, monocultural way we produce food (picture straight rows and fields with one solitary type of plant) in comparison to how nature grows her food. Quoting Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One-Straw Revolution (2009):  

“Our fixation on control over nature has led us to assume visual order—the straight, weeded rows of uniform fields—is superior farming. If something appears random, we assume it’s wrong. It doesn’t match our learned aesthetic. But as we come to experience nature as complex patterns of relationships of which we ourselves are part—patterns having nothing to do with the human, visually ordered world…we can come to see beneath appearances.” 

Enter permaculture, the “science of natural observation” or the “philosophy of working with, not against, nature.” Permaculture (the word is an amalgamation of permanent and culture, or permanent and agriculture) relies on biomimicry to design sustainable, holistic food systems capable of increased yields without the need for man-made inputs. A review of this design system is beyond the scope of the article, but the manner in which it is put into place requires exactly the sort of child-like learning advocated here. 

Permaculture studies the relationships between objects, processes, organisms, and “invisible structures” to create a careful design that will allow each piece to play its intended part in the whole. For a simple example, rather than use pesticides to kill “bad” bugs, let some of your cilantro plants “go to seed.” Cilantro flowers attract a very aggressive bug-killing wasp that, fortunately, leaves humans alone. Does your yard have a lot of dandelions? Rather than spray Roundup to kill the dandelions “ruining” your grass, try aerating your lawn. Dandelions have a strong taproot (making them difficult to remove), but as a function of that taproot, they have the effect of breaking up the hard soil. Therefore, loosening up the soil will cause the dandelions to grow elsewhere, where the soil is hard and in need of aerating. These and many other simple examples of permaculture wisdom come from taking the time to observe nature over the seasons. 

Unlearning Our Western Mindset Agriculture
The Western Mindset focuses on control over nature, leading us to assume visual order—the straight, weeded rows of uniform fields—is superior farming. If something appears random, we assume it’s wrong.

The patterns between farming and education are worth noting. Just as in education, where our expert-dependency systems hinder a child’s natural ability to learn, so too our chemical fertilizer-dependent farming system destroys the land’s natural ability to grow food. In Japan, the introduction of fast-acting chemical fertilizer replaced the soil’s natural resiliency; the once organic-matter rich soil, built up by rotating crops, compost and manure, lost its structure and strength, becoming weak and dependent on chemical nutrients within a single generation. By practicing simple permaculture principles in my new orchard—using mulch, hillsides, chickens, and food scraps—I’ve enjoyed delicious peaches this summer without a single drop of pesticide or fertilizer, both working and spending less than I otherwise would have.  

Religion and Rules 

Our Western Mindset holds a powerful influence over how we choose to worship. Let us examine how our desire to reduce all things to their basic elements in order to understand them has influenced our tolerance of diverging opinions. Stemming from the Greeks, we learned to classify everything, to look for its one driving purpose and where it came from, much like judging an apple tree by its roots instead of its fruits. This need to classify things was so great that bishops from across Europe were summoned (by threat of force) to the Nicean Council to decide whether the “essence” of Jesus was homooioúsios or homoousios to the Father. The split upon this line led to religions and families dividing and fighting. Consider this: there is not a single word in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!

Since the stuggles between Peter and Paul, the Christian movement has been plagued by dogmatic in-fighting (products of the Western Mindset’s desire for uniformity) and a need to establish orthodoxy rather than “judge not, that ye be not judged.” 1200 years after the Council of Nicea, during the Protestant movement, more wars were fought, families were divided, and religious branches diverged due to false dichotomies like “faith vs. works” or because religious leaders couldn’t agree to disagree. In short, while Christ hung out with Samaritans, harlots, and tax-collectors, those religions claiming to follow Him could not worship together due to differences of belief. We see the same thing happening today, as Christians willingly divide up the Oneness of God into separate (at times competing) attributes, which can then be ranked, ordered, and debated—a process which grows pride rather than love. 

Our mindset has also caused us to run to expert preachers to hear “the good word” every Sunday. While God promises that those lacking wisdom can come to Him for answers, religious leaders (and their ever-increasing gluttony of books!) propagates. 

Rather than trust that a child’s mind is open, waiting to receive, we teach children to wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. Our whole system is based on our need for experts: from teachers and coaches to consultants and counselors. We struggle even to entertain ourselves without going to Netflix, YouTube, or Disney! In fact, this outward-based dependency is so well entrenched in our lives, that rather than listen to what our bodies tell us, we go online to see what the experts say we should eat and drink. Our culture craves rules—even if based on falsehoods such as “we should drink eight glasses of water a day” or “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Enlarging The Western Mindset

My purpose is not to argue for a complete overthrow of our Western culture. Routines are important for growth and learning, especially for children. Our rule-based culture has generated incredible inventions and still has tremendous potential, but our single-minded focus on Western virtues like efficiency, production, yield rates, linear thinking, and reductionist science has resulted in a terribly out-of-balance system. But all is not lost. 

Wholeness is achieved by balancing the yin and the yang, and we are heavily biased towards the yang (the masculine, white, open, progressive). Much like how life on earth is dependent on both the sun (which rises and falls in a strictly consistent manner) and the moon (who dances across the sky in a much more fluid style than her counterpart), we too can blend these mindsets and find the higher, middle way. 

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that nature has healing properties. I have found incredible insights from taking the time to sit and observe nature. Come and see. While you sit and observe, rather than classify everything in view, leave your inner child open to ask why. As necessary as it is for us to leave behind childhood and become adults (i.e. develop an ego, partake of the fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil,” or, as the Eastern mind would say, develop dualism), our only hope at learning to take to the sky is by breaking free of our ego-created cage.  

Much like how life on earth is dependent on both the sun (which rises and falls in a strictly consistent manner) and the moon (who dances across the sky in a much more fluid style than her counterpart), we too can blend these mindsets and find the higher, middle way.

Children also practice stillness. Perhaps it is the child moving the car back and forth on endless repeat, or endlessly swinging, just for the sake of swinging. In any case, when our brain rests, it enters into a “default mode” that is critical for the process of self-reflection. Being silent creates the space in which we can develop, and find who we are and how we fit into our landscape. Silence gives us the canvas, acrylics, and brushes necessary to paint our own story. 

Perhaps both food-production, expert-dependency, and education can be solved together. As Fukuoka says, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” The solution might just be to go back to that inner place, that self-reliance and belief in self we had as a child. 

Maybe this is why Jesus employed farming-based parables and valorized children so much in his preaching.

Jeff Savage

Jeff grew up in Northern California. He was swept off his feet by an blonde engineer while gathering a pair of accounting degrees from BYU. The safe life of an accountant didn't appeal, so they moved East to the University of Illinois, where they stumbled on four children while both picked up graduate degrees. He and his engineer wife have four kids, two dogs, two cats, and 14 chickens. They reside in the Bible Belt where she homeschools their children and he teaches stranger’s children business strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina.

Leave a Reply