What Is Comprehensive Learning?

21 June 2022 in Resource Center.

This resource attempts to recapitulate and situate comprehensive learning in the broad context of our learning and our lives. It compares comprehensive learning, an emerging tradition of inquiry and action, with other approaches to learning to further clarify its approach. It is a refinement of the notes I wrote two months ago to guide my remarks at the 13 April 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

How does comprehensive learning compare to other ways of learning?

Buckminster Fuller wrote, “I am certain that none of the world’s problems … have any hope of solution except through all of world around society’s individuals becoming thoroughly and comprehensively self-educated.” The sentiment of this quote and related ones in Bucky’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” inspired me in 2019 to formulate the Collaborating for Comprehensivism initiative and led to the resource on The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller.

For me, the idea of comprehensive learning and its cognate comprehensive thinking begins with these ideas of Buckminster Fuller. I have been working to capture Bucky’s ideas of comprehensive learning and abstract them into a new tradition of inquiry and action that does not require us to become Synergists in the style of Buckminster Fuller. That is, I imagine comprehensive learning to be broader in scope than even Bucky.

When Bucky defines Universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience” and then recommends starting all inquiry with Universe and subdividing, he is effectively starting with Humanity’s great inventory of all the traditions of inquiry and action in our cultural heritage. The source of all our learning can be seen as coming from the whole of Humanity’s cultural heritage. In contrast, we often think of our learning as coming from the three Rs, or from the classics, or the Great Books, or from standardized curricula. But that leaves out so much of Bucky’s Universe and of our cultural heritage including the wisdom of indigenous peoples, folk traditions, and so much more.

My challenge has been to abstract Bucky’s ideas about comprehensive learning and combine them with what I have learned from other traditions to precipitate the practice of a new conscientious tradition of inquiry and action to understand the world and each other which I call “Collaborating for Comprehensivism”. At various times I have called it comprehensive practice, comprehensive understanding, the art of our comprehensivity, and various other attempts to find words to catalyze an emerging tradition based on Bucky’s ideas. All with the goal of imagining comprehensive learning without undue restrictions to Bucky’s or my own peculiar set of preferred ideas, inquiries, and actions.

I often start discussions on comprehensive learning with the characterization that it is about working to understand it all and each other. Physics is about understanding how the material world changes, biology is about understanding the nature of life, sociology is about how societies work, dance is about our traditions of movement, music is about traditions to put together sounds. Of all our traditions of inquiry and action, comprehensive learning is the only one that dares to embrace it all and then works toward understanding it all and each other by daring to consider the entirety of Humanity’s cultural heritage.

There is a category of traditions which I have called universalist that claim to understand it all (see tagged resources on universalism). Bucky marketed his tradition of thinking as Synergetics. Other purportedly universalist traditions include cybernetics, systemics, complexity, semiotics, cultural studies, world-systems theory, integral theory, wholism, mathesis universalis, pansophism, the liberal arts, science and technology, or any of the mythological, mystical, magical, religious, or spiritual traditions.

Even though these venerable traditions claim to have the right approach for understanding it all through a kind of science or theology or magic or whatever, none of these traditions is universally accepted by everyone as the way the world actually works. Comprehensive learning favors exploration of all traditions and all perspectives not focusing on any one tradition. In particular, comprehensive learning can sometimes explore quite narrow traditions, not just the allegedly universalist ones.

Comprehensive learning favors exploration not explication. Exploration gives us a deeper understanding of how each topic and each tradition works. Attempting to choose the “right” theory, model, or tradition to focus on seems short-sighted as future insights may challenge our beliefs and theories. Exploration engages us to better understand the constellation of ideas and possibilities instead of becoming defensive or entrenched when our favorite beliefs are upset by alternative interpretations or facts. Comprehensive learning aims to continually broaden our sense of the possible ways to understand our worlds while also deepening our understanding of the many traditions that contribute to our civilization including the universalist ones.

By challenging our thinking with an ever-broadening context, comprehensive learning recognizes that yesterday’s learning may only have scaled the heights of a small foothill in the mountainous range of all possible understandings. By descending from this foothill and searching far and wide, we might find a higher foothill with more effective knowledge. This taller mountain might make yesterday’s preferred approach seem “obsolete” by revitalizing a long abandoned approach with new incisiveness. However, tomorrow we may find yet another even taller mountain. We can’t be sure which approaches the next mountain might reveal to be short-sighted and which long abandoned approaches it might revitalize.

Some evidence for this fact can be found in the ever-changing evaluations of Aristotle and Epicurus who seem to be alternately refuted and revitalized every other generation. Or consider how biology now recognizes transgenerational epigenetic inheritance despite rejecting Lamarckism, the idea that organisms might inherent physical traits from their parents.

So, comprehensive learning is about exploration not explication, not choosing the best tradition, theory or model, but clarifying each tradition through comparisons and other examinations that strive to deepen our cross-cutting understandings of all Humanity’s traditions. It should not be about choosing the winner in the race to identify the best tradition because that race might not even get really going for a few more centuries! It may be that Humanity has only just left the “womb of permitted ignorance” to repurpose Bucky’s words. We may still be at the very beginning of understanding the world and how it works. There is more on the idea of comprehensive exploration in the resource “Comprehensive Exploration, Comprehension, and Collaboration”.

Another distinction of comprehensive learning is for a social and collaborative but self-directed learning instead of either the autodidact tradition, which is self-directed but isolated, or lecturing, which is social but other-directed. Truly broad exploration may require a diverse collaborative effort. Each individual adds their own experiences, perspectives, and interpretations to add details, context, and meaning to our collaborative explorations. Each individual also brings new traditions to the group to consider and explore. A consequence of these social aspects is that comprehensive learning is about conscientious listening and dialogue in exploration, not predigested facts and methods.

To maximize the diversity of collaborative comprehensive learning, all backgrounds, beliefs, and cultural traditions should be engaged with no prerequisites. All these factors suggest that collaborative comprehensive learning is likely to be different from the mission-focused collaborative teams of organizations and the discipline-focused collaborations of departments.

In sum, comprehensive learning finds its source in the whole of Humanity’s cultural heritage not just great books or approved curricula or any particular canon; it is about exploration not explication, not doctrinaire; and it is about collaborative participation, not a spectator sport.

What is your perspective on comprehensive learning? What should it be about? Which of my distinctions would you embrace and which would you eschew? How should we engage an initiative of comprehensive learning to be “adequately macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as Bucky puts it?

What is comprehensive learning and how would you distinguish it from other ways of learning?

How does comprehensive learning compare to other ways of life?

In the resource “Articulating Comprehensivity: The Comprehensive Design of Our Lives”, I argued that comprehensive learning is, in part, about tuning into the way in which we design our lives through the traditions we study in breadth and those we study in depth. Our knowledge in breadth and our knowledge in depth informs our judgment and provides the basis for our skills and capabilities.

In contrast our guidance counselor and human resources conceptions of our faculties as psychological traits and demonstrated competencies ignores what we have learned in breadth even though examples such as Donald Ingber’s profound story about how a college art class prepared him to pioneer a new way of understanding biological cells as tensegrities, structures whose islands of compressive elements are held together by a network of tensile elements. In our culture, what we know in depth is widely valorized. However, what we know in breadth may be even more significant: it shapes and structures the context our minds have available for our thinking, interpretation, measurement, and judgment even if we aren’t conscious of it and don’t talk about it.

In the resource on “Chronofiles”, I emphasized the importance of our personally curated archives of documents and artifacts in supplementing the memories, know-what, and know-how stored in the wetware of our bodies. These inventories of collected documents, resources, and artifacts profoundly shape the ability of our future selves to be resourceful in adapting to the exigencies of life. By studying his Chronofile, Bucky Fuller was able to see patterns of technological change that others didn’t have the means to see.

Comprehensive learning invites us to reconsider our curatorial practices to more conscientiously shape our faculties by gathering the resources we will need to make observations, comparisons, and other analyses and syntheses in the future. The way we curate our chronofiles and our in depth and in breadth learning shapes and articulates our comprehensive learning, in contrast our society more commonly shapes us with the more limited concepts of building an identity, a career, or a collection of hobbies, skills, and expertise.

Another distinction in the approach of comprehensive learning is to aspire to comprehensive comprehensions (see the resource on Comprehensive Exploration, Comprehension, and Collaboration) which place more value on integrated judgment than decision-making. Comprehensive comprehensions form a thoroughly refined ignorance by identifying and examining the nuanced questions that might distinguish amongst a collection of multiple working hypotheses or perspectives. By fostering our mistake mystique, valuing the identification of mistakes or gaps in our dawning understandings with naïve questions, we can formulate a more refined ignorance of the possible relations amongst our experiences and our hypotheses.

This process may help us better organize our minds for more effective judgment-making. Such an approach might foster a better design sense for our lives and for our civilization than the more prevalent approach of striving for the false certainties and expediencies of expert decision-making, best practices, or majority rule.

Another distinction between comprehensive learning and other ways of life is how it engages us in a gradual, persistent, life-long learning, not training, not point-to-able certificates, not specialized programs of learning. Currently, I imagine collaborative comprehensive learning steered by participant-guided group explorations. By looking to their own experience and their understanding of the group, participant-guides can imagine topics, ideas, or investigations they might creatively present to the group to redress omissions, blindspots, or weaknesses in their group’s or their civilization’s comprehensivity, the qualities of breadth and depth which one integrates to form an understanding of the world and of each other.

The practice of coming to learn a topic or tradition well enough to present it and guide a group exploration of it, helps participant-guides introduce or elaborate on the traditions they think are most relevant or underappreciated. Alternatively, the group often gives the participant-guide alternative ways of considering the subject. Everyone can learn in such explorations. This contrasts with the way in which learning is usually thought of as involving a transfer of knowledge from source to sink which homogenizes learners as aspiring experts.

In collaborative comprehensive learning, the dynamics of group feedback often leads to better questions and new insights. What is really fundamental for understanding this or that? How can we guide ourselves and our collaborators to a more incisive understanding of our worlds and of each other? The whole process might be an alternative to politics: to deliberate on the issues of importance for our civilization and understand them comprehensively so new ideas for better designing our worlds might be thought through. In this way comprehensive learning is not just an activity to engage when there is nothing good on TV. Instead, it becomes a way in which we and our collaborators search through Humanity’s vast inventory of ideas and traditions to teach each other and learn from each other more and more about how our worlds work.

As Buckminster Fuller suggested in the first quote above: to adequately address any of the issues facing world around society, we as individuals need to become “thoroughly and comprehensively self-educated”. Comprehensive learning is a new way to do this in groups like The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society or 52 Living Ideas. The result will be the re-designing of our understanding, our lives, and our civilization. In contrast other forms of learning merely offer individuals access to traditions of inquiry and action to fit into already existing functions of our civilization.

In sum, comprehensive learning helps us become aware of the knowing in breadth and depth that gives us our capabilities and faculties, not building an identity of knowledge, skill, or role. It helps us recognize how curating our learning designs our life, not just accumulating knowledge. It helps us hone our general purpose judgment instead of our special case decision-making. Collaborative comprehensive learning may help us as individuals and as a society become more adaptable, instead of learning as a spectator sport where certificates and ranks are more important than possibilities. In short, comprehensive learning guides us to better design our lives, our worlds, and our civilization.

How do you see comprehensive learning compared to other ways of life? What life possibilities do you imagine might come from the practice of collaborative comprehensive learning?


The way in which comprehensive learning will develop as a tradition of inquiry and action, like everything else about the future, is unknown and unknowable. It is unlikely that my current imagination of its key features in comparison with other ways of knowing and other ways of life will prove to be suitable. But I hope they instigate you to think about what could be, then, collaboratively we might happen on better ideas. By experimenting and trying out different ideas, we will more quickly converge on an approach that works better than the schema of comparisons offered above.

If the idea of collaboration is as important for developing our comprehensive thinking, as I think it is, then it will be participants like you who will contribute the key ideas and practices for the emerging tradition. My role is to be an instigator to help us consider ideas that might precipitate reflection and practice so that together we might imagine even better ways to formulate comprehensive learning as an emerging tradition of inquiry and action.

1h 31m video from the 13 April 2022 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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