Universalism

What Is Comprehensive Learning?

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.

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The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller

Collaborative comprehensivism is participating in groups to incrementally expand the breadth and depth of everyone’s understanding. An effective tool for its practice is exploring ideas from a book. Some participants may be unable to read the book. To provide them with background and to focus on the key passages to be explored at a particular event, it can be helpful to have a brief for the book. Ideally, the brief will highlight questions to guide and spur a group exploration.

To support book-based events with an example, this resource includes a synopsis of R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. This brief is just one of many possible condensations of the book. It focuses on some of the key ideas that inspired the “Collaborating for Comprehensivism” initiative.

It is common to refer to the author of “Operating Manual” as “Bucky”. To read the book, you can find a copy from a bookseller, or read a 44 page PDF at http://designsciencelab.com/resources/OperatingManual_BF.pdf, or read a web-based copy at https://web.archive.org/web/20041028062223/http://www.futurehi.net/docs/OperatingManual.html. Below there is section offering advice for readers of the book.

"Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" by R. Buckminster Fuller
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Humanity’s Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action

In order to undertake the project of becoming a comprehensivist—to come to understand our worlds more and more broadly and deeply—we need to provision a toolkit for the task. What are all the possible approaches that we might mobilize in our quest to make sense of it all and of each other?

“The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman argues that design, not any of the arts or sciences, was humanity’s first “tradition of inquiry and action“. The “Great Books” and “Great Ideas” collections of Mortimer J. Adler and others, inspired us to prefix the word “great” in front of the phrase from “The Design Way”. We now reformulate our initial question as What are the Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action that humanity has accumulated through the ages? Will this suffice to delimit the range of possible approaches which a comprehensivist might assay?

First, let’s pause to ask: Is it necessary and/or sufficient to encompass all humanity’s traditions with the metaphysics of inquiry and action? I am not at all sure, but since we need some organizing principle, as with all proposed and allegedly “obvious” first principles, we might just accept “inquiry and action” as a good enough working hypothesis of the nature of all humanity’s traditions without too much thought and boldly adopt it.

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