“The highest and first law of the universe, and the other name of life,” wrote John Ruskin, art critic, social reformer, and educational innovator, “is … ‘help.’ The other name of death is ‘separation.’ ”


Ruskin explained that you can measure how alive something is by the degree to which its parts are necessary and helpful to each other.

“In substance which we call ‘inanimate,’ as of clouds, or stones, their atoms may cohere to each other, or consist with each other, but they do not help each other. The removal of one part does not injure the rest.

“But in a plant, the taking away of any one part does injure the rest. Hurt or remove any portion of the sap, bark or pith, the rest is injured. If any part enters into a state in which it no more assists the rest, and has thus become ‘helpless,’ we call it also ‘dead.’

“The power which causes the several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life. Much more is this so in an animal. We may take away the branch of a tree without much harm to it; but not the animal’s limb. Thus intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness—completeness of depending of each part on all the rest. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption; and in proportion to the perfectness of the help, is the dreadfulness of the loss. The more intense the life has been, the more terrible its corruption.”

John RuskinHuman life—and the knowledge that motivates, inspires, and directs it—is a matter of connection. Education should likewise be a matter of connection. But most often it isn’t. Too often schooling by which education is supposed to take place is about separation.

Students are segregated by age. Then they are further labeled, categorized, and separated according to certain criteria, such as who might be good at math or who struggles in reading, who is on the honor roll and who has been suspended from school. Students are also segregated according to the school they attend and are expected to maintain a certain amount of school pride and separation from students from other schools.

Most of this separation is administrative, imposed on students by someone else. But students continue the process on their own. In the unnatural social situation in which they find themselves in school, students segregate according to subgroups: who is popular, who is not, athletes, nerds, geeks, rich, poor, and so on.

Subjects of study are likewise separated by category and type: math, science, arts, language, literature, and so on. Students who are good at the arts often are told they are not good at science. Not too long ago, my brother Mike wrote about his experience with this process.

Subjects are also most often separated from real life. Not long ago, I read an article about recent graduates from a prestigious university which was known and celebrated for being grounded in the so-called hard sciences. The graduates were quizzed on the simplest applications of their technical knowledge, such as how a basic light bulb worked, and they found themselves floundering to explain how the knowledge they had acquired in school related to their lives.

This separation is one of the most damaging aspects of modern schooling. When people lack motivation to learn or to act, it is usually because of this separation. They don't see how the thing they are unmotivated to do is related to the things they like to do and are interested in doing. Or they are unmotivated because they don't have confidence in their ability to learn a new skill or perform an unfamiliar task; they have difficulty relating or transferring their confidence and sense of success from one area of their life, knowledge, and experience to other areas.

This problem isn't hard to fix. The solution is a matter of learning to reconnect the areas of life that have become disconnected. In this sense, education and life are both a matter of understanding true relations.

The first step in the remedy is to begin to live, to recognize and strengthen the intensity of helpfulness or of relation in one's life. It is to begin to see and strengthen connections. This beginning requires people to begin to take responsibility for their own learning.

When a person voluntarily spends time with friends and others who may not be friends, when he walks and talks and interacts with others—of whatever age—when he reads a book that hasn't been assigned for a class, when he learns to see how it applies to what he is doing today, he begins to live and to become educated.

When a student takes responsibility for her learning, when she goes beyond assignments to try new things, when she connects disciplines in her own unique ways and finds ways to connect with people around her, she begins to learn. And as she learns, her life deepens in meaningfulness and intensity.