Buckminster Fuller on Childhood and Education
On the 1st of July 1983, American neo-futuristic architect, system theorist, designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller died in Los Angeles, California. The man who used to launch his lectures by introducing himself as “the world’s most successful failure” was in fact one of the most brilliant and nonconformist minds of the twentieth century. Expelled from Harvard twice, first time for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville group and second time for showing no interest in his studies, he never acquired a college degree.
After taking on a few odd jobs as a mechanic in a textile mill and a labourer in the meat-packing industry, he developed with his father-in-law the Stockade Building System for producing light-weight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing. The business was partially dictated by guilt and Fuller’s feeling of personal responsibility regarding the death of his four-year old daughter, who, he believed, died due to his inability to provide her with healthy living conditions. He sold about 240 buildings but, in the long run, the business turned out to be a failure ruining Fuller financially. Left with no savings, he feared that he would not be able to take proper care of his second newborn daughter Allegra either. It was the lowest point of Fuller’s life. He ended up depressed, drinking heavily, and even considering suicide.
Then, something happened in Fuller’s head , which triggered the process of creative thinking about the Universe. It was the most decisive epiphany of his life: “I saw that there was nothing to stop me from trying to think about our total planet Earth and thinking realistically about how to operate it on an enduringly sustainable basis as the magnificent human-passengered spaceship that it is.” (J. Baldwin, BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today). This experience made Fuller re-examine his life and embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Later on, speaking of his darkest moments, Fuller stated that he had no right to commit suicide, and that he decided to “commit egocide” instead. Fuller’s experimental thinking helped him popularize terms such as ‘Spaceship Earth’, ephemeralization, and synergetic. He developed many ideas, designs and inventions, one example being the Dymaxion car project or the design of the Montreal Biosphere (1967). The enormity and originality of his ideas was well documented in his daily diary, later called the Dymaxion Chronofile, and by twenty-eight other publications. Fuller received in total twenty-eight United States patents and sixty-seven honorary doctorates.
The secret of Fuller’s inquisitive mind lies probably in his ability to see the world afresh, as if through the eyes of a child. In fact he often referred to children’s openness to their surrounding reality: “Little children marvel at the universe. Those are the kinds of thoughts we have when we first recollect having thoughts. With the mysterious experience of being loved and looking around, we enter the era which we first remember. We remember just that we were fascinated with the universe. A child looks at the sky and understands it, looks at trees, looks at the snow falling and sees that the snowflakes are all hexagonal, always cosmically-perfect patterns. These are the simple perfections of every child’s experience. Every child is a poet.” (Richard Buckminster Fuller, Humans in Universe)
Interesting is also Fuller’s opinion on children’s education and the way he decided to bring up his own daughter Allegra. It is probably something still worth considering in our present times. In an interview with Victoria Vesna, Allegra Fuller Snyder recalls her father as an inspirational figure who treated her (and her mind) seriously right from the earliest years of her life: “My father felt that the highest priority in education is revolution based on synergy, which means that the behavior of a whole system cannot be predicted by the behavior of any of its parts taken separately. Thinking synergistically requires the complete reversal of our present system of the compartmentalization of knowledge, which goes from the particular to the even more specific. My father called himself a “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist”-a strange and difficult label to live with, but after spending a great deal of my own life trying to arrive at a simpler and more accessible label, I have recognized that this is the only term that really is right. …
My father wrote that “Life, as born, is inherently comprehensive in its apprehending, comprehending, and coordinating capabilities. Every child is interested in the universe. The child’s questions are universal”. But what is referred to as “elementary education” consists of bits and pieces; it tries in every way to destroy comprehensive understanding. He found the goal of education was to “de-genius” the child, for, as he said, “every child is born a genius.” The mind of a child is an exquisite tool ready to explore the universe. All the child lacks is experience. The challenge is to find the way to present the most complex ideas in relation to children’s existing levels of experience. In Tetrascroll, his intent was to share with me his most critical thinking. I remember, for instance, that he wanted me, at the age 4 years, to have some experience of his own explorations into Einstein’s theory of relativity. He wanted to include three chapters about Einstein’s theory in his first book Nine Chains to the Moon, published in 1938. The publisher said, ‘You’re not on the list of people who understand Einstein, so we can’t publish it.” My father said he thought that Mr. Einstein would disagree, so Lippincott, the publishers, sent the material to Einstein, and he was very interested. My father went to Princeton and had a wonderful meeting with Einstein. Very shortly thereafter he wanted to share some of this with me. He often rehearsed his thinking with me, as he felt that the best communicators were able to say the most complex ideas in ways that a child could understand. He was particularly excited about the great paradigm shift he felt would affect all of us as we move from static Newtonian thinking to the Einsteinian understanding that change is constant, change is normal. So he would explain these things to me, using the Goldilocks story as a link to my experience. I was Goldy. Bucky loved to do freehand sketches. He knew that if he could visualize things for me, I would understand. I became Goldilocks, but instead of doing what Goldilocks used to do in Grimm’s fairy tales, in my father’s stories I went out and had all these adventures in the universe. I cannot tell you how much of Einstein’s theory I really understood, but my father brought me into the context of his thinking in a way that is still valid to me today.” (Allegra Fuller Snyder and Victoria Vesna, Education Automation on Spaceship Earth: Buckminster Fuller’s Vision. More Relevant than Ever)
Perhaps there is something we can all learn from Fuller’s philosophy of life, knowledge and education. After all, we share our collective voyage on Spaceship Earth…