How Psychedelics Could Improve Education

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by Gonzo Nieto

on February 4, 2015

Our experiences of education have taught most of us to value certain types of knowing and understanding over others. Especially as we move into secondary and postsecondary school, instrumental thinking and standardized test scores are brought ever more into the foreground, while the development of domains such as creativity, imagination and bodily awareness recede into the background. Although regularly mourned, it comes as little surprise that many students nearing the end of their schooling have lost much of their capacities for creativity, curiosity, wonder and awe, which so defined them in their earlier years.

For many students and educators alike, the need to address these shortfalls is not only real, but urgent. In a more holistically enriching educational system, what role could substances such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline play in promoting ways of understanding that go largely neglected in our traditional approaches to education?

Precisely this question is addressed by Canadian researcher Ken Tupper in his 2003 article “Entheogens & Education: Exploring the Potential of Psychoactives as Educational Tools” published in the Journal of Drug Education and Awareness. Here, the term “entheogen” (literally, a compound which “generates the divine within”) is used to refer to the substances we typically call “psychedelics.” This more common term is felt to be too closely associated with the 1960s sociocultural milieu and with the use of these substances for a number of purposes including the recreational and hedonic, whereas “entheogen” more appropriately reflects a respect and reverence for both the plants and their traditional rituals and contexts, and is associated with the use of these same compounds as spiritual or sacramental tools.

The life and work of Aldous Huxley provide captivating and perhaps prescient examples of just how entheogens might function as educational tools. In a letter written in 1953, Huxley pondered whether an educational system which retains its students capacity for inspiration and wonder might make use of entheogens to allow “young people to ‘taste and see’ what they have learned about at second hand… in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters, and musicians.” A month later, during his own encounter with mescaline that would become the subject of The Doors of Perception, Huxley experienced firsthand a reverent sense of wonder, awe, and immediacy in response to things such as a vase of flowers, a Mozart concerto, and books on art. Having an experience which he described as neither agreeable nor disagreeable, but one which just “is,” he felt he had gained insight into several spiritual and philosophical concepts related to this, including the Buddhist concept of suchness and Plato’s philosophy of Being and Becoming.

In his final novel Island, Huxley’s vision of the potential value of entheogens culminates in his depiction of a utopian society, balanced in its use of scientific and spiritual thinking, which employs entheogens within a ritualized context as psychospiritual tools. In these ceremonies, one’s understanding of such concepts as death and suffering, meditation and mindfulness, and sexuality is developed and deepened through a direct experience which brings to the fore the mysteries inherent in each of these notions.

Tupper argues that our traditional idea of education does not account for many kinds of learning and insights — cognitive, aesthetic, somatic, and spiritual — that people widely report having derived from their own entheogenic experiences. In restructuring our conception of education to include such experiential learning, there must emerge the recognition that altered states of consciousness hold valuable educational potential — a recognition that is already pervasive throughout many of the world’s indigenous cultures, evident in practice as well as in their philosophical and spiritual systems.

To fully appreciate the value of these tools and their potential applications first requires an understanding of the shortfalls inherent in our present ideas of education. To this end, Tupper draws on the work of educational theorist Kieran Egan, who holds that education’s present dilemma lies in attempting to achieve three incompatible goals at once. These are to socialize young people such that they fulfill and perpetuate cultural norms and expectations; to follow a program of seeking knowledge that will furnish “a privileged, rational view of reality”; and to allow people to develop naturally and in accordance with their individual potential.

Not only are these aims contradictory, but they seem to belong to a cultural perspective which we have since transcended. As Egan notes:

“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is built on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.”

The very unviability of these goals necessitates that we outline a new approach to education that is more in line with the diverse needs and demands of both modern society and human intellectual development.

In constructing this new approach, Egan proposes shifting education’s defining criterion from accumulated knowledge to the types of understanding that are developed through the acquisition of the tools afforded to us by our culture. Five broad types of understanding are described, each of which are developed as their respective tools are mastered. While each type of understanding ideally serves as the foundation for the next, it is often the case that those acquired later in development tend to overshadow those acquired earlier on. Thus, an aim of education is implied: to facilitate development while preventing the neglect of earlier types of understanding.

The first type is Somatic understanding, the “sense of awareness that exists prior to and independent of linguistic capability.” This is the understanding through which preverbal infants experience the world, and it is involved in things like music, physical education, yoga, and dance — Kapoeira and contemporary dance are two illustrative examples. In addition to body awareness and nonverbal expression, Tupper contends that the Somatic understanding includes preverbal thought and experience, and is thus directly relevant to altered states and entheogenic experiences. Such experiences are described as “a rich and overflowing universe of preverbal thought,” the nature of which language feels fundamentally incapable of depicting.

The second type of understanding is the Mythic, defined by “oral language use and the narrative, story-telling, and myth-making that accompany it.” It involves abstract thought, metaphor, and fantasy, and is observed in oral cultures that lack a written tradition altogether.

Ideally, the Somatic and Mythic types of understanding would serve as foundations for the remaining types, which span from the development of basic literacy through the acquisition of the ordering, pattern-finding cognitive tools that form the backbone of secondary and university education today. What’s more often the case as this progression takes place is that these earlier types of understanding gradually wither and fade.

It is this imbalance that entheogens may help to rectify. Indeed, there exists much evidence from both past and present to suggest that, for millenia, cultures other than our own have been using entheogens for the attainment of knowledge and insight that correspond with the Somatic and Mythic understandings defined above. Ancient rituals that incorporated entheogens have been observed in many civilizations that preceded us; present-day sacramental use of ayahuasca, peyote, and other entheogens by indigenous cultures throughout the world provides another widespread example. These cultures recognize that the Somatic and Mythic domains are fundamental to the human development, and an ongoing relationship with these dimensions is maintained by the ritualized use of entheogens.

In contrast, Western culture tends to operate under the faulty assumption that the mind can be entirely divorced from the body, an idea that is readily linked to our present disconnection from and destruction of nature. For without a “sensual or embodied appreciation for the natural world,” beginning first with our bodies, we remain unable to truly grasp the fundamental interdependence between ourselves and nature, and thus unable to follow through on the implications that interdependence has for how we live our lives individually and collectively.

Now that we have a better idea of the role entheogens might play in helping to develop fundamental but currently undervalued ways of understanding, what would any of this look like in application? The first indicator lies in the choosing of the word “entheogen” to turn our attention towards a respect for proper set and setting, as well as an awareness of the mythocultural context in which the experience takes place. These are all of utmost importance in ensuring the emergence of the educational benefits we have been discussing.

Tupper highlights the experiential learning program of Outward Bound as an example of the form an entheogenic educational practice might take. In fact, the philosophy of the program, “to help people discover and develop their potential to care for themselves, others and the world around them through challenging experiences in unfamiliar settings,” would require very little modification to conform to a similar, entheogenically inspired project — for which the name “Inward Bound” is proposed.

Undoubtedly, much care would need to go into the design and implementation of such a project. Participants, prepared at length prior to their experiences, would be led by guides with extensive training and experience, and every reasonable precaution would be taken to minimize risks. At the same time, we ought to remind ourselves that uncertainty and risk are themselves key components of experiential learning and growth.

The present-day legal status of entheogens in North America precludes this type of project from being implemented. That being said, trends toward the legal recognition of the use of entheogens for sacramental purposes in a number of countries suggest that it may only be a matter of time before these barriers are lifted.

In recognizing that indigenous entheogen use, which we regard as a religious or spiritual practice, also serves an educational role, Tupper blurs the distinction between spirituality and education, challenging us to consider novel and creative ways in which our present conceptions of education might be broadened to reflect a more holistic understanding of human development. As our cultural need for experiences of wonder and awe and of a spiritual connection to nature and our own bodies is great, so too shall be the changes that address these needs.