The ideal of the “Renaissance Man” is more evasive than ever before. For hundreds of years, a wide-ranging knowledge was the ideal of the intellectual world. Da Vinci and Franklin are often cited as the perfection of this ideal, but this makes it out to be a goal only sought by geniuses when in reality a broad base of knowledge was pursued by much of high society. Read any 19th century English novel, and the references in dialogue to history, philosophy, poetry, and myth are so frequent that they can feel grating and elitist (which, in the case of many novels that depict the lives of noblemen, was probably the goal).
Although reference-based one-upsmanship is irritating, there’s immense value in a shared cultural goal of broad knowledge. Familiarity with the old facilitates the exchange of the new. With a sizable common background of theory and history, mutual understanding is heightened and we can be confident that our conversational partners are equipped to extend, complicate, and challenge our ideas for the sake of a better mutual understanding.
A shift in priority towards financially lucrative skills and material information; rapidly deepening complexity within spheres of knowledge; a distrust of academic culture; the spontaneous being prized over the methodical. These causes may seem like societal trends outside of our control, but with information more accessible than ever before and non-Western knowledge becoming more accepted and celebrated, the qualities of the “Renaissance Man” might be worth resurrecting. If we do it right, an aristocratic ideal could be turned into a democratic one.
Claiming that education can learn some important lessons from a dark fantasy RPG may sound silly, but hear me out.
Here’s the gameplay loop of Dark Souls:
- Reach a bonfire. This acts as a checkpoint.
- Venture into a new area. Get killed by enemy A. Get sent back to bonfire.
- Venture back out into area (henceforth abbreviated as “VBOIA”). Defeat enemy A now that you know his/her position and moveset. Progress a bit, get killed by a swinging axe. Return to bonfire.
- VBOIA. Engage enemy A, get killed because you’re still fuming with anger from the swinging axe.
- Take a deep breath. VBOIA. Enemy A is dispatched with ease, the axe is carefully avoided. Walk onto a precarious ledge, hear the whump of a crossbow, get hit by bolt, get knocked off ledge, die.
- Die a few more times to various enemies and obstacles, returning to the bonfire and V-ing BOIA each time. Eventually, reach the area’s boss.
- Enter the boss’ lair (EBL). Hit him/her once with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
- VBOIA, EBL. Hit him/her twice with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
- VBOIA, die to enemy A.
- Continue V-ing BOIA and E-ing BL until, eventually, you manage to defeat the boss with a sliver of your health bar remaining.
Notice that the player is never penalized for failing. Whether dying to enemy A, getting hit by a swinging axe, or being trampled by the boss for the seventeenth time, the only consequence is that the player is sent back to the beginning of the gauntlet to try again. And every time they’re sent back, they’re given an extra chance to practice the entire run over again, improving each time thanks to sheer repetition and the development of muscle memory. Over time finger calluses are developed, reflexes are sharpened, and knowledge of the area is ingrained into the mind. I’ve found that, on subsequent playthroughs, I can return to an area I haven’t seen in months and complete it on the first or second try. That’s the power of the Dark Souls learning process, a process that is somehow brutally punishing and generously forgiving at the same time. The willingness to try a task over and over again until a solution is found is rewarded generously; impatience and an unwillingness to adapt will lead to frustration and failure.
I think the “gameplay loop” of our school system has a lot to learn from the Dark Souls formula. Rather than giving students a prescribed set of content with a deadline to learn it by (as in, the date of the test), give them the flexibility and freedom to approach the challenge at their own pace and with their own mindset. Encourage them to try it repeatedly to figure out what works and what doesn’t; in the same way that different strategies work better for different stages of the game, different critical thinking skills and tools will be better adapted to certain tasks. Emphasize to students that they shouldn’t be afraid to try and fail; the only consequence will be the opportunity to give it another shot. Rather than giving a sink-or-swim assessment at the end of the unit, give students the time and resources to think creatively and from different angles until they find a solution to the task that makes sense to them.
Difficult to implement? Certainly. Learning to face challenges with perseverance and creative thinking, however, is a far more valuable skill than preparing for a prescribed assessment.