EDUCATION; HOW SHOULD WE CONCEIVE IT?
What ideally should education be about? There is no single and correct answer to such a question but I think many would agree with the general vision sketched below, which derives from the philosophy of education put forward by John Dewey.
Firstly it should be stressed that there is a vast difference between Education and mere training. Our schools and universities are very effective in teaching people the basic skills, from reading and writing to things like using a computer, getting information, writing an essay, and vocational and professional skills such as are needed to be a satisfactory doctor. But I believe even universities are in general very ineffective at Educating. They have very little interest in Education and they devote little or no effort to it.
What then am I assuming Education to be? I want to suggest that central in it would be the following elements.
1. Becoming more able and willing to interpret the world,
to make sense of experiences and observations, to interpret things.
For example some people can come across a landform and see that it is a juvenile valley, whereas others might see only a sharp "V" between the hills. In this situation some knowledge of geology enables one to see more, to understand or interpret an observation in such a way as to derive more meaning or significance from it. More sense can be made of the world one experiences, and more connections can be seen. This in turn can point to other implications, questions and possibilities that might not occur to other people. "Aha, thats a Kingfisher; so maybe there is a river nearby."
Thus Education is to do with the "enlargement and the enrichment of the world". The more Educated one is the richer is the world one inhabits; the more there is in it for you and the more you see when you move about it. Where some might see only a sharp valley others can see a young landscape and know that various other things might be observable there. They are sensitised to other observations, meanings and possibilities. When a geologist or biologist walks through a landscape he or she literally sees far more than others would. Things observed have greater significance to them.
Hence the role of knowledge in Education. Knowledge is only relevant or important in so far as it facilitates meaning or increases the capacity to interpret experience. I know, remember, a number of Latin words from my distant schooling but they have almost nothing to do with my Education, because they contribute almost nothing to my capacity to interpret the world I encounter. (In fact my study of Latin interfered with and damaged, my Education.)
So it is being suggested that ideally education is a ceaseless process which involves continually increasing the knowledge, skills and interests that enable one to interpret, make more meaning and see more. It is an irregular business, sometimes leaping ahead suddenly. Stuff that is not useful to you in understanding the world fades and in time is dumped from your memory. The stuff most readily taken into the store is information that adds greatly to your capacity to make sense of the things you want to make sense of, i.e., of things you are interested in and would like to understand better. (Thus the close connection between knowledge and emotion or interest; see below.)
The best analogy might be one of slowly adding things to the shelves in your mental attic. You are the one who knows what you know and what is worth adding to the shelves. You know how significant the addition is. You know what the big gaps are. You are the only one who can recognise the opportunity to fill a gap. We all have a vast number of very scatty shelves, with bits of knowledge and understanding, many tangled messes we might sort out some day, many gaping holes wed like to fill, and many mouldy old crates half full of rubbish that is steadily fading because thats stuff which is irrelevant to our current interests.
It is not just a matter of acquiring more facts or connections and steadily adding them to the useful stuff already on your memory shelves. From time to time new information or experience will lead to a radical rearrangement of the shelves. Sometimes one observation or encounter will trigger a total revision, or scrapping of ones previous understanding of some topic. When that happens a lot of Education is taking place rapidly, because you are jumping from one perspective to another. Sometimes the change is to a more comprehensive and powerful explanatory position, for example enabling one to see and account for things that once seemed unrelated or contradictory. But sometimes the jump is from a neat and simple perspective to one that is much more complicated and messy. Sometimes becoming wiser involves recognising that the situation is not as simple as one had thought; Sometimes it involves recognising that one was mistaken in thinking one understood, and it sometimes involves accepting that something is unknowable and must remain mysterious.
From this perspective on Education it can be seen that the mere possession of knowledge might be totally irrelevant. Is a person who has learned Greek more educated as a result? She knows more but this might have made little difference to her capacity to see more as she goes through life. A great deal of the stuff we learn at school makes little or no difference and therefore has nothing to do with our Education.
2. The development of certain skills.
Again it is important at the start to separate out the skills that mere training
involves. What might be some of the centrally important skills involved in becoming
Obviously the basic 3R skills are necessary, in order to acquire and process information and ideas, but they are not central. (See The Sokal Affair.)
Critical thinking is not primarily a matter of intellectual power. It is a matter of interest. In passive consumer society most people accept without question massive waste, the trivia delivered by the media, and the gross global injustice on which their living standards are built. Ordinary people are quite capable of, but not very interested in thinking critically about their society.
Critical thinking is not necessarily a negative or destructive activity. It can result in the conclusion that the idea or institution or claim examined is quite satisfactory or admirable.
3. The emotional and spiritual factors,
Education is usually thought of solely in intellectual terms, as if it was only to do with facts and skills. But all that is far less important than the emotional and spiritual dimension. It is possible to produce a knowledgeable and skilled technician who is not very interested in or inspired by what he knows. Such a divorce is impossible with respect to Education. Education is essentially about becoming interested in understanding the world, and wanting to increase ones capacity to understand things. Education is therefore primarily an emotional, not an intellectual issue. What matters most is interest in learning, knowing and being more able to make sense of things. The goal for the educator is to get people to be (remain) intensely interested in learning and thinking about the world around them.
There can be many motives for training, such as to be able to earn more money, and the goal is usually extrinsic. There can be only one motive for Education and it is intrinsic. The motive for Education can only be to be more Educated, i.e., to be more able to interpret and make sense of the world, because this is something that is intrinsically important to you and not just important as a means to some other goal. Education cannot be motivated by the desire to earn more or have a higher credential. The credentials one possesses are not very relevant to ones Education. They give little indication of how Educated one is. People who have no credentials at all can be highly Educated. So we want people to learn about stars, bugs, people, etc etc simply because they are interested in doing so. In general we cannot tell whether an Educational process has been successful until long after it has ended. The appropriate questions are, for example, "Are they still reading the Shakespearian plays they studied three years ago?", "Do they think in sociological terms now, ten years after the introductory sociology course?", " Do they like to look at the stars and planets now?" etc.,
Thus Education has nothing whatsoever to do with competition, prizes, exams, credentials or superiority. It is about wanting to see more, or differently, or more comprehensively.
Another radical implication is that Education cannot be boring. It is quite possible for training and schooling to be boring, but by definition becoming more Educated is about enlarging or reorganising perspectives because one wants to do this. It is about building lasting interests.
The goal of the teacher therefore is to inspire. Unless students come to develop an intrinsic interest in a topic, so that it is something they want to learn about and will seek to learn about when out of school, the teacher has failed to Educate. A teacher can train without interesting students in the subject matter, but the supreme concern for an Educator is to get his or her students interested.
Given this spiritual character of Education, it is not likely that very much Education occurs in schools. How many students of maths ever do maths out of school for the fun of it and how many who study literature for the Higher School Certificate ever read those novels for enjoyment later in life. Some do, but the net effect is probably negative. That is, overall when we make students study Shakespeare for exams we probably do far more to destroy interest in Shakespeare than to increase it. The basic question is, is this course increasing intrinsic, lasting interest in the topic being studied? There is very little research evidence on how well school experience does this, so it cannot seriously be claimed that it is an important goal in this society.
The above conception of Education completely rules out most of the conventional paraphenalia of schooling, such as bells, uniforms, set periods, exams and credentials , punishment, "discipline", and teacher authority These sorts of things are at best irrelevant and likely to be counter-productive if sparking interest and getting it to flourish are the overriding concerns. For instance it is not possible to increase interest in anything, including surfboard riding, food, or advanced flirtation, by forcing people to do things they do not want to do. Teachers therefore must work hard to stimulate and nurture interest, but if their students are not enticed and teachers then resort to coercion this can only worsen the situation. Thus educators must be very tolerant and cunning, ever ready to grasp the chance to get someone to see a topic as interesting, organising experiences that might trigger interest, but accepting ones powerlessness if the spark does not ignite.
So the educator always has to be vigilant, and flexible, watching for things that might catch interest, thinking about the points that can be connected with an observation, and how interesting experiences can lead to more formal and systematic inquiry. "Lets take it home and see if we can identify it in the insect book?" "Did you know that crabs are closely related to the crayfish; look at this part, thats his tail, wrapped under now." The goal here is to get people to want to follow up, to find out more, to be willing to look things up and read further.
Note also the implications for "discipline". Again if enhancing interest is the goal then there is no place for coercion. It is not possible to develop an intrinsic interest in anything by forcing someone to learn it. Discipline is very important, but only in the sense of being able to willingly choose to knuckle down to a difficult or unpleasant task that one recognises needs to be performed, (either for moral reasons or to serve ones more distant interests.) In principle no adult should ever obey authority; we should follow rules and decisions only because we choose to having thought about their sense or legitimacy.
Note however that Education can be painful and that sometimes unpleasant experiences add considerably to ones Education. Indeed some of ones most profound growth sometimes results from experiences one would have avoided if one could. It is therefore important to review unpleasant experience to see what one can learn from it, including lessons to do with ones capacity to cope with adversity.
Closely related is the issue of teacher power. Conventional educators take for granted the power the teacher has over people. A teacher actually has more power than almost anyone else in society; she can accuse, attack, try , judge, sentence, punish, ostracise, and put down, with impunity. Why do we find such a relationship in the field of Education? We do not allow it among shoppers, or chess players.
Conventional educators usually make the seriously mistaken assumption that teachers have and should have power because there are "authorities" on their subject. However if I know more about something than you do and I am teaching it to you, nothing follows about my right to boss you around. If we focus on Education we realise that the "authority" of the teacher is only to do with expertise and the power or capacity he has to do things like explain, detect what I need to learn next or where I am going wrong, point to useful texts, etc. This capacity in no way makes it right or sensible for the teacher to coerce or intimidate learners, and as has been explained any resort to such an attitude will surely interfere with Education. The good teacher therefore has to be a helpful friend. Friends do not boss each other around. The teacher is not superior to the learner; he just knows more about the topic and wants to help the learner to benefit from the situation. Both realise that the learner probably knows much more than the teacher about other topics.
In fact if there is any notion of unilateral or oppressive power in the situation it lies with the learner, because he is the one who can say "You havent explained that well", or " I dont want to explore that", or "I have had enough for today." Of course the teacher can always respond, "Ah but you have to learn that next if you want to be able to understand the subject well.", but this is not an exercise of power, it is simply giving expert advice and in a satisfactory situation the learner who has found this teachers advice to be valuable in the past would probably accept it again. So the atmosphere of intense power and coercion that exists in any school might contribute well to training (this is debatable) but it seriously interferes with Education.
It is extremely difficult to eliminate power relations from Educational situations. Try explaining to your best friend something you know and she doesnt, without in any way giving orders or edicts, or implying that she is a bit slow to comprehend, or implying that you are pretty smart the way you zoom through it.
It is irritating how often education is mistakenly identified with difficulty and grind. It is often assumed that something cant be of much educational value unless it is difficult, and that easy courses therefore must be inferior. However the general rule should be that if a course is difficult it is being badly taught. A very Educationally-effective course in Ancient Greek, or cooking or surfing, which would by definition increase a students interest in the topic, could not be experienced as difficult in the sense of unpleasant (although it might set unwelcome challenges to assumptions and beliefs.)
Interest is of extreme importance. There is no greater human tragedy than to lose interest in life. "Interest" merges into hope, enthusiasm, purpose, desire to do things, energy. We soon enter spiritual terrain here. Education connects with reverence; with a sense of awe, humility and appreciation before the vast and incomprehensible nature of the universe and the unfathomable miracle of ones presence within it. . The basic goal of teaching about astronomy for instance should be to develop a sense of awe and wonder. Thus again the Educators ultimate task is to inspire, to open affective doors, to help people to increase their sense of the spiritual or inspirational significance of life experience, to "re-enchant" the world.
Where does compassion fit in ?
Interest is connected to sensitivity, to the capacity to be moved by things one might not have seen. It is important to become more able to see significance in small things. However the culture of consumer society debauches. It blunts taste and sensitivity. Commerce pushes increasingly gross, spectacular images and experiences, more violent movies, more thrilling leisure pursuits (adventure travel, bungy jumping ) The stimulation must be bigger and bigger all the time in order to be interesting. As a result the capacity to be moved or inspired by simple everyday things is diminished. Education involves becoming more able to see more, to be interested by, to be prompted to reflect and appreciate by simple things.
So becoming more able and concerned to make sense of experience seems to involve some notion of increasing sensitivity. Can we go from this to compassion, or is it a largely separate factor which a satisfactory discussion of Education must deal with?
Nothing in the universe is more important than the strength of concern we have for the welfare of other beings, including nature. Compassion is probably the most appropriate term for this, although the core notion here is not just the negative issue of sympathy aroused by the misfortunes of others. It includes the positive desire to see other people, beings, systems, institutions etc thrive, function well, "self-actualise", and make the most of their opportunities for an enjoyable and social and ecological systems) being "fulfilled", is central here.
Sophisticated technology, sporting records, competitive prowess, or capacity to work hard or be humorous or a success or wealthy or a celebrity are of paltry significance in human affairs compared with the readiness to care and to help others flourish. Who do you value most, someone who is very rich, or can run faster than anyone else, or someone who is moved by the misfortunes of others and will make an effort to do something about them. Which is more noble and civilised, a society that can build New York, space shuttles and aircraft carriers, or one that can conquer others or one like Ladak in which no one is poor, neglected, lonely, without meaning, or indeed unhappy. (See Ladakh; Significance for thinking about development.)
There is no more important factor relevant to the welfare or viability of a society than compassion. The quality of the life experience of its people over time, and its capacity to survive let alone progress, will depend more than anything else on the degree to which its people care about the welfare of each other and their environment and their society. Only if this concern is strong will people attend to the public good, to institutions and standards, and public service, social policy and social responsibilities and the plight of the least fortunate. Consumer society rates very poorly here, being increasingly indifferent to the fact that more and more people in the richest countries, let alone the Third "World, are dumped into poverty and depression.
We are therefore dealing here with an extremely important goal of Education, about which we can say little with any confidence. A sane society would devote a great deal of effort to working out how best to develop compassionate citizens. I do not have much confidence in the following ideas on the topic but I would like to suggest that there is a connection with the foregoing disc ussion of Education in terms of increasing the capacity to make meaning out of experience.
I suspect that the more aware, sensitive and thoughtful one becomes about the world the more compassionate one becomes. The more a person becomes concerned to make sense of the world the more appreciative and reverential I think that person will become, and therefore the more concerned to respect, preserve, enable and nurture the systems and the beings that inhabit the universe. I think there is a connection here akin to Platos link between knowledge, virtue and aesthetic value. For instance, to become more aware of the extraordinary complexity, design, functioning, and benevolence of the natural environment on which we utterly depend, is surely to become more appreciative, respectful and humble before it. Surely to come to know Gaia is to come to be grateful for all the crucial functions she performs for us. The awareness brings an intensely moral conclusion; we recognise values, such as the "importance" of nature, not just because it enables our lives, but in the sense that a great work of art has an immense "value", magnificence, "aura", regardless of any utility or price that might attach to it. The awareness is partly an aesthetic phenomenon; we are confronted by the beauty of natural things, such as the staggering engineering in the design of any bug, with microscopic knee joints that work better than any that a corporation could construct. Understanding brings reverence I think, and one does not wish to damage things that one reveres.
So I suspect that the more Educated one becomes the more compassionate in some sense one becomes. The more ones awareness is expanded the more one appreciates, respects and values the miraculous universe one finds oneself within the more distasteful destruction and suffering become, the more one wishes to see things and people preserved, contented with their lot and thriving.
I am not assuming that the concern with meaning focused on above is sufficient to develop the strength of compassion that a satisfactory society requires. A satisfactory Educational system would have to devote a great deal of effort to the development of compassion in the wide sense used here. In consumer society however we make almost no effort, indeed we put almost all our effort into producing competitive, acquisitive, self-centred individualists.
See also on this site,,
Education: Outline of a Radically Critical View.
Education in the Alternative, Sustainable Society.
The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment,
limits to growth, Third World...)and the sustainable alternative
society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.