Saturday, October 15, 2005

Education: national curriculum or natural curriculum?

There seems to be deep seated confusion in society over the purposes of education and what constitutes a good education. Although we may not agree how it should be done, almost everyone agrees that self-respect and respect for others should be a result of having been educated. Martin Luther King warned us that: ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals’. Howard Gardner in his book Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century goes even further by nominating ‘species humility’ as the virtue to cultivate man in the twenty-first century. In any case, thinking out how to live is a more fundamental and urgent use of man’s intellect than discovering facts. A philosopher named Jonathan Glover, of the University of London, says that teaching young people to think rationally and critically can make them less susceptible to false ideologies, propaganda and political manipulation. His research into atrocities committed by dictators and despots suggests that those communities that have succeeding in resisting dictatorship and cruelty are those that nurture what he calls “the benign rebel” in their children. He says: “You can never be sure what will happen to any country in 20 years’ time; 20 years ago, many people went for their holidays in Yugoslavia.” (see Guardian, 13th October 1999). Children, we are told by educational policy makers, should be problem solvers, creative thinkers and morally sophisticated. But what kind of pedagogy makes such learning possible? And how does one nurture a ‘benign rebel’?

The goal of education, according to Bertrand Russell, is to “give a sense of the value of things” and help to create “wise citizens” encouraging a combination of citizenship with individual creativeness; ipso facto, we must regard “a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with a certain intrinsic nature, which will develop into an admirable form, given proper soil and air and light” —such was the “humanistic conception” of Russell. That is, the idea that education is not merely filling an empty vessel, but allowing something to grow in its own way. Charlotte Mason recognized three critical ingredients of a complete education when she said: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” For her the idea that vivifies this is that “Education is a science of relations”. According to Mortimer J. Adler, “The aim of education is to cultivate the individual’s capacities for mental growth and moral development; to help him acquire the intellectual and moral virtues requisite for a good human life.”

But how does one teach moral character and relations? The answer is that manners are not taught, they are caught. And according to the philosopher Paul Feyeraband it is dependent on “accidents such as parental affection, some kind of stability, friendship, and a delicate balance between self-confidence and a concern for others.” Guy Claxton in his book Wise Up also suggests that the best thinkers were never taught so, but that they were given room to think.

The method of education of Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was called the elenchus; his idea was to open a space for learning through getting rid of junk that can clutter up the mind and prevent it from clear and fresh thinking. In his explanation of the characteristics of Socratic teaching Peter Abbs explains that ‘education is an activity of mind, a particular emotional and critical orientation towards experience’. Such a effort requires a pedagogy that combines children’s cognitive as well as emotional development. Something, I believe cannot take place in a modern classroom setting alone.

Education in many minds today however, has become synonymous with ‘training’, or, at least, a species of it. Training in what? We have ‘potty training’, ‘dog training’ ‘training for the army’. Education, on the other hand, in its traditional sense, is about opening up of the mind, transcending detail and skill (for any particular occupation); or, in the words of Peter Abbs ‘educing, releasing, then liberating’. It is no coincidence that the word school comes from the Greek word schole which means both leisure and discussion. Also, the word academy derives from Akademus—the man who owned the garden in which Plato and his disciples discussed philosophy. Looking at these terms vis-à-vis their original meanings provides them with a resonance lacking nowadays.

Schools today however, are more like political institutions with identified public functions. Hence, due to reasons of protection and control, I believe, they are stifling children’s ability to critically think, express opinion and pursue the tricky business of ‘self-management’. One of the reasons for this is that the overly prescriptive nature of curricula precludes such things from happening in a classroom effectively; as activities, discussions and children’s responses are provisional in such learning and not steered by the teacher. Over-specialization within curricula can have profound narrowing effects on children’s ability and capacity to converse, think laterally and originally. It is presumably for this reason that Einstein said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Theodore Zeldin in his book Conversation laments the decline in recent years of children’s capacity to converse and bears some of the responsibility on over-specialized curricula as well as a fixation with stage-age learning. That is, assuming that children are at a certain stage in their learning rigidly and lumping them into single age groups. Mortimer J. Adler states: “Because man is viewed as having only an animal career and not a human destiny, interest and adjustment have taken the place of discipline and cultivation”.

Education is most assuredly a tool for social change and a means by which people can perceive, interpret, criticise and finally transform the world about them. Such education, as mentioned above, is a different kind of quest to today, where market achievement is the yard-stick for success, and I believe there is need for us to re-look at our perceptions of cleverness or achievement. Anyway, my point is that parents are the main educators of their children; and, by having children they oblige themselves to become educated in doing so effectively. That is, it is their duty to make their children good citizens—not the teachers’ or molvis’. Parenting comprises all the tasks involved in raising a child to an independent adult.

Abrar ul Haq

Some suggested reading:

The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and
How Schools Should Teach by Howard Gardner

The Educational Imperative: Defence of Socratic and Aesthetic Learning by Peter Abbs

Conversation by Theodore Zeldin