“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. The girls, we say, do not have to earn; so why should they be educated? As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education” ~ M. K. Gandhi True Education
Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. True, well, maybe. Is education a weapon or perhaps it is a tool or imagine if it were a way of life. Hmm, but what exactly do we mean with education and how can we use it to change the world? In the critical documentary “Schooling the World“, Wade Davis claims that education is not simply the transmission of information but is by definition the transmission and indeed the enculturation or one might say the indoctrination of children into certain ways of knowing, ways of learning, ways of being… and that different ways of knowing/learning/being create different human beings… He argues that a great lesson of anthropology is that the world into which we are born is just one type of subjective reality, a consequence of the adaptive choices that we have made. Other cultures are then not failed attempts at being you but are by definition unique facets of the human imagination and when asked the meaning of ‘being human’ they respond with 6000 different voices; and together they become the human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the coming millennia.
Seeing education in this light, as not just a tool or a weapon that equips us to navigate our world but as a narrative that we enter into and that provides us with a set of starting points that orient us in a particular ways, pointing toward some things and away from others is powerful. It is powerful since if education is an entry into a way of being and relating, then the type of educational system that we subscribe to matters to how we derive meaning, how we define our values and how we understand ourselves in a grand narrative of our world. It is powerful because if we are trying to understand how the challenges that we face today came about and if we are searching for new ways forward, then we must undoubtedly reflect on our education paradigm.
But what exactly is our education paradigm and why does Sir Ken Robinson, call for not just an educational reform but for a radical transformation of our education system? Well, perhaps because our educational system is failing us or perhaps because the type of education that we are promoting is propagating a narrative that is no longer adequate for, well, our well-being, our heart, mind soul – our survival?
Michael Edwards and Gita Sen write that all social systems rest on three bases: a set of principles that form an axiomatic basis of ethics and values; a set of processes – the functioning mechanisms and institutions that undergird the system; and the subjective states that constitute our inner being – our personal feelings and intuitions in the deepest sense. The first of these bases of change describes how we understand and rationalise the workings of the social order, while the third describes how we understand ourselves. Some of this understanding revolves around our own place in the social order, but it also concerns the deeper questions we ask ourselves about the meaning of human existence and the nature of reality.
It appears to me that this offers a simple way to analyze our current (western) education system.
Axiomatic basis – Upon what kind of philosophy does our educational system rest? What values and ethics lie at the heart of how we operate within this system?
Sir Ken Robinson writes that public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support. This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labor. Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market. I realize this isn’t an exact analogy and that it ignores many of the subtleties of the system, but it is close enough. Noam Chomsky, further adds that the idea educations does not seem to be about cultivating the individual’s potential or promoting creativity but that at large, the educational system is quite different. Mass education was designed to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production.. that could be controlled by the elites of society, for what greater danger is there than an education that liberates the mind and by extension, the body?
A set of processes – how is this philosophy operationalized? What institutions support it and what mechanisms drive it forward?
The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development in India refers to a ‘culture of schooling’ that is promoted by a process(es) that:
1) Labels, ranks and sorts human beings. It creates a rigid social hierarchy consisting of a small elite class of ‘highly educated’ and a large lower class of ‘failures’ and ‘illiterates’, based on levels of school achievement.
2) Imposes uniformity and standardization. It propagates the viewpoint that diversity is a problem, which must be removed if society is to progress.
3) Spreads fear, insecurity, violence and silence through its externally-imposed, military-like discipline.
4) Forces human beings to violently compete against each other over scarce resources in rigid win-lose situations.
5) Confines the motivation for learning to examinations, certificates and jobs. It suppresses all non-school motivations to learn and kills all desire to engage in critical self-evaluation. It centralizes control over the human learning process into the State-Market nexus, taking power away from individuals and communities.
6) Commodifies all human beings, Nature, knowledge and social relationships. They are to be extracted, exploited, bought and sold.
7) Fragments and compartmentalizes knowledge, human beings and the natural world. It de-links knowledge from wisdom, practical experiences and specific contexts.
8) Artificially separates human rationality from human emotions and the human spirit. It imposes a single view of rationality and logic on all people, while simultaneously devaluing many other knowledge systems.
9) Privileges literacy (in a few elite languages) over all other forms of human expression and creation. It drives people to distrust their local languages. It prioritizes newspapers, textbooks, television as the only reliable sources of information. These forms of State-Market controlled media cannot be questioned by the general public.
10) Reduces the spaces and opportunities for ‘valid’ human learning by demanding that they all be funneled through a centrally-controlled institution. It creates artificial divisions between learning and home, work, play, spirituality.
11) Destroys the dignity of labor; devalues the learning that takes place through manual work.
12) Breaks intergenerational bonds of family and community and increases people’s dependency on the Nation-State and Government, on Science and Technology, and on the Market for livelihood and identity.
The subjective states – Let’s face it! We are largely entrenchment within a consumer based, individualistic, money driven, utility maximizing and marginalizing system. At large, we derive happiness from what we purchase, are more preoccupied with our own wants and needs than with those of others, are captives to a system that monetizes value, strive for the most cost- efficient ways to maximize our obtaining of ‘wants’ and tend to marginalize all that which we don’t understand, don’t want to understand or that which seems troubling to our status quo.
In “Caring for a World with a Soul“, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes that the environmental crisis is the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the well-being of the planet. And yet it is part of a much deeper crisis whose danger is unnoticed: a crisis of soul caused by a deep forgetfulness of the sacred nature of creation.
This primal imbalance began centuries ago. Early Christianity persecuted any earth-based spirituality. The sacred groves of Europe were cut down; the physical world became a place of darkness and sin. We created a primal split between spirit and matter. Then, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, Newtonian physics saw the world as an inanimate mechanism whose laws needed to be discovered so that we could master it. We used our developing scientific awareness to dominate and control the natural world. The Earth as a spiritual being with a soul, what the ancients called the anima mundi, the soul of the world, was forgotten, banished even from our collective memories.
In its place we developed a materialistic culture that uses Earth for its own selfish purpose. Rather than our traditional role as guardians of the planet, Earth is just here to serve our ever-increasing material desires. It is a “resource” to be used rather than something sacred to be revered. Our greed now walks with heavy boots across the world, with complete disregard for the sacred nature of creation. For centuries we have been taught that we are separate from the world, that it is just an object which we should try to control, and so we have forgotten that the planet itself has a soul. Our Western culture no longer knows how to relate to the Earth’s sacred nature.
Furthermore, how are we to resolve such challenges as violent conflict when our children learn that competition and success are more highly priced in society than cooperation or empathy? How can we even think about addressing food shortages or poverty when our culture is based on and our economy driven by consumerism and the concept of ‘perpetual want’? Why would we risk fighting for the preservation of our natural environment if its exploitation in the present maximizes immediate utility? How can we hope to present a united front against that which we face, if our discourse, the very words that we use, is divisive and marginalizing?
The Way Forward – It is a sad irony of today that, while living in an increasingly interconnected world, we are nonetheless highly disconnected. While we accumulate a massive amount of knowledge on a daily basis, we still understand very little. As Manfred Max-Neef once eloquently stated:
“Let us assume that you have studied everything that you can possibly study, from a theological, sociological, anthropological, biological and even a bio-chemical point of view about a phenomenon called love. The result is that you will know everything that you can possibly know about love; but sooner or later you will realize that you can never truly understand love unless you fall in love. You can only attempt to understand that of which you can become a part off – if you fall in love”.
It is this ability to ‘understand’, to approach issues from a holistic point of view rather than to strive for the mere accumulation of knowledge, which will be pivotal in the coming years. Yet, living within a system highly resistant to change, how are we to develop a new and alternative approach to education and what forms should it take? As Sir Ken Robinson reminds us, children are encouraged to pursue that which is deemed useful and are steered away from that which they are good at. This very act, so he claims, is systematically destroying the capacity for imagination. If everything is right or wrong, black or white, how can imagination be fostered? If passion is muzzled, how can we remain sane?
What is needed is an education that fosters creativity, vitality, empathy, diversity, belonging, mindfulness and most of all, the twin pillars of what must be a radical revolution, understanding and imagination. If we build a strategy based on personhood and re-connection with nature and through nature with ourselves, then we are off to a good start since, since as Rabindranath Tagore writes, we may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates…Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment. In response, Tagore writes:
Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken
up into fragments by narrow domestic
Where words come out from the
depth of truth;
Where tireless striving
stretches its arms towards
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward
by thee into ever-widening
thought and action–
into that heaven of freedom,
Let my country awake.
There is not one single approach towards a new education system and many great thinkers that inspire and point the way. Here are but a few resources that might broaden the dialogue: