What’s the problem with education? A view from Delphi

VertigoSo what’s the problem with education? People who haven’t been to Delphi answer the question in one of two ways: Either they say the problem is knowledge or they say it is ignorance.

The former vilify what might be called the tyranny of objectified knowledge, where the accumulated systematised knowledge of mankind is valorised at the expense of the liberty of the child, who ought to be free to explore the world on her own and make of it whatever she wishes. The tyranny might also be called a fetishism of knowledge – something with the worst traits of an old religion in which young lambs are sacrificed on the pedagogical altar – lambs that should be left free to leap and play and learn outdoors in whatever way their nature inclines. The freedom of the individual is what matters, not the cold hard body of knowledge laid down in lifeless type on stale sheets of paper. The bluntest statement of this position was made by Marshall McLuhan: “Education is war declared on the young. It imprints violently a certain pattern on the young. That is war.” (ubu.com 19.30)

The other camp takes exactly the opposite view: knowledge IS what matters, they insist, and they look at the current generation of children and are shocked at how ignorant they are. They see a generation that is either more ignorant than its ancestors or more ignorant than young people in Finland, and they insist that the children running around playing and exploring and wasting time must be brought back in line and given a systematic education that will eradicate ignorance and raise national standards.

The situation seems rather different when seen from Delphi – that site in Greece once considered the navel of the world (the global omphalos). Outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi the visitor sees the block of marble bearing the inscription: “Know Thyself”. To know ourselves, who we are, where we have come from, and where we might be going – an imperative that is too often overlooked both by the revolutionaries fighting to liberate the young individual, and the reactionaries who insist that the students should put away their toys, pull up their socks, buckle down and start learning.

“Know ourselves.” Do we know ourselves? Do we understand who we are, and what we and our world have become?

Here, for me, is the overriding imperative in education: to work towards some sort of credible understanding of ourselves that doesn’t operate just on the level of a myth of the blood and the soil and the fatherland. A myth would seek to close off dialogue, discourse and debate. Instead what we need is precisely dialogue, discourse and a debate in which we come together to try to hammer out a way of understanding ourselves that we can take up and run with, and elaborate, and challenge and push forward.

This would not be some personal self-knowledge that we might need hypnosis or psychoanalysis to uncover. No, it would be, first and foremost, an understanding of the very peculiar world that we share – a world that defines what sort of creatures we have become.

Do we have such an understanding? I fear not. And when I look back at my own education, what shocks me is the fact that virtually nothing was done in this direction. Back in primary school we were shown a short cartoon about money, but that was all as far as the economy was concerned. Forms of exchange and ways of thinking about economic life were never again mentioned, and yet the economy with its institution of private property and the role it gives to money is something that affects the very core of our being. Then at secondary school we had to go into incredible detail in physics, learning about the Doppler shift and about the debate over whether light is particles or waves, but no one mentioned the word “Enlightenment” once. We learnt about Newton and Einstein, but Descartes was never mentioned once. We had to learn the reactions involved in the metabolism of glucose in organic chemistry, but we never heard a word about the Romantic reaction to the Age of Reason. We had to learn about free radicals in chemistry, but no one mentioned the Magna Carta and the tradition of thinking about civil society that began there. We had to dissect a locust preserved in formaldehyde and study its every internal organ, but there was never a dissection of the strange thing called modernity. We had to learn about the revolutions of the planets, but we were never encouraged to think about the industrial revolution, about the terrible sacrifices it entailed down the mines and in the factories, nor about the visions for the future that were dreamt up by those who felt compelled to justify the immeasurable human sacrifice. We were told nothing of the hopes for the future that had been handed down to us. They were left in complete obscurity.

The result of the failure to heed the Delphic imperative is confusion. Confusion is not simply ignorance. Ignorance doesn’t necessarily involve any psychological malaise. If we are ignorant of what is going on on the dark side of the moon, we just shrug our shoulders and carry on. It is of no consequence to us. Being confused about who we are and what we are doing and what we are helping to perpetuate is a disturbing state of affairs, and more often than not the reaction seems to be flight – the pressing need to escape.

In a lovely passage Camille Paglia described this confusion – something she also referred to as a kind of vertigo, which she saw in the classes of students she had been teaching for over 30 years:

Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. I am reminded of an unnerving scene in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an astronaut, his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spins helplessly off into space. The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture. Technology, like Kubrick’s rogue computer, Hal, is the companionable servant turned ruthless master. The ironically self-referential or overtly politicized and jargon-ridden paradigms of higher education, far from helping the young to cope or develop, have worsened their vertigo and free fall. Today’s students require not subversion of rationalist assumptions… but the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.

Is Paglia not right that we are becoming increasingly unmoored and that a certain kind of epistemic vertigo is rife? Is she not right that education could provide and should provide a historical frame of reference, a sense of structure and chronology and some of the ideas needed to start to make sense of the crazy world we find ourselves in – the world that we are? In a world that increasingly looks like a runaway train heading God knows where, do we as teachers not need above all else to re-echo the ancient Delphic imperative and do what we can to encourage a new and passionate engagement with the questions of who we are, what our world is, where we have come from and where we are going?

written by Torn Halves on September 25, 2012 in education with one Comment