Thursday, 31 January 2013

WEIRD Education

(WEIRD series introductionIndustrialisation; Riches; Democracy; Conclusion)

Okay, it's time (finally) to pick up this thread
. In that introduction to this series, I explained Jürgen Habermas' argument that human rights conflict with cultural relativism, and used it to justify, in principle, the idea of prescribing certain values as universal for all humans (indeed, all sentients, or at least all sophonts). I offered up the WEIRD quartet - Education, Industrialisation, Richness and Democracy - as possible examples, making the bold claim that I could defend their universal application.

Well, here goes. I'm starting with education because I think it's easiest to explain both the pitfalls and the ultimate defence of the topic, and it will set up quite nicely the pattern I'm going to follow throughout this series. I'm going to draw a distinction between how we actually practice education in Western culture today (and how we have practiced it for the last couple of hundred years), and what I see as the essence of the value; the latter being far more appealing than the former.

The problem with our 'old' concept of education (sadly, still prevalent today) is that it is focussed on the provision of information. For most of history, education has consisted of identifying some group of facts as important and then trying to get children to remember those facts. This becomes immensely problematic when trying to compare education between cultures - which culture should decide on what group of facts is important? Different cultures are going to advocate very different groups of facts, particularly cultural and historical facts.

Literacy and language present a great example. We can say that (with the exceptions of the authors of religious texts), Shakespeare is the most-studied and most culturally significant literary figure in history, and that therefore all people should learn about Shakespeare, but this ignores the fact that Shakespeare's prominence is really just the prominence of anglocentric culture. To force Brazillian or Kenyan children to study Shakespeare on these grounds is rampant cultural imperialism.

But you can't teach language without teaching some literature (much though my teenage self wished to deny this fact). An understanding of the relationship between literature and language is essential to seeing language as a feature of social context, rather than just words and grammar rules. So what literature should we prescribe the teaching of, if we are to universally teach literature?

The answer is to take as a principle of universal education that children should be literate, but say that the teaching should be adapted to teach culturally-relevant literature. There's no use in teaching Shakespeare to Brazilian children whose first language is Portuguese, even translated into Portuguese (for more on the idea of teaching literacy in culturally-sensitive ways, there's no better source than the work and methodology of Paulo Freire).

And there's a hint in here of the broader point. It's an entirely legitimate question to ask why we should hold the teaching of literacy as universally important. The answer is that someone who is not literate cannot evaluate, critically analyse and engage with the products of literate culture - and I mean 'culture' here in the broadest sense, including laws, government reports and so on. A person who is not literate is incapable of defending himself effectively against things that are written down, because he cannot know what has been written down.

I'm being a little melodramatic, but the idea of defense is key. There's a huge wealth of behaviourist psychological research showing how human beings can be conditioned and indoctrinated by authority figures; the ability to question authority, therefore, is an essential part of the freedom to be self-determined, and this goes just as much for the values authority imposes as for the figures of authority doing the imposing.

At the core of my concept of education, then (and, indeed, at the core of the concept of education that is now widely taught in teaching courses - for which critical pedagogy provides an excellent framework) are two ideas, the key traits that I consider to be the essence of being educated:

- The awareness that there are many conflicting values in the world.
- The ability to critically analyse values and choose among them for oneself.

It should be obvious that a person who is actually equipped with these two traits will be (in principle) immune to indoctrination and thus to cultural imperialism. Obviously, nobody can be expected to have a perfect record in these fields - I certainly don't - because there are all sorts of people in the world working to indoctrinate us in ever more sophisticated ways, but the more critical we are, the safer we are from indoctrination.

The final point to be made is that this concept of education is entirely self-defending. If we promote being educated (in this way) as a value, then anyone who is so educated will be capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to adopt the value of education, and repudiate it if they want to. Obviously, this is a level of self-awareness that is very difficult to teach or train, but we can hold it up as the ultimate goal.

I would also argue that without the awareness that one's values are a choice from among many, one cannot really be said to hold those values correctly, but only by blind faith (any holding of values is an act of faith; but no faith should be blind). As such, education thus construed is the ultimate universal value, because it is a necessary condition of the having of any values at all.

* * *

Some tangential remarks about the old concept of education while I'm here; fundamentally, at the start of the 20th century, the concept of education used more or less globally was that born from the English public school. These were institutions whose express principles, principles understood and recognised by almost everyone involved, parents, teachers and pupils alike, are almost diametrically opposed to the principles I suggest in this blog.

The principles of the English public school were authority, hierarchy and conformity; they existed, in essence, to prepare the children of the British elite for their work as the officers and officials of the British Empire. This included a degree of indoctrination in views like the inferiority of non-white races, the importance of obedience to one's superiors, and so on.

Fortunately, slowly, this concept is being wiped out (though ask me sometime about my experiences in a turn-of-the-21st-century English public - which actually means 'private' - school). In the educational studies lectures I work in as an amanuensis, concepts of critical pedagogy and the teaching of independence are emphasised.

Be very wary of anyone trying to defend the 'old' concept or denounce the new (as for example, in the decision by the Texas Republican Party to include a plank in its 2012 platform that discouraged the teaching of critical thinking skills). The only reason to support the old concept is if you want to be able to indoctrinate pupils rather than teaching them.

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