Education is among the few hotly debated subjects where virtually all combatants are truly well meaning. It is also a subject that draws ire. Few subjects so vividly expose our values.“Education is not itself so much an idea or a subject matter as it is a theme to which the great ideas and the basic subject matters are relevant. It is one of the perennial practical problems which men cannot discuss without engaging in the deepest speculative considerations. It is a problem which carries discussion into and across a great many subject matters – the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; psychology, medicine, metaphysics, and theology; ethics, politics, and economics. It is a problem which draws into focus many of the great ideas – virtue and truth, knowledge and opinion, art and science, desire, will, sense, memory, mind, habit; change and progress; family and state; man, nature, and God.” -- Mortimer Adler
Developing a Context for a Post-postmodern Education
The essay the above is quoted from sums up the history and debate on education better than this short piece will. The quote suggests simply that what we call ‘education’ is really the ground and totality of all human knowledge and acquisition up to and including this very moment. No small beans.
Education is among the few hotly debated subjects where virtually all combatants are well meaning. It is also a subject that draws ire. Few subjects so vividly expose our values. Opinions on education are direct expressions of how we feel the world should run, how society should function and how a person should act and be treated. I once innocently mentioned what I thought a common Montessori tenet to a friend who was training in Montessori education. To my understanding, teachers in a classroom are instructed to ‘control the environment, follow the child.’ My friend was so offended by the word ‘control’, it started a semantic row that poisoned the rest of the night. The friendship has never really been the same since.
While such discussions have their place and words certainly matter, it’s not really my interest to spend these essays yelling from one side to another. There are enough voices on the web to satiate anyone looking to get their hate on.
What does interest me, moves me to wonder and will drive these essays, is better understanding development. The arching agreement on all sides of the education discussion is this: we’re all interested in how people develop, what motivates change, how desirable qualities are nurtured, and what conditions support healthy growth.
Consonant with this, I’m interested in context. Why do we develop? Where are we headed? What is the opportunity and responsibility of one individual human life?
These two topics –development and the context into which we develop– will drive these essays. Unpacking the history of education and constructing a way forward will be the content, the clay I’ll use to shape meaning from these driving forces.
So, let’s plunge right in with this statement: education - and the art of educating- is the most important discipline for a thinking person to master. (Juma, so bold! Cuddle first then tear away the sheets). I take this statement to be self-evident. Education is the stage on which all other disciplines act. Education is where everything else is learned, expressed, organized and privileged. It shapes our thoughts and actions, and by extension, society. In the same essay I quoted at the top of the page, Adler goes on to say ‘there can be no philosophy of education apart from philosophy as a whole’. If true, the choices we make to educate determine our success or failure as a society. They’ll certainly determine our legacy.
Again, I’m less interested in pedagogy wars as I am in how we understand human development, and in what context we place human behavior. Are we developing towards anything? If so where? If not, what’s the point? Or said, another way, it’s the philosophy of education that matters first and that informs pedagogical approaches.
In line with the thrust of this site, these various essays will explore the best ways to design our education systems premised on whatever working definition of development I’m able to muster and whatever pedagogy naturally arises from this definition.
I’ll also discuss how an integral awareness can shed new light on the conversation.
A quick note on the use of the word “integral”: for many, this means the work of philosopher Ken Wilber and those associated with him. That’s fine. This work has been crucial to my thinking and will continue to inform it. On the other hand, I won’t be limited to this work and likely will appear to be acting in direct opposition to common interpretations. As with any honest thinker, my interest is in truth; my motivation in the way forward.
Among Wilber’s great contributions to integral thought and to philosophy in general is his mapping of everything in the Kosmos into four quadrants. (So bold! You really do like to speak in absolutes, Wood).
Really, any given element of reality as we know it can be looked at through this lens. It’s a simple, powerful way to understand how the articulars of the world relate to one another. While lacking the poetry of truly great works of art and literature, there is a simple elegance in Wilber’s finest work that cuts through the inane complexity of the modern academy. This inane complexity is the smoke and mirrors of the post-modern age. It’s not an age at all really, but a collection of habits and rebellions with no ordering principle. The four quadrants bring order, and if we take it seriously enough, principle.
Since it’s the purpose of this website to parse, salvage, preserve and construct the blueprint of a sane society in the 21st century after the tornado of postmodernism flattened the joint in the 20th, I’ll use this basic framework to discuss perennial issues at the heart of education.
Over the coming months I’ll scavenge the ideas, methods and teachings of the various authors that help point the way to a post-postmodern philosophy of education. From Augustine to Dewey, Plato to McLuhan. I’ll ground this philosophy in an exploration of the principles and rules of the science of teaching. And with luck, I’ll add a smidgen of wonder.
An important aim of this discussion is to be worthy of what Adler called “The Great Conversation,” - the body of topics explored by great thinkers across the ages. Adler was mostly referring to the history of Western thought, but I think we can extend our reach to include ideas, contexts and events from across intellectual and religious traditions the world over. After all, we have great works from every world tradition available to us like never before. It’s worth the struggle to integrate (there’s that word again!) all lineage streams into the conversation. Generally speaking, most every point of view holds some piece of the overall picture. Better to put them all together, see how they fit, where they overlap, and what we can learn in return.
One Educator’s Existential Bias Revealed
“I am That.” -- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Before asking how we should educate a person, let’s ask this: what is a person? Really, this is the only question that’s bothered the authors on anyone’s bookshelf. So I’ll lay my cards on the table flat and allow the blowback of commentary to prompt future refinement. Here goes:
A person is the subjective experience of the Kosmos waking up to and peering out upon ‘Its’ own creation; the conscious manifestation of one primary event occurring in every moment: the universe/God/evolution waking to 'itself'.
No arguments I’ve explored into the nature of humanity and the self make more sense than this plain truth. We tend to live – especially since the dawn of modern science and the (poorly titled) Enlightenment – as though we’re somehow outside the universe looking in. Balls! The premise is absurd and laughably hubristic. We’re the very fabric of the universe itself struggling to look out/upon/within and say- wow!
So there’s a waking intelligence active in creation or, maybe more accurately, intelligence is creation itself. This intelligence must be alive, unimaginably intense and profoundly subtle, as well as being the recipe and ingredients of what we call evolution.
And now that we’ve arrived at this particular point in evolution where the Kosmos is increasingly looking out into itself, the question becomes: how do we access and explore this intelligence? Or better yet, how do we come to know ourselves more completely?
Artistry, Education and Unlocking Essence
“The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own times. He is the man of integral awareness.” -- Marshall Mcluhan.
A helpful way to understand the history of integral awareness is to track back through the major insights and accomplishments of the great pioneers of thought and revelation. In the works of Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Augustine, Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, there’s something awesome happening. Something is being built, insight by startling insight. This is the Great Conversation at work: the urge to know and the impulse to discover revealing and communicating profound new truths.
These great thinkers were artists - and by “art,” I’m using the term in its broadest definition, from the work of the cobbler, producing for utility, to the poet, crafting the sublime, to the theologian and metaphysician, trying to free the soul from its mortal chains. More specifically, I’m referring to the accessing of intelligence essential to creation. An artist is someone so consumed with the fire of insight that s/he has little choice but to express her understanding to the world. Would that we all contributed in this way.
So the goal of an education, in this author’s opinion, is to produce artists. Not scientists, because the great scientists had flair for the artistic. Not economists, since the best of these have a grace that belongs to artistry. The artist is the pinnacle of any and all disciplines. It’s the highest peak of development in any given field or discipline. It’s a state of grace bequeathed to those with passion, discipline and imagination.
So how do we do this? That’s in dispute, perhaps now more than ever. It’s still the postmodern age, awash with uncertainty, cynicism, paradigm shifts and existential options bleeding us like a medieval remedy. Track back through the paradigm shifts within education the last 50 years to prove this point and nurse a headache.
As is stated in various places on this site, we’re operating with the belief/understanding that each human being expresses a perspective unique in the universe. Each human life, precious and unrepeatable, contains a distinct insight that reveals something true about life and reality. A code locked into the DNA of any individual. Accessing the intelligence active in creation and learning how to nurture the unique gifts present in each individual is our goal, idealistic as that intention may be.
It’s rare to unlock this insight. It’s rarer still to get it out. A few have: saints and sages of the great religions, the authors of the canon of Western literature, the scientists who’ve re-casted our understanding of the known world. Each in their way was an artist, gathering the facts of the day, meditating on the problems they confronted, and unlocking an insight only they could properly uncover. In this light, it’s inspiring to consider that we each hold an imprint of unique insight. Unlocking it is the key.
Perhaps more importantly, as educators, we’re concerned with preparing people to be vital members of society, living well within a rich context. Past great art has often come from beggared circumstances, as though attempting to annihilate creativity is the best way to activate it. We need to resolve this tension (a negative one I’d say) with other forms and outlets. We clearly can’t promote the destitute as necessary conditions for the sublime. Rather, in a sane society, life conditions should be stable, with ample freedom and a collective eye towards goodness. Troubles will always arise; life is unstable. Holding a space of equilibrium based on deep principles that people can grow within is our collective responsibility.
So our concern, as much as it has to do with individuals, is with society as a whole. If Plato is right and “a hero is born among a hundred, a wise man is found among a thousand, but an accomplished one might not be found even among a hundred thousand men” then success in our ideal endeavor seems unlikely. I’m stating we should seek the ideal, not expect it. Helping people live well, honestly and ethically is crucial. To quote Plato again: “as the builders say, the larger stones do not lie well without the lesser.”
The Value(s) of Education Systems
“In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deduction.” -- A.N. Whitehead
Let’s face it, as a species we still have a long way to go if we’re going to live in a peaceful, harmonic world. Odds are, it’ll never happen and perhaps this is okay. Humans seem to thrive under conflict; tension seems a necessary dimension of growth.
It’s uncontroversial to say that we live in a world perpetually in conflict over values. But while conflict often takes religious, racial or ideological shapes, these are often the outer layers of the value structures beneath, which have hardened around common beliefs, biases, fears and shared hatreds. These values shape our communities and societies. The philosophical skeleton of any education system emerges from these values and takes a form sometimes religious, other times secular, humanistic, nationalistic or naturalistic.
All of these forms of intelligence are worth including. They’ve emerged from the insights of the artists of the past. But problems arise when insight morphs into ideology and splits the world into opposing sides. So the big challenge we face is how to manage the complexity of the insights that have preceded us. The postmodern impulse is to give fair shake to any and all insights and philosophies, withholding value judgements. But that just isn’t plausible, in theory or in practice. What is possible is a thorough examination of any insight for depth and usefulness. And better still, to create (and maybe even live) a philosophy that gathers the deepest, truest insights available and includes them in the fabric of society. I’m certainly not the first to propose this, nor the last. Where I hope to have some revealing insight is through the means by which this happens, namely our understanding of education.
So we should discuss whether a classical education delivers better results than a Montessori education. And if it does (and I believe it does – to be explored in a future essay), how can the better elements of a Montessori education fill the gaps in a classical education to create something better than either one as they exist now? If we think of artists as midwives, bringing their ideas out of the ether and into the world, then as educators it’s our job to be the stewards of the many children artistic insight has provided.
And don’t think I’m against intelligent, even vociferous debate. A healthy society flourishes with internal disagreements if these disagreements promote better ideas. There’s no reason education shouldn’t act in the same way. But societies are crippled when healthy debate degenerates into warring ideologies, with neither side listening to the other. If we value life over death, health over sickness, progress over deterioration, let’s set the boundaries of discussion where voices aren’t silenced, but the deepest and truest are understood and heard most loudly. It’s reasonable that a person should have the freedom to choose the values that create a good life, but it’s unreasonable to allow a person’s choice of values interfere with the good life of another. As educators, we’re charged with opening the options available to children as widely as possible. The values our children choose will be the fate of society.
And finally, since I’ll never stray far from the belief that personal freedom alone is the value that should be shared universally, we’ll have to live with the promise and, yes, the limitations this implies. Following this, most value statements are up for discussion. But let the framing of this essay’s key points be our north pole: to further the awakening impulse of creative intelligence inherent in the Kosmos by fostering a life of artistry. All the while recognizing that each life holds a gift unique in creation, to be carefully cultivated and given freedom of expression.
Understood with proper gravity, we have at our fingertips the blueprint for a way forward.