Education: time for a new purpose
Given the catalogue of calamities raging round the world, one could be forgiven for concluding that we are a civilisation in terminal decline.
The socio-economic system, which promotes negative, divisive ideals, dominates all areas of life and is the cause of much of our difficulties. It is an outworn, unjust way of organising society; does not serve the majority of people – the 99.9 per cent – and is causing far-reaching damage to the planet that, unless radical action is taken, may well prove irreparable.
The environmental crisis is the greatest of a range of interconnected problems facing humanity, the answers to which are not to be found within the existing inflexible, unimaginative paradigm, based as it is on false values and misguided conclusions.
And as they repeatedly prove, the current batch of politicians lacks the intellectual imagination, vision and wisdom to meet the worldwide challenges.
A new awareness is needed, systems redesigned and based on altogether different values to the existing ones, and a fair and just economic model inculcated.
What is needed is values that unite people, cultivate cooperation, tolerance and understanding, in place of competition, prejudice and ignorance. Values that will allow a sense of unity and social responsibility to naturally flower. New systems, imbued with perennially accepted values of goodness – sharing, freedom and social justice – would take much of the stress and fear out of life, allowing people to trust one another. Under such circumstances peace may even be possible.
At the heart of the required changes – which need to be both gradual and radical – must be education – formal and non-formal.
Like all our current structures, education throughout the world is in crisis, and fundamental change is badly needed. Reform is under discussion in many countries and governments are debating how to alter the existing, inadequate methods. All to often, however, these discussions are limited by the existing ideologies: restructuring motivated by the obsessive desire for economic growth, a narrow nationalistic approach to life and a simplistic view of the needs of the individual.
Despite the negative umbrella within which formal education is taking place, there are of course many good schools with great teachers, but their work is made infinitely more difficult by ideologically-driven policies issued by government education departments.
New methodologies are needed that inculcate true individuality and creative independent thinking. That is to say, thinking freed from sociological and psychological conditioning, which is essential if the children of today are to find within themselves the resources needed to save our planet and reshape society in a harmonious way that meets the needs of the people.
Education and purpose
Maria Montessori, who devised a groundbreaking way of teaching “uneducable” children in the early 20th century (children we might now describe as having “special educational needs”), felt that traditional education neglects the child’s most basic needs – what she described in The Child, as “the exigencies of his spirit and his soul. The human being that lives within the child remains stifled therein.”
Perhaps we could think of the “human being” within the child – within us all – as a flower, a beautiful flower at the centre of a garden. The flower contains within itself all that is good, all that is innate – the persons “potential”, as John Dewey called it; the flower is freedom and joy, intelligence and peace.
However all around the flower is rubbish, psychological detritus that accumulates with time (starting pretty much from birth) and forms a virtually impenetrable barrier to its realisation and expression. This suffocating waste is made up of various inter-twinned forms; sociological/psychological conditioning, fear, competition and selfish desire are some of the more noxious, restrictive elements.
The work to be done then is two fold: identify and remove the obstacles that block the free expression of the “‘human being’ that lives within the child”, as Montessori puts it, and, furthermore, stop polluting the garden. This is a pragmatic, deconstructive work rooted in certain clearly defined philosophical ideas.
It is time the existing inhibiting practices were abandoned in favour of a new, creative approach that facilitates independent thinking, fosters cooperation and tolerance and encourages freedom and broad social participation.
Currently, institutionalised education emphasises, what the great Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti, in Education and the Significance of Life, called “secondary values, merely making us proficient in some branch of knowledge”. Education, though, “is not merely acquiring knowledge, gathering and correlating facts; it is to see the significance of life as a whole”.
Such an integrated viewpoint within education is made extremely difficult, given that education is dominated by ideas of conformity and competition, and is seen by governments everywhere as little more than a supply chain for employers. Schools and universities have been tailored, Noam Chomsky makes clear, to “meet the requirement of the market”, with students “trained to be compliant workers”. This distortion of function, into a system of conditioning and indoctrination, is far from the purpose of education, which Krishnamurti says, “is not to produce mere scholars, technicians and job hunters, but integrated men and women free from fear”.
Fear inhibits, physically, emotionally and mentally; it suffocates the “human being within the child”, the flower within the garden, the life within the form. It is the antithesis of human freedom, which together with the consciousness of this freedom, Jacques Rouseau maintained, is nothing less than, “the essence of human nature”. The removal of those elements that create fear, that deny and inhibit – that poison the garden – would allow freedom, “the essence of human nature”, to naturally flow, and with it independent thinking, creativity and initiative.
The human right to think and act freely (providing it is responsible and harmless) is made virtually unattainable in the current environment, where conditioning, together with competition and reward and punishment are employed to stifle independent thought, curtail creativity, and motivate and distort action.
It is time the existing inhibiting practices were abandoned in favour of a new, creative approach that facilitates independent thinking, fosters cooperation and tolerance and encourages freedom and broad social participation. It is not necessarily the subjects taught that present the obstacles to freedom (although the arts and humanities need to be given more time), it is the methods employed to teach them and the ideology that underlies them that need reforming. Methods – like competition, reward and punishment, the corrosive examination system – that sit within a socio-economic framework built on a particular “ism”, which promotes false, destructive values.
Such a system encourages the individual to focus on their own progress, success and material acquisition over the wellbeing of the group. It works against social unity and feeds division. In such a world “we all want to be on top”, Krishnamurti says, “and this desire creates constant conflict within ourselves and with our neighbour; it leads to competition, envy, animosity and, finally, war”.
All of these run counter to the reality of our true being, to the “the exigencies of his [the child’s] spirit and his soul”, as Montessori put it, and to one of the underlying goals of education, which, Noam Chomsky explains, is “to produce human beings whose values are not accumulation and domination, but instead are free association on equal terms”.
This is a righteous ideal that seems fantastical in today’s socio-economic world, where inequality of income, wealth, opportunity and influence are greater than they have ever been.
Cooperation and unity
The inculcation of cooperation in place of competition within education will facilitate sharing and foster trust. This would help to bring about a sense of the underlying unity of life, and the individual’s place within the whole.
We are part of a collective called humanity, and as the writer Benjamin Crème states, education should
show the child that it is a member of a world family… that we are not living alone in one large or small country, but in a world shared by 5.7 billion people. The child, above all, should be taught that this is the fundamental position of his/her life on Earth: that they are one of a group, a family.
The realisation that each and every one of us is part of a “family”, as Crème puts it, would decentralise individuals, encourage social responsibility and selfless actions – service, which John Dewey felt is a natural human quality experienced by all children. He states, in “Democracy and Education”, that “the child’s natural desire [is] to give out, to do, and this means to serve”.
This is something that is clearly less likely to happen when people are conditioned into thinking about their own success and welfare over and above those of others. Such conditioning pervades schools and universities and suits the ruling elite: they do not want a united, compassionate society, rich with independent thinkers. For as Dewey makes clear, “anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy”.
If we are to discover the answers to our social, economic and environmental problems, and create a new harmonious way of living, free thinking and self-awareness are crucial. Inhibiting ideological patterns of thought must be completely dismantled in all areas of education in order for these natural qualities to grow.
The radical thinkers of the enlightenment understood that the role of education was to allow the individual to reveal what, and who, they are, – “the flower”, the “human being inside”. Education was not, they believed, a process of filling a vessel with water, but rather assisting a flower to grow in its own way.
Such natural development and understanding is impossible where there is any form of psychological or sociological conditioning – within education there is no room for ideals or “ism’s” of any kind.
Education free from conditioning, competition and conformity will revolutionise learning environments – including the home – and take away the most stifling of all psychological conditions: fear.
The pressure placed on young people everywhere to succeed, to achieve, to meet expectations and to conform to a stereotypical image is intense.
The results for the majority are inhibition and stress, which flow from, and are expressions of, fear. If freedom of thought is to become a central purpose of education, all fear-inducing methods, such as competition, reward and punishment, conformity and conditioning must be completely absent.
Freedom of thought, unpolluted by ideological contamination or selfish motives, will purify actions, allow intelligence to naturally blossom (much as the intellectual forces of the Enlightenment envisioned), creativity to flow and make possible the fulfilment of innate potential.
The realisation of all this must surely be a fundamental purpose of any education system worthy of the name.