All those years that I have been involved in teaching, I have reflected on the process of education, and it’s relation to learning. Well, not all those years… the first time I was allowed to teach philosophy of sociology, at age 22, to students of my own age, I was just very excited that I could do it. That I could capture their brains and keep them focused on the texts I had chosen for two or three hours. When, later, I found myself in class again, I realised that the teaching experience had learned me more than being in the role of a student. Having to explain a text to others, and inspire their reflective process, makes you graps the subject matter deeper than just trying to understand it for yourself.
This experience got me interested in methods of education that promote active participation of students. Later, when teaching subjects like ethics and philosophy of spirituality, I searched for even more profound ways to get students involved in their own learning process – by inciting them to research their (overt and silent) presuppositions and prejudices – trying to create a safe environment to get into a dialogue over those prejudices and presuppositions. The aim was to learn to critically examine one’s point of departure, to learn to give sound arguments for it, to dismiss elements of it that proved unsound, or to put them in a stand-by position for later investigation. All this activity earned me a task to coordinate and develop (in a team) at my university what was then called value education – a task I gave up when it was forcibly changed into just another managerial task, administrating teaching hours and their financial exchange currency.
All the same, I kept trying out different teaching styles in my own classes, finding students to react very differently: those that are interested especially in developing their political, moral and/or spiritual worldview react enthusiastically to this kind of teaching; other just want to become very good in some subject, and they tend to be somewhat annoyed at ‘losing time to dialogue’ and ‘uninteresting expressions of personal views’. Always returning to literature to understand my experiences, and reading John Dewey and Ivan Illich to help me these days, it is dawning on me that below the debate on learning styles and teaching methods, a more profound struggle is taking place to understand modern human society, it’s problematic aspects, it’s silent goals, it’s goods and evils – and that we cannot enter into any debate on education meaningfully without adressing this struggle too.
Illich takes a radical position, criticizing the consumer society as a whole, and school as a vehicle to train individuals to be efficient consumers. To restore what he sees as real humanity, i.e. an experience of freedom, dignity and creativity, he tried to envisage a way to stimulate ways of learning that are not subjected to the obligatory discipline which the schooling system offers. It interests me that in so doing he criticizes the famous philosopher of education, John Dewey, who was a critical spirit in his own way. Where Dewey envisages to ‘make each of our schools an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society’ (getting rid of an old type of old-world education which did not reflect the needs of the dynamic, young, American society), Illich still sees here the sense of obligation at work ‘to process [the young] […] into a society which needs disciplined specialization as much from its producers as from its consumers and also their full commitment to the ideology which puts economic growth first.’
Illich’s criticism seems unfair, since Dewey defined ‘the proper end of education [to be] the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity.’ He criticized the Prussian school system, which disciplined pupils to subordinate to state goals, instead of promoting their personal development. The reason for Illich’s harsh view lies in an element failing in Dewey’s philosophy: the Marx-inspired analysis of society’s goals in their dependency on economic processes that silently direct them. Illich sees the consumer society as a great evil, threatening not only a free and dignified human life (especially for the poor) but even threatening the earth because of it’s necessary polluting character. It is not a struggle between communist and capitalist views however, which is at work here – as both ideologies use schooling to discipline the young for what are to me just varieties of producer-consumer systems. What Illich wanted to make possible are ways of learning that might lead individuals to entirely different ways to live, ways still unimaginable, beyond the ‘economy of growth’. As I sympathize with Illich, although more with his criticisms than with his solutions, classroom life often feels like living a paradox: as a teacher I am part of the ‘disciplining’ system of society (grading, certifying, etcetera), but all the same I am convinced (and try to embody this conviction while teaching) that to shape the conditions for truly critical and creative thought in students and teachers together, one cannot put boundaries to this thought – it should be fundamentally open to criticism of the very conditions of the education we all participate in.
I cited from Ivan Illich Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1970 and from John Dewey Democracy and Education, published as volume 9: 1916 from The Middle Works, 1899-1924, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.
John Dewey lived from 1859 untill 1952 and is seen, together with William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, as one of the founders of the philosophical movement called pragmatism.
Ivan Illich lived from 1926 untill 2002 and got most famous for the mentioned critical work on education and society.