Education vs learning?

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.

  1. Albert Sonntag said:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. it led me to reflect on my own education, in an English boarding school! Neither Iliich, nor Dewey nor Prussia! I think the Fichtean ideal of education, Bildung, at least while Fichte was in Jena, aims much further than serving the State. Of course, he was not in Prussia yet. I remember that when I read his Address to the University of Jena upon its foundation, and his account of the Bildungsideal in particular, I was very moved. It is a much more awesome vision than Dewey’s, it seems to me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Albert, which made me curious what it was, precisely, that moved you so much in Fichte’s Address.

      Did you also read that essay by John Dewey, called ‘German Philosophy and Politics’? There he elaborates on his reasons for seeing the German approach as problematic. His idea is that, because Kant strictly separated the theoretical/noumenal and the empirical/phenomenal world, and because later thinkers, among whom notably Fichte, focused on the spirit/Vernunft as the locus of human morality – German thinking left empirical life vulnerable to be manipulated by more or less totalitarian political forces. I must say it stunned me that Dewey did not write this after WW II, but long before.

      However, history can not prove any philosophical analysis right, as it could not foresee the history that happened after it was written down. Also one should of course read Fichte in his time and situation, and not from the hindsight of the wars and politics that came after his thought. In 1800, in ‘The Vocation of Man’ (‘Die Bestimmung des Menschen’) he indeed made the move which Dewey criticized over a hundred years later (in 1915): ‘These two orders, the purely spiritual and the sensible, […] are in me and run parallel to each other from the first moment an active reason is developed in me; the former alone gives meaning, purpose and value to the latter.’

      I have not read the Address which you mention, have been looking for it on the internet – could you tell me in which volume of his works it can be found? I did not manage to find that…

      • Albert Sonntag said:

        I am not very familiar with Dewey. I will try to comment further on your general point soon, but first as to the Fichte: His Antrittsvorlesungen (#2) for Jena and Erlangen are in the Gesamtausgabe der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, (Reinhard Lauth and Hans Jacob, Stuttgart, 1962, at vol. 1/3 25-68). I can’t recall now precisely what moved me most in these lectures, but I was impressed by his idea of learning as a vocation, and perhaps at the time this was a significant issue for me. “The scholar is a scholar only to the extent that he is opposed to other human beings who are not scholars.” This notion appealed to me at the time. .

  2. Thanks for the reference! And for digging into your memories of reading, which gives again food for thought.

    • Albert Sonntag said:

      I hope you don’t object to my commenting too much, Angela, but your posts are so thought-provoking and interesting that I cannot resist. The Fichtean ideal of education seems to me to be an attempt to satisfy an inexhaustible and unlimited curiosity. I had that when I was an adolescent, but I would add that my own education was almost in defiance of the canon that prevailed in the school where I received my secondary education, in Argentina. The model for the English mid-Victorian boarding schools, the model for the school I attended, was based on the notions of Godliness and Good Learning, the title of a great book on the subject, written by David Newsome in 1961: a combination of Evangelicalism and Classical learning. But by the end of the century it had been replaced by the alternate notion of Muscular Christianity, a more militant form of evangelicalism mixed with the worship of team sports and tough masculinity. I was a non-conformist in my school and instinctually adopted the Fichtean ideal, though I only learned what it was when I was already in the University.

      • Thanks for the elaboration on what inspired you in Fichte, Albert. Perhaps any inquisitive child must find a way through and around the schooling system that is offered to him or her. I am very happy that my blogposts can inspire my readers to reflection – so, no, I do not object to, but am happy with any comments that show this happening!

  3. Albert Sonntag said:

    I thought that, ideally, a ‘schooling system’ should provide the way, the one way, for all of the students to follow, rather than being a place where only ‘the inquisitive’ prevail by finding a way around it, almost as if success depended on beating the system. But, of course, you are totally right. The reality is that education is precisely to “beat the system” of education that luck has doomed you to traverse. I am reminded of ‘David Copperfield’ at school, and how the writer Charles Dickens was born there.

  4. afaf omar said:

    I’m interested in Spinoza & metaphysics ..too

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