Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why It's All Greek To Me

Thanks to one of my current courses, I've been thinking a lot about educational ideologies lately. The potential purposes of an education are varied and often contradictory, and it is impossible to find a truly objective designer of curriculum. Of course, as we ask "what is the purpose of education," we might as well ask "what is the purpose of life." Education occupies so central a part of existence that it is improbable that anyone will be able to answer the first question without some semblance of an answer for the second in his mind as well.

Rarely, however, does the more philosophical side of things show itself in conversation about education. It is, simply, too unwieldy a consideration, and the tendency is instead to rely upon the prefabricated ideologies of "experts" in the field, built over the years and standing the test of culture. What I mean is, they fit into some cultural structure, whether they are reasonable or not, and they are therefore accepted by the policy-makers and teachers who enact them.

In the end, actually, there is only one ideology that has been adopted by education writ-large, and that is the ideology of political efficacy, which is closely tied to the ideology of profit. Why ought we concern ourselves with schools bent upon producing critical thinkers, skeptics, or well-read snobs when we can try instead to produce good little assembly-line workers? Which, in the end, is more politically efficacious? Which more befitting a stable society?

That's a loaded question, of course, because I have a very specific ideology of my own - or a set of ideologies - which are the result of an open-minded upbringing and a Great Books education. While I might reproduce the arguments, and might even understand them, in essence I take for granted that the rational humanist perspective is inherently a good one, that students ought to be reading the best of the best books ever written (and listening to the best music, and studying the best math, and so on). An outgrowth of rational humanism, naturally, is a certain criticism of modernity, not so much because it is inferior, but rather because it is not so superior or different from the past as it pretends to be.

I have watched, over the course of my albeit brief time here at Stanford, my peers and professors read in amazement the philosophies of modern thinkers on education, as if the ideas therein were new. In some sense they are: Hegel never quite said any of the stuff Dewey says. But in some very important sense they are also not. Modernity - from the hard sciences to the social sciences - is an outgrowth of thousands of years worth of human history. Even with the advent of television and nuclear bombs and the Internet and cars and what have you, the last hundred years of human history are not discontinuous with the hundred years that preceded them. Nor are they necessarily a "progress," except in the basic sense that time is always, inevitably, moving forward.

There is a tendency very much like patriotism that makes us believe that the time in which we live is superior to all other times. In essence, this is just natural egotism taking hold, a result of the very real perception that, in the end, we can only have our own experiences. Perhaps it is not necessary to extrapolate from "my" experience to "the best" experience, but it is nevertheless practically inevitable.

A seemingly inevitable result of this "timeism," as we might call it, is the belief that the best ideas are also new, and that ideas as such have never really had the vivacity that they have today. This is especially prominent in our modern, technological age, where we believe that we have finally perfected this process of science, so much so that we can apply it to anthropology, education, linguistics, psychology, music, and even - going to the very roots of human experience - cooking. There is certainly something to be said for the rate of technological progress in the modern world, but I wonder if there's not also something to be said for the population of the modern world. Are we really progressing faster, per capita, or are there just more of us around to make progress happen?

Regardless, my point is that the increasingly large mass of people that makes up this or any other country is not fundamentally different from the masses of people from any other time. As it turns out, neither are their ideas. Certainly there is growth, and adaptation, and innovation of a kind, but the academic debates - even in a highly practical field like education - are not so different from the debates Socrates had with Parmenides some two millenia ago.

The heart of my ideological conviction that rational humanism - which, in the world of education is synonymous with the Great Books curriculum - is so superior to other potential ideological motivators for a curriculum is just this. Our culture is so much more Greek than we tend to realize, that we ought to at least let some people in on the joke. To be sure, we are far removed from Athens and Sparta, but the philosophical - and linguistic - core of our culture is still to be found in Athenian Democracy, still splayed between Apollo and Dionysus, still tragic, musical, poetic, erotic (all Greek words), and still, well, philosophical.

The intervening millennia tempered and changed human thought (as is well described by Hegel), but they did not reinvent humanity. Humanity is what it has always been, and when we educators try to understand how to teach - or, more to the point, how people learn - we would do well to remember that people have been learning for a lot longer than we've been trying to teach them.

No comments:

Post a Comment