Chanced upon these two very interesting articles (Part 1 and Part 2) and it seems to hit at the very things that we as educators now have to deal with. There’s been much talk about how we as teachers are to deal with the ‘digital natives’ who are our students and how old methods of teaching might not work anymore. The pair of articles go quite far in taking apart the prevailing views about how people might be getting less intelligent and unable to string sustained arguments together because of the quick-fix nature of information that’s available on the net but it’s not all doom and gloom. The other side of the coin shows how technology and the ubiquity of information can in fact be used to our advantage to get students to create better links between disparate bits of information to create something that makes sense to them. (I’ll deal with these issues in a later post as there’s a more pressing matter to look at now.)
Ever since I read the groundbreaking (in its time) book The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, I’ve been concerned about the relationship that our cultural and social norms have with education. The thesis then was simple – Americans were closing their minds to the classics and great books and education suffered as a result. Drawing from that and looking at the perception of education now, I’d say that it’s not changed much.
One thing I’ve noticed about education and the idea of the academy both in India and back home – it’s seen less as an end in itself but as an instrumental means to something else. Education is seen as a way to a good job and the joys of learning are often forgotten in the pursuit of knowledge. People want to be businessmen, doctors, lawyers and engineers – and pursue the education that prepares them for this trade. I’ll refer to one of my favourite Greeks in this argument – Plato calls learning that is aimed at the creation of something or the acquisition of a skill to do something techne and this is inferior to education that is aimed at episteme or knowledge in itself. In other words, learning a practical skill like how to operate on a person or build a bridge may be lucrative but is, to Plato and many of his cronies, educationally inferior to one who studies theories of knowledge or iambic pentameters in sonnets.
This point echoes the thesis of the first article – that education and academia has been increasingly undervalued. Reflecting on what we’re seeing in Asia, I’d say that the idea of the academy still retains a respected place in society but this place is getting more and more tenuous. While there are more schools opening up and there now are more places in universities and colleges than ever before, a look at what these schools are offering might make one think otherwise. There are more media related courses to meet the rise in demand for media professionals, more specialised engineering courses for industry needs, more colleges offering various fancy science degrees and more places for people to learn to become doctors. Don’t get me wrong, we need doctors and engineers but weren’t many big changes in history started by people who were schooled in the more liberal arts and theoretical sciences?
In spite of previous accusations of me preferring to live in the renaissance or classical Greece than the present (I might consider if their sewage facilities were up to scratch but that’s another story), I stick to my assertion that education should be about opening the mind and not the training for a particular skill. The spirit of inquiry and the never-ending search for knowledge should be inculcated in all who are willing to do so. Then let the rest train to become doctors. After all, I remember someone writing that there are two types of education: to learn how to make a living or to learn how to live. You know which one I’m rooting for.