Renewing the purpose of education: a workbench for educational development and the issues of developing fulfilling lives through learning – as a matter of self-respect
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The District I live in the Ngatimoti district in the top of the South Island of New Zealand. It borders on the Motueka River, about 15 kilometers from Motueka township and extends across the hills into a structure called the Moutere, which runs from the high country to Tasman Bay. The principal industry in the… Continue reading The...
I live in the Ngatimoti district in the top of the South Island of New Zealand. It borders on the Motueka River, about 15 kilometers from Motueka township and extends across the hills into a structure called the Moutere, which runs from the high country to Tasman Bay.
The principal industry in the area used to be tobacco growing on quite small units. Perhaps that continues to explain why it is quite leafy in places. These days it tends to orchards and lifestyle blocks.
The small Orinoco Valley, and the road over the Rosewood Saddle wind up into the hills
I picnicked at the top of the saddle late on New Year’s day
The one hundred year-old Wooden St James church oversees the Orinoco/Rosewood turnoff from Waiwhero Road, which tracks through to the Moutere Highway and the rest of the real world.
Now what is this “Ngatimoti” thing? Well, as youcan see from the plaque, it comes from Nga Timoti. I understand “Nga” to mean “I am”, and Timoti? Well . . . “Timothy”
An elderly gentleman (yes it is still possible for people to be older than me) told me that the story was that the early European settlers found this carved on an ancient tree.
Suppose a boy, perhaps named Timothy, was sitting in class in the Ngatimoti school
. . . and suppose (improbable, I know) that he became bored with his lessons, and gazed out the window. What might he see? Of course if he was much higher on the hill, perhaps lying in the long grass, He might see . . .
My life’s work has been about the development of a theory of education that flows from what I believe should be its true purpose – to equip human beings to live good lives, so far as learning has any role in that. This means, in our day, to equip them to resolve the nature of… Continue reading...
My life’s work has been about the development of a theory of education that flows from what I believe should be its true purpose – to equip human beings to live good lives, so far as learning has any role in that. This means, in our day, to equip them to resolve the nature of their own good life for themselves in the best, most intelligent way that we can enable them to do so.
Such a purpose truly does put the learner first. Though it is common enough to announce that the learner should be put first, this is almost impossible to do under the conditions of contemporary, universal, compulsory education, and hence this is merely a platitude that mostly serves as a self-righteous smoke-screen for the many ways in which learners are being exploited, manipulated and (definitely) dumbed down.
It is very difficult to see this hypocrisy, to gauge its extent and depth for four reasons.
- We take conventional schooling for granted, particularly because we took it for granted when we spent twelve to seventeen years working our way through the system and adapting to it.
- We are unaware of the vast body of damning criticism of our conventional educational institutions. If we are aware, we choose not to be too aware, because “after all, there is little that can be done about it, and anyway we need those credentials they offer in order to get ahead in life.”
- Talk about education itself – what education really should be about – is dying in our culture. We don’t go there because nobody else does. If it was important, our leaders, would be talking about it, just as our teachers would have told us about it.
- We take the whole idea of valuing others and ourselves as self-evident. We don’t even want to face the fact that it might be a difficult thing to do that requires a good deal of knowledge and insight. We surround ourselves with a fog of excuses and ways of passing the responsibility for our respect back onto the person we should be respecting. In our own case we learn not to take ourselves or our lives too seriously.
I don’t know of any resource that seriously attempts to open these issues up – except here
As I start this blog, the first of my books, The Purpose of Education, is in the late stages of development. I hope that it will not be too long before the editorial stage, and then the production process.
This blog will, however, be a kind of workbench for this and subsequent writings. I will post pieces of the books as well as try out and explore various ideas. I hope, in time, readers will come to comment on these pieces, so that I can improve on them, and also to discuss things that people might want to raise with me, but which may not find their way into the books.
The blog might, of course, take the occasional digression. This corner of the Tasman District in New Zealand is a particularly beautiful place, and I tend to haunt the Moutere, the Motueka Valley and township, and even the beaches. In summer I might sometimes, perhaps of an evening, go out among the swallows and the mayflies on the Motueka River and cuss at the fact that the trout are so darn hard to catch. Even more occasionally, as a way of dealing with my frustration and incompetence as a fly fisherman, I might even tell you about that.
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Parklands Primary School, Motueka In recent years I have tried to recall the details of the event when it occurred to me that there must be something wrong with the way I conceived of education. It wasn’t a blinding revelation – just a matter of being struck by a thought, as we often are. I… Continue reading How it...
In recent years I have tried to recall the details of the event when it occurred to me that there must be something wrong with the way I conceived of education. It wasn’t a blinding revelation – just a matter of being struck by a thought, as we often are. I do remember it, though, as a beginning; the beginning. It wasn’t the start of a conscious process, either. Not in the sense of a deliberate process of inquiry, or the development of a plan. It was just that, from that occasion, spaced over subsequent years, there would be other occasions, clearly related to this, when I would find myself with this old doubt, and I would find myself on a path pursuing some relief.
When I say “over subsequent years”, I realize now that it was only about four. At the end of the four years, I knew what was wrong, and what was needed. This comes as a surprise now, because the process appears to me to have been largely subliminal, and it feels like something that would have taken a decade.
I was standing in my classroom before school with a small group of eleven-year-old boys. Whatever was wrong, it was about one of them. Whatever was wrong was unfathomable to me. Yesterday he had been quite rational, quite pleasant to have around. Now he was confronting me, challenging me, aggressive and abusive. There wasn’t “an issue” between us. It was one of those interactions where you just can’t do anything right.
I was very disappointed. Not in him (I didn’t have that sort of moral right), but educationally disappointed. How he was now was how I had inherited him when I started to teach the class. This is how he was known to be. I thought I had turned him around. I had thought of him as my teaching “achievement”. I had started him writing poetry, taught him some tricks, encouraged his inventiveness, and away he had gone. He had become a little piece of sunlight in my classroom, and periodically came up to me, beaming, with his latest creation, all of which evoked a very natural enthusiasm and appreciation on my part. His willingness, cheerfulness and effort had gradually extended into all areas of his schoolwork, and especially his behaviour. The “satisfaction” of teaching, even if only with one pupil, was mine at last.
So I was dismayed when he reverted, and quite unable to locate any cause. I talked to the principal, and the other staff, and they were not so surprised. His life outside the school, specifically his home life, had much more to do with his attitude and behaviour than anything that the school had ever done, or could ever hope to do. We might achieve a good patch, but when his home life kicked in again, as it was bound to do sooner rather than later, he would be “back to normal”.
This might sound defeatist, but the idea of super-teaching victory (the very ideas of “victory” and defeat” in such a context) require naivety about the complexity of the educational situation. Of course there are remarkable and charismatic teachers, but they are a small minority, and always will be. Fortunately, perhaps, because a life defined and ordained by the charisma of others is neither free, nor entirely dignified, or worthy of proper pride. But for those of our learners who live in drug-sodden, abusive, violent and unpredictable worlds, even the superteacher on their own can only provide a brief, healing oasis – if such a learner is not sufficiently torn up and preoccupied to be unable to take advantage of it. Of course some get saved, but of learners similarly situated, what is the proportion of such rescues? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent? Two percent?
The experience left me with a set of questions that I have never been able to shrug off, and so the incident has remained unforgettable. A marker in the past which is visible whenever I look back. What is the learning that matters? To the school, and to schooling educators, it is school learning. But is the most important of school learning the most important learning that could be set in a fractured, hysterical, angry and destructive life? To think so simply seemed absurd. If it wasn’t, shouldn’t the real educator be attending to the “life”, and worrying about school learning when there was a life into which it was worth fitting?
The schooling answer to these questions didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem to be an educational answer. Schooling says – “it is almost impossible to do anything about that life, though we will support positive change in it to the limited extent that we can. What we can do though, is teach the person to read and write (and such) even if the results will be stunted by the life the learner brings to school. After all, such learners will be better off for being able to read and write. They will still need to get jobs and negotiate their way in a modern society, even if they are dysfunctional.” Unfortunately this argument will do for almost anything for which a benefit can be perceived, from learning to wash their hands, to cleaning their teeth, to reducing saturated fats and eating more greens.
So conventional schooling represents an isolated, if highly visible, “pocket” of learning in a larger learning world which potentially contains some more important things, though they might be beyond the powers of schooling to deal with. Since, moreover, what is in that pocket can be put there, or taken away – by intellectual or cultural fashion, or by exhaustive curriculum review – the parameters of school cannot define education.
What then are the priorities of learning, for a life? What should the priorities be?
The schooling answer has become more complex over time.The simplistic tradition is that the three Rs come first. Then things like social studies and science, followed by the arts and phys ed. “Technology” has been added, plus a whole lot of attempts at social engineering – drugs, sex, abuse, and now obesity. As learners progress, academic studies are still paramount, because of the access they provide to the professions, though the choice has widened, from economic to business. Since we now need certificates to get jobs at most anything, there are many more career related things. Apart from the priorities of the job, though, there is no real theory to generate educational priorities. As choice expands, so school life comes more and more to resemble cafeteria life, or supermarket life.
The poverty of priorities can be seen in a peculiar piece of pseudo-educational thinking, where various kinds of projects not specified in the curriculum are justified by pointing out how many subjects can be catered for by the project. I have heard it even used to justify projects for philosophy for children. You see, “in the course of this project the learners will be doing writingreadingartmathsscienceandsocialstudies”. None of this even speaks to our young man or acknowledges the existence of his life.
I speak of the three Rs, not of literacy, since academically, literacy has become such a problematic topic. It can mean “can they read a newspaper, an entertaining novel, a tenancy agreement or fill out a form”. Or it can mean “can they read and write in such a way as to carry out sophisticated social criticism, complex ethical analysis, or explore a significant psychological possibility?” Let alone “can they explore any serious educational issue?” The closer the attempt to move towards these the more schoolingly controversial the efforts become, and the fewer the teachers equipped to facilitate them. The simple point is that the target of the newspaper, an entertaining novel or a tenancy agreement is much more characteristic of the enterprise of schooling, and that these “more attainable” forms of literacy are the ones that best enable learners as effective recipients of propaganda and indoctrination – as befits existing commerce and social control. It is arguable whether our young man will gain any real benefit from this.
So what should the priorities of education really be, and where should they be secured, if not in the school? My experience with that boy that morning was the beginning of a growing sense of the futility and irrelevance of what we were doing. What I found in the next six years, and what gradually worked to a sense of dismay at deeper and deeper levels, was that not only was the documentation of the educational system itself silent on these matters, but professional philosophy of education was also barren, unless one entered a few notable realms of theory which were also remarkable for their inaccessibility to most educational professionals, let alone the lay public; theory very short on powerful substantive proposals. Since such theory has also been exclusively directed at the schooling/teaching nexus, it has almost nothing to offer our young man.
Conventional education. Alongside health and (in many countries) the military, one of the largest State budget items, employing the largest workforce, it is built on sand.
A television documentary a week ago reminded me of this history of my anxiety. Domestic violence in Maori families had, as a result of a particularly disturbing case, become a matter of public torment. Three eminent Maori males described their lives of violent abuse as children, and the echoes they had carried forward into their own families. The pain and suffering, the confusion and the hardening, was wretched. I was reminded of my earlier conclusion that nothing that such people had learned at school was as important as what they had learned at home. I know some would say that the “success” of these men was a partial justification of their formal schooling, and here they were perhaps able to make a difference because of it. But we know, firstly, that though they are now publicly very visible because of their positions, they would otherwise be statistically invisible among the vast ranks of the similarly abused. And secondly, that we would never violently abuse children with the intention that they one day be able to bare witness to it in public.
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I am in the process of developing the Socratics website. It was very rough when I put it up to match the start of this blog, and was simply a “presence”. It is now much more smooth, though a good deal of this is invisible. The major (relatively urgent) work to be done now is… Continue reading The Socratics...
I am in the process of developing the Socratics website. It was very rough when I put it up to match the start of this blog, and was simply a “presence”. It is now much more smooth, though a good deal of this is invisible. The major (relatively urgent) work to be done now is to develop the “services” and “client” sections.
I have added a number of useful papers. In particular, there is the Socratics Manifesto, which is intended to give an overview of the Socratics Theory of Education. This was written as something to point to when a person might ask “but what is the theory?” All of the other papers are intended to address problems in and around the theory, but none attempt to show the whole.
The “Manifesto” is intended to present the theory, and in that it is the quick answer to questions which the book under construction will be the long answer.
Another important addition is the paper which is a “neo-Rawlsian” interpretation of educational justification. This was written as two lectures in the 1970s, and rewritten in a major way in more recent times to signal how the many criticisms of Rawls’s work since that time can be addressed. There is an academic tendency (though not limited to academics) to move on to something entirely new once serious problems have been identified in a position, rather than attempting to reconceive the position in such a way that many of the original merits can be retained. This is foolish. The criticisms also contain a good deal of spurious “reading into” Rawls.
The problem is a function of the ways in which the “critical” phase of intellectual problem-solving is much easier than the creative phase – at least in our academic worlds as they are. This is despite the fact that “critical thinking” is so impoverished in education at large (indeed, that impoverishments in the schools is one of the things that lends. credibility to the role of universities as havens for critical thinkers). But the fact remains that finding flaws in other people’s work without accepting any real responsibility for where to go next is an easier way for the novice and the lazy to get browny points in the academic world. If the latest fashion arose as a critique of yesterday’s fashion then it can be slathered over everything pretty indiscriminately, even by the novice. This gives the next fashion more to correct.
I think that the insights into educational justification that can be gained through Rawls’s early work are unparalleled, and nothing remotely capable of matching that power has emerged since. I offer this paper as a challenge to alternative proposals to justify education. Its content is at least suggestive of the sorts of intellectual journeys that people need to be willing to undertake if they are to understand education, as opposed to the cheap, supermarket recipes that are all that are available either in educational research , or (not surprisingly) in public life.
Although it is only August 4th, I stepped outside early this morning, and the air was so balmy that I have decided that it is now Spring – in Motueka, at least. We have seen lambs on the low paddocks near the sea. daffodils are blooming – and the first blossom. Birds are courting. They have to get going in order to get in the two clutches around here. It is still muddy, and there is still snow on the tops (and no doubt there will be more) but that will continue throughout much of the Spring, anyway.
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The Abel Tasman Park extends from Kaiterteri in the south, to Separation Point in the north. Roads cease just north of Marahou, and the only other roads are at Awaroa and Totaranui in the north. From Kaiteriteri (or “Kaiteri” to those locals who don’t like to repeat themselves) the preferred mode of transport is by… Continue reading...
Either way, why bother? Kaiteri is a widely known jewel-in-the-crown for Nelson/Marlborough, and perhaps to the whole South Island. Gentle clear water laps at golden sand, and all around are rock formation and islands covered with bush. It is an image endless summer sun.
To those who care to do the walk, or those that have the inclination and a boat, Kaiteri is nothing special. In the summer one might well feel that it is too crowded. Bays like this – larger, smaller; with lagoons and without – abound up the coast, and at this time of year they are pretty much empty. For those who prefer solitude, you can pick a golden beach to walk on your own.
I am a philosopher of education, and this blog is intended to have both a “private-life” dimension, and a “pseudo-professional” one. Since I believe that education should be about equipping the learner to choose their own “good life”, it is as much about us as anybody, and my work has always drawn upon our experience.… Continue reading The...
I am a philosopher of education, and this blog is intended to have both a “private-life” dimension, and a “pseudo-professional” one. Since I believe that education should be about equipping the learner to choose their own “good life”, it is as much about us as anybody, and my work has always drawn upon our experience. It seemed like a good idea, since we are now living this way, to articulate the more personal reflections on life together with an account of it as we perceive it. The Socratics web site, which can be reached from the left-hand side-bar, is, inevitably, more formal. This blog should balance things out, provide somewhere for preliminary reflections, that cannot yet be developed there, and to humanise the whole process, since there is such a danger of theoretial matters losing the connection into life – which would be disastrous for this kind of theorizing. It should also provide an occasion for responding to questions or comments.
My wife Janet and I are New Zealanders living in a five metre motorhome in the Nelson province of New Zealand, and sometimes on the road. The motorhome is relatively old. Almost every appliance in it seems to have necessitated an overhaul, which I guess means that we have given it a new start. Behind it we tow a dark blue two-seater Suzuki X-90 four-wheel drive. We have two cats – Siamese brothers. The dominant of the two is a “Havana”; very dark tobacco coloured with yellow-green eyes. His name is Gyges, after the ancient king who learned the trick of invisibility. Our Gyges vanishes in dark corners. The other boy is called Philo. – for the philo part of philosophy – the “love of” part. Our Sophie had to be put down just before we began this change in life.
Last October, I took redundancy from the university I had been with for just under thirty years. “What to do” started with “where to live”. For the first time in our lives that was genuinely an open question. Janet suggested Christchurch. I grew up there, and the idea appealed. We sold and sent stuff into store, and spent most of what we had on this rig. After New Year, we set off for Christchurch from the north, decided to take a holiday in the Nelson/Marlborough provinces, and are still here. We will stay here.
We are in a Park Over Property (POP) by the Motueka airport. “Park Overs” are arranged between The Caravan and Motorhome Association and some other people or institution, to provide facilities for self-contained vehicles owned by members. A powered site costs NZ$70.00 a week in winter and NZ$50.00 in summer. The arrangement here is with the local council, and the property is the local A and P grounds. It is scattered with obstacles for cross-country eventing.
There are no tourists, few “overnighters” and lots of seasoned travellers here. In this case the POP is home to quite a number of vehicles that are wintering over. The vehicles range from house-trucks to very contemporary fifth-wheelers. Big busses seem preferred.
This is a neat place. A glade of native trees near us almost gives us bush. It contains at least one permanently resident tui and an equally well-settled native pigeon. When a blue-gum flowered there were about a dozen tuis, and we learned how tetchy they can be with each other.
The forested Arthur Range lies to the west. The mounains begin to disappear when bad weather is on the way, but the bad weather can stop just there, and never hit us. Nelson and Motueka are, themselves, in different microclimates, so that it can be raining in one, and fine in the other. It is obviously a difficult region to predict. The weather is almost always going to be better than the forecast says. Fronts on one or other side of the country just seem to pass on that side. We can only be sure of bad weather when the whole country is going to get it. But the beautiful Motueka river has a steady flow despite the limited rain because of the dumping that occurs up the valley, or in the region of the Nelson Lakes (quite a different world).
The tips of mountains circle the rest of the horizon – the Richmond Range with Nelson and Richmond underneath, and the mountains of the Marlborough Sounds, across the water of Tasman Bay.
And the airport activity is always interesting. There are two stunting bi-planes (Stutz?) located here. On one occasion one flew quite low overhead as it turned towards its final approach. It turned right-way-up in good time to land. Later in the day it took off again and started rolling before it had even gained much height. A microlight reminiscent of ET is frequently in action. It sometimes tows a hang-glider. The hang-glider also gets up with a tow behind a 4X4. This is a very recreational sort of airfield, but most of the activity comes from a small aircraft and helicopter school.
There is also a sky-diving company. In the warmer weather the drop plane was up and down all the time. We never tire of seeing them. Again and again throughout the day, I hear this wee aircraft engine-noise at a great height above us (someone said 13,000 feet). The plane is a re-built crop-duster, with little windows, some rails by the door for the jumpers’ feet, and red tail and wing-tips. If we are not watching for them, we hear the “rip” as the first chutes open. Usually about four. Usually two of these are tandems. We hear their shouts as the chutes are laid down in great horizontal arcs.
I understand that the one who lands first is the camera-man. He lands first by getting down quickly with those big horizontal swings, as if he is flying at the ground. He often does one very impressive one at the end, very horizontal, very fast down. Straight into the ground it seems. Every time it defies belief that he isn’t going to have to be dug out of the runway. Somehow he swings precisely through and lands, running on his tippy toes. Not much margin for error.
When I realize in time, I try to see the free-fall bit. I never fail to worry in case they are falling too far. Sometimes, a chute starts to open and another figure detaches and keeps falling.
One or more chutes haven’t opened on two occasions. The first time, Janet and I assumed that the jumpers were still attached, and we watched them candle down into a suburb beyond the far end of the airfield. Those who knew better told us that the main chutes had been dumped, and reserve chutes opened. Not easy to follow when they are such dots in the sky. The second time a chute didn’t open, it was much less heart-stopping. There were big pauses before jumps resumed.
It is definitely winter now, and the schedule is much reduced. On a clear morning (frosty, perhaps) they will start again for a little while at 7.00 o’clock, and then get three more in just before dark.
With such a perfect summer, and after all our expressions of enthusiasm, we have been anxious to see what winter would be like. This winter in New Zealand has made winter in general rather hard to assess. A storm wiped through the country, knocking Auckland’s power out during the day. Snow in the South Island covered from Canterbury south. Power and phones were out across a huge spread of the country. A week later, and there were still four hundred houses without power, and the second storm came through. It dumped a lot of snow on its way, passing up to the North Island last night. Waiouru is cut off in both directions, the Napier-Taupo road is closed, and Gisborn is isolated. I have never known two snow-storms like this, and never remember a snow fall in Christchurch as deep as the first one.
The Arthur Range is covered, and light drifts have come down quite low a couple of miles from us. The first storm brought heavy rain, and the park turned to mud. Gumboots became the universal footware. The council has kindly gravelled the roadways through the park. The second storm gave us rain over night without much effect, though the snow on the mountains seems to have been thicker, and come lower. It is spread right across the tops of the Richmond’s now.
A bright, clear morning.
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