1: Education — For What?
“We live in an age of perfect means and confused ends.”
“Today we have the knowledge, skill and experience to reach the moon, but we still lack the wisdom to inherit the earth.”
“The West is a civilisation without a philosophy and is rotting at the core because of this. Happy is he we are told, who doubles his standard of living every 25 years. More and more of the same for decade after decade? . . . Of course, things to be consumed are delightful in themselves and everyone should have what he needs of them; but man treated as worker-consumer, however fat his wage-packet or salary cheque, is man without dignity, manipulated man, degraded man, frustrated man, alienated man.”
So much has been written about education during the last twenty-five years that the reader would be justified in asking whether there could be anything worth saying that has not already been said. In answer to such a question, it can be pointed out that most of what has been said or written relates to method, to answering ‘How?’ Much less has been concerned with aim, to answering ‘Why? To what end?’ It is with certain aspects of the second of these two questions that this book is primarily concerned.
One of Plato’s dialogues contains the following advice: `Before embarking on a philosophical discussion, define your terms and clarify your concepts.’ Let us now do just this — for education.
According to Webster, education is ‘the impartation or acquisition of knowledge, skill, or development of character, as by study or discipline’. Its derivation is: educare — to train; educere — to draw out. To the question ‘Is a child or young person to be regarded as a bottle to be filled or a candle to be lit?’, the dictionary and derivation answer `Both’. But in practice, as distinct from theory, the emphasis in much secondary and tertiary education continues to be on the acquisition of information — ‘The bottle to be filled.’
To educate: ‘Why? To what end?’ At a superficial level the reply is clear enough: Tor the benefit of the individual concerned and of the community of which he or she is a member.’ But, probing a little deeper, of what does the benefit consist, and how is it measured? The second question raises acute difficulties because the benefits are not in general quantifiable. To the first question there seem to be four answers. It should enable the individual concerned:
(a) To provide for himself and his family the basic necessities of life — food, clothing, shelter and security — and to play his part in satisfying the corresponding needs of the community.
(b) To appreciate, and to contribute to, contemporary culture — defined by Webster as ‘the characteristic attainments of a people or social order’ — and to influence the development of that culture towards ever more noble ends.
(c) To evolve and formulate guide lines for living, i.e. a philosophy of life. To be able to distinguish between wisdom, knowledge and dogma; between what is permissible and what is advisable; between what is expedient and what is right.
(d) To develop and realise his full potentialities as a member of the human family, remembering always (i) that humanity is but a part of the stream of life and, on a geological time scale, a relative newcomer, and (ii) that many species have evolved and been extinguished because they evolved along lines which were inappropriate to some long term goal.
Over the years attitudes to what would be called today tertiary education have altered greatly, and it is instructive to note the changes in emphasis which have occurred in Western Europe since the founding of the earliest universities — Bologna, Paris, and Oxford — in the thirteenth century. This was a time when universities sponsored `religious and useful learning’. Bologna was famous for law, Paris for medicine, and Oxford for theology. The university was a microcosm of society. And society, like its universities, was organised with a Christian vision and perspective.
A university was a compact society, training men not only for life, but for death as well. Men were instructed, not only in knowledge but also in skills; and doctors, lawyers and clergy were supplied to meet the needs of society and the Church. Such was the picture of a university in the thirteenth century and for some centuries afterwards. As Christopher Dawson remarks, ‘The intel¬lectual synthesis of the thirteenth century was the crowning completion of centuries of continuous effort to achieve an integration of the religious doctrine of the Christian Church with the intellectual tradition of ancient culture.’
This synthesis was indeed a great achievement, but, as always, the greater the achievement, the greater the danger of crystallisation. For life is not static; knowledge grows and experience widens. If crystallisation was to be avoided, it was essential for the synthesis to adapt to increasing knowledge and widening experience. But this did not happen. Instead, there developed a prescriptive theology which knew all the answers beforehand and became authoritative and definitive for the whole of intellectual life. It was a theology that gathered around itself all the humanities, and became a tree of knowledge which the universities existed to propagate throughout the length and breadth of the land. But like all neat and well rounded systems, this theological synthesis only preserved its polish and neatness by becoming steadily more detached from the society around it. The result was that by the beginning of the nineteenth century nothing but a travesty remained of the mediaeval integration of six centuries before. The notion that university education should ‘teach some temporal calling or some mechanical art, or some physical secret’ was described by Newman as ‘a fallacy’. The task of a university, said Newman, was rather to train gentlemen; to prepare man ‘to fill any post with credit by exposing him to masterpieces of human thought and knowledge’.
By the middle of the nineteenth century specialisation and fragmentation had replaced synthesis and integration. Stemming from the German thirst for wissenschaft, as exemplified by the universities of Berlin and GOttingen, the intellectual climate was characterised by the concept of knowledge for its own sake, with scant regard for its application; devotion to the purest of learning, entirely uncontaminated by the outside world, and to researches `casting a fitful and intermittent light on non-existent problems’. Small wonder that ‘academic’ tended to become a word of abuse! At the same time the effect of the scientific revolution initiated by Bacon, Harvey, Boyle and Newton, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — a revolution in which British universities played a conspicuously small part — had led to a general sharpening of the critical faculty, and so to an undermining of dogmatism in general and of dogmatic theology in particular. A celebrated example of the latter followed the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
The next development was pioneered by the Continental Technische Hochschulen towards the end of the last century. This followed a realisation of the capacity of applied science to mould man’s material environment, a realisation which led to the immense technological developments of the last one hundred years. Which brings us to today. What do we see?
“Society, far from being a compact whole, is now no more than a loose federation of groups, possessing and pursuing, for the most part, different goals, and our universities once again are microcosms of the world outside.”
“When we anatomise British universities to discover what their purpose is we receive a mixed answer. There has been an accretion of functions over the centuries. From Bologna and Salerno comes the function of the university to train students for certain professions, like the church, medicine, and law. From Oxford and Cambridge comes the university’s function as a nursery for gentlemen, statesmen, and administrators. From Gottingen and Berlin comes the function of the university as a centre for scholarship and research. From Charlottenburg and Zurich and Massachusetts comes the function of the university to be a staff college for technological experts and specialists. The cardinal problem facing universities today is how to reconcile these four different functions in one and the same institution. What is to be the long-term solution we simply do not know.”
In relation to the purpose of education formulated under (a) to (d) at the beginning of this chapter, contemporary education is much involved with (a), providing the basic necessities of life, but successively less concerned with (b), (c) and (d), cultural growth and developing a philosophy of life. Due to this lack of balance there is confusion and disenchantment. To the writer it seems that the need today is for a new synthesis, a return to what prevailed in the thirteenth century, but on a higher turn of the spiral. Is this developing? No. Or if it is, it is not very apparent. As to why not, the following extract from a hard hitting article by the Rev. Professor Schoneberg Setzer is singularly relevant:
Let us be painfully frank. Despite the fact that theological differences often testify to the rich diversity of man’s experiences and creative interpretation, the bedlam and babel of irreconcilable dogmas is probably a scandal to any decent divine order that exists; and intelligent, educated men living today within the general ecumenicity of the natural sciences seem to sense this. Certainly they have a right to think lightly of theology until we get our house in order.
It is equally scandalous that science has learned so much about matter and such a little about mind. The only epistemology used by most scientists is vectored for the control of gross physical nature, so that consequently it is not able to do justice to all of reality’s dimensions. Research into altered states of consciousness, primary religious phenomena, psychic energy, and so forth, is miniscule in comparison to the huge effort — often redundant — in materialistic and physicalistic research. There has simply been little interest on the part of science in the great spiritual questions of human life. Religious concerns have often been callously dismissed as illusory panaceas, power politics and pathology. But if science is supposed to serve the whole man, it is indeed a scandal that a huge proportion of our civilization’s human and material resources has been absorbed by a sub-culture which has systematically screened out the study of the transcendent and ultimately human.
Where then do we go from here? To the writer it appears probable, if not inevitable, that any new synthesis will centre round the answers to two questions. What is the purpose of life on this planet? And what are the potentialities of the ordinary man or woman?
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published March 2016
Size: 203 x 133 mm