Like the philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic – always part of my Intro syllabus – I’m going to lay down seven laws about education. This ideal might never be realized, but maybe it can help move the debate along.
1. Education is a public trust
This may seem obvious in a country where postsecondary education is publicly funded, there is no legacy system to benefit the scions of wealthy graduates and tuition remains low. But the rhetoric of education has never been so dominated by the reductive logic of return on investment, of tuition traded for jobs.
This reduction is perhaps inevitable in a moment of economic uncertainty. What is not inevitable is the assumption that the only other possible value of education is purely personal, a kind of luxury good of the mind. Job-training centre – or mental spa.
No. Liberal education is about citizenship, not job training or simple personal enrichment – though it may incidentally provide both. Postsecondary institutions should be in the business, primarily, of creating critical, engaged citizens. This is not the current dominant view; it is nevertheless the correct one.
2. The world changes rapidly, but speed is not itself a value
Important social institutions combine innovation with tradition, sustaining past achievements as living ideas. Change and novelty should never be pursued for their own sake, or because the world at large is driven by them. This isn’t nostalgia.
We philosophers don’t value Plato because he has been around so long; he has been around so long because he’s valuable. Whenever I lecture about his analogy of the cave, for example, whether in a campus lecture theatre or at a downtown men’s shelter, it’s the vivid depiction of political deception that matters, not that it was written in Greek.
3. The most important skill is critical thinking
We say this a lot but don’t do much about it. Here’s what we need: courses in informal logic, so students can recognize fallacies in public discourse; in economic theory, since economists think they rule the world, and politicians believe them; and in computer programming, because you can’t see the biases of the system unless you know how it was coded.
Also, the widespread view that technology is value-neutral, inevitable and always here to help, needs to be exposed as the dangerous ideology it is.
4. Okay, what else?
Well, the basics: history, philosophy, world religions, political theory, mathematics and literature. But also social justice, community service, languages, media criticism, diversity awareness and etiquette. (Stop looking at your phone while you walk!)
On the ancient Greek model, music, art, architecture and physical activity also belong. And why not some life-skills training while we’re at it: cooking, banking, public speaking, relationships. Some things are too important to be left to chance, advice columns or roommates.
5. Great – now, how do you teach all this?
Traditionally, for the most part. Sitting together in groups, with a shared text before us, still works as well as it did two millennia ago. And many innovations, such as flashy PowerPoint slides or “clickers” that rate instant comprehension, are just gadgets. Gadgets can be fun, but they are no substitute for reading, writing and discussion. (Also, see 3, above.)
Liberal education is a conversation, not a data transfer that might be accomplished as well online. That conversation starts in a room, with other people. It can even be a large room, if the professor is engaging and enthusiastic.
6. Socrates was right: The unexamined life is not worth living
This holds for societies as much as for individuals. More knowledge is better than less, wisdom is its own reward, and society as a whole benefits from an educated citizenry.
7. I know: you’ll say I’m gazing at the stars
Yes; but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to find our way.
Mark Kingwell teaches at the University of Toronto and has won its President’s Teaching Award. His latest book is Unruly Voices.
Globe and Mail, Oct. 14/12
“You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” –– George Bernard Shaw
Maria Montessori believed that the human spirit is driven by creativity, innovation and the power of imagination. But she also understood that a fertile imagination rests on a foundation of knowledge and information. To that end, she discouraged preschool children from more
“True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” (William Penn)
Dr. Montessori recognized the power of silence after bringing a sleeping infant into the classroom one day. Everyone in the class was impressed by the baby’s silence, prompting Dr. Montessori to challenge the children to be equally quiet. She observed how spiritually rewarded the children felt while experiencing silence.
This meaningful experience, when casa children are invited to still the body and the mind, became known as the Silence Game. Elementary students welcome variations of practicing silence through breathing exercises, meditation and/or yoga and silent reading circles. Sometimes moments of silence arise spontaneously in the classroom, while everyone is totally immersed in work.
Dr. Montessori felt this meditative quiet was liberating and brought children to new levels of awareness. “Soon they were aware of drops of water falling outside in the courtyard, and of the song of a bird in a distant tree,” wrote Dr. Montessori. “The children each silenced their own movements and produced a collective quiet that was for them a profound experience.”
“Through these exercises,” she observed, “children learn that silence is the cessation of every movement. To achieve silence requires effort, the attention of the will, and maximum control of self. As a result, the children explore a deeper knowledge of their own capacities…Silence is refreshing, giving our overloaded senses a break. When it is silent it is easier to notice how smooth the geometric solid is in our hands. It is easier to hear the gentle sound of a zipper, or notice the scent of fresh cut flowers. Silence brings us back into ourselves, yet is also a profound connection to everyone else in the room at the same time.”
“And now there is merely silence, silence, silence, saying all we did not know.” (William R. Benet)
(Excerpts from The Secret of Childhood, The Discovery of the Child, Montessoriworld.org and poets Benet, Emerson & Penn.)
The development of self-control creates a basis for mental flexibility, social skills and discipline. This ability predicts success in education, career and marriage. Childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement. Montessori preschool instruction, which has been shown to lead to strong academic achievement, incorporates self-control into daily activities.
–Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, New York Times, Feb. 17, 2012.
Read the entire article:
It is clear why many parents want to ensure their children receive a bilingual education. French is an official language for over 140 million people in 28 different countries, on five continents. As our children move through their academic careers, their experiences will be far different from our own.