Tuesday, 15 November 2011

An Education: self-improvement and self-mastery

I bought a book recently, an English translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which I thought was timely in this my program of sober living and self-improvement. I mean, I used to enjoy drinking alcohol and smoking dope; or, I didn't know better, is a more apt description.

I do not advocate for soberiety per se as I think each and every single one of us should decide for ourselves whether we want alcohol in our lives or not. Like most users, I used to think that change in perception could be equated with change in perspective. But this wrong-headed.

It is the same kind of wrong-headedness as thinking that "education" is a consumer product and that without it people are somehow doomed to be stupid. I know many people of high intelligence but have never step foot in a classroom, and I know many people with university degrees who seem incapable of thinking for themselves: I'm sorry to say that there is no remedy for stupidity the same way that intelligence cannot be bought and sold - stupidity and intelligence are inherent in us, only deliberate cultivation or neglect can realize and manifest them.

Ever since I've been interested in "education" I've always maintained that it is not enough to merely learn how to read and write. Learning how to read and write is only the first step: it is being able to understand and engage in thought at the conceptual level where original insights and (for lack of a better word) pleasure can be gotten. This understanding and engagement further drives one to seek out. Northrop Frye called this blessed state of being "being taken up by the subject rather than 'taking' a subject".

I've tried to talk about the "Great Conversation" but I don't know if many people knew what the hell I was talking about. The Great Conversation is a by-product and reason for the whole of a liberal arts education. To quote Wikipedia:

"According to Hutchins, 'The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of [literary] history and that continues to the present day.' Adler said, 'What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in variety of ways."

But, of course, this line of reasoning does not only apply to literary arts but to all of human knowledge and humanist ideals.

Now, the reason why I started out by saying about trying to lead a sober life is that this desire has much in common with our contemporary notions of "education", or an assumption that both can be gotten or prescribed externally as we consume products.

I think that, instead of insisting that a vague and undefined "culturally appropriate" approach is the way to go, we should examine closely how language is taught in the classroom, whether in the school or outside of it. Inuktitut and English are taught and really regarded as if they can be divvied up and prescribed in neat little modules: "Hello"; "Qanuippit"; "I am fine", etc. as if memorization rather than comprehension was actual learning. Or, to carry the sober life analogy: state of well-being is just another form of "altered state of mind"; that to "quiet the mind" rather than critical self-examination is a path to "enlightenment" and an effective way of meditation.

When I instructed a class of adult learners, the curriculum outline stated that its philosophy was that in order to learn how to read and write one has to read and write. I'd have added that words and passages in isolation are not how teaching and learning a language should be approached. The teaching material has to have a deliberate direction and opportunities for analysis and discussion (for the group) of its contents should be built-in to the curriculum. This is to try and engage the student rather than leaving them to fend for themselves, to preclude rote memorization as a "learning" strategy.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations talks a lot about the notions of self-improvement and self-mastery as the basis of his philosophy, that human beings, being rational, thinking beings, are capable of greatness and fulfillment of potential but need deliberate direction, commitment and engagement [in the great conversation] for guidance. His Meditations have little to do with "quieting the mind" but are bits of a program for self-improvement through self-examination and ever aspiring for ideals and principles.


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