Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Utilitarian vs Conceptual philosophy of learning

In Timothy Findley's novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Lucifer is portrayed in the "trickster" role as a seven foot tall geisha drag queen named Lucy whose fall from divine grace is not so much the traditional telling of Satan's lot but for simply asking "Why?". At the risk of being misunderstood completely, and being accused of unduly stretching the analogies, I think Findley's novel is a parable on the limits of arbitrary authority and the sad consequences of it. In this regard, I think it appropriate case-study for the Nunavut (read: aboriginal) experience, especially in terms of alienation and dehumanization of Inuit.

I don't think there's ever really been a sustained Inuit (read: aboriginal) discourse on our own experience as a colonialized society. The intergenerational trauma has overpowered any semblance of space for reasoned, detached discussion of where we are and how we got here. The hurt and strong emotions are either ignored completely or expressed at the cost of everything else.

Take the issue of education. Any thoughtful person could not deny how pathetic our lot is. One either needs connections, a willingness to play token Inuitism, or extreme native intelligence to transcend the shit hole in which we start our lives - the squalor, poverty and paucity of intellectual and physical prospects.

I know that there is an obsession for "education" in the aboriginal communities. But I think the expectations have been so far unrealistic. I'll try and state why that is: there are choices of differing philosophies of pedagogy out there. These choices may be classed into two broad types: utilitarian and conceptual approaches to education.

The utilitarian types tend to be prescriptive and rote-memory based - the types described by Dickens' in his role as a social critic of Victorian England. These are exclusionary and bureaucratic, and their systems of control and rewards are intended to assert the value system of the "ruling class". Ideally, one remains where one is born into - if not in theory, then in practice.

Granted, there are different outcomes in the utilitarian class, and this type should not be interpreted as being monolithic in nature. For example, Napoleon created polytechincal institutions which are considered world-class even unto today. His approach was motivated by the desire to overthrow the ancien régime and, expressly, as a means of realizing his grand vision of new France. Not only were these colleges meritocratic drawing talent from every class of society but the emphasis was on education and science especially serving the greater good of France's glory. Everything became "Republican" this or that - as in "Republican mathematics" or "Republican science". Though theoretical scientific investigation was de-emphasized, it was understood as being necessary if its practical applications were immediate and/or useful for advancement of Napoleon's military machine. This was "enlightened" despotism on steroids.

In this respect, utilitarian approach to education is not a bad thing for nation-building purposes. But for a society considered at worse as an inconvenience the notion of theoretical discourse is entirely missing while institutionalization predominates.

At the beginning of the 19th century Wilhelm von Humboldt became the minister of education for Prussia. As a humanist thinker and civil service reformer Humboldt created new schools called Gymnasiums which favoured a shift from science education as a means to an end towards a more classical tradition of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This meant a more conceptual outlook of literary analysis/criticism, philosophy, mathematics and science as studies worthy simply as they are and because they are.

The blossoming of modern deutschland as a litrary, scientific, and technical powerhouse was almost immediate given that german-speaking peoples already had a long tradition of celebrating their gifted. Einstein himself has said that technical knowledge itself is not enough for the advancement of scientific knowledge, that (informed) imagination plays a significant role in discovery. This is conceptual-based pedagogy at work.

Carl Jacobi, one of the countless beneficiaries of Humboldt's program, wrote criticising the great French scientist, Joseph Fourier, who looked down upon the German approach to education:

It is true that Fourier was of the opinion that the principal object of mathematics is public use and the explanation of natural phenomena; but a philosopher like him ought to have known that the sole object of the science is the honour of the human spirit, and that on this view a problem in the theory of numbers is worth as much as a problem of the system of the world. (Marcus du Sautoy, The Music of the Primes, p. 60, New York, 2003)

It was Einstein of Germany who put together his revolutionary theories of relativity, and not a French contemporary of his. This is not to say that France is a slacker as many, many exceptional and original thinkers and creators (including Fourier) also come from that great country.

Nunavut (read: aboriginal communities) have proven time and again that the sheer exercise to acquire tools is not enough; conceptual know-how along with the cultivation of capability to play with first principles is the "true honouring of the human spirit".


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