Education as a sacrament [1/4] (preparatory notes for my talk at ResearchED Malmö)

Please note: these are just notes that I wrote for my own benefit for the talk. They are incomplete, poorly cited, and the grammar is slovenly, but I was asked to put them online and I’ve not had time to tidy them up. I’ve divided them into four parts, of which this is the first. The other three sections can be reached via these links:

I. Introduction

i.What is the purpose of education?

  1. There are various responses to this question. The two I encounter most frequently are something like the following:
    • The purpose of education is ‘imparting knowledge’
    • This question concerns ‘values’ rather than ‘facts’ and as such any answer is merely a matter of opinion
  2. My argument here is that the first approach is meaningless because it conflates methodological problems with conceptual confusions. Whether or not ‘knowledge has been imparted’ is not methodologically conducive to measurement, and thus not quite as meaningful as it first appears. The second errs insofar as it misunderstands the nature of value. In making the case for both of these points, I hope to demonstrate an alternative method of approaching the question of the purpose of education.

ii. The boring truth: there are many purposes to education

  1. The question of the purpose of education would seem critical to deciding ‘what works’ in education (which is, as we know, the hook line of researchEd). If we don’t have a description of a final goal, according to what do we measure our progress? How do we know whether we are doing justice to our students.
  2. However, the boring truth is that there are many different purposes to education. Asking what the purpose of education is, is like asking what the purpose of society is – there are either loads of purposes:
    • To provide day care for children whilst the parents are at work
    • To prevent children from being exploited by unscrupulous employers
    • To keep children safe
    • To teach children a few basics for life – reading and writing etc.
    • To make sure children get to learn a bit about the world
    • To learn how to make friends
    • To make friends
    • To learn to deal with people they don’t like
    • To try out different sports
    • To make some contacts that might be useful in the future
    • To meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet
    • To learn some basic organisational skills
    • To learn to put up with doing things they don’t really want to do etc. etc…
  3. …or it is entirely purposeless

iii. Education: a Sisyphean task?

  1. I suppose that the reason why people don’t like to simply accept this as an answer is because it feels a bit directionless and it (apparently) makes it much harder for us to work out what it is we’re meant to be doing. And this is why working in education can sometimes feel like something of Sisyphean task.
    • (Sysiphus was the Greek fella who the gods was sentenced to an eternal punishment of repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom again.)
  2. I think it is probably fair to say, that whilst education isn’t really teleological (i.e. guided by an intentional single, identifiable purpose) we could describe it as teleonomic (i.e. it has the appearance of being directed by a single purpose). Teleonomic is a term coined by Pittendirgh to describe the apparent purposes of biological processes without causing the confusions caused by invoking a designer.
    • In these two ideas, there is a very elucidating distinction: In Teleology, the purpose can be stated. In Teleonomy, the purpose can only be shown or become apparent.
  3. So, there is a very real sense in which the purpose of education is everything and nothing.
  4. However, today, I would like to argue that this is precisely how it should be – not only because it is self-evidently true, but also because it is only through recognising the purposeless of education that we can truly learn to appreciate its value.
  5. I shall start by explaining what I mean by this apparently paradoxical statement:
    • If there is one highest purpose to anything, then it must be the purpose for which all other purposes occur. It must be an end-in-itself, self-sufficient.
    • It should be clear from this description, that if something is an end-in-itself then it itself does not have any further purposes – and therefore is purposeless!
  6. The issue that people will inevitably have with this is that loads of things are purposeless, but we obviously do not value them! If I step in a dog-turd on my way to class, I don’t then think, ‘yes! Ultimate value!’ … however, perhaps that’s precisely what we should be doing!
  7. In order to persuade you of this, firstly, I want to discuss the relationship of ‘knowledge’ to education, and why knowledge, as it is commonly conceptualised when discussing the purpose of education, creates more of a mess than it clears up.

iv. Meno’s paradox

  1. Many people, including teachers, will often assume that the purpose of teaching is to impart knowledge. This is, however, a notoriously tricky concept in many different ways… In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates and the title character stumble across a famous paradox:
    • And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know? 
  2. Let me restate the problem like this:
    • If you don’t already know something, then you won’t know what you’re looking for and nor will you know whether you’ve ever found it!
  3. It appears that we have a problem because we don’t have a criteria of knowing. (There’s something telling about the fact that current issues around assessment are just a rehash of the same two-and-a-half-thousand year old issue!) Even if we do think of a criteria of knowing, how can we know that this criteria is correct? And even if we have a criteria for that criteria how do we know that criteria is correct? Etc… on and on. We don’t ever seem to have anything certain, or foundational upon which to build.
  4. Plato’s solution is that knowing is an act of mystical recollection from a metaphysical realm. Similarly, Augustine thought that there was a moment of divine illumination.
  5. There is a way in which I think Plato’s and Augustine’s answers are quite correct but initially, they look rather daft to us in our scientific age. But then consider, are they really any more metaphysical than our current conceptions of imparting knowledge and understanding?
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