Philosophy of education

We have Education as Science, and now Art but where is the Social?

In my last BLOG I described a feeling that some BLOGGERS have the attitude that science has the answers, and everything else is just various shades of “piffle”. Of course by science I mean the scientific method. Or, in reality some kind of discursive socially constructed variant of the scientific method that has, in some way, innate wisdom implicit to it.

In this one, I want to have a look at an argument that seems to contradict that view.  Quite simply put, one view seems to regard science as the answer, and another that it’s not but seems to arrive at some way of knowing “stuff” anyway. I wonder how?

Anyway as I wrote the other day I watched ‘NTEN-ResearchED’ on a live stream and really enjoyed it. It’s no wonder that OFSTED in particular and the government, in the guise of DfE officials, are taking notice. Actually all the speakers I watched were informative and engaging. A world away from your day to day professional development in schools and colleges, where the same video of the same building burning down, shown year in and year out on compulsory Fire training sessions is soporific, but still more interesting than the offerings about teaching and learning. 

Tom Bennett’s talk was funny and engaging but it began to remind me of the time I once spent in a Computer Science department at a leading research University. I was passing through, I’ve never been the kind of person likely to be invited to spend time in a Computer Science department at a leading University. The feeling in the department was that research consisted of a hypothesis and well you know the rest. One professor actually said; “we do qualitative research in this department but afterwards we expect you to build a model and test it”. They genuinely seemed to believe that Constructivism was a man on a building site, with a hard hat and a bag of cement.

The general attitude was that there was science (or the scientific method), and some lesser thing called society that definitely wasn’t science and was something almost as ephemeral as God, and why would anyone bother. Tom seemed to re-iterate some of that view. I may be being a little unkind but he did seem to allude to the view that there’s science and of course something called qualitative research….but….. (there is always a but) ……… it has it’s place but……….(and there is always a second but)….. well anyway who cares, let’s talk about something useful, social science is kind of useful…..but not really. Education is not science it’s …well something other.

Martin Robinson seems to offer this alternative to the education as Science perspective, when he writes here about his presentation at NTEN-ResearchED,  Engaging with a Human Education’.  It’s an interesting article, in many ways one that I like, it diminishes the role of science and offers a more human way of looking at education but even so something about it bothers me. And I think it’s this; the argument still seems to be that science is the only meaningful way of explaining stuff, however science can’t explain education therefore education has to be something else…..and that’s the point at which the argument seems to drift, what exactly?

He begins with the wonderful Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. For those not familiar it the story of….well anyway, you have to watch it …. but eventually the plot moves towards an answer to everything, which turns out to be 42.

I would like to take issue with a number of points. Firstly, I think he over states the role of  science:

“…..as Roger Scruton says in his piece called ‘On Humane Education’: The scientific why looks for a cause, the humane why looks for a reason. The first is objective the second is subjective.”

Well it doesn’t really do that, the scientific method identifies replicable causal relationships. Any interpretation of that very specific “thing”, becomes subjective. That is the problem with the scientific method. It’s context, usage and purpose is subjective. Social science manages subjectivity, so I presume we are talking here about natural science.

Scruton also says this:

The scientific why looks for a cause, the humane why looks for a reason.

Again social science looks for reasons, it’s just natural science that looks at causal explanations. I’m not sure Martin intends to make this distinction, but I’m making the assumption that he does.

Again here:

“there are ‘objective studies’ like Maths and Science trying to see the world as it is…!”

Math is a language socially constructed by humans, arguably as soon as we speak or even think it, we are socially constructing reality. What Martin describes is an epistemic perspective, not a fact. Again we seem to be talking about the natural sciences here.

Martin describes it thus:

Well now all around me the machines for living are being torn down, but new housing stock is being built, more humane, less brutal, but also ‘felt’ to be better. Old slum houses now are desirable, with original features. It is when we move away from the humanity and go into the world of ‘objectivity’ when we break from the humanity we end up with inhuman ‘machines for living’. In living with buildings, with art, with each other, we reach some understanding of ourselves. This is not a scientific understanding, but a very real understanding all the same. This is the role of art. To give us constraints through which to understand ourselves and create and recreate our world……

The questions that springs to my mind is; what does all this mean? Do we reach an understanding of ourselves? And if so, how do we do it? What are the constraints that Art imposes and so on and so forth. But more to the point how do we know all this and what exactly does Martin mean by the word Art, in this context. He seems to allude to Art in it’s generally understood  sense as the creative output of  a human but I presume he is referring to the Liberal Arts, the trivium and quadrivium, the knowledge that is required to be a thinking person in society. But surely here we are talking about how we come to know  education, and not what it is.

Martin then says:

 ……..and if you try to understand art objectively it is no longer the same, it is no longer art.

If there is no objective way of looking at Art, how do we know it’s Art? If you have no objective way of establishing what it is, then how do we know, it is, what we say it is?

Actually we know, because society has objectively decided what it is, and we “can” know how, and why, they have decided to do so or we have tools that try to do that, at the very least. Objectivity is not solely based upon causal relationships. Again Martin seems to have adopted a particular epistemic perspective that defines objectivity in terms of causal relationships:

It can’t be the result of the dubious lie that is behind social mobility, It can’t be through the tick box approach of cultural literacy by numbers or some bizarre troop through a curriculum based on the idea that all must study this piece of knowledge in order that this leads to this and this leads to knowing and this leads to the world of the successful citizen. Education is far more dirty and difficult than that.

I agree with this and I get that education, is “dirty and difficult” but even so we know a dubious lie when we hear one, but how do we know it’s  a dubious lie?.

Then we get this:

Education should consist of engagement with the best that has been thought and said: engaging through questioning and arguing with and about the best that has been thought and said, and then as a free thinking human being able to decide, reject or accept and add to the best that has been thought and said. A true liberal arts education has no particular, measurable, end in mind. You do not teach people to limit their thinking; you teach to expand their thinking.

Hang on a sec’, on the one hand education is “dirty and difficult”, and on the other it is “engaging with the best”. From my perspective that sounds remarkably specific, and seems to use some kind of objective rationale. Not only do we know “what’s what” but we know the best of “what’s what” and how to expand upon it. The question is though, how do we know what is best?

Do we use some kind of democratic process that assumes that we are all is equal in society? Do we assume that we all have access to knowledge, and access to the kind of conversation in society, that decides what is best? Isn’t this worse than “cultural literacy by numbers”, it is cultural literacy by what has been decided by those who have access to power. It is the past directing the future but where is the social aspect of education? It is, after all, arguably a societal function.

Again in this example we get a list of that, “we” do not want:

“I do not want my daughter etc……..”

And then a list of what we do want:

I want something far more simple I want her to be educated in the pursuit of wisdom I want her to flourish in this pursuit, because it is the pursuit that is life… The answer lies not in the attainment but in the pursuit.

The questions is; how do we know that wisdom is one thing and not another?

It just seems to me that this is a discourse that talks about uncertainty:

Let us embrace this uncertainty. We should not be in the game of predicting outcomes to their nth degree. We should be modest enough to realize the possibility that we are erring. Certainty is the enemy of education.

… but  seems very certain about its uncertainty.

I do not want her to tick the good team worker box, I do not want her to have a target in writing for a whole year that says she should: ‘extend ideas logically and choose words for variety and interest’.

In fact  about as certain as anyone can be about what education is, and is not.   The essential uncertainty seems to me to be not about what education is, but rather about the fact that there is no explanation for what it is.

Martin poses the view that:

I write about this contract in terms of a Hegellian dialectic in which the past is the thesis, the present is the questioning of the thesis, the anti-thesis, and the future is a synthesis built by the strengthening of the community through the arts of making sense and and non-sense by communicating new doubts and new possibilities.

And I agree, my problem is what does he mean by the Arts, it seems to me “the past” owns the conversation and Martin seems to offer no view on how the present and future can meaningfully engage with it, other than through the Arts, whatever that maybe.

And finally:

Education is the quest for the never answered why…? It is a question not an answer, an art not a science. Once we understand this, science can help us achieve it.

And it’s beautiful prose but I’m not entirely sure that it makes any sense? Education is a function of society, we know why it exists, we just have no idea whether it does what it’s supposed to do, or in fact, much of anything at all. That, it seems to me, is educations problem not whether it is a Science or an Art.

Great article, but for me it raises more questions than it answers.

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4 thoughts on “We have Education as Science, and now Art but where is the Social?

    1. LOL thanks Tony. I’m not prejudiced against causal relationships but certainly at the casual explanations of them

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