Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reflection 1

I am currently on course before I return to school in May. I have to do 10 reflections on educational issues over the next 4 months. They will make convenient blog posts. Um.

I will probably revise my Atlantean stories after the reflections.


During this MLS, I hope to extend my understanding of education. To do this, I hope to continually integrate new knowledge with old, synthesising the information from the lectures and readings with my pedagogical knowledge and personal experiences. I also hope to connect my learning with my other interests: literature, philosophy, religion and economics. These reflections are in fact quite helpful for intellectual digestion.

For these two weeks, I have been reading up on the philosophy of education: Dewey, J.S Mill, Kant and Plato. For the next few reflections, I hope to integrate my readings with my beliefs.

I believe that education should help pupils to learn the authentic skills, habits of minds and principles of different academic disciplines. It is about pupils gradually moving up the novice-expert continuum to increasingly function like a practitioner who can grapple with real problems and produce new knowledge. It is about allowing pupils to explain, interpret and apply the enduring understandings of different fields. And while there are necessarily principles, habits and skills that are unique to particular disciplines, there are also many that are important to all disciplines and to life. Thus educators should not neglect macroconcepts that transcend disciplines, and should constantly stimulate their pupils to integrate their new knowledge with their interests, experiences and knowledge of other topics and disciplines. Furthermore, educators should train their pupils’ critical faculty, build the sound habits of mind useful for all academic subjects, promote ethical thinking, teach the research and self-regulation skills needed for self-directed learning—and by doing all these, prepare their pupils for the national examinations (!), and help them to become productive members of society. At the same time, teachers should respect and capitalise on their pupils’ interests and talents, allowing for choice and much flexibility, seeking to produce a curious lifelong learner—while not neglecting the core skills and knowledge that equip them for a life of reason and productivity. In short, I am somewhat eclectic (or confused) in my curriculum ideology, though being mostly an academic rationalist in orientation.

As I read more, I think there is another way to look at education, a complementary perspective that personally yields greater clarity about the aims and means of education. One of the master aims of education should be the cultivation of a philosophical cast of mind and a philosophical heart. First, the heart. Plato writes in his dialogues that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, that the true philosopher is one who has a love of learning, a love of wisdom and truth. The true philosopher is the prisoner from the cave of shadows, who braves the pain and sorrow of first light, to move into the upper world of the Sun, which is at once the true, the good and the beautiful—the ideals of knowledge, ethics and art.

Beyond the simple love of truth, a philosophical heart has a passion for ideas because as John Locke wrote in The Conduct of the Understanding, ‘the ideas and images in men’s minds are the invisible powers that constantly governs them, and to these they all, universally, pay a ready submission’. It is quite easy to underestimate the power of ideas, yet they can ruin or uplift entire civilisations. Communism, dreamt up by a lonely and poverty-stricken prophet in the British Library, transformed the lives of millions in the twentieth century for both good and ill—though perhaps mostly for the latter. On the other hand, Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha has inspired movements of freedom and peace in America, South Africa and Tibet. In a world where our ideas have allowed us to command the atomic fire and decrypt the ciphers of life, the greatness of our thought will largely determine whether we build a civilisation worthy of unprecedented peace and wisdom, or whether we would plunge into a despoiled and savage nightmare of our own creation. Philosophers care for ideas, because few other things can elevate or degrade humanity to the same degree.

And what about a philosophical mind? Fundamentally, it is a mind that is able to think, and think well. In essence, as Dewey wrote in How We Think, it is a mind able to engage in ‘active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’. Knowing the value and power of ideas, and having a simple passion for the right and true, a philosophical mind is careful to seek for reasons and evidence for what it believes. It is clear about the grounds of its beliefs, whether they are experience, authority or the a priori truths of reason. It knows when it does not know, and it knows that a learned ignorance is a greater wisdom than an ignorant conceit. It knows and is clear about the probability of its claims. It knows when it believes only because it wants to believe.

To do this well, a philosophical mind is one that can accurately, patiently and powerfully relate ideas to ideas, fact to fact. A philosophical mind is trained and practiced in the laws of inference. It attempts to consider not only the case for its opinions but also the case against. It is quite aware that very often “conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and other false, share the truth between them: and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part” (J.S. Mill, On Liberty). Finally, a philosophical mind is willing to live with uncertainty, instead of a premature and unfounded certainty. Given the sheer difficulty of justification in so many cases, it may seem that such an attitude might inevitably produce a global skeptic. Yet it is arguable that a global skeptic is much more valuable than a bigoted fool, and to me, the true philosopher must also know the limits of reason, and acknowledge the greater servants of truth beyond. I believe that sentiments in matters of morals or of the Spirit can be valid grounds of beliefs, especially when they are backed and enforced by deeper vision and experience. Often our feelings are but the robes of inner truths obscured. There may be truths too wide for reason, and revelation’s fire has a place in our ambiguous world.

It is important to clarify that a well-developed mind is not merely a ‘gifted’ mind, conventionally understood—that is, a quick mind gifted with powerful memory and the ability to speedily recognise patterns and make well-ranging connections. A gifted mind is potentially a great mind, but only potentially. The corruption of the best often leads to the worst. After all, a quick mind could have awfully bad mental habits. Indeed, a quick mind, by making intellectual work easy, could encourage laziness and pride, often leading to a narrow mind and the inability to consider other perspectives. All these are deadly enemies of rational thought. Speed and a vast stock of ideas would then only help in the quick generation of errors, arrogance and perversity—little else. An untrained and gifted mind makes a great sophist, a servant of illusion, or at best, a quick practical fiddler of everyday knowledge—but it cannot be a consistent servant of truth.

In my next reflection, I would probably focus on Socrates, the ideal philosopher and the educator of ideal philosophers. I think meditating on him would yield many insights on how to develop a philosophical heart and mind.