Three Conflicting Pillars – Revisited

This post was prompted by Jay Cross’s discussion on how comments to blog posts get lost by not being tracked by most RSS readers.

A while back I made some comments on Education’s Three Conflciting Pillars, and a discussion ensued with excellent comments from Brian Alger, Rory McGreal of Athabasca University, and Terry Wassall.

It went sort of like this this [this is abridged and you can read the full conversation on the main post]:

Three premises compete for attention in our public education systems:

  • education as socialization
  • education as a quest for truth (Plato)
  • education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)

Brian: Given the fact that we have frozen knowledge and skills in something called curriculum, I would characterize today’s education system as something that is completely static and far removed from the practical realities of everyday life. So in that sense I would say that the very idea of a primary premise is plural and inseparable from the circumstances and situations we find ourselves in. I have not read Egan’s book, but I see no reason why the three premises mentioned above, and others, cannot co-exist simultaneously. Nor can I think of a reason that we would want to identify one and follow it exclusively.

Harold: The point that I remember was how the three premises have historically competed for primacy in the education system. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in initiatives like ‘no child left behind’ or the demise of music and physical education in the Canadian public school systems. My main concern is that there is no clear idea of what our education systems are trying to achieve, and we constantly go through ‘flavour of the year’ initiatives.

Brian: If I was to express a first principle it would focus on the desired quality of communication in education (in contrast to the current one). It seems to me that it is the nature of communication that needs to be changed in education more than anything else.

Rory: Western education has NEVER been based on those three pillars. Perhaps some lip service has been paid to them in the universities, but the schools K12 were formed for the benefit of employers in the manufacturing economy. They taught students how to sit still, do as they are told, and shutup and do monotonous tasks without complaining AND most importantly to arrive on time and respond to the bell and leave only after the day was over with the final bell — and by the way if they could become literate while these skills were being taught, that would be considered a good thing.

Harold: I think that curriculum development is a black art because we as a society and educators have not confronted what we really want from education. The disagreements that I hear over our education system are focused on symptoms and we”ll continue to tinker with the system unless we can find a way to address the foundations, such as “what the hell are we really trying to do and how are we going do it?” ; and even more importantly “how are we going to measure ourselves?”.

Terry: The extension of education to the masses was viewed with deep suspicion by the ‘natural’ and traditional ruling class. Education has always had the dual role of both enabling and controlling and has always been a double-edged sword. Teaching individuals how to read in order that they can read the Bible and employers” instructions always risked the possibility that they would also read subversive pamphlets if available. The controlling aspect was seem as crucial to those that begrudgingly conceded that they were having to ‘educate our masters’ — the Duke of Wellington I think. Whatever the other contradictions and tensions in education today I think this fundamental one between the enabling agenda and the controlling agenda is still very much in evidence.

3 Responses to “Three Conflicting Pillars – Revisited”

  1. Dave Ferguson

    Socialization = preparation?I would say that whatever the historic (pre-20th century) roots of North American education, a recurring driver (not everywhere and not all the time) is a localized desire to get children ready for adulthood.  Maybe that’s what’s meant by the ‘socialization’ pillar; I’m thinking more of the notion that an adult who can participate in society "ought to" know how to read, how to write — almost a basics counterpart to the "Don’t Know Much" song: ought to know somethin’ about history, ought to know somethin’ about biology.
    I say "localized" because the demand for this view would be stronger or most effective on the local level — the town or city, perhaps the rural district or county.  I don’t think this was always and everywhere a ‘straighten up and fly right,’ employer-driven process. 
    In a sense, for good or ill, it’s related to the "fill ’em up" approach to training and learning: the notion that there’s a body of knowledge (or, like the GM of old, several bodies intended for different markets), and it’s the school’s responsibility to impart this knowledge.
    Another force at play is the more specific community from which the student comes.  Here I’m thinking of group A where the cultural norm might be not to put on airs or rise above your betters, and group B where the cultural norm is to learn so that you can improve yourself.



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