The objects of education

Stabroek News
July 10, 1999

There has been some discussion recently of the objects of education, what people should be taught in schools both including and beyond the academic curriculum. It has been an endless source of debate over the ages. To start outside the formal curriculum, many people would include sports. Not only are they good for the physical development of children, they teach them how to compete, in team games how to co-operate and work together, how to win, and perhaps most important of all, how to lose. For we all suffer repeated losses and setbacks in our lives, it is good to have an early grounding in how to cope with failure, to pick ourselves up and move on. Seen in that context sports should be an essential part of the educational or socialisation process. Sadly, sports have been severely neglected in our schools.

Music is often recommended as an essential part of a rounded education. It is truly a blessing to be able to play an instrument. The large majority who don't compensate by listening. The famous writer George Steiner, a man of the broadest attainments, who does not play an instrument, had this to say in "Errata", a book in which he looks back on the central ideas of his life.

"All I know is that music is a sine qua non in my existence. It reinsures what I sense to be or, rather, search for in the transcendental. This is to say that it demonstrates to me the reality of a presence, of a factual `thereness', which defies either analytic or empirical circumscription. This reality is at once commonplace, everyday, palpable and ulterior. It exercises over us a singular domination. Neither psycho-analysis nor deconstruction nor post-modernism have had anything revelatory to say of music. This is crucial. These language-games of subversive decipherment, of suspicion in the wake of Nietzsche and of Freud, are virtually impotent before music. They remain arrogantly trapped within the language-sphere which they claim to relativise or unravel. Why should we take them seriously on the philosophic, on the human level?

"A larger inference can be drawn. As it was by Wittgenstein when he recorded that, more than once, the slow movement in Brahms's Third Quartet pulled him back from the brink of suicide. Music authorises, invites the conclusion that the theoretical and practical sciences, that rational investigation will never map experience exhaustively. That there are phenomena ` at the centre' (consciousness itself may be another) which will endure, boundlessly alive and indispensable, but `outside'. This is, quite straightforwardly, the proof of the meta-physical. Music is significant to the utmost degree, it is also, strictly considered, meaningless. There abides its `transgression' beyond intellect".

Less music is taught than used to be the case though the talent is there for all to see in the steel bands. Mr Dereck Bernard noted recently that the university has no band and no choir, a serious comment on the cultural gap that exists.

Others strongly advocate the inculcation of religious and moral attitudes. Of course in any form of teaching the attitudes of the teachers to their profession and to life, the way they teach, will rub off on the students to some extent. There will be a process of socialisation in which students absorb the moral and spiritual atmosphere of the classroom. But there is a much more powerful process of socialisation at work in the home. Children absorb so much from their parents, especially in their early years. The processes of socialisation in the home and the school can reinforce or contradict each other in various ways. Should religion and morality be explicitly taught in schools, and in what manner?

The ideal of public service inheres in all human beings. There are many role models, religious persons whose lives are dedicated to the poor and the sick, some teachers, some doctors, some nurses, and sometimes parents or siblings. There are service clubs in which businessmen and professionals devote their time to the achievement of worthy causes. At every level and in every area of the society one can find citizens serving the public good in a wide variety of ways. Can the concept of public service be taught as part of the educational process? Can that form of socialisation be achieved or encouraged through the schools? Or is it part of a broader political process? One of the ideals of socialism had been the creation of a new man, willing to work largely for the public good. In an open society where people are free to live as they wish can they be "indoctrinated", so to speak, with ideals of public service?

Educational theories have ranged over the centuries from ideas that certain elite schools should be used to shape a ruling class to modern ideas of leaving children free to express themselves. Schools have taught religion, ideology, some theorists have tried to set up communities organised on new principles of living. The debate will never end.

Even within the standard curriculum there is a lot of room for debate. Should there be more emphasis on mathematics, the science subjects, teaching agriculture? What kind of society do we want to build? What are our fundamental values? In our modern secular society the questions are as relevant as ever. The overwhelming problems that face us now are poverty and underdevelopment. But the eternal issue of the kind of society we want to build will always be with us. And our educational system is an important part of the way we approach this.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples