The art of education Editorial
Stabroek News
September 5, 2002

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Guyana, according to all the statistics, has been sliding steadily downwards on the Regional educational ladder. The condition of ignorance, like crime, has become endemic in our society. The dangerous, selfish, almost lunatic behaviour of the average road user, the constant blare of motor horns and boom boxes, the roar of motor bikes without mufflers, the loud, often violent language of even casual, roadside conversation; all relate to a condition of ignorance which pollutes our lives as effectively as our now ingrained habit of littering. The decision to dump garbage on the roadside or into the city’s waterways, suggests a high level of ignorance; of unawareness of the dangerous consequences of such acts. So too with other selfish, unthinking acts of vandalism. Our children are exposed daily to horrible examples of this kind of behaviour. What should we do about it? Repair and improve school buildings? Recruit more teachers and increase their salaries? Spend more on books and school supplies? Yes, all of these, if we can find the means. But the root of the problem lies deeper: in our own misjudgement of the art of education.

Ignorance is the condition of being unaware, and as George Lamming once reminded us: ‘unawareness is the basic characteristic of the slave’. The role of education in a free and independent country should be to encourage critical awareness of oneself as a thinking, responsible individual in a relationship with one’s society and the world outside. For far too long this essential role of education has been judged as unimportant where it has not been ignored. The answer to ignorance is education, but not only for the ability to read and write and do sums; or for the learning of a trade or the acquiring of a certificate or degree. What is needed is education for awareness.

Education of this kind is in crisis all over the world. There is alarming ignorance among the general public within even the richest and most powerful countries. Some of our world leaders are essentially ignorant men. Educators, even in the rich countries, are alarmed at the falling standards of literacy and numeracy; but also at the increase in ignorance, in unawareness. Supplied with the latest and most expensive furniture and equipment, fully wired and on line to the world-wide web , schools and colleges in the U.S.A., for example, are bursting at the seams while the classroom conditions under which teachers work have become so emotionally stressful and physically dangerous that many burnout or simply look for other jobs. The level of students’ awareness of their societies and the outside world remains abysmally low. Education is market-driven and job-orientated. “Intelligence” has come to mean “information”. So instead of education creating an “intelligence revolution” it has spawned a great electronic “information revolution”. Never has so little awareness been taught by so few to so many.

What has gone wrong?

Something happened within the last 40 years or so that has never happened before. Teachers and traditional methods of teaching are now placed in direct competition with the commercial, visual media: television, film and video, computers (with their access to videogames and the internet) and popular magazines. And they are losing. Educators seem to have forgotten that the visual and performing arts are the most effective tools for influencing and shaping the learning process. They have always been central to education, to good and effective teaching for awareness. The old clichés: “seeing is believing”, “actions speak louder than words “etc. are - like all clichés -basically true. How can we expect our youth to believe what they read or are told in spite of visual evidence to the contrary? “Do as I say, not as I do” has always been a recipe for disaster.

Effective creative commercial advertising makes money for its sponsors by showing us, visually, what they want us to believe or do. The global success of Coca-Cola (“the Real Thing”), or Pepsi-Cola (“ask for more”) is entirely due to the image-making of its advertisers. They have ‘colonised’ the world through visual events and actions that remain in the mind.

Education practice today tends to ignore the fact that seeing something done or enacted, or, better still, being involved in the action, is crucial to real understanding or awareness. Television advertising and programming have become a widespread and lucrative business precisely because they use the power of the visual and performing arts for propaganda. Whether we like it or not, this is an effective teaching method, and it is going on all the time. We are constantly exposed to visual images which, in time, become embedded in our sensory memory-banks - our ‘hard drive’ - to use the computer jargon. The image becomes a ‘logo’ (from ‘logos’, the word) and is forever linked to a particular action or scenario. The image of the spinning earth, for example, has already become a logo for the “Discovery” channel where it appears as a technological bauble, a toy to be played with. It is used to suggest a comfortable world unity when the truth is that dividing walls of race, culture, religion and politics continue to be erected on earth.

The training and development of the critical imagination, that is, of critical awareness, is therefore crucial. What passes now for a universal Educational Truth: that information = knowledge and knowledge = power, is in fact utterly false. Information does not provide knowledge. Knowing involves an understanding and awareness of things. Information is simply information. Like the exact length and thickness of the hangman’s rope. It cannot help us to understand the moral issues of capital punishment. What we need is the understanding that comes from a critical awareness of ourselves and our relationship to the rest of our society and the world at large. This is what the visual and performing arts can do and have always done for the art of education. We need them now more than ever, and where better than in our schools?