When Humanistic voices fall silent(Philosophy of Education)

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Recent changes to the Swedish Gymnasium School Curriculum indicate that politicians are succumbing to a number of different non-educational agendas  to change what is taught and the way it is taught in schools. In the last  two rounds of changes we saw the disappearance of Philosophy from  2 of the national curricula for the Gymnasium school.

We have also seen a very determined commitment via legislation to the introduce   “scientific” research into schools. This determination is matched by a curious ambiguity as to exactly what constitutes “scientific” research. John Hattie’s work is mentioned in several contexts in the communications of Skolverket(The Swedish  National School Authority) and if this kind of approach to education is what is meant we may be witnessing a paradigm shift of significant seismic proportions in the Swedish schools’ system.

This is all the more interesting in that there is another even more radical  paradigm shift  occurring in the Finnish Educational system. The Finnish authorities are experimenting with  thematic or what they call “phenomenon” teaching. According to Siv Saarukka, a Finnish expert in this field, the Finnish authorities have been very influenced by a work, “The Fifth Discipline” written by a “popular” expert in the management of learning organisations, Peter Senge. This is an amazing revelation from a country that is very near  the top of the Pisa(OECD-inspired) world school system rankings. This surprise ranks with that of the management consultancy report commissioned in England  around 2000 in which  the language used in the report to talk about teachers was no longer humanistic as it had traditionally been for well over a century. The language rather was associated with  a psychology of business which  drew upon the practices of the business world that revolved around  business processes, products and productivity. The final estimate of the damage caused to the English educational system from this report by the consultancy  firm (HayMcBer), has yet to be estimated.  We do know that the report cost the British taxpayer 4 million pounds. “The Fifth Discipline” is a book written very much in the spirit of Hay/McBer’s  report and is as completely devoid of the rigour of academic and philosophical argument  as is  all  “popular” literature of this kind.

Perhaps, in their favour,  the Swedish authorities can be admired for resisting the temptation toward populism which is currently causing problems on a global scale. Science is at least an academic pursuit, it might be argued.   Let us try to put this Swedish strategy into some kind of context.   In the  1920’s,1930’s, and 40’s in England  Europe and the USA, Science spawned the Philosophical movement we call “logical positivism”. Logical positivism suddenly disappeared after the war as a  movement although, to this day there is no doubt the odd positivist tucked away in some academic corridor or other. Logical positivism was very quickly construed by even its supporters as an anti-humanistic movement and English positivists like A J Ayer admitted that the position was untenable under considerable academic pressure.

After the second world war, there were also a number of commentators who felt that it was largely the absence of a sufficiently strong humanistic influence in educational programs which allowed global totalitarian forces to be unleashed earlier in the century. This discussion led to an academic revival of Humanistic Liberalism in English Universities in the 1960’s and 1970’s which began to talk in earnest about Education. Teaching certificates were supplemented with B.ed degrees and many such degrees had Humanistic Philosophy of Education components which viewed Science, Scientific Psychology, and Psycho-metrics as of peripheral concern to educators. During this discussion, out of which the International Baccalaureate program was born, it was acknowledged that the heavy emphasis on Scientific subjects in Europe  at the expense of the Humanistic subjects in the German and Russian educational curricula  were responsible firstly, for  the absence of humanistic attitudes in many of the more disturbing events of the second world war and secondly, perhaps  the absence of humanistic attitudes also played a part in the  intransigence of the   parties involved in the cold war and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. In the light of this, it is also, to say the least, not surprizing to find Sweden wishing to combat populism by trying to make schools more academic but it is surprizing to find Sweden wishing to follow the route that Germany and Russia once followed in the dark days of the last century. It is not being maintained that Science is not an important part of our lives. What is being maintained is that(according to Richard Pring in his essay  “Education as a moral practice”) there are two narratives that define the dialogue that is taking place in the classroom between the teacher and the pupils. The one dialogue is the historical one that has taken place in all subjects, including the sciences, where voices firstly, join each other in a historical chorus over time  and in agreement over important issues and secondly, where voices engage in scholarly yet friendly criticism of important ideas which might be mistaken. The second dialogue is that between the teacher as the representative of these historical voices and the pupils who are deciding whether or not to enter into the cultural arena in which voices of all ages have talked about almost everything it is possible to imagine. The pupil, of course, must be met on common ground but the moral message of this second narrative is to initiate the pupil into the  “Holy”(R S Peters) cultural arena  where it is realized how fragile our civilization is: how it might rest upon this kind of educational dialogue.  When humanistic voices fall silent, ways of life are lost and  tigers and lions enter the arena. To think that Science alone can hinder the fragmentation or atomization of our society  is dangerously naive. Experimentation has its place in those fields which can be neatly divided into  variables which can be measured. But how do we measure a desire to kill Jews? In the same way I suppose as you  measure anything else. The Nazi’s were famous for strictly measuring and keeping meticulous records of their measurements. Is this anything else than distasteful, even if historians will be able to, in their turn, use this documentation for a narrative which very few of us will read with pleasure. Since I have mentioned business and its “populist” character let me consider an epistemological rather than an ethical objection  to Science rampaging  over our educational field. There is a famous business experiment done in a factory  in which management consultants were let loose in an environment where productivity was very low. After much analysis  and  observation it was decided that the lighting was too bright and should be reduced. Expectations ran high in the experimental group and the productivity miraculously increased. A triumph for science and business! Alas it was not too long before productivity went down again and the gurus were called back in. After analysis and observations it was decided that the lighting was too  bright and it  was reduced. Productivity increased! Is this an argument that light is not an independent variable? Mayo tended to explain the result in terms of human association and human variables which are notoriously difficult to manipulate and measure. Experienced humanistic teachers will point to how the two above mentioned pedagogical narratives naturally produce an expectation that the subjects or pupils will curiously follow and appreciate the respective dialogues. I use the term “naturally” because were the teacher to instrumentally use this fact about pupils expectations causally to produce a calculated effect, this will be humanistically an example of doing the right thing for the wrong “reason”.

The National School  Authority also talk of “established practice” as another possible means by which to achieve the sought-for academic environment. No one really knows what this means. If it means what I have referred to above as humanistic practice then it is about time that the National Schools authority came out and clarified the confusion over this issue. It would also greatly enhance the strength of the humanistic voice if Philosophy was returned to its rightful place in every curriculum.