Monday, February 21, 2011

What is the purpose of what we teach?

An acquaintance of mine, who took a degree in Pedagogy and is now an elementary teacher (and a mother) discussed Saturday with me about her pedagogical priorities:
  1. 1. Make children aware of other people's feelings
  2. 2. Help children know themselves.
No. 1, she maintains, is the only way we can hope to solve today's problems. We do not care about the North Pole's pack which is melting, she explained, because we do not identify with polar bears. Should we be able to identify with their suffrances, we would be able to undertake concrete steps to avoid them. The example of the polar bears is so extreme that I do not think I have to add more normal ones, such as identifiying with one neighbour before complaining about minor points and starting a fight.
No. 2 is, according to my acquaintance, the only way to achieve happiness.
I completely agree on No. 2 and No. 1 is (I am sorry to intrude with elements of my personal life) my resolution for 2011. Still, their "reversed" order surprised me. In Indian philosophy, concern with oneself always seems to be the primus movens of one's intellectual (and possibly also spiritual) journey. One considers one's misery and desires to escape it —even within Mahāyāna Buddhism, where one will ultimately realise that there is no "I" who suffers, nor suffrance, nor need to escape it. Theistic traditions seem to put service to God first, but not service to others. Moreover, even in these traditions, service to God is equated to one's supreme happiness. In short, one might ask: How can one make room for the Others once one's investigation is from its beginning determined by a self-concern? On the other hand, how could one care to identify with others, unless this made one happier (because helping other people makes one happy/being liked makes one happy/etc.)?

On a related, pedagogical topic:
I have already discussed my view about why should Sanskrit be learnt and taught here.


Ruy D'Aleixo said...

It's always hard to understand if educators are making the world better or just multiplying the tones of good intentions and sweet words in the (adult) world. When you come across with a violent child, a naturally disturbed mind, it's certainly difficult to talk, let alone to teach. On the other hand, we find a lot of childre who should rather teach us how to live and how to respect our neighbour. I still do not understand the role of educators. I rather see the growing influence of pedagogy in the academic world (starting from primary school) as a threat to free thinking. Sometimes it seems we just want to manipulate children because we hate them. It's like when the conquistadores tryied to "teach" the american people how to be a real human.
I do not trust in pedagogies.

elisa freschi said...

Funny and intriguing. But even assuming that there is nothign good we can actually teach them, you must have an idea on what one should encourage in children…

Patrick said...

Hi Aleix & Elisa : as for myself, I do not trust in manipulation-intoxication-recuperation. But should an ideal pedagogy exist, t'would be great. So, Elisa, it seems to me you have a preference for the gnôthi seauton... One man, all men ; the infinite inside c/should = the infinite outside. Om swastyastu (as one say formally hello in Bali).

Ruy D'Aleixo said...

Hi Elisa and Patrick!
I would adopt the Socratic (or Platonic) way. As a starting point, I think it's better to think that the other (the child) already knows everything, but he/she has to discover it, and on the other hand, being aware (the educator) that he/she is propably an ignorant.
I consider myself an ignorant and I doubt pedagogy could teach me how to be wise (so that I could teach other).
However, if we are talking about teaching how to handle the spoon, how to brush the teeth, how to behave with old people, etc. then we are entering the "tribal" zone: these usages are not universal. In China they might not use a fork.

elisa freschi said...

Hi Patrick and Aleix,

@P: yes, I tend to favour the gnothi seauton, but only insofar as it leads to achieve a more meaningful (and, hence, happier) life. I do not mean to say that once you know yourself, you know automatically the brahman. Hence, mine is rather a pragmatic concern.

@A: you might be right with the maieutic attitude. I will certainly try it out and would be glad to read about your experience with it (with other human beings if not with children).

om svasty astu! (nice to know that one could feel at home in Bali, if only for a second.)

Patrick said...

Yes, I'm never aware enough of this "tribal" thing. "Penser global, agir local." Shouldn't we consider things like pedagogy as just a means for a young animal not to be immediately eaten by some predator passing by ?

VS said...

Good points. But the question to be asked is how do we teach children that. If we do not know ourselves can we help others find their own self?

Anonymous said...

Improve oneself in a a psychological or spiritual sense? teaching of Sanskrit is also a symbol in itself and as such, bearer of knowledge and wisdom .....

elisa freschi said...

Hi VS, good question, as usual.
I do not think I can teach children (or adults) to know themselves, but I might try to help them help themselves. For instance, I might try to give them free room to develop their own interests and make them aware of the importance of observing themselves. It sounds obvious, but I am afraid we often overlooks apparent features of ourselves, projecting instead what we used to be/wanted to be/etc. For instance, a girl who used to love dance might keep on describing herself as a dance lover, although since years she does not dance at all in her free time. Would she do it if she could remember her teacher telling her "Stop and consider what are you doing now (=while I am not telling you what you ought to do)"? I do not know, but I guess it is worth trying. For the same reason I am not sure that 'stimulating' children is in itself good. It is good to introduce them to things they did not know, but I think they also need to learn how to use their time in a way which makes sense to them. Else, how could they understand what they like? And is not what one like an interesting clue to what one is?

(Yes, I know that I am far away from the depth of your question… Any other suggestion?)

elisa freschi said...

Hi Anonymous writer and welcome here!
What do you mean with "symbol"? And do you imply that Sanskrit alone is a bearer of knowledge or that it is one because it is the language used by people writing/speaking about their spiritual queries? If the latter, would not that apply to many other languages?

elisa freschi said...

As for teaching "dead" languages, a bright colleague of mine (who works in the field of Classical Greek) added these two insights:
1. You can never know what originates out of 'pure' research. It might be, for instance, that the result of historical linguistics can be used to heal speech disorders.
2. We need all sorts of specialists dealing with minor aspects, so that a convincing unitary picture of, say, 1st c. Rome can be reconstructed. Such a picture is of common interest. (Now one could ask what means "interest" –I guess my colleague would link it with happiness. For many people reading about 1st c. Rome is a source of happiness.)

elisa freschi said...

@VS and how we should be able to teach self-knowledge and sensitivity to other people's feelings. I submitted your point to my friend who replied as follows:(rephrased by me)
"Knowing myself is very very difficult and I think it won't be complete until I dye. However, I can help children to know themselves in some ways. There are many levels to know oneself and the foundation of it is knowing one's feelings. We can show children many kinds of feelings and encourage them to face up to and define their own feelings. […] I say it again, we can't make somebody to know themselves, but there are some ways to make them start thinking about it. […] People live not by themselves. We live together. There is a old Korean saying "While we are teaching and leaning, we grow up each other."
It doesn't mean that somebody teaches and the others learn. Teaching and learning occurs interactively at the same time."

In summary: knowing is a two-way enterprise. Knowing oneself is a never-ending process. But the duty of a teacher is to at least provoke thinking about oneself and one's feelings. The latter point leads also to a better understanding of other people's feelings.

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