Monday 7 January 2019

What is Education? Wittgenstein, for instance

I have thought a great deal about education - what it  has been, is, and should be; but I have always been aware that formal or systematic, education as we know it is an unnatural thing. In simpler tribal societies there is simply people spending time together, and what eventuates from that.

Time together is of the essence. There isn't really any 'teaching' - more a matter of showing, of letting people observe. The main motivation comes from the learner, who wants to become able to know and do things; the 'teacher' mainly 'allows' the learner to spend time with him.

This is more like apprenticeship; and I experienced a fair bit of apprenticeship in medicine and laboratory science; in the gaps between a great deal more formal instruction and testing.

In the kind of education we get in schools, colleges, and the like - this original kind of education, therefore, happens (when it does happen, which is seldom or never) in the gaps in the curriculum, the the non-systematic parts of the experience; unplanned, unexamined.

The main skill is to seize the moment - which is , again, mostly a matter of having the right kind of motivation.

The philosopher Wittgenstein gave classes of this kind - in which a group of people would be allowed to be in attendance while Wittgenstein was doing philosophy, aloud. He was working at things that preoccupied him, while other people were in the room.

The only formal element was that this happened at a specific place and time (which is, in actually, a pretty tight constraint, when it comes to creative work). There was no product, and no exams. From a student's perspective; Wittgenstein's education was something that happened while they were at college - it was absolutely distinct from the degree curriculum, although some students later (apparently) regarded it as the major experience of their lives.

Wittgenstein had a need for company too (in some phases of his life) and favoured people were allowed to 'hang-out' with W. in an unstructured, sustained and more-or-less social kind of way (going for walks, to the movies - sitting in the middle of the front row etc); although it might be closer to the truth to say that these individuals were required to be at W's beck and call as he wanted them (or else be excluded from the charmed circle). 

Trying to communicate one's deepest understandings to 'other people' is a different thing; since it is led by the teacher's interest, rather than the student's. Perhaps a lot of it is that we want people with whom we can communicate profoundly on particular matters that may obsess us - but few others, and are therefore tempted to shape other people into suitable companions!

This is the great appeal of a group like The Inklings. For a while, they were near to the Platonic ideal of what we crave in our communication.

The lesson of biographies is that this 'shaping of other people' seldom works, but the attempt can itself be creative and clarifying for the would-be teacher (as well as frustrating and a waste of time). This creative clarification can be the main (or only) benefit of writing a book; which is - after all - almost-never read with the degree of comprehension and agreement that the author hopes for.

Conversely, what we (as 'student') get from a book that influences us, may well be very different from what the author hoped. Very, very seldom does the writing and reading of a book lead to the profound communication that the author hope for while in the process of making it; very seldom does 'top down' education actually happen.

In sum, real 'education' is very rare and essentially uncontrollable; and has almost nothing to do with systematic, professional education; and the more that is done to make formal education more 'efficient' and 'accountable' - the more certainly any possibility of real education will be excluded.

No comments: