Post 100: Learning in the age of Humanism

Originally posted on December 1, 2018 @ 10:30 am

In the UK, prior to the Renaissance, learning in schools mainly consisted of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. Pupils were taught these to prepare them to progress on to the study of theology, law and medicine and education primarily served the church and state.

Following this, the ideas of humanism, the religion that replaces god with the experience of mankind, began to take their root in the philosophy of education, leading to the idea that education is a right for all and that is should be administered by the state to ensure that that right is gained by all. In the 19th century the three great humanist projects of Communism, Facism and Liberalism were born and in some way each has contributed to the modern humanist education agenda. In this century we are at the zenith of the age of humanism, with even modern religions adopting a humanistic outlook, according to the work of Noah Harari.

Modern schools and the modern western education system were built on the principles of humanism and many of the ideas in education make humanist assumptions about the individual. For example the roots of progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations of the philosophy of liberalism. On the other hand ideas within the traditional approach to education appear to be rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition.

Schools today are very much humanist institutions. But many educators today are confused on this front. Hence some fight against factory schooling, using the factory as a metaphor for an education system that is dehumanised. It was humanist ideas that led to an education system that prepared indivduals for an industrial society. It was humanist ideas that demanded that everyone had the right to an education. It was humanism that led to the organisation of state run schools. Factory-like in that they were exposing lots of different people to ideas that generations before had not had the luck or rights to access. Factory-like, in that this is an efficient model of mass production. Mass production of more (compared to their parents) knowledgable citizens. The irony here shouldn’t be lost on you. It’s ironic that it was ideas tied to liberalism that made the industrial revolution possible (Governments and Businesses needed to care about the individual in a way that they just didn’t need to before) now serve as a metaphor as to why schools are perceived by some as being dehumanising.

Really, the confusion here is due to a misunderstanding of history and ideas. Educators who use the factory as a metaphor don’t understand their history and the world view is informed more by liberal humanism the communist or fascist humanism.

Educators also get their modern politics confused. It surprises some that teachers who self-identify as being “trad” are labour voters. See this blog. They mistakenly think that anyone who advocates for traditional teaching must be a conservative. In his book Why Knowledge Matters E.D. Hirsch, draws a distinction between, community and knowledge centered education versus individual and skills centered education, arguing that the former acts to reduce inequality, while the latter cherishes the individual experience of the learner. Both are fundamentally humanist in their paradigm.

If the aim of traditional education is to reduce inequality by ensuring that ALL students receive the same knowledge centered education then it is easy to see why this is left leaning idea. Traditionally the left leans towards communist humanism, valuing equality over freedom, while the right leans towards liberal humanism valuing  individual freedom over equality. That is, of course, an oversimplification but it roughly works.

If you spend anytime on edutwitter or reading about educational history you won’t have missed this tension at the heart of the philosophy of education. This debate is often personal and vitriolic. Writers come down hard on each other, often forgetting that their opponent want the same thing as them: the best outcomes for the individual. In this sense both of these opponents are humanist and believe in the humanist agenda. But a bit like the schisms in the Christian church that saw Catholics and Protestants burn each other at the stake over their differing interpretations of the same creed, modern day “philosophers” of education are happy to figuratively hang, draw and quarter their opponents for having slightly different views. Understanding this should be the basis of finding points of convergence in a debate.

The modern drive for personalised education is a manifestation of the principles of humanist liberalism and, in its present form, appears to conflict with the ideas of a community-centered education system whose aim is to reduce inequality. To my mind it is educational equivalent of “organic” farming, it market’s itself very well but is hard to scale up and is incredibly inefficient in its resource consumption.

In my next post I want to explore how personalised education may fare as we move deeper into the 21st century. Everyone assumes that this is the way we are going as an education system, but is it. In his books Harari writes about Dataism, and how this new philosophy may end up replacing humanism. I am interested in thinking about what this may mean for the modern education system.

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