Education for Self Determination
This reflection is by no means to be taken as a academic paper on the philosophy of education, too much has already been written on the subject for most of us to ever actually read. As to originality, who knows? A very wise man is quoted as saying “There is nothing new, under the sun” and that was over 3,000 years ago. Furthermore, I will delve headlong into the matter of the meaning of life which some may consider very unacademic. Also, this is not to be taken as an institutional policy or position, just me thinking out loud.
Independent of the geographical location and social economic circumstances we are born into, we can generally condense life itself into what we do, who we are and how we interact with those around us. Likewise, given the purported reason of preparing one for life, we can also divide education into three corresponding themes: labor skills, personal development and ones place in the world (commonly known as citizenship). Plato described this as “three stages of development of knowledge: knowledge of one’s own job, self-knowledge, and knowledge of the Idea of the Good.” ¹
Indeed, the journey through life is one of constant decision making within these three areas of self-development. The actions we take or do not take, coupled with our perception of our surroundings and circumstances, shape our awareness of reality, our understanding of ourselves and of the world. These decisions are an exercise of Free Will² which permits us to control our own actions in the face of circumstances seemingly beyond our influence.
We could look at life as a sea complete with treacherous currents, tides and storms and where each of us find ourselves alone in a boat.³ We would have choices to make: hang on for dear life while the currents and wind batter us about, or learn to use the rudder, sails and compass, and then actually use the elements to navigate to our chosen destination. Once adept with sailing skills and having gained self-confidence and the courage to set a course, we are faced with another choice- that of taking the responsibility or not to assist those still floundering in the current.
The question of freedom is lodged firmly at the center of life itself. The offer of safe berth or of being towed behind a larger more experienced ship on the sea of life is always tempting and always carries a price. This is not to be taken as a judgement, rather as a suggestion to make clear headed decisions when trading freedom for safety. Free will is vulnerable to trickery and the slight of hand. Exercising free will does make us fully responsible for our decisions and nondecisions.
This quest for knowledge naturally leads us to ponder the meaning of life itself. We note that other manifestations of life around us, namely the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms do not question the meaning of life. On those levels the only meaning of life is life itself: natural cycles of birth, growth, reproduction and death. We as well, through our free will, may choose that route- a type of default life devoid of our active participation and lacking in any further profound meaning. On the other hand and with our limited skill and understanding, we may choose to work towards deepening our self-perception and self-understanding on the journey to become conscience of the meaning of our life.
We gaze at life through the smoky glass of our perception and make out vague images. As we deepen self-knowledge, those images will start to become clear.4
Our perception of reality itself undergoes constant change as new circumstances are created, either as a natural timeline or as a manner to keep things interesting. I am thankful to my parents for the support and upbringing they provided while I was young, but that world no longer exists. Had I limited my education to confront the challenges my parents faced, I would be wholly unprepared for the present. In that same sense, if we insist on preparing our children and students for the challenges of our current perceived reality, we become the primary obstacle for their full development of potential impact in their world and in their quest for self-knowledge.
Within this overall context, the challenge is to bring into perspective the concrete elements to be dealt with in designing education for self-determination. We will do so, within the structure of the three stages of knowledge as described by Plato and many others. I am compelled, as well, to note the correlation of these stages with the concepts of body, soul and spirit, as manifested in doing, being and consciousness.
In practical terms and in order to keep body and soul together, we must all occupy ourselves in some type of labor. Whether by choice, “accident” of birth or overwhelming external conditions, the options are endless and range from self-subsistence activity, unskilled and skilled labor to administrative, management and professional positions. Within these occupations, we find the further option of self-employment or entering into a contractual agreement as an employee.
Furthermore, we may deduce from history that many current occupations will disappear or be modified and that others yet unforeseen will open, even before our students are in the labor market. The question then is how to educate for labor skills given the wide range of options and types of employment and even more so, in light of the everchanging opportunities for employment.
We must accept that most educational programs are actually social conditioning, focused on creating good workers, consumers and citizens. This is not to be taken as an absolute criticism, rather as a candid observation. There are occupations that require very disciplined employees. As well, all production depends on consumption and we all benefit in an orderly society. We generally accept the “popular view common in East and West that businesses should indirectly control or even take over education to economically compete with other nations.”5 What is lacking however, is attention to models for self-employment and independence, along with the ability to naturally transit from one employment activity to another as options close and open.
I would contend that the current educational model of focusing on theory, through academic subjects, which are sometimes superficially applied (and more often not) through projects, leaves the student ill prepared for life and without the ability to abstract and further develop that knowledge. Indeed, many go through further training for particular jobs and the academics are completely forgotten in the process.
A simple change in direction and priorities would equip students with the ability to extrapolate from relatively simple projects out to any desired field of study and employment. With the project as a starting point, the academics become integrated as tools (no longer theory) to implement the project. As students develop the skills needed for the project, their interest will motivate an extrapolation in specific skills and the ability to adapt those skills to ever increasing complexity.
As a quick example, let’s take a greenhouse project and apply it to a school with students from kindergarten through high school. By involving students from the start and according to the capacity of each grade, we cover:
- Engineering: Architectural design, energy and water systems, building costs, planning and scheduling, and construction.
- Production: Agricultural production, investment return, programming of automated systems, investigation and lab work, pest and disease control, nutrition and organization.
- Promotion: Graphic arts, audio-visual presentations, consumer education, advertising and public policy.
- Marketing: Market studies and strategy, commercialization, financial management, administration and logistics.
Each of these activities can be extrapolated even further into specialized professional fields. The real challenge then becomes trying to keep up with the students.
It must be noted that this proposed change in education for labor skills has no ideological bend. It allows for the formation of good workers for the business sector, probably even much better qualified. At the same time, it provides training and support for independent labor and entrepreneurship, which has proven to be increasingly important for national economies.
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu6, Chinese Taoist Philosopher.
Who we are is much more important than what we do and yet little attention is given to this in education beyond games for leadership training and courses for problem-solving and creative thinking. The fact is that key elements in the makeup of who we are, namely character, temperament, intellect, will, emotions, responsibility, self-discipline and self-confidence must be developed internally and individually. They may be influenced or motivated to a degree from the exterior, but they cannot be taught.
Pre-urban societies managed to deal in part with this need for personal development through rites of passage as a condition to transit from childhood to full acceptance as an adult. A rite of passage tested courage, willpower, emotional maturity and survival skills, among others. We have done away with this ritual and replaced it with over-protection, lowered standards and have basically thrown ours hands in the air, “well, what can you do?” Forsaking this responsibility brings serious consequences, evident in our current society.
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” A very thought provoking quote by G. Michael Hopf7, in his work “Those Who Remain”, one which could actually lead us to view living in hard times as advantageous with regard to forming character.
The challenge then, in an educational program, becomes how to assist and motivate students in their building of character, of self-awareness and self-mastery. And how to do so without forcing hardship on those students. Indeed, we must not dismiss personal hardships which many students already face which need avenues and mechanisms to process and resolve.
Moving from rhetoric to action in assisting personal development is complex. Little has been done beyond the experimental stage within educational programs. Nevertheless it needs to be made a priority. A good starting point would be to incorporate empathy8, resiliency9, life skills and challenges into our program.
- Empathy: The age old adage “Know thyself”10 later emphasised by Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living”11 remains central to personal development. As it is also true that “The eye can’t see itself, except by reflection in other surfaces.”12 the examination of others may enlighten our own self-knowledge. This is call not call for judgement of others as part of school curriculum (we have much too much of that already), rather the incorporation of empathy as a means to discover our own motives, reactions and feelings through others.
- Resilience training must form a central placement in educational programs, with the purpose of motivating individual internal processes in stress management, thought awareness, learning from mistakes, choosing response and maintaining perspective.
- Life skills: Self-confidence stems from independence, the ability to survive and thrive without help. Establishing a list of activities with student participation would be a great start. Perhaps the Scout merit system could be used as a guide, although the list could include public speaking, singing and theatre, activities which make most of us cringe with fear.
- Challenges: Students should be motivated to create their own challenges, establishing goals and making a commitment to complete- a type of do-it-yourself rite of passage. Tests of physical/mental endurance, including fasting, should be encouraged.
Self-knowledge is a continuous process and not a stage which will be completed. The next stage of “knowledge of the idea of the Good” will naturally feedback into and expand self-awareness. We may leave a profession at any point in time, but who we are is a continuous work in process.
Knowledge of the Good, or ones place in the world.
“The True, the Beautiful, the Good – through all the ages of man’s conscious evolution these words have expressed three great ideals: ideals which have instinctively been recognized as representing the sublime nature and lofty goal of all human endeavour.”13
The endeavour to reach these lofty ideals inspires the pursuit of the higher human values of peace, respect, equality, responsibility, integrity, loyalty, justice, honesty and love. This is where the who we are interacts with others (and with our own reflection in others). These values originate through inspiration and imagination which cannot be taught as such, rather they are authentic manifestations of our ideals.
The practice of these values create our ethics or code of behaviour which guides our interaction with others. Often values and ethics are viewed as limiting of our freedom which may be true to the extent there are imposed as rules and regulations by an outside force. When arrived at through inspiration and imagination, values actually free us even more so by removing our lower ego from the discussion. As this occurs, we do not lie or steal from others because we understand that we are only affecting ourselves, in the sense that we lose much more than we gain with each negative act.
We are obviously living through a period in which this third stage of knowledge is not a priority and the lack of authentic values and ethics has opened the way for extravagant political correctness as a poor substitute. Furthermore, and perhaps indirectly, the commercial approach of promoting “good global citizenship” by establishing universal objectives as benchmarks for access to international “development” funding, among other perks, while good intentioned, drastically cheapens those same values ostentatiously touted. These approaches twist values into regulation. When we create communal regulation bypassing the authentic individual process of building a code of conduct, we are only creating an enforcement problem.
Recognizing our current societal mentality that everything spiritual has religious connotations and as such has no place in education, the route we have open to develop the knowledge of the Ideal of Good is philosophy. Selected literature, iconic historical events, art and music which mirror relevant current dilemmas may be a good starting point. Individual reflection and Socratic debate would be the applied methodology.
Wrapping it up
It is notable that as we progress from the tangible to the sublime, from labor skills to ideals, we find a drastic reduction in available resources and experiences. In all likelihood, this may be given the increasing internal nature and personal responsibility required with each stage, although we need to be realistic regarding other interests at play.
This brings us back to the matter of freedom. The three stages of knowledge as proposed by Plato, and fleshed out here, have the potential of freeing us from ungratifying labor occupations, freeing us from greed and envy which turns us into debt slaves, and freeing us from our lower nature which allows us to be managed as sheep by those who may not have our best interest in mind. Education for self-determination requires attention and balanced focus on all three stages of development of knowledge: knowledge of one’s own job, self-knowledge, and knowledge of the Idea of the Good.
“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of (true) education.” – Rudolf Steiner
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”—Frank Zappa14
- Myungioon Lee, Plato’s philosophy of education: Its implication for current education, https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI9517932/, 1
- Without trying to oversimplify the debate between Free Will and Determination, I will take the position that accepting determination (our actions being determined or pre-determined by forces beyond our control) is actually an exercise of free will.
- I cannot take credit for this analogy, but learned it so long ago that I cannot remember where it originated.
- My personal take on 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” KJV
- Myungioon Lee, Plato’s philosophy of education: Its implication for current education, https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI9517932/, 1
- A semi-legendary figure, Laozi (or Lao Tzu) was usually portrayed as a 6th-century BC contemporary of Confucius, but some modern historians consider him to have lived during the Warring States period of the 4th century BC, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laozi
- the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
- http://nfs.sparknotes.com/juliuscaesar/page_12.html No Fear Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, Page 3
- Truth Beauty and Goodness, A lecture by Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, January 19, 1923, https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19230119p01.html
- Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, activist and filmmaker. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Zappa