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Howard F Dossor on the Role of Education
An interview with Christos Fifis
Howard F Dossor is an ex-Congregational minister who left the Church after discarding his religious views. He moved to the educational sector and taught for a number of years in schools and at La Trobe Universityís Language Centre before his appointment as the foundationt Registrar and Secretary of Victoria University. In his retirement he pursued his intellectual interests in writing books and articles and presenting lectures on the English philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson and the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. He started studying the work of Kazantzakis in 1956 when he first read the novel Zorba the Greek. Several of his lectures on Kazantzakis are presented on YouTube. Howard is a contemporary thinker exploring various aspects of culture and education. In the present interview he expounds his thoughts on the role of education.
Christos N. Fifis
Christos Fifis: Howard, you have worked many years in various fields of education as a teacher and an administrator. You have observed and reflected on developments in culture and education. I wonder if you would share some of your thoughts about education with us.
Howard F Dossor: Christos, in the opening paragraph to his study, Philosophy and Education, Glenn Langford asserted that "most people know what education is because they have had direct experience of it but of course it does not follow that they can say what it is. But at least everybody would agree that it has got something to do with what goes on in schools, colleges and universities." Any concession that schools, colleges and universities are the essential loci of education provides grounds for an examination of what, in fact, takes place in schools. Regrettably, my own observations have exposed factors which might impede education rather than facilitate it.
Observable over the past several decades has been a movement away from the traditional objectives aimed at by schools and universities and an embrace of what is perhaps best described as a vocationally-oriented curriculum. The value of schooling has become more and more identified as having a direct relationship to a studentís career prospects and, ultimately, to their earning capacity. Notwithstanding this shift, a failure to satisfy the needs of potential employers for adequately trained school leavers, continues to be expressed. It appears that there has been a decline in standards in literacy and numeracy.
CF: Do vocational factors, then, affect the quality of Education?
HFD: Yes, and the attention given to a studentís earning capacity points to another concern. Schooling itself has become more and more an economic commodity. The sale of schooling has become a major item in many national economies, which have become increasingly dependent on world trade in the product of schooling. The sale of institution-based courses presently occupies second position ($35billion in 2018) in the ranking of export earnings for Australia, Two facts, globalization and the need for competence in the English language, facilitate this trade. However, two problems associated with it present themselves. In the first place, the quality of the schooling offered is to be questioned. Many students, after studying in English-speaking countries, return to their own country often fundamentally incompetent in English or in the subjects they have studied. Increasingly, universities have had to deal with widespread plagiarism, utilized by foreign students in a fraudulent attempt to satisfy course requirements.
CF: It is a fact that overseas students have become more and more visible in Australian educational institutions.
HFD: A second problem associated with the sale of schooling is that it restricts the number of places available to the host population and vast numbers of young people are forced to opt out of tertiary education, or into shoddy and often fraudulent commercial operations that are designed primarily to accumulate wealth for their operators.
CF: You feel that schooling can be divisive?
HFD: There is another problem. The division between private and public schools raises the question of the quality differential that exists between their offerings and outcomes. To a remarkable degree, social stratification can be recognized in accord with the choices, made by parents, across this divide. Evidence seems to suggest that private schools offer access to more professional occupations with higher salary levels than the offerings of government schools. Even in the most egalitarian community, the exercise of education is divisive. The answer to the question, "What school did you attend?" will often lead to an individual being ranked on a scale of social status.
CF: How would you rate the quality of teaching in our schools and colleges?
HFD: It is an axiom of our thinking about schooling that it requires the influence of a body of teachers. We have come to understand education as being the product of teaching. But teaching is a by-product of learning rather than the reverse. Where there is no learning there is no teaching. The student who will not, cannot, or for whatever reason does not, learn, remains outside the educational thrust no matter how many teachers surround him and seek to influence him. Teachers themselves are, by and large, the product of schooling and tend to regard schooling as a fixed model that gives definition to educational endeavour.
In a vital educational model, every human being becomes, simultaneously, both student and teacher. In our common interactions we exert influences upon each other and it is out of such interactions and the use we make of them that education proceeds. Artificial interfaces between individuals playing imposed roles may not prohibit education but there is no guarantee that they will enhance it. There is a spontaneity at work in real education that cannot be manufactured. While teachers have their place in schools, it is in personal relationships with their students and in creating a creative environment among them, rather than in impersonal professional interfaces, that their capacity to make an educational contribution, rests. Teacher-centred activities in classrooms is of limited value to students. The practice, common among teachers, of addressing themselves to idealized images of perfect students must always be counter-productive.
CF: Are there any other concerning issus?
HFD: Another issue is the emphasis our contemporary practice places upon the individual. Personal development is the popular catch-phrase. But the personal, properly defined, entails more than the individual. It places the individual in interpersonal relationships and relationships with the world-wide community. It acknowledges that man is a social animal. The personal is an amalgam of the individual and the social and education, properly understood, recognizes this fact. Just as education cannot occur in an individual vacuum but engages the individual in a vast network of relationships, so it cares as much for the health and welfare of the community as it cares for the individual. All too often, schooling, which frequently endorses a fierce and dehumanizing competition between its students, denies or overlooks this principle.
CF: What else is of concern to you?
HFD: A more subtle influence at work in our thinking about education is an embrace of scientism as opposed to a commitment to science. While we recognize the value of science, the notion that science holds the key to meaning, values, quality and purpose must be exposed as unsupportable. One is reminded of the division, by the English novelist C P Snow, into two cultures, those of the sciences and the arts - a dualism that must be brought into unity if humanity is to progress. Scientific investigation has its place in education, but it must perpetually be brought into balance with the insights made available through the arts and through emotional experience.
Perhaps the major difficulty associated with the prevailing understanding of education is the fact that it is widely understood to be identical with learning in discrete subject areas. Under the guise of what is regarded as being specialization, schooling has the capacity to imprison individuals in a particular vocational mindset with the effect of closing their minds to other fields, no matter how closely those other fields might be connected to that central mindset. The specialization of academics is particularly relevant here for they are often incapable of directing their students to explore congruent fields of interest.
CF: Howard, how would you define education?
HFD: The definition of education exclusively in terms of schooling overlooks the fact that learning is simply a vehicle of education and not its essence. Of course, learning is of importance and schools ought to continue to engage in the promotion of learning but they should be regarded as communities of learning rather than exclusive centres of education. Nor should education be regarded exclusively as being synonymous with intellectual development. Education, properly understood, engages the entire person and every aspect of personal development. In equating education with institutionalized learning, we sever ourselves from a wide domain of experience that is available to us in the development of our own character. Learning is an aspect of living and a means of incorporating experience. What primarily matters is not what we learn but how we utilize what we learn. The critical function of learning is the formulation of a developing personality and community. But no amount of knowledge can, of itself, ensure education. Other factors must be taken into account.
CF: And what are those factors?
HFD: Charles R Fall, an American Professor of Education, proposed, that "the immediate and most pressing task for education is that of redefining and then redesigning the whole educational thrust in our societies." The public perception of education is in need of change if for no other reason than that education is itself revisionary by nature and is constantly seeking new forms and directions for growth.
Countless attempt have been made over the centuries to formulate an appropriate definition of education. For as many that have proved to contain an element of insight there are as many that have failed to impress. If we offer a definition here, it is not in the hope that it should be universally embraced as being the final word on its subject but as the basis for further discussion and clarification of the central issues that need to be addressed.
In thinking about eduction, two principles might be highlighted. The first of these is the notion of process, as exemplified in the philosophy of the educational philosopher John Dewey. Education is not to be thought of as having a beginning or end but as being a continuous flow of interaction between an individual and what we can only call the life-force. It relates not merely to the individual but to the humans species. It does not begin with the individualís birth, nor does it end with the individualís death for there is evidence that after death an individualís experience is assumed by society through what we might call an act of osmosis.
CF: So Dewey was as much concerned with adult as with childrenís education?
HFD: Thatís correct. But Dewey also offers us the second principle underlying an appropriate definition of education. While asserting that education is a process, he specified that it was a process that engaged the individual, not in a preparation for life but in the full gamut of their present experience. Education, for Dewey, was nothing less than life itself. If this seems a strange claim, it becomes clearer when we reflect, not only on the life of the individual but on the nature of life itself. Both seem to be an ongoing development, or continuing evolution.
Education, then, may be regarded as the continuous and progressive development, refinement and application, of human attributes that contribute to the enhancement of life through a creative evolution.
Education is not the province of individual endeavour or even of social aspiration but of the ongoing flow of life. One is reminded of John F Kennedyís inauguration plea that his fellow Americans should not ask what America can do for them but what they can do for America. The foundation of education lies, not in what schooling can do for you but in what you can do for life.
CF: So schools play only a part in education.
HFD: Yes, but their part is nonetheless important. In 1970, the Canadian philosopher Ivan Illich, suggested that we should deschool society. Perhaps it is impractical to think in terms of doing away with schools but it appears to be essential that we redesign them. But whatever planning goes into reschooling is likely to be much more effective if it takes into account what J R Darling, formerly Principal of Geelong Grammar, called "the education of a civilized man."
CF: What are the implications of this for what is taught in schools and universities?
HFD: In terms of curricula, attention needs to be paid to the multi-dimensional realm of experience that makes us what we are and energizes us to advance as a species. The title of Gustave Flaubertís novel LíEducation Sentimentale, refers not to a nostalgic recall of an individualís childhood schooling but, rather, the education of the sentiments. In fact, Flaubert used his novel to deal with human growth in the sentiments of love and friendship. Educational practice needs to pay attention to these and other crucial human sentiments.
The adoption of such an understanding of education would have a profound effect on current educational practice. It could rescue us from the dictates of religious, cultural, historical and philosophical ideologies. It could connect the individual to a broader reality and establish a foundation for a curriculum that takes account of meaning, values, purpose, personal and social morality and universal quality. It could magnify our potential to effect creative change to our self-image and locate us closer to our own true identity as an evolving species. It could bring into balance our lopsided fascination with knowledge and highlight our need for wisdom.
CF: Thank you very much Howard.
(Dr Christos N. Fifis is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University)
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