Sunday, February 7, 2010

Vol #1, Col #4: Edu-MY-nation: Taking a Page from Plato’s Philosophers Kings

I’ve met some of the most ignorant individuals in my life, at my so-called “prestigious” Ivy-league university. Not just ignorant, but close-minded, prejudice, and unrealistic as well. To sum it up, they quite simply have no concept of the “real world,” and accordingly, despite boasting B.A.s and M.A.s out their ying-yangs, they remain ill-equipped to deal with many of life’s “stresses, and messes” (if you will).

While said individuals are successfully exceeding the 4.0 GPA mark, when it comes to “street smarts”, and EQ (yes you read correctly, I’m referring to the much overlooked, but indispensable domain of “emotional intelligence”), it’s a whole nother story.
Undoubtedly, this phenomenon can partly be accounted for by the appeal of my school to “trust-fund” types, but in my view, our current academic canon (and its points of emphasis) should carry the brunt of this burden as well. While it’d be foolish (and blatantly inaccurate) of me to suggest that our Western-borne educational system has ever triumphed in the impartation of “life skills”, I do believe that aspects of our older curricula (which would aid in the development of not just well-rounded students, but better people, in general) are worth reviving. But before we embark on a little academic “time travelling”, perhaps an illustrative example of exactly what I mean when I say that my fellow post-secondary peers possess a whole host of unredeemable qualities, is necessary.

Last year, as part of my degree requirements, I had to (emphasis on HAD, and not in a positive way) acquire a full year credit in a hard science. Naturally, being a student of the social science, artistic, and humanities realm, I opted for what seemed to me to be the least of all evils (ie: geology!) Despite this area NOT appealing to my particular tastes, I was actually so successful in this endeavour that, at one point, I found myself sitting in my prof’s office overviewing an exam on which I obtained a high 90, with her trying to convince me that I should promptly change my major. (This little tidbit will prove relevant in a moment - just you wait – but in the meantime, back to this tale’s plot development…)

For one of my assignments in this course, I was required to grace the hallways of the Bio/Enviro Sci. building in order to view various mineral samples, which were on exhibit in glass cases lining the walls. It was there that I met a seemingly intelligent student (he’d apparently been studying at our academy for over seven years, and was working on his thesis) who proceeded to not only introduce himself by showering me with insults, but even after a severe bitch-out, continued to poke and prod me (I guess he really wasn’t lying when he said he’d been there for seven years, ie: his only form of interaction with anything in almost a decade was likely in the form of a dissection and so partaking in a normal conversation wasn’t really something he was all that practiced in!)

Despite my casual appearance and clear interest in the exhibits, the first words he uttered in my general direction came in the form of a sardonic query, “Rocks for jocks?” I immediately shot back, “Do I look like a jock?(For those of you unfamiliar with the connotations laden within my adversary’s expression, essentially he was calling me stupid, and making the assumption, right from the get-go, that I couldn’t possibly be a serious student of the hard sciences, though my final grade in the course would suggest otherwise.) This wit-LESS banter continued for quite some time, until I just got so fed up that frankly I decided I’d complete the assignment later (and let me tell ya, procrastinating and/or putting things off goes against every fiber in my being).

During the process of this entire ordeal, all I could think was, “Wow! For someone so smart, how could he be so stupid?” I even contemplated suggesting to him to look into (for his own good) completing a course in human relations psychology, but figured the attempt would fall on deaf ears. So how does this relate to former models of post-secondary excellence? Well, at one point, basic communication skills (ie: reading, writing, and rhetoric – the very subjects we delved into last week) were heralded! But moreover than that, the foundation of all of Western thought and the entire Western schooling system lay in the precepts of Ancient Greek philosophy.

Plato founded the first official university known as, “The Academy” in 387 B.C. with its driving force dedicated to the “Socratic” search for truth (in a nutshell, this method consisted of continually drilling others on their opinions, until they could no longer justify why it was they believed what they did – hence it’s a rather clever means at getting at underlying discriminatory viewpoints). In addition, it is believed that Plato regularly posed various social problems to his students, and made it a competitive exercise among them to see who could come up with the best (and most humanitarian of) solutions.

The greatest strength of philosophy as a course of study, in general, however ultimately (when taught properly, that is), is that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer. Everything is entirely subjective and as a consequence, by being exposed to this discipline, it pretty much goes without saying that one’s worldview, conceptions, and ideologies will be greatly expanded. The result? A human being who proudly embraces a liberal, inclusive, and sympathetic attitude towards others and their particular life circumstances. In a world where racism still runs rampant (don’t kid yourself, it’s just better veiled than it used to be), embracing an overall philosophical approach in the educational system is definitely something worth striving for.

Long after the Sophists, Stoics, and Epicureans, education largely became the province of clergyman; as a result, religion and academia became entangled, with Latin (because it was the “holy” language) purported as the most important of the subjects. The Middle Ages’ view was that education was intended to, “instill obedience, discipline and habits of cleanliness,” into its students. Considering the fairly recent moral panics surrounding schoolyard violence, and a general air of insolence among pupils (directed at any and every authority figure), perhaps the former of these two areas could use a little extra “umph”. As for the latter, well as they say, “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

During this time, increased attention was also paid to the encouragement of artistic development; as an artist myself, you know I’m going to have no qualms about this venture. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that artists have been assigned the societal role of modern day philosophers, and therefore, not only should artistic pursuits be accentuated in schools (arts programs sadly, whether performance or visual, are always the first to be hit by budget cuts), but further, art overall in society is what promotes change, and therefore it should be accorded higher value by the general public. But that’s an entirely separate discussion, in it of itself.

Our final destination on this educational journey is that of “The Age of Enlightenment” (or in chronological terms, the 18th century). During this time, there was a forceful push away from religion, and a move towards critical thinking and reason, along with the expansion of literacy to the broader public (ie: it wasn’t just cool for the rich folks anymore).

Education in the 18th century was conceived of as a, “necessary tool to overcome ignorance, fear and superstition” with the ultimate aim being to realize a more, “open-minded and egalitarian society”. As this “Age” was predated only a century prior by the height of the Renaissance which looked to revive many “classical” practices, the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy, in this view, is not coincidental.

While the flaws (namely, the lack of access to women and other minority groups, or at best, the segregation policies, not to mention the widely-accepted corporal punishment practices, and well, those pesky uniforms!) of our previous educational academies largely outweigh their merits, I do think there is something to be said about reviving or at least ushering forth a new respect and regard for certain subjects of the past.

So…what do I feel should be brought “back to the future”? HOME EC. for starters! (Oh, the days of the 1950s, when women attended college just as much to earn their M.R.S. as any degree!) But in all seriousness, Home Ec = a valuable commodity, and here’s why: far too many college-aged kids don’t have a clue as to how to darn socks, do their own laundry, or prepare a meal that doesn’t consist of a questionable powered substance labeled “cheese mix” and bleached flour noodles. After all, mommy dearest isn’t going to be around forever to fulfill these demands! Aside from establishing a skill-base on the domestic front, I also feel that more focus deserves to be paid to both the liberal arts and the social sciences because of their capacity to open up one's mind, and therefore, one's world (and I’m not just saying that ‘cause I’ve majored in both).

While it has been said that we’re currently training students for technological jobs that have yet to be created, it doesn’t matter how qualified, accomplished, and up-to-speed on the latest “gear” one is, if you’re lacking in basic interpersonal abilities, as well as a global perspective, you simply ain’t gonna cut it in today’s over-saturated and over-credentialized market.

Finally, though I don’t believe that any of the following have ever been offered as REQUIRED electives in any highschool and/or post-secondary program (at least not in North America), I think that teaching students how to budget (time, money, their social lives, and the like), how to deduce whether one’s relationships (both intimate and platonic – ah another Plato reference) are healthy, as well as how to child-rear are all skills that could go a long way. Though I’m sure plenty would argue that said domains really ought to be in the charge of one’s parents, let’s face it, many of them don’t have it figured out either!