Examining the purported purposelessness of our education system
“All men by nature desire knowledge.”
When Aristotle said “knowledge”, he very much meant contemplative knowledge.
In fact, Aristotle himself hypothesised three sorts of lives, respectively: devoted to pleasure, to politics, and thirdly to knowledge and understanding. He believed that pleasure cannot be an end in itself, as pleasure itself so often must be judged upon using other criteria, hindering the approach to eudaimonia; he also believed that because politics is an ethical activity, that is always remedial, it cannot be used to reach eudaimonia ultimately. He therefore asserted that the natural telos of a human is to seek knowledge and understanding, or “living a philosopher’s life”.
Contemplation has become a staple of education since the academies of Ancient Greece, and has always been seen as the most virtuous form of education; in fact, a life-long endeavour in contemplative knowledge.
How to learn about a pear
If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.
~ Mao Zedong
It is indeed paradoxical: once a pear is bitten into, it deviates from its original form, seemingly betraying the intent of understanding the pear. Should we panic? We should not, for this posits an alternative to the contemplative tradition of Western education—a pragmatic, interactive mode of education.
We can observe this mode in higher education, particularly in the attainment of post-graduate degrees, where students are required to engage in academic research — the homebase of any PhD student is not the classroom, but the lab and library, and the entire course is not prescribed by other academics. They are actively taking part in the modification, by addition, revision or falsification alike, of the sphere of current knowledge of which they are acquiring from.
It must be insisted on, however, that there can be no dualism, in that: the external world of knowledge, versus the internal world of ignorance — there is only the deed of learning, which emulsifies the action of learning and the knowledge acquired.
Why should this mode of education be imposed upon younger students, in the context of this discussion of the entire education system as a whole? After all, it would be unreasonable to expect a second-grader, young and fresh-faced, to learn about pathogens today and create an antiviral vaccine tomorrow.
Not coincidentally, this resonates with Hannah Arendt’s concept of vita activa (active life). Arendt stressed that both vita contemplativa (contemplative life) and vita activa hold distinct concerns for a human individual, but neither are inferior or superior to each other. And vita activa entails labour, work and action, of which politics takes place as a prime form of action. From these principles, politics should hold a substantial role in the education system. Politics need not be evil and selfishly oriented upon personal preferences—politics, to her, is the manifestation of active citizenship, the deliberation of civic engagement on matters of communal concerns. Politics exist wherever people exist, and are an integral part of public life.
In a narrative perpetuated mostly by the pro-establishment camp, politics in education have been dismissed as a distraction to serious studies of rigorous subjects. Even Tung Chee-hwa, under whom the Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) was formed, denounced Liberal Studies as the culprit responsible for the promotion of radical political beliefs among students. In spite of the all-too-valid criticism against the pragmatic execution of this ambitious curriculum, the underlying themes of active civic engagement and political understanding remain rather indisputable. Yet, it would be more than hypocritical to assume that civic engagement could be left as a subject of contemplation, or as an adult responsibility — where the ultimate telos of civic education is to put it to use, finally, as an adult. In particular, during this time of unprecedented repression of discourse, of civic awareness and political knowledge, even an attempt at these is already a step into the public realm — and a proclamation of active citizenship. Civic education, like Liberal Studies, remains a conspicuous case of why contemplative knowledge cannot be nurtured independently from active participation and modification of such knowledge.
In the case of Liberal Studies, it is rather ironic—the telos of education is used as a means, merely to further the ends of authority. By branding education teleologically with the ultimate acquisition of a diploma and completing a set of seven subjects, the government rationalises its suppression of student political activities.
You better watch out, you better not cry,
You better not pout, I'm telling you why ...
He's making a list, he's checking it twice,
He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice ...
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Santa Claus is coming to town
~ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie
It is, frankly, impossible to disprove the existence of Santa Claus, as much as it is equally as hard as to prove his existence.
After all, is it valid for one to ever even have the slightest hopes in the appearance of parcels under the Christmas tree after the Eve? Furthermore, is it valid for one to commit good acts, to cease naughtiness, to cease pouting, for the sake of anticipating the telos (i.e. end goal) of being on Santa's Good List? It is true that good acts can be meaningful and good in themselves ( bearing in mind, of course, that pouting is no crime in itself). Though such anticipation is absurd and foolish, if done only for the telos of waiting something purely contingent—it is a blank cheque.
This same blank cheque is reflected in a similarly teleological approach to education. From the top, some newer universities have branded themselves as merely a pre-professional setting, where students are geared for no other objective but to become the most lucrative, pinguid and appealing wage worker for their future employers, typically Silicon-Valley-type tech companies, having acquired all the skills as a worker from coding to Español to the language and accoutrements of the business world. One of such universities, with the sole, self-proclaimed goal of “get students hired as software engineers”, even goes to the length of demanding tuition fees four years after graduation only if they earn$60000 a year, incentivising the university into teaching exclusively desirable skills.
Overall, it would be paradoxical to see education as an investment in human capital, and at a triplet of costs—the labour invested in learning, the financial cost of institutionalised education (paid by individuals or government expenditure alike), and the time spent, concurrently, the opportunity cost that can be spent otherwise on “economically productive” labour. The issue with the teleological approach is the illusion of prescription, that an input of traits, all of which can be conveniently “taught”, surely leads to an output of utility and prosperity. It is only made more absurd and unpragmatic once we consider the dynamicness and volatility of our current economy.
What if: we can learn without learning
Every student will, at some point in life, have hoped that they could have understood a thorny concept, like quantum tunnelling, or read a difficult book, with the ease of a snap of the fingers. I had a conversation with a computer science student, a friend of mine, who insisted that the education system could be optimised if we could only “plug a USB into a brain-digital interface”, and thus preload the entirety of elementary knowledge into the brain, before students even began formal education. It went approximately like this:
Friend: Wouldn’t it be so much more efficient if we all didn’t have to learn addition and multiplication, from scratch? After all, much of this elementary knowledge would be invariant, and impersonal, from person to person anyway.
Me: Isn’t the process of learning also valuable?
Friend: It’s really not like we all had a great time learning elementary maths anyway.
Me: Maybe even the pain of it can be meaningful. But also, as you have always liked to, if you consider a child a mathematical system, you can see how increasing the number of these invariant, built-in statements of knowledge always constrains where
Even without a brain-digital interface, standalone knowledge has been made so easily acquirable for everyone, particularly youngsters, nowadays. Children, a third of my age, have already mastered the artistry of engineering conveniently through Minecraft, and have now progressed to teaching me the ways of the mystical world of Roblox—the same children I was supposed to be teaching physics to. One may argue that games cannot draw complete parallels with real life—but what can? Our education system? The gamification of education has been a recent trend, from Minecraft to Duolingo to Kahoot, and the packaging of knowledge into easy-to-swallow pills appear to be replacing traditional classroom models of education, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Second of all, the freedom to reject knowledge as offered in the process of learning is integral. This is not to say that students should reject the knowledge they have been taught at school, rather, methodological doubt must always be retained, permitted and even encouraged. Curiosity, which is seen as a universal virtue in education, cannot be fostered without doubt—the realisation of flaws in narratives leading to the will to jigsaw these missing pieces together again.
Take a concrete and rather personal example: As the nuisance to math teachers that I was, I would question even the most fundamental mathematical facts and axioms, such as, “How can we prove parallel lines do not ever intersect, if we can’t extend them infinitely?” I was almost grateful that my teacher, annoyed and concerned for the rest of the class, did not simply dismiss my doubts, but simply left them unanswered. Indeed, I had no concrete rationale to doubt the teacher’s statement about parallel lines, but the freedom I always retained to doubt every of a teacher’s statement came into use four years later, when I finally learnt about polar geometry. Parallel lines, indeed, can meet, in non-Euclidean 3D geometry, and later, vice versa, I learnt about skew lines—non-parallel lines which do not meet. It was, indeed, the sense of contingency, the sense that knowledge taught might not be intrinsically true, that germinated my curiosity. Similarly, if I were not permitted to doubt the preachings at church, I would not have pestered the pastors with questions like “Why would God allow sin, as a perfectly moral being?”, and hence would not have inquired into the texts of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, both of whom very much extended my understanding of theology.
Indeed, the obsession with doubt may not be the most efficient for a student’s learning, yet preceding the question of efficiency to achieve an end is the value of learning itself. Its value can only be validated by curiosity. The awareness of the possibility of doubt should be an integral part of the methodology of education, and only by that, a student can rationalise why it is valuable to continue learning in perpetuo.
So, is there ultimately a Natural Telos of Education?
It appears clear that the only way for education to be truly meaningful is to retain it as an end-in-itself. This has been no new conclusion of mine, drawing from the more elaborated argument in Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, yet I would emphasise this: taking education as a prescription to a successful telos is becoming more volatile now and in the future than ever before.
This illusion of prescription is disintegrating—unlike the early days of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the consideration of labour — i.e. productive economic power — as the primary purpose of humankind, appears remotely true. The life expectancy of a human has since become longer, yet the expectancy of a prescribed occupation has become shorter. It is no longer pragmatic to be trained for a craft of labour in the strictest sense—one would willingly accept the deal to train as a blacksmith in the 1800s where it very much might become a life-long endeavour, but saying the same would be ludicrous nowadays. In fact, a modern educational system should prepare students not for a prescribed employment, but, rather, for unemployment—to understand one’s human interests when disconnected from labour. Hence, any prescribed telos is constraining.
Yet here I appear to be babbling about at least secondary or even tertiary education—is there a telos for primary education? For, particularly, children who have not yet matured to cross from the private realm of families, neighbourhood and friends to the public realm of societal and political concerns. At such a stage, perhaps the telos should be vaguely defined as to foster curiosity. This is, metaphorically, putting yarn in front of a litter of kittens—not to feed them the yarn directly, but to deliberately encourage them to fidget with the yarn. Only by forming a solid habit of curiosity will the student hold it in perpetuo, as they mature into the public realm and self-motivated learning.
This article is not a proclamation that education is purposeless, and neither is it to say that students should be treated without any universal ideal of education. Rather, it seeks to explain that emphasis should be put on the ethos of education—respecting the individual integrities of the educators and students alike in what is rightfully taught in the classroom—instead of being guided by prescribed telos.