The focus of our education system says a lot about where we think young lives are heading. So what does our education system communicate to the next generation about the purpose of learning and its place in our lives? Friends and educators, Dr Luke Fenwick and Dr Roshan Allpress sat down to have a conversation about our culture of education, and what might be.
I love the emphasis in the New Zealand curriculum on foster- ing “lifelong learners.” It is aspirational, and it is vocational in a thick sense: the emphasis acknowledges that learning is something good for us, and even something constitutive of who we are. In particular, learning addresses and continues to address something needful for the duration of our lives. But are we actually committed to lifelong learning, whether institutionally or personally?
A good starting place is to affirm the link between the kind of society we want to live in and the education we pursue. As Plato pointed out nearly two and a half thousand years ago in The Republic, there is an intrinsic link between the character of individuals and the character of society as a whole, and thus between the goods of individuals and the good of society. Plato thought education elaborated a distinctive vision of the good, and in shaping learners it forms both individuals and society. So, in one sense, lifelong learning seems a self-evident good in a society experiencing rapid technological and cultural change, as ours is. When industries and employment are being disrupted, and community identities challenged by globalising forces, it is appropriate to value the kind of adaptability and ongoing growth that sits within the concept of lifelong learning.
However, there is a narrative that is frequently assumed in our accounts of lifelong learning that sees education as primarily an adaptive or “maximising” activity. So, for example, if I lose my job because of technological change, or if I simply no longer find the career I initially trained for fulfilling, further education allows me to adapt, and to achieve better outcomes. The challenge, when this be- comes our predominant picture of what learning is for, is that it tends to obscure any understanding that education is about the lifelong cultivation of the self in community—of forming people who pursue and embody worthwhile values and virtues.
This obscuring of understanding can function at an individual level—when students make study choices based on what will be possible in the years following graduation, rather than what kind of formation they will undergo. It leads many students to limit their attention to that which is necessary to achieve in their assessments; tests that function as hoops to jump through to unlock the next stage of opportunity. But it also happens at a systemic level. Governments want to see that education funding is well spent, and look to establish feedback loops that show measurable and desirable outcomes for employers or communities and training providers. Parents and students pore over league tables of schools and universities that allow them to compare quantifiable measures of outcomes—whether exam results, or graduate earnings.
I wonder how truly lifelong learning is if we take your description. Pragmatism contributes to some of the issues you highlight, Roshan, and I think it should give us pause as we consider whether lifelong learning is simply a nice sentiment, a cliché, a blithe market- ing strategy. New Zealanders often think about learning in occupational terms (and vocation shrinks to be synonymous with occupation): we learn in order to get a job that will deliver money (and food, shelter, clothing and maybe some disposable income). Necessities are the goal, and learning and money are the instruments that bring about the goal. Surely learning should serve in this way, and we should praise this service.
But what does lifelong learning look like in a context where pragmatism is our only philosophy? As you say, a calculus of utility requires that I learn instrumentally to achieve ends I have chosen, and when I have got what I need, learning ceases.
My own experience of learning is a little different, and though education must serve important ends such as employment, I’ve found education can also be an end in itself. Things that are ends in themselves (“intrinsic goods”) provide rest. We rest in intrinsic goods, because they are not relative to some other good, which might compel us or require us elsewhere. In other words, ends in themselves provide a rest that frees us. This is quite abstract, but love is an illustration. At heart I love my wife because of who she is. If I loved her on account of another, overriding reason, such as economic gain, when hardship arrives and impinges on our earning capacity, our bond would disintegrate. Our love frees us from subservience to wealth. Though we must still earn in order to survive, for us economic gain is not an end in itself, love is.
Education can be a joy on account of itself, and it can lead us into something like love. Recall your most exciting period in education. I think many people will recall a particularly inspired and inspiring teacher. Not so much a teacher who made you more aware of the narrowly practical or financial implications of the subject matter, but aware instead of the profundity of the subject matter—the excitement of its depths and vertigo of its mystery. The subject matter truly gives itself to us when we come to it without any controlling matrix of our own interests, and great teaching in my experience, is able to create a context where the subject matter can disclose itself freely. The teacher has been there before and found something worthy of wonder.
She is both the “sage on the stage,” because she’s experienced (and reflection on experience is fundamental to sagacity), and the “guide on the side,” because she participates in the event of learning. If the subject matter has a mysterious freedom of its own, the teacher has a form of intimacy with it that is not mastery (as ownership of a set of facts) but is simply a result of attention, experience, and love.
Education in this vein, I’ve found, is essential to lifelong learn- ing, because it sticks to us over the long haul. I think it does this because much learning has the character of revelation. Sometimes the implications of our learning take time to break upon us with full force. Think of a moment when the “lights have turned on” for you, a “Eureka” event, when fragments come together to form a whole that makes sense of our experience. The human mind is richly associative, and our past learning can be lifelong, no matter where and when we first received it, for it goes to work on us and continues to work on us. That’s been the influence of my best teachers and of learning loved for the sake of it, as well as for what it can serve for the sake of other things.
I think your point about education introducing us to things that are “worthy of wonder” and of our love and attention is exactly right. The bleak impression we have of much of education is too often exacerbated by education institutions who (frequently for understandable reasons) market their programmes as consumer products—sometimes even as “tickets” to a better career or a more fulfilling lifestyle. Ironically, communities and employers would be better served in the long run if students saw entering an educational community as a commitment to enter into a particular way of living (that is, more than just the stereotypical student lifestyle). This would shift the focus from the question of whether the piece of paper awarded at the end of a programme is sufficiently aligned with the skills requirements of an employer, to the question of what kind of formation is going on during the study.
Simone Weil described education as the cultivation of persistent attentiveness to things that matter. The best education introduces us to subjects and insights that are worthy of our attention, and helps us develop the habitus necessary to study them. This is a vastly different understanding of the “contract” between learner and lecturer than frequently occurs in our tertiary contexts. Lecturers should not perform as gatekeepers or signposts who point students towards career goals. Rather, they are those who model attentiveness to worthy subjects of human attention, and set up students to engage with these subjects their whole lives. Whether this happens in large lecture theatres or in one-on-one tutorials is less relevant than how teachers and learners understand their relationship.
We need to recover an understanding of teachers, lecturers, and apprentices’ supervisors as embodying and cultivating goods in themselves that are not always immediately reducible to maximised outcomes, and of education institutions as contexts that assign value to these goods, rather than just market prices. Universities, for example, are institutions that embody the high value our society puts on the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. The way that they have cultivated a love of learning—expressed in lives dedicated to scholarship—across many centuries is not reducible to teaching any set of disciplinary skills. Similarly, the Scouting and Guiding associations are not set up merely to teach children how to do the activities represented by badges, but instead are institutions that care deeply about the formation of particular kinds of people. Note that one of the things that is common to both the Scout movement and becoming a scholar at a University is that the set of what is learned— the content of the curriculum—is selected as much for its formational value (an attitude of problem-solving and a love of nature; an ability to enter with intellectual humility into an established conversation) as for the transferrable skills involved.
It’s this kind of “hard to sell but worth the effort” vision of education that is a big part of our motivation at Laidlaw College. As a Christian tertiary institution, we teach the skills of a number of professions—including pastoral ministry, teaching and counselling— but we are most interested in what kind of people we are forming our students (and our whole community) to be. I frequently tell the story of a banker who came to us to retrain as a primary school teacher,
so that he could serve in disadvantaged communities. On most measures of graduate outcomes—especially lifetime income— that does not read well as a success story. Yet, it is precisely in graduating students who know “why” they are pursuing particular callings, and who have learned to think deeply and creatively about the meaning that their work has, that an educational institution can have real impact on society. That “why,” and the work it takes to get there, can never be fully encapsulated in a series of assessed outcomes, but is only possible in a deeply formative learning community.
I think our points converge in this way: initiating people into truly lifelong learning requires meaningful content, whether this content constitutes course material or is embodied in teachers or communities of learning. What we learn has to be meaningful in order for the qualifier “lifelong” to signify anything at all. Simply put, we are committed to what is meaningful, and a utilitarian approach to learning cannot be truly meaningful because it only commits us to instrumental goods which are either set for us or which we decide upon when we feel there is something gained from them.∞ This is why I like to think of learning as a relationship of love as well as of necessity. That is, we need to learn in order to find employment (necessity) and we need to appreciate learning for its own sake (love).
Learning entails a relationship of sorts, as it requires respect, goodwill, and charity. And this is why the community you’re talking about, Roshan, is so important. I have experienced just how invigorating and remarkable such learning can be, for in this context, I’ve found that learning exercises a pull on me that I can’t solely account for in terms of my own will. In essence: if learning is to be truly lifelong, we must not only recognise the needs that learning serve in our lives, but we must also become its lovers and so recognise its “pull” on us. Thus lifelong learning must be of necessity and of love. In other words, it serves both our basic needs, and what I like to call the “loving pattern of lifelong learning.”
This is an approach to learning more than anything else. It applies to carpentry as much as accounting, gardening as much as writing, and painting as much as parenting. It’s simply about understanding the intrinsic value of things, as I noted above. That is, it concerns more than what things cost or how they serve our own purposes; it has to do with the sheerly given goodness of learning and of the subject matter and the community itself, independent of our projects. Unveiled goodness attracts, and as Plato once put it, anyone becomes a poet under the impulse of eros. Learning is one such good thing, and it can lead us into more. All we need is expo- sure to an approach that values more than simply utility.
I fully agree with this account of learning, and would only underscore that the “exposure” you describe looks like an encounter with a community that values and pursues the good that is worth loving. Such is the expansiveness of human possibility that this could be an encounter with a collection of dead poets, a love for the smell of freshly tilled soil, or the albums of a long broken-up band. We need more communities of learning that take this kind of vision seriously and form people who can live their learning across their lives. Though this might sound grandiose, it need not be: the apprentice woodworker not only develops woodturning technique by attending to the master’s example, the apprentice is also well served by seeing in the master the joy and worth of completing a commission to a client’s satisfaction. For me, it has been these kind of moments in relationship that have most shaped my own learning loves—a col- league who cannot help but draw breath over the beauty of reading a section of prose, or a lecturer who framed his role as sharing the best of what he gleaned from years of personal study.
That’s good, Roshan. In closing I’d like to pick up your references to beauty and wonder. I think the “loving pattern of lifelong learning” depends on a robust sense of beauty. Beauty initiates wonder—the emotion of awe where the other imposes on us and takes our breath away. When I talk of beauty I’m speaking of a feature of reality, and not just a subjective feeling or a surface that glitters without any intrinsic relation to underlying reality. I wonder at a blood-red sunset over the Waitakeres because the dappled play of light on the range is beautiful. This statement opposes the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Physicist David Bohm puts the tension in these terms:
Now there is a common notion that beauty is nothing more than a subjective response of man, based on the pleasure he takes in seeing what appeals to his fancy. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that beauty is not an arbitrary response that happens to “tickle” us in a pleasing way. In science, for example, one sees and feels the beauty of a theory only if the latter is ordered, coherent, harmonious with all parts working together to form a unified total structure. But these properties are necessary not only for the beauty of a theory, but also for its truth.
There’s much to unfold here, but my basic point is this: beauty isn’t simply subjective, even if we struggle to define exactly what it is. When I say that the blood-red sunset over the Waitakeres is beautiful, I’m not simply saying that I feel that it is beautiful, I’m rejoicing over the sunset and the Waitakeres because they are really beautiful. In this way wonder discloses the beauty of reality that is so often veiled to us, and/or which we often don’t appreciate. And we find that when we wonder at beauty, beauty seems to call us out of our- selves—we discover we are not in the centre of the world anymore. Beauty confronts us in wonder and it calls for a response.
Utilitarian theories of education have no need for beauty where it does not serve the purposes of their ideal agent, the utility-optimiser. But what if beauty isn’t simply a use-less surface that offers (scant) retinal pleasure? What if beauty is the appearance of reality and intrinsic to reality, and any and every encounter with beauty discloses reality to us and grounds the “world” we live in? In this case, the encounter with beauty works like an acid on any tendency to self-absorption. By beauty, and through wonder, we have contact with what is other than us, and we receive an invitation to dance, the admission to which costs only the willingness to follow (though this sometimes commands a hefty fee). But ultimately the swing of the dance yields much more: the freedom of love and the treasures of goodness and truth. Surely these lie at the foundation of a meaningful world and truly lifelong learning.
∞ This is a criticism sometimes levelled at certain twentieth-century “decisionist” philosophies—if my commitments are binding only to the extent I arbitrarily determine them (and I change my mind and reconfigure my commitments as I see fit), are we really talking about commitment at all? As Martin Heidegger some- where noted, “nobody dies for mere values.”