Why we need joy in education
Dan Sehlhorst | Thursday, December 4, 2014
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle wrote these words many centuries ago, and to this day I believe they hold great wisdom. My educative experience in the United States, however, has raised questions about our commitment to an intellectual, social and moral self-cultivation of our philosophy of education.
Education in the United States today is a confusing bundle of paradoxes. At first glance, there is a tremendous priority on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), a set of fields in many ways synonymous with progress in the national conversation. Legislators, media outlets, counselors and parents are calling for more STEM courses in high schools and strongly encouraging students to enter STEM majors in college. The message is strong and clear: your best chance at success is studying STEM.
Unfortunately, American high schools are falling behind in STEM performance. A number of prevalent methodological failures are cited as the cause for this problem, but my question is more fundamental. Why are we treating education as such a utilitarian mechanism?
The end of education should not be the accumulation of facts or cookie-cutter problem-solving techniques. Neither should it be economic output, prestigious employment or high rankings on some report. Education should be much more personal and much more relational. Some of the most important benefits of education are the development of critical thinking that opens the door to knowledge and the communication skills to convey that knowledge. In these ways, students both grow as individuals and in their capacity to relate to their community.
To combat poor academic performance, we need understand how to educate. We need engaged parents and communities, and we need teachers empowered with resources and curricular freedom. We need a balanced approach between technical ability in STEM and critical analysis of classic literature that has stood and will stand the test of time. While building a strong capacity to reason from evidence and apply knowledge to a wide array of situations, it is paramount to hone the ability to communicate, both in speech and in writing — in a way that is nuanced, clear and comprehensive.
With this said, we must seek a much deeper and more profound understanding of education. Knowledge is intrinsically a body of work that grows with time, as our minds grasps the many interconnected relationships between people, places, ideas, events, worldviews and ways of life. But knowledge is more than having sufficient development to comprehend concepts studied and observed and the relationships between them. It is something we must seek and be ready to receive.
In “Teachers as Cultural Workers,” education philosopher Paolo Freire points out that “Studying is a preparation for knowledge.” I believe Aristotle would agree, because studying clearly involve pondering thoughts without necessarily immediately determining their veracity or their relationship to the rest of the world. Knowledge, in this sense, is a realization of personal growth, expanding the horizons of the student, discerning truth among competing claims and, ultimately, fulfilling their potential as an independent thinker.
I find that the most profound understanding of knowledge, however, is in the ethic of caring, as developed by another education philosopher, Nel Noddings. As knowledge is a relational phenomenon — with an object and subject — and even other interconnected objects and subjects, it requires the ability for it to be received. In her book, “Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education,” Noddings wrote: “The relational mode is at the heart of human existence.” Applying this notion to education, we should consider if our conception of education is rooted in its relational nature. This holds true for both the student, receiving from the teacher, and the teacher, who receives from the student in order to better orient himself or herself toward giving well to the student.
Beyond empirical evidence and logical frameworks is the truth in understanding, a true immersion and embrace of knowledge. Noddings describes a concept of receptive joy, “which occurs when we are engaged as though possessed — when we are caught up in a relation… Whereas explanation is controlled, contrived and constructed, understanding — like joy — comes unpredictably.” She compares this feeling to a light dawning, drawing a parallel to when C.S. Lewis famously wrote of being “surprised by joy.” In this case, though, we are surprised by understanding.
An educator, through ethical caring, plants the seeds of knowledge and waters the ground for this moment. Not only is the educator facilitating a growth in knowledge, but also imbuing her students with a message about the nature of society. A teacher plays a crucial role in developing a student’s understanding of his or her relationship with humanity, transcending the use of education as a utilitarian tool and fashioning a relational existence rooted in fully and genuinely orienting oneself toward others through a beautiful receptive joy.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.