27.3.09

The subversive hope

Several conversations I've had recently have focused my thinking on the role of education.

In particular, I've been thinking about the tension that exists in education between its inherent conservativism – the desire to pass on shared, perhaps traditional, values – and its more radical elements – the sense that learning can open up new possibilities.

I came across an old piece by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books. It's an article called "The Decline and Fall of Literature". In a sense, it's nothing amazing and I'm not sure that I agree with the overall tone of it. What it did, though, was remind me of the powerful role of education in igniting the soul!


Delbanco argues passionately for what he describes as an Emersonian view of education. Emerson gave up being a preacher and became a lecturer, but he saw the role of educator as essentially the same as that of evangelist. "The whole secret of the teacher's force," he wrote, "lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening."

Delbanco, of course, is writing about literary studies. Back in 1999, when the article was published, I was just starting my English degree. (Like most things, it took me rather longer to complete than it should have done!) And while I feel very removed from that world now, the debates that Delbanco refers to seem strangely familiar. A decade on, I still feel that they matter somehow.

What I find energising is the sense that what I learned through university is directly relevant to the kind of teaching I'm doing at the moment. And more important than what I learned at teachers' college, it saddens me to add!

Perhaps a long quote from the article might be the best way of explaining this.

Literary studies, in fact, have their roots in religion. Trilling understood this when he remarked, in [a] gloomy essay about the future of the humanities [contained in his 1979 collection The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75], that "the educated person" had traditionally been conceived as

an initiate who began as a postulant, passed to a higher level of experience, and became worthy of admission into the company of those who are thought to have transcended the mental darkness and inertia in which they were previously immersed.

Such a view of education as illumination and deliverance following what Trilling called "exigent experience" is entirely Emersonian. It has little to do with the positivist idea of education to which the modern research university is chiefly devoted—learning "how to extend, even by minute accretions, the realm of knowledge." This corporate notion of knowledge as a growing sum of discoveries no longer in need of rediscovery once they are recorded, and transmittable to those whose ambition it is to add to them, is a great achievement of our civilization. But except in a very limited sense, it is not the kind of knowledge that is at stake in a literary education.

I can't overstate how much I like this!

The instruction I received at Teachers' College was largely to do with systems. Both in the content and in the method of instruction, it was about ways of delivering content and measuring its accretion. Very little, if any, time was spent discussing the important questions of meaning. No one seemed to ask why, if at all, it was important to learn what we were being taught to teach.

If we believe that school is merely preparing individuals for a function in society, perhaps we'll accept this impoverished view of education. But it doesn't seem outrageous to claim that, in this period of history, although we are replete with (digitised) information and we have more communal knowledge than ever before, our souls are conspicuously malnourished.

It seems important then, vital even, to be unapologetic about a transformative view of education. Whether it be at year 1 or at post doctoral level, what matters is not the accumulation of knowledge, it's the transformation of the individual.

It's only in this transformation that we may discover new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ways of being. And hope lies clearly in this direction, for us and for our children.

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