Thursday, March 17, 2005

Education, Reductionism and a Party

Education is changing and the way in which students are learning about the world is undergoing a profound transformation. The explosion of information and its easy accessibility destroys the old belief that the accumulation of information in the human mind was the key component in preparing young people to meet the challenges of the future. In addition, the preparation of students was also centered on preparing them for jobs in a manufacturing and national economy. The world has changed and so must our system of preparing people for the future. In a networked world suffering from information overload, critical thinking and analytical skills become even more important—and the cultural stakes are raised even higher.

Last night I went to a going away party for one of my old students. She is traveling to Peru for a semester abroad. One of my professors from undergraduate days was also in attendance. After explaining that I teach at Vermont Commons, he asked me about my classes. I told him about some of the computer modeling I do with the students, the kinds of books they read and our general approach and philosophy. Middlebury is and always will be a bastion of conservatism and his reaction to my answers gave me an insight into one of the main issues in education.

“So you’re teaching them Marxism…”

How do I answer? Marx was a great social scientist. His development of economic theory and its use in understanding class structure and creation of value are excellent analytical tools. Is he making reference to Marx as an economic reductionist or is he simply calling me a red? I laughed knowing that my membership in DKE and the Dissipated 8 should place me in his memory as part of one of the most reactionary and conservative members of the Middlebury community. Has the College moved so far to the right that its members consider frat boy singers to be the leftist fringe?

As a religion professor, is his weltanschauung centered on the idea that truth, a is revealed by God to humanity through the divine word? His religious tradition is centered on sacred texts and the interaction with these texts. Thus, the truth of the world is made clear by looking at the text in combination with reason and logic. His way of finding the truth is at odds with mine. Truth is arrived at as a dynamic process of interaction with the world informing our understanding of truth. Marxism and religion are tools used to understand the world, but they are not truth in itself. Thus, the professor while rejecting reductionism is in danger of being a reductionist himself.

Being educated means using the best intellectual tool for the job. God, the environment, modeling, Marxism, poetry, Madyamika, Plato, Spanish, Chinese and painting are all important reference points and methods that we use to find truth but they are not truth. We must use whatever is available because the world is what we create with our minds and our understanding. The great debates in education and our culture today center around where we receive our inspiration to create a just world and the methodology we use to make it manifest.

The world is far too complex and diverse to rely on the revealed truth of any one religion or set of sacred texts. The challenges of the Buddha’s words remain, “We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts, and with our thoughts we make the world.” So the task of education is to provide the tools to understand the world so that together we can create a better one. Math, science allow us to explore the nature of the world. Language allows us to communicate our knowledge to others. Models give us the ability to communicate our worldviews to others and make them explicit. In just a few rare occasions they help us predict possible futures and avoid the biggest mistakes.

This just the roughest outline of what education needs to become.


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