Thursday, November 03, 2011

How we like to Complicate things


The Longues-sur-Mer Battery, School Trip, Oct/Nov 2011
We are undoubtedly very complex creatures, or at least we make all subjects, including ourselves, complicated.  As a boy, I was always taken with those questions in Mathematics which asked the student to simplify expressions or to write certain fractions in their simplest forms.  The thrust to simplicity, it would seem, is the goal of all rational thought, at least that form of rational thought called Mathematics. 

Then, one of the goals of meditation is that of simplification, again a subject which interests me greatly. Meditation is the exact opposite of the tendency to complicate matters.  In short, it is a method of simplifying all things.  So, life may be getting on top of you.  It may seem that the only black rainy cloud is right over your head at this moment and that the sun is shining on everyone else.  It may seem that you have insoluble and intractable problems.  Things just could not get worse.  The whole world is a complicated mess where everything is in the process of breaking down, a complexity that gives you a headache.  But wait a moment, catch yourself on, simplify all.  That's the goal of meditation.  In fact, everything may be reduced to the living breath than enlivens the human body, and all schools of meditation teach beginners to concentrate on their breath.

Simplifying Versus Over-simplifying

Now a note of warning to would-be experts: over-simplification is just as bad as over-complication.  Things may not be either as complex or as simple as they seem at first sight.  After all, what I said above was simplify, not over-simplify.  There is something in us humans that tends to extremes, that is, we adjudge people to be either totally good or totally evil, to both sanctify and demonise, and yet when we think about it in our more sober moments, we realise that we are all a rather intricate mixture of both good and evil.  We each lie somewhere on a continuum between the two as it were.  Likewise, to simplify is to get things into manageable proportions.

Over-complicating the Job

I attended a wonderful conference recently organized by the ERST group of schools here in Ireland.  There were two wonderful keynote speakers there, viz., Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of the Benedictine Abbey of Glental, County Limerick (Glenstal) and Professor Bart McGettrick of Liverpool Hope University ( Ed at Hope) both of whom argued eloquently that we have over-complicated the process of education.  With them I heartily agree, having been a practising teacher for some thirty years to date.  Now, obviously, these comments are not meant to denigrate or deny the great work of educators at third level who seek to analyse what is going on in the teaching-learning situation at primary and secondary levels or their Trojan efforts to educate student teachers in the work a teacher does.  However, on reflection, and lived reflection at that, in other words, reflection that comes from hard-earned years of classroom experience, I am at one with these two learned gentlemen that we have indeed over-complicated the whole teaching-learning situation and have smothered it with yearly, termly, monthly, weekly and indeed class plans after class plans.  We write up what we are going to do, what we do and what we did ad nauseam.  Now, this is not to say that planning is not necessary and that class plans should not be written, in however brief a form, but rather that we are over-controlling, over-analysing, in short over-complicating the whole darn thing. We teachers find that we are having meetings about meetings and planning meetings about planning meetings. 

In short, what I am arguing for here is that we need a healthy Aristotelian Doctrine of the Mean to hold sway over the whole educational enterprise.  Aristotle seeks flourishing happiness in life. He believes that this can be achieved for each individual through the embracing of virtues.  He also  believes that virtues are the mean of two vices and by this, in short, they are the basis of the “Doctrine of the Mean.”  To attain happiness in this life, our ancient philosopher argued, we must strive for the mean or balance in all things.  Aristotle used the word "Eudaimonia" – a broad notion of being that suggests prospering and flourishing - to describe what we today would call simply happiness.

To Aristotle, "Eudaimonia" is really the synergy of both well feeling and well acting. You act well because you feel well and, of course, the opposite is true as well. The concept of "Eudaimonia" is about feeling good because you have acted well. It is like the “warm glow” one gets from volunteering or even simply from doing a job well. Aristotle would not be opposed to this “warm glow.”  However was not a Hedonist, far from it. After all, Hedonists tie happiness to pleasure, but Aristotle ties happiness to acting well. 

Where, I ask is this "warm glow" of education in the teaching/learning situation today?  Where is the happy mean between over-complication and over-simplification of the whole act of teaching and learning?  What are we missing in all this over-complication of matters?  

Students listen to their teacher/leader in Normandy, Oct/Nov 2011
Dom Mark Patrick, who is a Ph. D. in education and who has lectured on this area for years, argued convincingly, drawing on the writings of the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, that the Department of Education and Skills is working out of a reduced view of education which views it very objectively as teaching a set curriculum rather than a dynamic dialogic enterprise that happens from person to person, from teacher to pupil and from pupil to pupil, as well as from pupil to teacher.  Education, in short, is a duet.  The Department of Education and Skills, Hederman argued, have highlighted the critical core skills of literacy and numeracy to the detriment of a rather obvious, and indeed more important other, namely human communication.   Contact, he argued, not content, is the mystery of education.  Also, the teacher is nothing short of the midwife of genuine personhood.  Further, he felt that the contemporary approach to education is smothering the instinctive imagination of the present generation of students.  These are profound and useful criticisms/insights which the Department must take on board if it is not to be found negligent in its duty of care.

Student Group, Disneyland, Paris, Oct/Nov 2011

Professor McGettrick argued clearly and convincingly that the following were the hallmarks of good leadership: (i) Clarity of Vision: What are we about? What is our ethos? Where are we going? How do we get there? (ii) Consistency of Action: Be consistent in cherishing and challenging the students. (iii)  Review the evidence constantly, both measured and discerned evidence (iv)  All good education is based on Relationships:  We are called to inform, form and to transform others.  He argued that pupils learn "through the smiling eyes of their teacher."  The teaching/learning situation is, he argued, a personal encounter.  In all this he is "ad unum" with Dom Mark Patrick above.  In a theme, very dear to the heart of this present writer, Professor McGettrick argued that education is never the pursuit of perfection, because it is our imperfections that make us human.  It is, rather, the constant search for living the best life that we can, whatever our personal, social or cultural circumstances.  I always remember my mother comforting me with the words:  "All you can do is your best, and your best is always good enough!"  

Losing our Way

Somewhere along the way we have got lost.  To use the old cliché we cannot see the wood for the trees.  We are failing miserably to see the bigger picture.  It's likely that education is mirroring the growing complexity of the world at large.  Simplicity in contemporary society, it would seem, is a throw-back to the past, or at least is seen as the wont of simple-minded tree-huggers on the greener environmental fringes.  Capitalism has no room for such simplicities, and perhaps our education systems and curricula just mirror this.  A frightening thought!