Human nature and our schooling – examining the purpose of education

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Human nature and our schooling – examining the purpose of education

‘Any education worthy of its name is essentially education of character'… so wrote the German philosopher Martin Buber. This line of thought is an ancient one – it goes all the way back to Plato and even beyond. The purpose of edu-cation, as conceived by Plato, was about tutoring in ways of right living. In the modern world we have basically abandoned this view.

Nowadays, education is no longer about learning about right living, i.e. living lovingly so we can ‘evolve’ together in brotherhood through making right choices that benefit all of humanity.

Rather, the purpose of education today is to acquire skills so we can have a successful life, have ‘progress’ in life: essentially in the ways it benefits us personally and our family and friends, but with little regard for how our choices affect everyone else. The effects of this shift from the classical view like Plato’s are profound.

Education now feeds a human ideal for enrichment in our material lives so we can have a seemingly successful and good living, but barely contributes to the fundamental values that build the kinds of communities that benefit us all. These values are brotherhood, responsibility, and growth achieved though right living.

Now, in the way that we educate, we learn the skills, abilities and knowledge that are necessary to increase our capacity to do things successfully that also increases our ability to live a successful life run by the ideal of technological and material progress. We do need these skills in a practical way to live and benefit humanity; problems arise though when we acquire these skills solely in a drive to achieve recognition and success.

Indeed, education teaches very early that how well you do is crucial to who you are and this shapes your relationships with others. Later on, how well you do gets intertwined with what you do for a living, and over time this ends up becoming a crucial part of your identity. You may introduce yourself with “Hi, my name is... and I’m a...” but that is not the whole you.

Although we have all gone through this process and taken on the identity of what we do, we also know that who we are does not boil down simply to what we do and how well we do in life. There is much more to us than all of our ‘do-ings’ put together. We also know that there is more to us than what we share in most of our daily life with others.

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Teaching and adding something more

As a teacher you are bound by the syllabus, but there is another essential ingredient that your students need.

We all know how great we feel when we connect deeply with someone else and how important this is to truly grow together. We know and can remember the awesome feeling of walking fully connected and in tune with ourselves. And yet, this is something we don’t often experience. Why is that?

  • What if we grew up learning that we can deeply honour who we are in everything we do?

  • What if we were educated in an environment where everyone cherishes us simply because we are unique and precious and we also cherish others for the same?

  • What if we grow up learning that true relationships are the essence of life, that these are based on love and brotherhood, and this can be our experience with others all the time?

  • What if education teaches that being ourselves in everything we do only adds value and meaning to everything we do?

What if we were all educated in an environment where we were supported to walk in life in the fullness of who we really are?

This more truthful education is not simply desirable, it is also completely possible. Yet it requires a different philosophical foundation, one that supports a different view of human nature to the one our education is currently based on. It also requires a different approach to how and why we do things.

Plato or Tabula Rasa – Opposing Views on Human Nature and Education

Our current education is founded on an old philosophical idea about human nature: children come to the world devoid of any knowledge as tabulae rasae – blank slates – empty vessels we have to fill.

Such a view makes the whole educational process solely about knowledge transmission. In stark contrast to that tradition, in The Republic, Plato made the case that education is not about putting something into someone that isn’t already there.

Rather it is about drawing out our natural wisdom, making someone aware of something they actually already know, and developing and stabilising that innate knowledge in practical ways of daily living.

This is why he made the case that education was about tutoring, about right living.

A view like Plato’s provides a very different foundation for the relationship between those involved in the educational process. Knowledge transmission does not occupy a central place, although it does have a place, for we do need to acquire skills that benefit humanity. Plato’s vision also is in tune with what we can observe: children are born with a rich understanding of the ways of the physical world and a deep understanding of human connectedness. Drop something in front of a two year old and they will bend down and pick it up for you. Such young children already understand that we are all connected together in bonds of love, collaboration and support.

In essence, we all bear responsibility for each other – all of us. To teach right living, we simply build on this understanding, constantly reinforcing ways of living and acting that demonstrate care and responsibility for all.

Schooling as currently practised has exactly the opposite effect: it emphasises competition, the opposite of equal collaboration, and it also fosters narrow group identity, such as nationalism or religious exclusivity, the opposite of connection and responsibility for all. While in today’s classroom, lessons might preach tolerance and civic-mindedness, the actual way in which daily life goes on in the school does not foster a sense of equal responsibility for all. The understanding in such lessons is superficial and purely intellectual. We need to go deeper and impress this understanding in our body and being.

How do we Build Harmony in Schools?

Harmony is much deeper, a state of poise in the body. It is a state of stillness in the body, which holds love in all expression. With harmony comes a natural and balanced rhythm in which to do things, the body feels light, steady and open; there is no place for aggression or roughness in our actions or speech or in our interactions with others. Right living and harmony go hand in hand.

True equal responsibility, the basis of right living, cannot come from tolerance. Tolerance is simply a truce between different beliefs, within which there is no true love or understanding. People cannot be truly met as they are because they are screened as to how they fit into our belief system, and children as young as six are already dealing with others in this manner.

Only through harmony and its love can others be truly met for who they really are: it is this feeling that schooling needs to encourage. Children are all born with a sense of harmony, but by age six many have lost or are losing it. Under the pressure of the requirements of the education system, the atmosphere of the school is definitely hostile.

The daily workings of the school need to be restructured to build harmonic rhythms for all, and the stillness which is the basis of harmony will lead natu-rally into responsible actions that treat all equally. Various techniques such as the gentle breath meditation or true move-ment exercises described elsewhere on this website are excellent tools to build gentleness in the body, the bridge to harmony. These can be used as part of the daily curriculum in the school. Children can be encouraged to use such techniques when they feel ‘out of sorts’, ‘not themselves’ i.e. disharmonious, as can teachers.

If the purpose of education was to present to children a way of being in harmony with themselves and others first and allow academic learn-ing to flow from this foundation, then right living would be able to naturally un-fold.


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