Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Education in a world of forgetting

How does one conceptualise the contemporary educational terrain regarding the challenges it faces in the new century, especially in so far as it is inescapably situated within the broader cultural landscape of 21st-century globalised society?

The first thing one should note is that what the Frankfurt School called “technical rationality” is still being given priority in (post-) modern societies, at the cost of what students could learn from the humanities, if equal emphasis were placed on them.

In fact, I would argue in favour of a healthy complementarities (in education) between the natural sciences, guided (according to Habermas) by the “interest of technical control” and the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, guided by the interests of “mutual understanding” and “emancipation”. Without complementing natural-scientific education with humanities-education, people — in this case the youth — are at risk of forgetting what is arguably indispensably valuable for human civilisation.

The reason for this is that — as both Habermas and Lyotard have argued in different ways — the natural sciences generate “constative” statements about the nature of the world, unlike the humanities and the social sciences (together comprising “human sciences”: literature, philosophy, theology, anthropology, mythology, the study of music and cinema, sociology, psychology, political science, etc.) where one finds statements that are embedded in experience shot through with narrative, cultural and moral values.

It is precisely for this reason that I am always amused by the reference to the natural sciences as the “hard sciences” while the human sciences are dubbed the “soft sciences”, implying that the latter are somehow less scientific and easier to practice.

This is not the case, of course. There was a good reason why Auguste Comte, the “father” of sociology, put sociology at the apex of his hierarchy of historically developed sciences, because it represented, for him, the stage of scientific development that marked the greatest complexity in the relevant field of investigation. Put differently, the human condition is a more complex phenomenon to unravel scientifically than that of the natural world, partly because humans are rooted in nature but have added other layers of behaviour and action that cannot be reduced to nature, inviting different scientific lenses for scrutiny instead.

Moreover, one gathers from Lyotard (in The Postmodern Condition) that what he calls the “social bond” between people has a narrative structure — the most fundamental genre for understanding each person is her or his “life-story” — something that natural science just cannot provide because it does not have such a structure (although its history does). And this is where the importance of the human sciences for education comes into the picture: it does not matter how sophisticated one’s natural scientific knowledge (of physics, chemistry, or of computer science, for that matter) is, by itself it does not provide any direction regarding the use of such knowledge in a humanly acceptable manner. This is the province of the human sciences.

A study of the world’s literatures, for example, affords students access to repositories of linguistically mediated experience — whether based in (auto-) biography or entirely fictional — that is pervaded by tensions between good and evil (Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels), the cultivation of character (Great Expectations), the value of perseverance, the evils of colonialism and racism (Heart of Darkness), classism (The God of Small Things), war (War and Peace), ambition (MacBeth), the constitutive role of time (Remembrance of Things Past), the redemptive character of love (Romeo and Juliet), the inescapable matrix of history (even for lovers: Ondaatje’s The English Patient), the personality-transforming effect of trauma (Josephine Hart’s The Reconstructionist and Douglas Kennedy’s Leaving the World) and so on, across all the literatures of the world.

A specific example: Athol Fugard’s 1980s drama, Master Harold and the Boys, set at a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, presented the dilemma facing two black men who worked there, and a young boy (the eponymous Harold), who is their friend, but also unavoidably influenced by the discourse of apartheid which construes the two men as “boys”. This leads to some difficult situations, where one of the two men (Sam, if I recall) has the humanity and the vision to salvage the friendship, the possibility of which is captured beautifully by Fugard in the metaphors of “flying a kite” and doing ballroom dancing together (both the men are ballroom fans).

These metaphors, introduced into a situation perverted by an abominable racist ideology, achieve something that no natural science such as physics can do by itself: it presents readers and audience with inviting images of what Habermas calls “undistorted communication”. Even if it is difficult to actualise such communication in concrete form, these metaphors function as communicational ideals to be emulated (the best ballroom dancers communicate near-perfectly), and therefore have a truly “educational” effect, in as far as they transcend racial, cultural and gender differences, beckoning people to recognize a common humanity in one another. Students who have teachers capable of using literature in this “edifying” way (in Richard Rorty’s sense of the term), are truly fortunate.

One can, of course, use natural sciences such as biology to instill the same kind of values mediated by literature in students but that presupposes that teachers and lecturers place a prior value on the life-phenomena studied and this value is not self-evident in the life forms themselves. If they were, the very fact of their existence should have prevented humans from engaging in practices, economic and otherwise, that destroy the habitat of thousands of animal and plant species across the world.

“Life” as a supreme value is something learned in relation to living things, but on the basis of cultural adherence to its irreplaceable value.

From this perspective films such as Avatar and The Road are invaluable sources of educating students in the etymological sense of “leading them out of” ignorance towards being civilized in a life- and other-respecting manner. In this manner the humanities contribute towards the warding off of what could be a new kind of barbarism, where people are equipped with all kinds of technical skills, but lack the insight to use them in the interest of maintaining a truly human civilisation.

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