States of Reason and Being:
The Influence of Jesus, Darwin, Heidegger and Schwab on Higher Education
The effect of Jesus, Charles Darwin, Martin Heidegger and Joseph Schwab on higher education is at once complex and subtle. Jesus revealed the essential simplicity inherent in passing on knowledge to others. Yet the lessons he imparted reached average persons on many levels and altered the course of history. Charles Darwin showed that the centuries-old tradition of rote learning, in which the student is a participant but not the subject, could be changed and a participatory approach instituted that more closely resembles the society it is intended to serve. Martin Heidegger criticized traditional forms of education for misrepresenting the perception of reality itself. For Joseph Schwab, reforming widely held beliefs in education is a function of curriculum, which must encourage and instruct in an atmosphere of discourse and debate.
Jesus of Nazareth
Religious doctrine has seen to it that Jesus of Nazareth is revered first and foremost as the savior of mankind. As such, his practical accomplishments as a teacher have been obscured by the imposition of the miracles that illuminate the New Testament. The Christian church teaches that he is the Son of God and, as a supernatural figure, we are accustomed to seeing Jesus predominantly through the eyes of the reverent, not as a brilliant and highly intelligent human being with a revolutionary and influential approach to education. As an educator, he followed a deceptively simple “learner-centric” methodology that has eluded so many modern theorists and teachers. As with his lessons, his approach to teaching exhibits a pristine simplicity and clarity that modern-day educators still pursue.
In his History of Education, Levi Seeley argues that Jesus is worthy of the title “The Great Teacher,” the original theorist and practitioner. His methodology is the foundation of all true teaching, a method carefully crafted to make a profound and lasting impression on the listener (Seeley, 1899, p. 98). Jesus spoke in language that each individual audience could understand, using examples to which each could most readily relate. Jesus’ lessons were suited to his hearers, such as the inhabitants of the vine-covered hills of Judea, who no doubt had a unique appreciation for his parable of the vineyard (Ibid, p. 98). Jesus brought his lessons to life in the form of stories, such as the Good Samaritan, through which he imparted the importance of mercy.
Seeley argues that one of Jesus’ most important contributions as an educator is to be found in the seeming effortlessness of his approach. “There was no effort to be philosophical, yet the teachings of Christ are full of philosophy” (1899, p. 98). In this way, his message could be understood by the simple and appreciated by the learned. Keeping it simple included drawing from nature, likening the qualities of truth and mercy to common features of field and stream (such as the lilies of the field, etc.), imagery to which all could relate. In so doing, Jesus established the axiom that the simplest message is generally the clearest and most easily understood; therefore, it is the most effective and enduring means of imparting knowledge.
There was a powerful element of example in Jesus’ teachings, the virtues of which he exhibited in his daily life. As an educator, Jesus’ great legacy is that he lived out that which he taught, becoming the first practitioner of applied spiritual psychology, having been no mere theorist (Kasson, Palmer, et al, 1904-05, p. 289). The stark simplicity of the Golden Rule is a case in point. Jesus not only put forth a simple proposition: he came to embody its practical application and, in so doing, passed on a lesson that influenced prominent 20th-century educators such as Carroll Wright, esteemed sociologist and president of Clark University, who argued that the only true resolution to the struggle of labor versus capital is to be found in the Golden Rule (Ibid). At Harvard, Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed a theory which posits that “an ethic of justice (is) the pinnacle of moral reasoning,” an educational paradigm in which the Golden Rule motivates educators to teach and act morally (Forest, 2002, p. 599).
Darwin’s profound influence on multiple branches of scientific inquiry derives from his particular introduction of inductive methodology. His work “contributed to progressive theory, especially his focus on using the inductive method of science, observing and testing hypotheses to derive knowledge about the world” (Goodman and Katz, 1990, p. 14). Darwin represented a departure from the Jeffersonian belief in the average person’s rational nature and his natural interest in education. Darwin’s influence on modern theories of education led to the belief that intellectual growth was based largely on genetic endowment (Giroux and Giroux, 2004, p.150). Thus, the unilateral and equal education of a socially engaged populace was determined by many theorists influenced by Darwin’s work to be impracticable.
His theories led educators toward a more environmental assessment of the role higher education plays in social development. It is “because the development of the mind followed evolutionary processes (and) worked themselves out over time, independent of immediate human acts, (that) education could never be a significant factor in social progress” (Giroux and Giroux, 2004, p. 150). In this model, the proper role for higher education is to provide people with the means to cope with their environment according to their own particular abilities and intellects (Ibid). Vocational education was an extension of this viewpoint.
Darwin’s materialistic views are sometimes seen as providing the philosophical impetus for vocational education. “The strength of vocational education is that it looks forward and prepares for things as they are” (Thomas, 1920, p. 170). Darwin’s work led him to see the world as it is truly is, which altered his views on education. It is interesting to contemplate that
Darwin’s opinions on education, which became increasingly antagonistic toward liberal curricula, may well have been a negative reaction to his own thoroughly classical education. He went so far as to note that he reached a point where he could no longer read poetry or indulge in other staples of a typically 19th century English education. “I am rather inclined to think that real education does not begin till after school and college days; at least I am sure this was the case with myself,” Darwin said (Browne, 2002, p. 397).
It cannot be denied that this perspective accorded with (and presumably proceeded from) his evolutionary theories. The power and influence of those theories helped remake higher education. The Darwinian process of inquiry and investigation provided students with a more direct, pragmatic and tangible means of learning about the world around them than the Greek, Latin and philosophical readings that marked Victorian higher education. Darwin helped change higher education in a way that facilitated the study of scientific and technological subjects in a legitimate, academic setting. After Darwin, a well-rounded education meant much more than a thorough grounding in the Classics.
The American educational reformer John Dewey was heavily influenced by Darwin and the practical and interactive approach to higher education he espoused. Dewey believed fervently in the process of investigation and experimentation and in its applicability to higher education. He argued that effective education is a partnership between the student and the educator, a process which makes the student, rather than the curriculum, the focal point. There is a vocational aspect to Dewey’s beliefs – he argued that higher education should offer students the opportunity to develop fully their intellectual capacities by learning about daily life and how to cope with their particular environments, as well as theoretical and philosophical subjects.
Martin Heidegger’s views on education stand in counterpoint to those of Darwin, Dewey and those who argue that inductive investigation and experimentation can open windows of perception for the student that provide a true picture of the world and of reality itself. The German philosopher believed that the natural inclination of human beings to try and control the world around them is misguided and obscures the fact that humans are merely actors, not owners or controllers. Heidegger’s philosophical theories influenced many fields of scientific and academic inquiry, though his membership in the Nazi Party continues to damage his reputation. Nevertheless, his notions of reality and the nature of existence helped establish an innovative philosophical model for educators and educational theorists to consider and adopt.
Heidegger contended that reality is, ultimately, unknowable to us in an empirical sense. Consequently, the means of discovering “truth” that Darwin and others asserted should be adopted by institutions of higher learning are, ultimately, false, even pointless. “Any notion of education based on the dominant mode of inquiry and its underlying notion of truth in terms of measurable representations, therefore, will be stunted and unable to approach the disclosure of Being” (Peters, 2002, p. 18). The Israeli philosopher Ilan Gur Ze’ev postulated that Heidegger’s de facto refutation of practical and methodological scientific inquiry amounts to a form of “counter education,” which stems from a revolutionary concept that opposes the standard “concept of transcendence” (Ibid). As such, the educator represents the means through which the student may perceive the essence of being.
In Heidegger’s view, the process by which education is transacted must undergo a fundamental change if humans are to grasp the nature of being, and understand that they are part of a much broader concept of reality. “’Philosophy,’ (Heidegger) begins, is ‘in truth a mirror of the eternal,’ but ‘Thinking’ can no longer let itself be constrained by the eternally immobile limits of logical propositions’” (Thomson, 2005, p. 88). Thinking, Heidegger reminds us, is the sole medium through which we may hope to embrace a larger truth. “When thinking accepts the yoke of formal validity and so forces itself merely to string propositions together, the result, Heidegger presciently warns, is that mere ‘connoisseurship in philosophical questions which has already become a sport’” (Ibid). In other words, there is little use in debating philosophical questions and taking part in academic exercises for their own sake.
For Heidegger, the most important step in reordering higher education is to return philosophy to its rightful place as the “interpreter” or “translator” of the other sciences. In this, he concurs with Immanuel Kant, though Heidegger believed that philosophy’s place was to enlarge upon – not impose itself upon - the theories and discoveries of physical scientists and social scientists, each of whom may reveal a part of what it means to be but cannot hope to tell us what being really is. As Heidegger would have put it, this is absolutely essential if higher education is to serve its true purpose and enlighten as well as educate. The existentialist American educator and philosopher Hubert Dreyfus was heavily influenced by Heidegger, who Dreyfus interpreted for a new generation of educators and students. Dreyfus authored Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time,’ a popular and widely used text in higher education that speculates as to the meaning and importance of being and time (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 1).
Joseph J. Schwab
Joseph Schwab was one of the 20th century’s most influential curriculum theorists, an inheritor and innovator in the tradition of John Dewey and the theory of participatory education. Like Dewey (and others), Schwab believed that higher education curriculum should reflect and teach within the framework of the culture within which it is grounded (Palmer and Cooper, 2001, p. 73). The interactive exchange of ideas was the basis of Schwab’s doctrine. His primary concern was with his students, with their personalities and how curriculum might best serve their needs as learners (Ibid). A true academic, Schwab taught at the University of Chicago for more than 40 years. For much of that time, Schwab worked to re-energize the practice of liberal education and, in the 1940s, helped develop a curriculum based on a four-year degree.
But it was in 1969 that Schwab wrote that the college curriculum needed to be thoroughly rethought and remodeled along student-centric lines. Claiming that higher education had become “moribund,” Schwab’s aim was to reinvigorate curriculum through a practical and useful approach (Schwab, 1978, p. 32). “There will be a renascence of the field of curriculum, a renewed capacity to contribute to the quality of American education, only if curriculum energies are diverted from theoretic pursuits…” (Ibid). In other words, Schwab believed that reconstituting the college curriculum would empower students to question and debate long-accepted academic theories in preparation for productive lives marked by social and political participation.
In Schwab’s opinion, the “ivory tower” had gained a stranglehold on American higher education. As far as he was concerned, “education had failed American youth and American society. Most of the competence deficiencies and satisfaction deficiencies evident in students”
could be traced to failings of curriculum, Schwab argued (Block, 2004, p. 30). If what John Dewey had asserted was true, that education renews society, then the curriculum that determines the trajectory of that education must be renewed periodically. But there must be a vision that guides the development of the curriculum, a social vision which is the intended outcome of the curriculum (Block, 2004, p. 31). Schwab had, early in his career, established the means for productive discourse in his classes and his success in this area presented him with a foundation for courses that drew from the rich academic tradition of Socratic exchange and debate.
Schwab’s interest in energizing college curriculum during the 1960s went hand-in-hand with a growing concern for the relationship between curriculum and the development of the student’s character. Schwab sought to learn how community and tradition affect character (Pinar, Reynolds, et. al, 1995, p. 196). As such, he sought to fine-tune and modify curricula to accommodate the personal needs of the students. For Schwab, liberal education meant that the student, not the course material, should be the subject and the curriculum must reflect that.
Schwab’s influence on American higher education continues to be formative and still inspires the periodic reassessment of educational processes. His “stinging critiques have stimulated education by pointing out chronic deficiencies and indicating new directions for inquiry and action” (Education Encyclopedia, 2010). Schwab’s writings have influenced educational theorists in many countries where new ideas about liberal education and the role of curriculum in its administration is undergoing reconsideration.
Educators have long sought new and effective ways to establish student-centered modes of learning. The entrenchment of Classical education and the exalting of ancient philosophies had a stultifying effect on education throughout the Western world for hundreds of years. The methods of Jesus and the theories of Darwin, Heidegger and Schwab represent a synthesis of practice and ideology that holds great promise for advancing a truly learner-centric paradigm. It has been said that storytelling is important to the development of young learners; Jesus proved that storytelling can be powerfully motivating for adults as well. Darwin, Heidegger and Schwab showed that preconceived notions about education must be challenged and tested if higher education is to serve the particular needs of students and, by extension, of society in general.
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STATES OF REASON AND BEING
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