By Tariq Ramadan#
Education means ‘drawing’ or ‘guiding’ individuals out of themselves so that they can establish a conscious relationship with themselves and their physical and social environment. When we are born, we are all physically dependent on our parents or carers. We need to be welcomed into the world, fed, protected and looked after if we are to survive, live and reach the first stages of learning. This dependency in itself requires education, and it is only then that the individual begins to evolve naturally.
Being a human being means, first of all, ‘becoming a human being’ … and it is only through education that we become human beings. That is why education is a basic, inalienable right that must be guaranteed in all human societies. Education has as much to do with the transmission of a value system, behavioural norms and elements of culture as with the transmission of pure knowledge and the skills pertaining to what is usually called training. If there is one universal principle common to all spiritualities, religions, philosophies, civilizations and cultures, it is education.
Education is a precondition for man’s humanity, and it is an immutable and inalienable right. The content of education obviously varies from one culture, society or place to another, and from one historical period to another. But even before those differences become apparent, conceptions of education differ in their very ideas of what it means to be a human being, and of what education means to human beings. The many theories we find in the educational sciences and studies of pedagogy put forward very different, and sometimes contradictory, assumptions, approaches and methodologies.
Piaget’s studies, which are influenced and inspired by Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary theories, and James Baldwin’s genetic psychology place the emphasis on stages of psychological development, from the sensori-motor stage to the stage of formal operations, and relate them to the cognitive relationship between subject and environment. As the intellect develops through contact with the external world, children develop ‘basic units of intellectual activity’ (‘schemata’) which enable them to learn, evolve and develop a more complex relationship with both the world and ideas as they gain access to formal logics, begin to advance hypotheses and to make deductions from the real world. The schemata then become more organized, take on their final form and gradually allow children to develop an autonomous intellect between the ages of eleven and sixteen.
All this is of course far removed from some of the theories to be found in modern psychology, and especially psychoanalysis. For Freud, his successors, disciples and critics, and for Freudian dissidents from Jung to Lacan, it is not the intellect or cognitive element that determines the individual’s evolution and relationship with himself, the world, knowledge and education; it is the affective dimension that is present in the psyche in both an essentialist and a determinant sense. The three agencies of the psychic apparatus operate through relationships of tension and mutual regulation that relate, either directly or indirectly, to the affects. The ‘id’ or unconscious contains the drives and responds primarily to the pleasure principle.
The stages of the individual’s evolution follow the evolution of her or his sexuality, which is defined by Freud in very broad terms as anything to do with pleasure. The stages of infantile sexuality, and then the evolution towards adolescence and adulthood, play a crucial role in enabling the individual to become autonomous. What is at stake here is not the ability to acquire schemata, but the ability to handle repression, and the relationship with desire, morality and society that will determine the individual’s psychic equilibrium, freedom and relationship with knowledge, others and the world. Jung’s contribution introduces the historical depth of the unconscious (the collective unconscious), which transcends individual history and relates to more complex symbolisms. The structuralist perspective introduced by Lacan integrates development with the processes of identification (‘I’ and ‘me’, ‘I, me’ and ‘the other’) inaugurated by the ‘mirror phase’. Neither of these contributions denies the centrality of the relationship with the drives and affects that determine the shaping of the individual (on the contrary), irrespective of whether or not they are accepted by the adult (Lacan) or by society and its moral imperatives (as described by Freud and all post-Freudian schools of psychoanalysis).
Some schools of psychology, in contrast, put forward analyses that go beyond the realm of the observable. Some concentrate upon the evolution of the cognitive relationship, and others on states of the unconscious and stages of sexuality, but all involve projections that do not rely upon strict scientific observation alone. That is the opinion of behaviourists such as the American psychologist John Watson who contend that only observable behaviour should be taken into consideration: the study of human psychology and modes of learning should avoid all introspective extrapolations and restrict itself to the subject’s experiential relationship with the environment. The environment sends out stimuli, and the individual responds by behaving in specific ways. Psychologists should focus primarily and essentially on the observable twofold relationship between stimulus and subject, and then between subject and response, and then deduce from their observations the typology of possible relationships than can be established between stimulus and response. From this process, they can arrive at the nature of the determining factors. There is, they argue, nothing that is specifically human about these relationships: Tavris and Wade argue in their Psychology in Perspective that the basic principles of learning are the same ‘for all species’ from worms to human beings. The notion of ‘operative conditioning’ is then introduced to supplement the classic ‘conditioned response’ observed by Pavlov in the immediate relationship between the stimulus and the behavioural response. This makes the relationship more complex by introducing the way the environment mediates various forms of what Thorndike and Skinner call ‘reinforcement’ or ‘punishment’. That is how morality, ‘superstitions’ and social norms operate; they then determine behaviour and modes of learning. Education therefore consists in studying the nature of the relationship between stimuli and reflex or conditioned responses (in either the ‘operative’ or ‘response’ mode) in order to understand how they operate at various stages of intellectual and emotional maturation. As we can see here, the individual or subject is of secondary importance in the analysis of the learning process; this is the antithesis of the theories of Piaget and Freud, which are already quite different from one another.
It is obvious that these theoretical and scientific disagreements between the three schools we have discussed (which prioritize, respectively, the cognitive agent, the affective agent and the agent of the genetic or physical reaction) derive from very different conceptions of the human being. In every case, the focus adopted in the approach to the experimental and observational sciences on the one hand and methods of analysis on the other reveals a distinct philosophy of being and of education, each with its own postulates and objectives. Ultimately, what is at stake is at once a conception of man, a theory of learning and a philosophy of the sciences. When it comes to studying modes of learning and ways of educating individuals, epistemology comes close (in the sense of ‘inductive proximity’) to being a metaphysics. It is interesting to note that African and Asian traditions, Hindu and Buddhist spiritualities, like religions and the various general (or educational) philosophies, have often outlined a very different approach for their members or followers: metaphysics, cosmology and the meaning of the created world already determine a conception of man, though the existence, essence and finalities of human beings have yet to be defined. Here then, whatever forms of learning are involved, education must make it possible – in the best way possible – to achieve the objectives that promote the good and welfare of human beings. This approach is by definition holistic, and cannot be content with either the strictly cognitive theories or purely affective or behavioural analyses. All those dimensions should be considered together and educated concurrently.
Further reflection indicates that, although there are contradictions between these theories and although their views as to the source and modalities differ, they do have something in common. There are areas where they overlap, and they have similar aspirations. We should therefore invert our perspective and approach the issue in terms of ends rather than fundamentals. Rather than arguing (or quarrelling) about different conceptions of men, we should, that is, be asking what these different traditions or schools of thought have to offer and how they can help human beings to develop their full potential. We have by no means reached a consensus, but the differences are minor and the goals are the same. There is something universal about all these traditions, no matter which dimension they emphasize. They all express the hope that education will produce individuals who are confident, autonomous, dignified, curious, critical, constructive, creative and caring. Such individuals may well be audacious, but they remain basically optimistic despite all life’s difficulties and sufferings.
Every age faces its own challenges and, as we have said again and again, the age of globalization is one of upheaval. It is difficult to be confident, autonomous and critically aware in a world where our old points of reference have disappeared, where fear and unease appear to be the dominant emotions, and where the constant hype of instant communications and advertising leaves too little a room for deep, subtle and critical debates. We have already said that it is important for our age to reconcile itself to the need to teach individuals about spiritualities, religions, philosophies and art.
They all represent ‘distancing’ skills that, because they objectify the object of study and its complexity, restore the subject’s autonomy, outlook and complexity. Education means acquiring knowledge and skills, but it also means learning to keep our spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic distance (from ourselves, the objects and judgments).