Social Affairs

The case for a ‘Third-Way’ of education

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Since a while we hear a lot about the ever ‘deteriorating quality’ of education in Ethiopia. But questions such as, “what does ‘deteriorating quality’ of education really mean?” and “how do we know about it?” may appear strange because for many people there is only one unitary and consensual view regarding education, and hence take the issue for granted. 

Contrary to this conviction, however, there are two major strands of educational views with significantly diverging positions on such basic issues like what education is and how it should be delivered to students.

The classical view known as the humanist school viewed education as an endeavor poised to set about the fullest development of humans – intellectual, moral as well as social. In this line of thought, education basically ought to activate the inner energy of students, and instill in them a sense of mission, responsibility, courage and determination to pursue wisdom throughout one’s life.

But since the 1950s, basing its assumption on Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning, the current conventional education – the behavioral education – came to dominate educational thinking and practices across the world. This perspective views education as an organized activity which shapes or modifies the behavior of students in a controlled environment. For behavioral educationalists, the cardinal purpose of education is the transmission of a quantified amount of skill and experience to learners within a fixed time and space through rigorous instruction and training.

Behavioral education is mainly guided by the doctrine of social adaptation and immediate needs. Here the presumption appears to be that there already exists an ideal social system to which the new generation only needs to adapt itself to. The available knowledge is presumably complete and perfect and has to be stuffed in the minds of students packaged in the form of bulky information and complex sets of skills. In this line of thought, education mainly caters to the youth’s need of making a living.

The behavioral education also typifies an authoritative, uncritical and unaccountable educational system and operates at three levels of power hierarchies: at the top, there exist ‘omnipotent’ educationalists (education policy makers, planners and administrators); at the middle, ‘omniscient’ teachers – (‘intellectual fathers’); and at the bottom, the powerless, obedient, receptive ‘herds’ of students (the ‘information vessel’).

The concern that the thinking and practices of current hegemonic behavioral education potentially having adverse effects on humanity has caused a flurry of criticisms from many critical thinkers in the fields of education, psychology, sociology, philosophy and many more.

Critiques like the noted educator John Holthas deplored the contemporary schooling system as “cultural or political imprisonment” that traps young people in artificial and mainly irrelevant environment and rewards “conformity and docility” while inhibiting “curiosity and creativity”.

On his part, C. Wright Mills, a philosophical sociologist, saw the adverse effects of the behavioral education system mainly on the morality of students. He contends it is a system most likely to turn out students “who owe any duty to society except to obey the laws and submit to the government.”

On the whole, among the issues that recur across the works of most critiques of behavioral education are the views that it is a mindless, indifferent social institution dedicated to producing fear, docility and conformity; it only educates students on how to behave rather than how to think; it imposes a curriculum which usurp the right to select one’s own development path; it yields positivist scholars who worship numbers and statistics despite the fact that they are susceptible to manipulation; it breeds selfish, competitive citizens obsessed with out-ward looking; it neglects individual differences and easily lends itself as a tool for indoctrinating the ideology of despotic government.

However these two points reveal, to a degree, the hollowness of the much-talked ‘deteriorating quality of education’ in Ethiopia, which often put the blame on curriculum, teaching method, and teaching facilities among others.

In my view, the problem of ‘quality of education’ seems to be rooted in the very doctrine of behavioral education modeled after Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. Evidently, modeling after this theory is tantamount to equating humans with animals, reducing a spiritual-being to a mere instinctual and biological-being.

Controversies regarding this issue have invigorated afresh the world over. But the nature of the controversies happens to be largely exclusionist: on the one hand, there exists a view which argues solely for a highly structured and predominantly behavior-oriented education; on the other hand, the need for an entirely free and unstructured educational system.

Thus, as an alternative to this either or approach, I commend a ‘Third-Way’ of education, particularly at higher level, which draws on the relative strengths of each contending model.

The ‘Third-Way’ approach rests on the philosophic assumption that humans are by nature both animal and rational beings. Subsequently, it suggests a hybrid of generative-derivative educational curriculum executed via semi-structured educational system. The structured component comprises an ordered, teacher-assisted instruction of a core of time-tested procreative subjects such as language, communication, philosophy, and basic natural, physical and social sciences. The learning of generative subjects often endows students with the ability to learn the derivative subject whose learning is not of significant value for acquisition of further knowledge.

Whereas the liberal part provides the opportunity for students to exercise their free will and work on their inner growth. Its application demands responsible engagement of students in semi-self-guided and semi-instructor-monitored study of one’s own pace and self-chosen educational contents compatible with one’s natural disposition. Here the principal criterion is not a short-term economic analysis but rather the long-term emancipation of humanity. In the course of school education learners would be provided mainly with the motivation, habits, ideas and techniques that they need to continue to educate themselves for school education cannot offer all they will ever need to know. This Galileo Galilee had in mind when he said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”

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