Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Magic of Reality - Socratic and Aristotlean Philosophical Theory and Educational Practice.

Most philosophical approaches to education have come about through theoretical reflection upon the (arguably) oldest two perspectives; namely, Socratic and Aristotlean – idealism and realism. These are more or less opposite extremes, with realism the chronological response to idealism. Theoretically, these philosophies have the capacity to complement each other, and this is being seen more and more as we move
beyond post-modernism into the 21st century and the new philosophical and pedagogical paradigms that will emerge. 

In terms of teaching practices in the classroom itself, the Socratic and Aristotlean methods are worlds apart and opposite to each other. With the continuing impacts of technology – ICT – on knowledge, learning, and indeed the socio-cultural world writ large, the former is taking precedence over the latter, as educators have to contend with the reality that they now share their not-so-priviledged-anymore reservoir of knowledge with Wikipedia.

The Aristotlean method sees education a means to understand the physical world, by means of transmitting information from teacher to pupil in a controlled, systemic way. This was perfect for an education system designed in the image of the world of industrialism, whose economy was characterised by ‘elite’ energies (eg. Coal and oil), which require centralised financial, bureaucratic and military systems of investment, hierarchy and control to extract, manage, and distribute. These energy regimes predicated the socio-cultural co-ordinates of the people and institutions in it, and so it is no surprise that we have very Aristotle-inspired lecture theatres and classrooms.

But we are in the twilight of this world, now – according to Jeremy Rifkin, the man whose vision is transforming the socio-cultural landscape of Europe as he weans them off the oil spigot and into what he terms the ‘Third Industrial Revolution.’ Mark Prensky’s (2001) idea of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ identifies perfectly the shifting point. From the generations born after 1985 (the digital natives), there has come a complete shift in socio-cultural and economic reality, predicated by globalisation and the ICT revolution. Young people are so surrounded by stimuli, information, and empathic potential that educators struggle to get them to pay attention to what is on the whiteboard.  Indeed, I have found that Wikipedia is often a more useful starting point for many lecture topics than the lecture itself, and I look dubiously at lecturers whose powerpoint slides are clearly copied and pasted from Wikipedia. I know I am not alone in this.

The ICT revolution is organised distributively and collaboratively (Rifkin 2012). Young people today do not think right/left, socialism/capitalism; these are fragmented competitions of ideology. They value distributive, collaborative, lateral, honest and integrative thought. Society is evolving along these lines, as are, somewhat more slowly, the world’s economy (think how music and file sharing crippled the record labels, or how blogging crippled the newspapers). The education system is struggling to evolve, suffering a resistance to change (Hodas 1993), mainly because Prensky’s digital immigrants are still ‘trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past.’ (Robinson 2008). Aristotlean practice seems no longer to work and when it does, it is only because the teacher employing it is very, very good at it. A perfect example of this rare specimen is British historian A.J.P. Taylor, whose 1950’s televised (and often impromptu) lectures were broadcast to record-breaking audiences in the ‘prime-time’ slot.

Idealism and realism are not so opposed. Post-modernism was a valiant attempt to find the truth between these extremes, but as Dennis Koo Hok-Chun (2002) notes, it is unbalanced and inseperable from chaos and complexity theories. This is not useful because the world of C21 is moving in the exact opposite direction, and leading minds such as Ken Robinson (2008) insist that the practice of education and its philosophy must do so also.

Slavoj Zizek insists that we must neither seek to find that elusive, ephemeral truth beyond the co-ordinates of the measurable reality of our five senses, nor dismiss that longing to find it entirely. Rather we should seek to find ‘poetry and aesthetic dimension’ in reality itself. Indeed, the more mysteries of the universe that human knowledge unravels, the more there is to appreciate. It is no coincidence that the minds most responsible for bringing this knowledge to people are the world’s most eminent educators and authors. Indeed, this is the central premise of Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Magic of Reality,’ and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’

Teachers the world over must begin to grasp this, and employ Socratic teaching methods in the classroom, for this is the kind of 21st century collaborative and distributive context that will merge with the 21st century's economic and socio-cultural landscape, to create a learning environment where students – and teachers (Yates 2005) – where room is made for local as well as global; creative as well as academic (ibid; Robinson 2008), and both can find truth in reality itself.