Saturday, March 22, 2008

I think therefore I am... a student

In this knowledge game called ‘school’, where we are assessed on tests and have to fulfill requirements, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. We often forget to ask ourselves what the purpose of all this education is. Answers to this question can vary from personal development to social security. We hear students say that they need school to achieve what they want in their lives. ‘I need mathematics to understand engineering so that I can become an architect.’ However, in some cultures, education is not about personal ambitions but family status: ‘My father has me studying medicine,’ for example.

Then there is the view that we are, ‘just another brick in the wall.’ These Pink Floyd lyrics suggest that school is society’s conspiracy against individualism. ‘Hey teacher, leave them kids alone,’ they sing, implying that school gets in the way of learning. So which is it? Are these institutionalized years of our young adolescence a kind of cultural rite of passage that we must all endure, or are we freeing our minds through education?

To answer this, we have to go back in time to the Renaissance. After all, this was a period in history when the number of schools across Europe grew exponentially. Something curious was going on that made people want to hit the books. Besides being an age of enlightenment and scientific growth, artistic achievement and charting uncharted territory, philosophy took a great leap forward. A philosopher by the name of René Descartes was born in 1596. He would change the way people looked at themselves, nature and God. And perhaps his philosophy can still affect the way we look at education.

‘Cogito, ergo sum,’ he proclaimed. ‘I think therefore I am.’ This in itself might not seem revolutionary, but the path that led him to this conclusion was important. Until that period many philosophers felt there was little we could be certain of: our senses were not to be trusted, abstract reasoning led us to an intangible world, and worst of all, thoughts could not be measured, seen or weighed. Whereas other philosopher’s threw in the towel at this point, Descartes saw this as a perfect starting point. As cheeky as it may sound, he was reassured by man’s inability to be sure. We humans seem to doubt everything, which means we are thinking. We are thinking and reflecting on a different level than animals. And if we are thinking, doing abstract reasoning, and contemplating the pros and cons of nuclear war, then we must exist. This must be what defines our existence. ‘I think therefore I am.’

The attitude taken toward education, where school is a kind of good citizen producing factory, where kids go on the conveyor belt and are stamped into a mold, is a rather Dystopian view, because there is no room for critical thinking. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if it is possible for a student to go through high school, study medicine, and become a doctor without ever learning to think critically or be skeptical. If this were the case, then this doctor may indeed just be another brick in the wall (and I don’t know if I would want him operating on me). If this were the case, then his education would have been more of an indoctrination.

But is this scenario possible? To what degree are we being educated or indoctrinated at our schools today? Is learning 2+2=4 a form of indoctrination or education? Descartes would have been proud to see us question our education. We must constantly ask in order to be good students. We must constantly think in order to be.