Sunday, December 30, 2007

Geography of Education and Truth

Mention an obscure painter or poet to a continental European and you'll get an elegant summation of the artist's work, the movement that inspired it and perhaps a word on its relevance to the world today. An American will frankly admit not knowing about the artist and probably ask a question; a Brit will offer a clever joke that changes the topic.

The differences in response do not necessarily mean the Continentals are more learned. It merely means they have been taught differently about the truth.

There may be many more systems of education in the world, but the two educational approaches to which I and people I know have been exposed might be labeled Anglo-American and Continental. They have fundamental epistemological differences, especially in those fields that are not empirical.

The Continentals, according to observations of mine and others, study humanities as a collection of facts subject to approved, taught interpretations. This novel is about X and its symbolism means Y; remember that for the exam and spew it back exactly as taught or fail the class.

In the past two weeks, for example, a French correspondent provided an unwitting example of this. A secondary school teacher who was exposing his students to the idea of colonization, offered them several quotes on the subject, then asked
1. Compare the arguments put forward in 1885 by Jules Ferry, a prime minister favoring French colonization of Indochina, and Georges Clemenceau, a member of the opposition.

2. How was European leadership being called into question at the beginning of the twentieth century?
So I asked what the students had replied, and my correspondent replied "I suppose what [the teacher] taught them." Such a response conveys the assumption that the teacher's role is to provide not merely facts, but also the "correct" interpretation of the events in question.

If the teacher is in a progressive secular school, I would expect the answers to lean toward describing Ferry as a retrograde racist and Clemenceau was a visionary and European "leadership" (quaint description of genocide, ecological rape and theft, but never mind) as a thing of the past well worth burying.

In a religious and conservative environment, on the other hand, one might lament the loss of the "wise" European stewardship of the world and note that Ferry might have had a point about the tutelage needed by the Third World.

In either case, education sets up the student as a parroter of the correct line of interpretation. The European who seems to opine about an obscure poet is likely repeating something learned in secondary school. By rote.

This is the system that Napoleon spread throughout continental Europe, alongside his famous legal code.

In the United States, Canada and Britain (and in British schools abroad) schooling, after 1945 at least, I would venture to say that in a similar situation, the students would be pointed to sources (as the French teacher did), then left to their own devices as to interpretation.

Because the Anglo-American student is not encouraged to imbibe opinions, but rather to consider and search for information, typically Anglo-American school systems cover less material than their Continental equivalents. Thus, it is more likely that Americans, Canadians and Brits may come across as "ignorant" and not know the obscure artist mentioned at the outset -- but if an opinion is ventured, it is more than likely that of the speaker, not of the speaker's high school teacher.

Anglo-American educators not only worship at the altar of open-ended inquiry, but also engage in a full-fledged debate concerning the canonical information to which students should be exposed. For example, there's the library of dead white men as opposed to multicultural readings that include women, people of color and sources that were not conventional 50 years ago. Textbook versus textbook-less.

Is one system better? Not necessarily.

The Anglo-American student typically has a narrower frame of reference tending toward specialization, depth and creativity. The European peer has the advantage of a broader base of basic information, yet also tendencies toward more conventional thinking, surface knowledge and generalization. The eclectic and the specialist complement can each other.

Socially, however, they speak of societies with different vocations and temptations.

European indoctrination aspires to develop renaissance men and women, yet it carries the temptation toward the totalitarian conformity of Fascism and Stalinism. Girded in philosophical absolutism traceable back to medieval, Catholic Europe, its insistence on one truth and one truth only, may spur the desire to uncover her. Once found, European Truth, like Reason during the French Revolution, risks becoming a worshipped statue.

Anglo-American inquiry hopes to develop free democratic citizens who insist on their own truths, yet it can yield unreasoning, over-confident zealotry. Undergirded in the Reformation epistemology according to which each Bible reader was to be seen as the sole legitimate interpreter of truth, under the influence of the more modern offshoots of rationalism and empiricism it can spur to develop scientific and technological marvels. However, these may become soulless and rudderless innovation for its own sake in a vast and stormy ocean of relativism, witness the hollow chatter one so often hears on cell phones.

In the end, I am torn. I like the European palaver, but I admire the Anglo-American thirst for knowledge. I wonder what you think.
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