Monday, 7 February 2011

Kant on Education

Published posthumously in 1803, Kant’s lectures on pedagogy were not written for publication, but compiled from notes of lectures he gave. Following the pattern of his philosophy generally, Kant begins with the negative before turning to the positive, from limitation (pure reason) followed by expansion (practical reason).

Man unlike animals seems to rely on intelligence instead of natural instinct, and thus uniquely among creatures requires education: care, discipline, instruction and formation until the child is able to rely on its own intelligence. A good analogy of this process is of the educator as a gardener. The ground is fertile for all kinds of seeds, both good and bad, so the gardener in his wisdom must root out the bad seeds and provide good nutrients to the ground so that the true seed of original nature may flourish. It is a negative approach to begin with (care that protects from harm and discipline to obey and speak the truth), which in turn allows for the positive approach of effective instruction and guidance, the former educating for school and the latter educating for life, cultivating ways of thinking that enable understanding to arise from within. Without instruction, man would be uncultured and raw, but without discipline, Kant contends that man would be less than human – savage, with a propensity to freedom that Rousseau considered noble, but Kant strongly disagrees. Nobility for Kant requires guidance that we may best make use of our freedom, educating to think for oneself and not be merely trained, that inner worth replace the opinions of others, that inner knowing and understanding arise from and replace feeling and experience and that good humour and natural piety replace blind and gloomy devotion. Thus, although Kant starts with constraint, the child must be afforded freedom. A good example is how generosity can only arise with the corresponding power to be generous. Kant's four keys to a good education are obedience, truthfulness, sociability and a cheerful heart. This follows closely the three keys in Arthurian legend of not too much indulgence, good company and good spirits!

If this project of education were successively improved, at each stage the educated having greater wisdom to be better educators, to what heights could man aspire? To what perfection of his true potential would he be capable? This and the project for a just society, the project of government, Kant considers to be the two most important and most difficult projects of the practical philosopher. The conduct of the project is an art, but he believes in the existence of absolute underlying principles which must be uniformly applied. There is perhaps a paradox here in that the perfection to man’s natural state seems to require very unnatural means. But these means are guided by reason which is in turn natural “in God”, so the perfection of man in God is a natural and thus universal endeavour, precisely because reason does not discriminate between individuals. And indeed Kant stresses not to “value human beings according to their religious observances, for in spite of the diversity of religions there is nevertheless unity of religion everywhere”.

This project of education, as with all culture, “begins with private individuals and extends outwards from there” to society and the world. This is because it is individuals who, unlike rulers, can take into account the good of the world above their own or their state’s interests. The image he uses to criticize the self-interested and spoilt prince is of the tree that stands apart in a sunlit field, its branches extending outwards in all directions. However, it is ironic that it is precisely this romantic image that is found in ancient Egypt for the happy man, providing ample shelter and plentiful fruit.

The existence of absolute principles, even without the insistence on absolute content, is still a questionable proposition. Does Kant really respect the dignity of difference, that “chaqu’un a son goût”? He sees a unity in religion and does not find the corresponding diversity problematic, so it is perhaps in the same light of universality that we should view his project of education. And then, at the age of sixteen, Kant sees the educated as attaining the potential paternal role of educators themselves. But we would rather consider education as an on-going life-long process, allowing for the continuing malleability of character and knowledge beyond mere childhood. Or is the cake baked by sixteen and we may enjoy the taste of our education and live happily after?… in God, through the wisdom of pure and practical reason… thanks to Kant!