Friday, April 22, 2011

Can rational dialogue transform Caribbean education?

By Oliver Mills

A Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Tasos Kazepides, has published an essay entitled “Education as Dialogue,” which summarises one of the central arguments of his recent book, Education as Dialogue: Its Prerequisites and Its Enemies.

The professor argues that the quality of our thinking is influenced by the quality of thinking in our social world. He characterises education as dialogue, and says that, unlike conversation, it is caring, engaging, and inseparable from reason.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaFor him, dialogue is the pursuit of truth and understanding, which give it direction and purpose. It also has to do with interpersonal communication, governed by the rules of reasoning, and having certain standards, with no predetermined destination.

Dialogue also has a serious, challenging and demanding character, and requires respect, trust, open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen, and to risk one’s own fixed beliefs, biases and prejudices in the pursuit of truth.

With dialogue, he argues, the aim is not to win an argument, but to advance human understanding and well being. Agreement is the result of conviction, and is not imposed.

Again, the professor states that some of the prerequisites of a genuine dialogue are the virtues of justice, honesty, respect for others, caring, and fair-mindedness. For him, dialogue is influenced by the cultural, political and economic conditions of society, and the education within it.

In relating dialogue to education, the professor states that the prerequisites of dialogue are also those of education, and that the principles of dialogue are at the foundations of a genuine educational curriculum.

Expanding on the idea of education as dialogue, he sees education as a form of free, open, informed dialogue among members of society and the education system, and as a planned dialogue between the generations about the human condition, and places it at the centre of all education, as the most effective means of teaching the young.

Education through dialogue is about character development, and the virtues of interpersonal relationships. The appropriate questions to be asked about education are therefore, what it means, its values, its place in society, and not what it aims at or for.

For the professor, education policy and practice are determined by the political and economic needs of society, rather than as an ideal of human development, and the vision of a good society. He further says that the public schools aim not at educating the young, but preparing them to serve the productive and reproductive needs of a competitive world.

Dialogue and education therefore emphasise the importance of understanding our world and each other, and the centrality of the intellectual standards, and moral virtues for individual and collective well being. He adds that nothing else will improve our educational institutions, and the character of our civilisation, so much as our efforts to cultivate genuine, rational dialogue within our schools, and within our world.

This essay by Professor Kazepides provides the missing link to what has avoided educators and educational systems, particularly within the Caribbean, which is the rational use of dialogue as an antidote to previous and current failures in our educational systems, and the achievement of transformation of those systems through the cultivation of certain virtues, which permeate the individual and societal consciousness through dialogue.

The writer is right when he says the quality of our thinking is influenced by the quality of thinking in the society. For, if a society is at a particular stage of development, then what moves it forward is the quality of ideas, experiences, and the reflection on these.

If the thinking quality leaves much to be desired, there will be little qualitative progress, and the result would be a somewhat stagnant civilisation. Education systems will remain underdeveloped, the status quo would continue, and the quality of life would deteriorate.

On the other hand, with quality thinking, there is quality progress that has an overall benefit to the individual and the collective as a whole. Society moves rapidly forward, and progress and development become the new norm. With low level thinking, there is stagnation, and the social and political system, along with education, will atrophy.

It is important then that, through dialogue, ideas, positions and beliefs are constantly challenged, and there is intellectual experimentation and innovation. This lifts the quality of our being, results in a creative society, and therefore a sustainable human system.

I agree with the professor that dialogue involves caring, engaging and is connected to reason, with the quest for truth and understanding as well as improving interpersonal communications as critical goals.

With societal dialogue, one becomes empathetic towards the other, and there is a linkage of minds and hearts. Abuse and emotionalism are non-existent, since a greater essence is being sought which is truth, even if tentatively held, since new developments in knowledge and understanding could present greater evidence of something different. Here, respect and trust become paramount, and the collective search for an education system which transforms, and which is being continuously improved is fostered.

With this rational approach, devoid of privileging any particular position, avenues are fostered for greater and newer experiences and innovations.

Connected to this is the ability to listen and be open-minded. This means that when educational officials meet to dialogue about the issues, it is beyond the level of just being simply a conversation. There is free, open and informed dialogue, with no interest in having a winner.

The winners are the education system and a more qualitative and informed understanding by the individual. Consensus is by conscious choice, based on the quality of the dialogue, and is not imposed by an authority. It is willing and non-coerced consent. Through dialogue as education, a quality character is formed, based on values and agreed standards.

Too often in the Caribbean, authoritarianism and diktat usurp truth and reason. It is almost sacrilege to disagree with the principal, for fear of incurring his anger, and possible sanctions.

Also at the ministry of education level, education as dialogue, and the values embedded in it, should result in positive interest by those involved, a commitment to give each person a fair hearing, and dialogue about the issues based on the arguments presented and not the personalities concerned.

In practice, this is often not the case. Responses are often tepid in meetings. There is the feeling that it is impolitic to challenge certain views, although if we allow them to go forward they could be detrimental to the system. Promotion and being a member of the inner circle could also be compromised. With this, the truth becomes a casualty, and the unworkable, inefficient system persists.

Even where the curriculum is concerned, there is hardly any serious dialogue about the meaning of education, its values, and its place in society. It is not about what it aims at, or what it is for. This is a very important observation. In order to have an education system that works, we have to know what it all means and the values we are endeavouring to promote. Also, considerations about its place in the society need to be dialogued about.

This lays the groundwork for considerations of how this new approach to education could be used to transform character, introduce values such as kindness, being considerate, exercising care and compassion, and being fair and just. These values are embedded in the curriculum, through dialogue, and result in a transformed educational system through the curriculum.

In this sense, education is not preparation to serve the productive needs of society. It is about the promotion of understanding and effectively communicating to promote civilised interaction. The intellectual standards and moral virtues are integral to this new perspective on education, which promotes our collective well being. The productivity and other connecting elements of what materially moves a society at another dimension will come from this new and different emphasis on the meaning of education, and the values accompanying it.

This new intellectual and moral focus concerning what education means, rather than what it aims at, or is for, reconstitute the whole psychology of educators, schools, and the society as a whole.

This means that all of the previous inefficiencies and failures the Caribbean education system has been experiencing become a thing of the past. In its place is a new system with new values and a different orientation brought about by education as dialogue, and the moral and ethical dispositions that emerge and result from it.

Education therefore becomes a moral enterprise, and not an instrument serving the productive and reproductive needs of society, but rather fosters the kind of individual with the right understanding and moral virtues. We therefore have a better society, and a more civilised world.

Professor Kazepides therefore provides a rational paradigm and blueprint for the use of dialogue as an important and critical plank in transforming an educational system and the individuals that operate it. His arguments are straightforward, logical, and incisive. Most importantly they make sense.

This use of rational dialogue by the Caribbean educational establishment, could therefore introduce a new transformative element into the educational system and society, based on values, moral dispositions, logical analysis, trust, respectful listening, and fair-mindedness.

Education therefore becomes dialogue in action, which fashions a new human person, who in turn creates a new educational order and society.

April 21, 2011