Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Leon Kass has an article in this month’s National Affairs (recently relaunched) in which he uses his own journey from study of science to study of humanities as a meditation on the role of humanities in life. In the piece, which is well worth reading, Kass approvingly cites Aristotle as a guide in how to live well:

We are today inclined to praise as excellent one or the other of two human types. Utilitarians esteem the shrewd and cunning man who knows how to get what he wants. Moralists praise the man of good will, the well-intentioned or good-hearted fellow bent on doing good. But these views, Aristotle shows us, are both inadequate. The highest human excellence in the realm of action requires both that one’s intentions be good and that one’s judgment be sound. Never a slave to abstract principles or rules of conduct, never a moral preener espousing “ideals” or doctrines, the prudent man knows that excellence really consists in finding and enacting the best thing to do here and now, always with a view to the good but always as seen in the light of the circumstances.

We would do well to consider Aristotle’s emphasis on combining moral intentions with the ability to make sound decisions and get things done. We have perhaps had too much emphasis on the extremes, which Kass characterizes as utilitarianism and moralism. Andrew Leonard expresses this in another way in a review at Salon of robert Skidelsky’s new book, Keynes. Considering the trends in ‘rich’ countries, Skidelsky makes an observation and poses a series of questions:

Although real incomes in rich countries have doubled in the last thirty years, the populations of these countries work harder than ever and are no happier. This raises the question of why they are still on the growth treadmill. Is it because capitalism needs constantly to expand markets, and ensnare by advertising more and more people into useless consumption? Is it because economists have ignored the fact that, as societies become wealthier, positional goods — goods which satisfy not our needs, but our longing for status — become more and more desirable? Is it because globalization has made affluence too insecure and too uneven in its spread for most people in wealthy societies to ease off work? Or is it because we lack any agreed idea of the good life in the name of which we can say “enough is enough”?

In last question Skidelsky parallels Kass. They both point to a lack of a commonly-agreed sense of what a good life is. In an age of unprecedented wealth on the earth, clearly our material advancement is not sufficient to constitute moral living. Moreover, following Aristotle, mere having the intention of living some other way is not sufficient, either. We must not be content with merely criticizing the materialist status quo. We must actively seek, promote, and try to live an alternative.

In that progression of logic lie the seeds of a life of faith.

‘Abdu’l-Baha has said, “By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” But He goes further than this, as recorded in Paris Talks. Though it is a lengthy excerpt, I will quote it here in full.

All over the world one hears beautiful sayings extolled and noble precepts admired. All men say they love what is good, and hate everything that is evil! Sincerity is to be admired, whilst lying is despicable. Faith is a virtue, and treachery is a disgrace to humanity. It is a blessed thing to gladden the hearts of men, and wrong to be the cause of pain. To be kind and merciful is right, while to hate is sinful. Justice is a noble quality and injustice an iniquity. That it is one’s duty to be pitiful and harm no one, and to avoid jealousy and malice at all costs. Wisdom is the glory of man, not ignorance; light, not darkness! It is a good thing to turn one’s face toward God, and foolishness to ignore Him. That it is our duty to guide man upward, and not to mislead him and be the cause of his downfall. There are many more examples like unto these.
But all these sayings are but words and we see very few of them carried into the world of action. On the contrary, we perceive that men are carried away by passion and selfishness, each man thinking only of what will benefit himself even if it means the ruin of his brother. They are all anxious to make their fortune and care little or nothing for the welfare of others. They are concerned about their own peace and comfort, while the condition of their fellows troubles them not at all.
Unhappily this is the road most men tread.
But Bahá’ís must not be thus; they must rise above this condition. Actions must be more to them than words. By their actions they must be merciful and not merely by their words. They must on all occasions confirm by their actions what they proclaim in words. Their deeds must prove their fidelity, and their actions must show forth Divine light.
Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Bahá’ís, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity.
If we are true Bahá’ís speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
This is the work of a true Bahá’í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá’ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name.
God, who sees all hearts, knows how far our lives are the fulfilment of our words.

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Room for Debate at the New York Times today has one of a series of ‘conversations’ about the state of education in the US. Today’s discussion centers on the first draft of a set of national standards for all students to achieve in English and math by the end of high school. The Washington Post has a story, too.

As an English teacher by training and for the first eight years of my working life, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) standards (.pdf) with interest. I found little to disagree with in the document, and was even slightly gratified to note that most my lessons over eight years could have been taken for a model of how to implement those standards. (Of course, my students and supervisors might beg to differ.)

Aside from the content of the standards, though, I was interested in two aspects of the process through which they are being developed. First, the federal government is not involved in the drafting process, nor will it be involved in accepting them once they are developed. Instead, the several states are leading the charge in development, and adoption will happen (if it does) state by state. Second, the drafters have referred to the best standards they can find, not only among the several states, but also in the rest of the world. These two elements of the process represent, as I understand it, federalism at its best. Each state maintains its independence but uses innovations and best practice in other states (and, in the modern world, countries) to inform its own choices.

As ‘Abdu’l-Baha noted in a talk he gave in New York in 1912, this federated arrangement has no small consequences:

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace.

Such a federal approach to developing educational standards is not confined to the U.S., either. A similar process in underway in Australia, as seen in national Statements of Learning. Viewed more broadly, developing common education standards across national boundaries can be seen as one step in the process of defining the standards of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha labels “human education”, which “signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.”

Of course, the trend toward and necessity of training people to think across the boundaries of traditional bodies of knowledge, which I noted in Saturday’s post, plays a crucial role in developing our sense of what human education is, too. How can we have government, administration, sciences, great inventions, and elaborate institutions adequate to the world today if we cannot analyze broad trends and bring together information from a wide variety of fields? To take two recent examples, Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth and Jared Diamond’s Collapse indicate just how much we can benefit from such an approach to thinking.

Of course, without divine education, the acquisition of human perfections which will allow us to use that way of thinking for our mutual progress, no amount of purely human education will do us much good. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for public schools to take on that subject matter yet.

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At the Millennium Villages blog I mentioned yesterday, John McArthur writes about the need for a new kind of education to tackle the new kinds of challenges we increasingly face.

The world of multisectoral multilateralism requires trained professionals at all levels, across all countries, who are able to connect practical problem-solving across specialized disciplines on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the world does not yet train people for these tasks. Our higher education systems overwhelmingly reward targeted, single discipline studies while so many of the world’s most pressing issues require solutions that draw systematically from insights across disciplines. Specialists remain essential but vastly more people should have at least a basic understanding of the spectrum of topics underpinning core global challenges.

As a solution to this limitation of the current system of education, McArthur and his colleagues have founded a multi-campus Master’s in Development Practice:

We identified a stark need for scientifically savvy policy generalists, practitioners who can bridge the work of specialists through knowledge of four pillars of sustainable development: natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences and management. In academic jargon, one could say that the commission outlined the need for “science-based policy MBAs.”
The Commission recommended a new global form of graduate degree program, a Master’s in Development Practice, to train professionals across the four basic pillars, with an emphasis on practical skills and field training. It also recommended that students practice working in networks across borders and time zones as a normal habit, empowered by simple webcams and cheap software.

No doubt this Master’s degree will enable people to study “useful” sciences, which Baha’u’llah indicates will “redound to the progress and advancement of the people.” If you’re of an age and so inclined, I would certainly recommend the program.

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“O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.”

Such is the exhortation of Baha’u’llah in the Persian Hidden Words, #54. The difficult thing, of course, is translating that high ideal into practical reality.

In at least one sphere, child mortality, a New York Times article today indicates that some progress is being made. According to Unicef, 2008 was the first year since 1960, when the fund began keeping records, that fewer than nine million children under the age of five have died.

The article uses activities and programs in Malawi as a case study of how the change has been about. Two paragraphs are especially interesting:

Malawi illustrates the essence of the most successful efforts to reduce child mortality: it has found many creative ways to get the most cost-effective treatments and prevention methods to women and children, even in remote rural areas. Those interventions have included not just mosquito nets and vaccinations, but also deworming medicines and vitamin A supplements that boost children’s immunity.

Perhaps Malawi’s most powerful weapon is its ranks of more than 10,000 high school-educated village health workers. With a minimum 10 weeks of training, medical checklists to aid them in diagnosing childhood killers and hardy bicycles to get around, they dispense medicines and give injections, tasks only doctors and nurses do in many other countries.

These village health workers play a crucial role in the reduction of child mortality because they are local. Malawi has seen that its own people are excellent resources: raising their capacity allows the country to tackle its difficult problems. The article gives one example of a health worker at work:

“These days, when a child falls sick in the night, the mother can knock on the door of the health assistant,” said Teresa Frazier, 40. Her own 5-year-old daughter died after falling violently ill one night when Ms. Frazier was a young mother in a Malawian village of mud huts that, at the time, was many miles from the nearest medical help.

But as the sun went down on Monday, Ms. Frazier walked up to the tiny, two-room home of Blessings Mwaraya, 27, a health worker who lives amid banana, avocado and mango trees. Ms. Frazier, who gave birth to nine children, seven of whom survived, said she could not manage any more.

She had come for an injection of Depo Provera for birth control. Mr. Mwaraya, who earns $90 a month, painstakingly shook the little glass bottle containing the solution, drew it into the needle and stuck it in her arm. Health experts say family planning enables women to space births apart and have fewer children, aiding them in bearing healthier babies and better providing for them as they grow up.

“It’s still difficult to feed them all,” Ms. Frazier said of her surviving children, noting the paltry yield of corn on her small plot. Had Mr. Mwaraya been in the village in her younger days, she would have chosen to have had only four children, she said.

And Mr. Mwaraya clearly has the spirit of service in mind as he fulfills his role:

“My interest was to assist my fellow Malawians who were falling sick but never had treatment at the village level,” said Mr. Mwaraya, dressed in a uniform of light blue pants and a short-sleeve jacket.

Even though he is not among the “rich ones on earth,” Mr. Mwaraya is guarding the poor among his countrymen through his work. His work at the local level strikes me as being crucial to its success; he has undergone training that allows him to fulfill a role in the heath of his community, but he is not expected to have advanced training which his work does not require. So what might be perceived as a weakness – his lack of formal education – does not become a barrier to improving the lives of people in the country.

Mr. Mwaraya’s work parallels the work happening in Papua New Guinea under the auspices of a Baha’i-inspired agency, the Rays of Light Foundation, and their Preparation for Social Action program. This program focuses on building capacities for people to be of service to their communities.

One of the first texts studied is “Classification” which engenders in students the capability to classify things. One of the themes explored in this text is that of ‘parasitism’, i.e. when one species benefits at the expense of another. A case study on malaria is presented giving explanation of how the disease is transmitted, how it affects the body and information about how the disease can best be minimised is given to the reader.

The World Health Organization has described malaria as the “leading cause of illness and death in Papua New Guinea” and statistics show over 70000 reported infections for the year 2003. Many communities in Papua New Guinea are plagued with mosquitoes and are often ill-informed about the disease and have little access to relief from it. By being able to inform others of the key prevention techniques and by undertaking projects such as draining stagnant water holes the PSA group is able to help lessen the impact of malaria in their microregion.

Training that took place in Lae, Papua New Guinea in 2008 included one such project on the grounds where the training was taking place. Participants noticed that a ditch dug for a fish pond that was never completed was harbouring thousands of mosquito larvae and was one of the probable causes for sickness of some of the attendees. By filling in the pond the PSA tutors took one step towards protecting the surrounding inhabitants from malaria. Draining swampy areas, using protective clothing and mosquito nets, educating community members about the responsible use of anti-malarial medicines, reducing exposure to mosquitoes during the peak hours of transmittance of the disease and other similar steps are all different aspects of this grass roots approach to solving one of the world’s most widespread problems.

So, just as in Malawi, local people do the work of improving their own communities. This is part of a larger effort within Baha’i communities to engage in meaningful and productive social action, beginning in earnest in the 1990s. Century of Light, a publication commissioned by the Universal House of Justice on the twentieth century, and titled with the name given to that century by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, describes the 1990s this way:

The decade that followed saw wide experimentation in a field of work for which most Bahá’í institutions had little preparation. While striving to benefit from the models being tried by the many development agencies operating around the world, Bahá’í communities faced the challenge of relating what they found in various areas of concern—education, health, literacy, agriculture and communications technology—to their understanding of Bahá’í principles. The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

Perhaps the world is learning how to guard Baha’u’llah’s sacred trust.

It’s also important to note that at least some of the “rich ones on earth” are doing their part, too. From the Times article again.

Wealthy nations, international agencies and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have committed billions of dollars to the effort. Schoolchildren and church groups have also pitched in, paying for mosquito nets and feeding programs.

“If we say as a world we care about saving children, and tackle the problem systematically, piece by piece, we can make progress, and it’s really important for people to know that,” Mrs. Gates said in an interview.

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In my first survey of British literature at college, our professor gave the class a motto: bene legere saecla vincere. He translated the Latin for us: To read well is to conquer the ages. A nice motivator for an idealistic English-major-nerd, which I was.

In the discourse about education, there seems to be an implicit idea along much the same lines: To teach well is to conquer the ages, or at least to influence them pretty significantly. The problem, I guess, is defining what it means to teach well.

Stanley Fish has two recent posts (part 1 and part 2) at his Think Again blog for the New York Times about the content of a core curriculum for colleges. Fish advocates teaching basic competencies in core disciplines and gives examples from the discipline of composition, with which he is quite familiar.

Steven Brill at The New Yorker writes about the difficulties involved with getting rid of bad teachers in New York City schools. Brill’s essay notes the conflict between education reformers and teacher’s unions over the use of student test results in evaluating teachers. Implicit in the reformers’ push to include the results in teacher evaluations is the idea that the tests measure student mastery of valuable competencies. If we stipulate that idea as true (which many educators would not), we see a common thought with Fish: teaching well means getting students to master core competencies.

In a conversation about the nature of education, recorded in Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained that there are three types of education: “material, human and spiritual.”

Material education is concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease. This education is common to animals and man.
Human education signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.
Divine education is that of the Kingdom of God: it consists in acquiring divine perfections, and this is true education; for in this state man becomes the focus of divine blessings, the manifestation of the words, “Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.” This is the goal of the world of humanity.

Viewed through this tripartite lens, the idea of teaching core competencies in important subject areas falls within the realm of human education. Mastering the technical skills and abilities of the various areas of human endeavor is a crucial part of a well-rounded education, and Fish and the reformers in Brill’s essay are right to focus on it. Anyone who is teaching well helps students to develop technical, area-specific expertise. Post-industrial education in pluralistic societies assumes that the development of such expertise is the only end of formal schooling (or at least it is the only one that everyone can agree on).

‘Abdu’l-Baha indicates, though, that such expertise is not the end of education. Instead, human beings must further be trained to acquire human perfections. The historical focus on virtues in educating citizens acknowledges this truth, and it is a truth to which we will have to return. To teach well is to help students develop all aspects of themselves: physical, intellectual, and moral. Only when we recognize that will we conquer the ages.

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