Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Meaning of Education according to Aldous Huxley (with reference to his novel–Island)

While reading Huxley’s “Island”, a philosophical novel categorized as a modern classic, I was particularly drawn to his ideas on education as described specifically in the thirteenth chapter of the book. While no doubt, the whole novel is a treatise on the impact of  greed, mass communication, increasing population and expansionism on the individual, education can be seen as the only palliative that can rid us of these de-humanising influences.
What Huxley wrote in 1962 on education on the Utopian Island Pala does have significance even today, in an age where modern day educationists have begun modifying pedagogy to accommodate experiential learning, holistic learning, and integrating the timeless qualities of respect for one another, the environment,  inclusion, and collaboration  in their learners. Huxley addressed major issues in the field of education in 1962, in his book “Island” which are relevant even today! Take for the example, “the criterion of a good school”, what emerges from the dialogue between Will, the protagonist in the novel (who is also the mouth piece for the inquisitive ant curious Huxley) and Mr. Menon, the Under Secretary of Education is that it is based on ‘ “Success” ‘ in achieving “actualization, for being turned into full-blown human beings”. As a corollary, to the above, the boys and girls undergoing education on the island of Pala are not being trained for mass consumption, mass communication, mass advertising, mass opiates, nor are they strengthening the “the national state” nor are they meant to be trained to be cannon fodder, industry fodder, agriculture fodder or even road building fodder”! The criterion of a good school is  one which allows students and learners to become what they really are and not what the state tells them to be! True self actualization is arrived when the learners recognise who they are, they are able to achieve their full potential and are able to integrate themselves into the society without allowing their individual differences to create a disruption to the society. This brings the idea of how to maintain discipline in the school, and how to ensure that the students maintain discipline after school.
In the thirteenth chapter of his novel, Island,Huxley talks about preventive interventional  treatment of students with behavioural problems. He talks about a regimen that might be somewhat difficult to follow even today, but then who knows that this might be possible in days to come, ( In any case, schools are today equipping themselves with the services of medical personnel and counsellors in a big way)? To address discipline related problems, Huxley suggests, through Mr. Menon that schools should start with an early diagnosis of weaknesses in students and this should be followed by early intervention. Intervention and treatment according to Huxley include addressing the mind and the nervous system, giving hyperactive students appropriate physical work so as to moderate excess energy, allowing students with disparate character traits to sit in mixed groups (in today’s terms, crew setting), channelizing fears, energies, and power towards a specific goal. Huxley goes on to suggests how, “Potentially harmful power” can be “directed into channels where it’s not merely harmless, but may actually do some good.”
Huxley makes it clear that there is a need to distinguish between visualizers and non visualizers, where the former think in terms of geometrical terms, while the latter preferred algebra and imageless abstractions.
As far as the subjects that the students in Pala study and when they study, and the pedagogy is concerned, Mr. Menon clearly states that any “intelligent student can learn practically anything provided always that you present it to him in the right way.” He goes on to suggest that even the most abstruse and vague concepts can be taught through games. Games can be used to implant an understanding of the basic principles. Thus,  even a game of spinning cards, drawing lots, playing with cards, especially flash cards can be used effectively. The purpose of teaching Chemistry and Physics at the school level should be to impart the “sciences of life and mind” to school students! When asked when the Palanese students start the teaching of science, Mr. Menon replies,  that it is at the same time when they start teaching multiplication and division. What I believe is that Mr. Menon is not talking about the right age, but the right cognitive development or the right cognitive stage is what determines when a student learns a particular subject. An interesting description of what progressive schools today term as expeditionary pedagogy, or for that effect, experiential learning can be seen in progress in the description of how students at the New Rothamsted School in Pala study Biology. Mrs. Naraynan, the Principal describes how the students learn the different parts and functions of the flower. Each student is given a common flower. The students are asked to examine the flower and then they are told to “write a full analytical description of the flower, illustrated by an accurate drawing.” The ideal expeditionary pedagogy for teaching a student about environmental degradation would probably be to arrange for a visit to ten acres of gullies and blowing sand. What matters in this case is to develop environmental morality to show how our treatment of nature will affect the quality of life!
The overall process of formal  education in Pala flows from an understanding of the structure of the topic or unit followed by an analysis of the logic behind the topic. This reminds me of Dr. Dennis Litky’s suggestion that students learn the “Big Picture”  instead of the metaphysics of the unit or the topic. What this means can be summed up as cutting out the extraneous and instead focussing on the core topics – chunking as some would call it. The metaphysics of the topic or the unit can often overwhelm us. Take for example reading comprehension. When I went into my grade twelve class and at the beginning of the Note-Making class asked my student how many of them really knew how read, all of them raised their hands, except for a couple of students who smelled something fishy. I then told them that what they thought about reading was not really reading. Told them how most of them were really reading for data and information and not ideas! In the recent Board twelve papers, many students struggle through the first section which was because they spent too much time on the two reading comprehension passages and the one note making passage. They went too deep into the passages, and if they didn’t know the meaning of a particular word, then they fretted and spent so much time on it that they lost track of the central idea of the passage, and then as a result they had to go back to the very beginning of the passage. They were to fixated with facts, they were too analytical, they over analysed each sentence, each word so much so that they lost everything! It was for this reason that when I went to class this time, I told my students to simply let go of their previous apprehensions, and preconceptions and to to just read the passage with an open mind. I told them not to spend too much time on a word whose meaning they did not know and instead to move on. I gave them five minutes to read a difficult passage and at the end of the three minutes, most of them could describe the central idea, and the supporting ideas! Students according to Huxley need a “Training in receptivity” in contretemps to “training in analysis and symbol manipulation” where symbols represent the language component of educational pedagogy. In such cases, the importance of pure receptivity cannot be underpinned! Some of our students, in the interests of  experiential and progressive pedagogy have been so spoiled that they go on asking one question after another and simply not move on with their reading.
The mention of the word questions reminds about how some of the best classes I have observed have included those where lead through judicious questions put up by the teacher. In many cases, tactfully posed questions can lead students to the truth or what is evident but not stated in writing or textbooks. Huxley suggests how important the art of questioning is when he describe how Will the protagonist of the novel Island gets to observe a lesson in Elementary Applied Philosophy. In this class the learners try to explain what it was that Mahakasyapa had been able to understand from the Buddha’s wordless flower sermon where he showed the gathering a white flower. The answers that the students present to their teacher’s strategically placed questions steadily draws them to what might be an obvious answer. Many a times we are not able to look at the obvious picture stating at us in the face because our minds are cluttered with  so many things. Call it over analysis, or information over load, what ever it is, unless we develop the Mahakasyapa attitude towards learning, we will never be learners of ideas!
Island –Huxley Aldous, Flamingo-1994

No comments:

Post a Comment