Thursday, August 03, 2006

Differences in Education

Isaac Schrodinger has written a pair of good posts (1, 2) on contrasting educational systems.

I think they’re an excellent illustration of how a society’s worldview, i.e. its underlying philosophy, shapes it. For instance, if your concern is life and happiness on Earth, then it is in your selfish interest to understand everything possible about the reality in which you live. Knowledge is indispensable to your success –- science, engineering and technology become possible only when man sets out to discover and understand the natural world. Valuing knowledge also requires, and leads to, discovering the proper method of gaining it, i.e. observing the world, conceptualizing, testing one’s conclusions, integrating the results and eventually identifying underlying principles and laws. In sum: applying reason and logic. In such a culture, proper education is acknowledged as a great boon, and it too must proceed in a definite way, viz. of introducing students to new information and concepts, helping them understand the relationships (causal and otherwise) between them, and ultimately teaching them the method by which knowledge is obtained and validated so that they too can be independently successful when they venture out into the fascinating and ever-changing world.

This view of reason’s importance was the hallmark of the Western world during the Enlightenment and as a result education was exemplary during that period. And though reason is no longer universally appreciated, the West is still the product of the Enlightenment, and its influence still persists in many of today’s educational institutions (more so in the sciences than in the humanities) -- with teachers like Feynman being among the absolute best in this tradition.

On the other hand, if your goal is preparation for death (and some alleged after-life), and you believe that knowledge is obtained by revelation -- not by painstaking observation and discovery -- then there needs be no discernible connection between your “knowledge” and reality. Moreover, under such a disconnected view, no rigorous method for evaluating and validating facts and evidence is required; any flight of fancy is as good as the next. Hence the heated debates about the nature and characteristics of angels during the Scholastic period, or the profusion of “miracles” in the early Christian era, or the typical Muslim’s predisposition to the most far-fetched conspiracy theories nowadays.

Furthermore, when knowledge is obtained by revelation, society will tend to be authoritarian (with the guardians of the faith in charge) and then the average citizen’s key concern becomes not adherence to reality, but acquiescence to the unknowable “source” and “representatives” of his faith and salvation. He does not seek to understand, but simply to obey. If such a culture deigns to teach anything other than scripture, it is by pure rote -- there is no tie to reality, no making connections, determining relationships, nor seeking causes. In fact, investigation, discovery and reasoning all become detriments to survival since they may lead to questioning and challenging the dogmatic guardians of the faith -- challenges which are often met by violent reprimands and repression. Thus Isaac’s poignant description of his educational experiences in the Islamic world.

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