Educators’ workshop in Norwich

Healing fractures

- The current crisis through the prism of 1400 years of educational experience

Monday, March 17, 9-12.30 Norwich Wellbeing Centre


Ibrahim Lawson keynotes, presented at the start of each stage of of the workshop

 #1: Introduction to modernity

The purpose of this workshop is to ask what might be learned from a ‘non-European tradition’, Islam, which would help to address the kind of problems we are experiencing in education and schooling in the UK today.


I would like to show that there has always been an awareness within our modern European tradition of its own potential for failure, a self-critique, which continues, up until today, to identify where education and schooling can and must be problematised. Armed with this understanding of what needs to change, we can ask what the Islamic tradition may have to offer.


However, I am going to propose that the same problem we have within our tradition also bars us from a deep understanding of Islam and that before we can learn anything here we must open the way to a better understanding of what a non-European tradition can offer. The underlying cause of this barrier, and of many of our contemporary problems, I identify as ‘modern thinking’.

The 17th century in Europe, the beginning of modern times following the Renaissance and the Reformation, was a period in many ways similar to our own, in which we might think modernity is now arriving at its final endgame.


It was, then, a time of crisis and loss of certainty which provoked a number of surprisingly ‘modern’ reactions.


In the plays of Shakespeare we find a world where people are increasingly uncertain what role society intends and makes possible for them. Other European playwrights portrayed society and the world as a dream or fictional drama. An experimental dramatist produced a play with two stages mirroring each other, and one mirroring the audience in the first act. In a bookshop, Don Quixote discovers the book of his life already written and published (that is he finds the book already in the book itself). Generally, it was an interesting time, a world ‘turned upside down’ which, among other things, gave birth to the communitarian drop-out group ‘the Diggers’ who occupied and farmed common land and opposed the concept and practice of private property. They were outpaced  by the Ranters, who according to Wikipedia, held not only that private ownership was wrong, but  "that a believer is free from all traditional restraints, that sin is a product only of the imagination”, Both groups were to re-emerge over 300 years later at Woodstock.


Another feature of the period familiar to us today is the economic crisis, after an original optimism and burgeoning confidence, which led to chaos and mass poverty. The influx of gold from the Spanish new world wreaked havoc in the money markets and across Europe whole cities faced ruin; Bruges, a once thriving cultural and economic centre, became a ghost town as people moved back out onto the land, prices rocketed and currencies devalued. Confusion about the future reigned.


It is all eerily recognisable; this is how modernity began.


The cultural shift was radical, all former certainties lost. It was suggested that “life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


Anticipating Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ (i.e. metaphysics) people began to ask whether there was any difference between appearance and reality, audience and performer. Do art and thought hold up a mirror to the world, or is it the other way around? Perhaps the most extreme cynicism belonged to the Spanish satirist Francisco de Quevedo who opined that money was the ultimate authority, not either God or the Devil. Unfortunately, money is also Narcissus, he said, in love only with its own image; yet another evocation of the mirror trope which seems to vividly capture the endlessness of two mirrors facing each other and reflecting to infinity, rather in the way that modern money expands exponentially simple by existing as an algorithm in cyberspace.

Everything is in open flux, open for discovery and it is against this background setting we set off to look at our current crisis through the lens of islamic educational heritage...

#2 UK Education History


Against this background outlined in my keynote, the ‘father of modern education’, John Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670), was developing his ideas about a new form of schooling. The German philosopher of education, Klaus Mollenhauer writes about Comenius in his influential book Forgotten Connections: On Culture and Upbringing:


Here he explains that the issue facing Comenius was how to ensure that children would be given a fair and equal chance in society. Given that by then the world had become such a complex place, simply presenting the world and its potential opportunities to children would no longer be adequate, an effort would now have to be made to represent the world to them. To do this effectively, the curriculum would have to contain a broad but condensed version of reality in a form both accessible and interesting to the pupils In addition, teaching methods would have to be improved from the fairly primitive and didactic practice of the medieval period to become more what we would call ‘child-centred’. For this to happen, there had to be new teaching materials, and this led Comenius to create the first educational picture book for children, a book that was remarkably successful for several centuries (it was praised by Goethe over a hundred years later for example).


Comenius hesitated to publish his book Orbis Pictus, the world in pictures, because he was reluctant to impose his own ideas on children in case they were too abstract or led to a formation of ideas or attitudes in the pupils that were less than useful and true. What he had discovered was the problem that arises when the world has to be represented: you have to make decisions about how knowledge should be structured, what to include or leave out and how to make the whole hang together without being too theoretical and ideologically driven. Comenius aim was for an education that would respect and support the child’s growth as a whole person, that was holistic, as we would now say, interesting for the child, and practical and beneficial. What he meant by beneficial was the curriculum should deliver the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for someone to live a life that was pleasing to God and humankind.


Comenius approach can be considered to be child- or person-centred; the emphasis was on being in the world. We could call this an ontological approach to education.

This can be contrasted with another kind of thinking that was emerging at the time which we can find in the work of the philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes and the early scientist, Francis Bacon. What these two figures represent is a view of the world that is metaphysical and empirical; we can call what developed from this kind of thinking an epistemological approach to life generally and education in particular. In this system, what you know is important; what, or rather who, you are is of less apparent importance.

This way of thinking, ‘modern thinking’, has tended to define ‘beneficial’ as that which enables a person to acquire wealth and social status.

 Mollenhauer is of the view that, since the metaphysical and scientific methodologies of Descartes and Bacon came to prevail as the foundational principles of modern thinking, we are now paying the price for losing sight of Comenius' very different vision. According to Mollenhauer, we now have ‘a science and technology-driven civilization:


Schooling as we know it now has developed as an institutionalised social space, a world of its own between childhood and adulthood, a realm of safety protected from the ‘real’ world; it has been increasingly extended and now defers full adult membership of society for many well into their 20’s. Attitudes and behaviour formed during this period now persist even after university and may constitute a kind of infantilism deliberately, though not necessarily consciously, nurtured by the state. Considering how much time is now spent by the average ‘adult’ on pursuits and pastime that would once have been considered more appropriate for children, it is difficult not to suspect that the creation and artificial extension of childhood serves a convenient a purpose in the control of the populace of modern societies.

#4 - Ontology


At a deeper level of focus, the school experience is a reflection of our understanding of the world rather than any ‘world as it really is’. The curriculum is now a vast collage of material representing a world to children which bears little resemblance to the reality of the world in which they will later find themselves.


Our understanding of the world is socially constructed, as we probably all recognise today to some degree at least. The phenomenon that makes this possible is language; so Mollenhauer can say that the structure of knowledge is hidden in language. If we want to review the curriculum and the institution of school, we would do well therefore to look at our language for clues as to the assumptions it conceals, some of which may be worth re-visiting.


The idea that there is one proper, correct and true way to represent the world, the Ronseal Man’s very down to earth, Anglo-Saxon conception of things, is not inevitable in Comenius' methodology; in fact he hesitated to publish precisely because he did not want to put an ultimate stamp of authority on his representation of the world, and he must have sensed that it would be taken this way[1]. The problem remains, despite appearances to the contrary, that the Cartesian split, so-called, between subjectivity and objectivity cannot be maintained and the Baconian commitment to sense data as the only source of knowledge fails to supply grounds for meaning and intelligibility. In view of this, it does not seem possible for an external authority to impose ‘the right way to understand the world’ on anyone except as an act of power; as Foucault puts it, we are subjected to our subjectivity in a way analogous to the subjection of a people to the power of a King.


If Comenius was raising very modern concerns about education and schooling, we can also see in a later educationist mentioned by Mollenhauer a similar tension between the personal and existential (what I have been calling the ontological level) and the metaphysical and ideological.


The Swiss Johann Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827) led a highly varied and active career in education and had a great influence on the development of child-centred methodologies. His presence is still felt today in institutions set up in his name and in some cases named after him. The scientist Albert Einstein went to one such school and later commented, that his education at Aarau in northern Switzerland: "made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority." (Wikipedia)


Pestalozzi, in his practice as an educator, tried always to get inside the child’s experience. During an experimental period with orphans in the Swiss town of Stans, he recognised the need to base any educational program on a foundation of mutual trust and respect between teacher and pupil and that forcing an education on children against their own natural disposition would only lead to resistance and alienation. He found his orphans to be ‘wild, disorientated and brutish’ and realised that any progress he was to make with them would have to be based on establishing an atmosphere of family life or a ‘household’ within which a shared understanding of moral decency would emerge. To this end, he did not attempt to teach at first, but simply lived with the children and did everything for them.


From Pestalozzi’s writing about this period, Mollenhauer derives two models of pedagogy, one positive and to be encouraged and the other negative and to be avoided. The positive model which emerged from Pestalozzi’s experience included viewing school as a family and its members as siblings. The pupils’ inner life should be stimulated by the creation of a congenial atmosphere, the encouragement of activity and stimulation of perceptions and the establishment of a shared moral vision which would inform behaviour. (I wonder if this does not sound a little like a primary school today, before the creation of primary ‘Academies’ that is.)


The model to be avoided, the opposite of the positive, child-centred approach, would be an institution in which external forces were employed to coerce the pupils, lessons took the form of preaching and the pupils were treated as ‘untamed forces of nature’ and almost expected to be distracted and passive. (I now wonder if this does not sound like a modern secondary school.)


If today school is necessary because the conditions of life are no longer so simple as to allow mere presentation of the world to the next generation, then what form should school take and on what principles should it be organised? If school in a sense replaces family life as the vehicle for education, then it should nevertheless represent a continuity of that environment and the teacher-pupil relationship, in its minutest but indispensable day-to-day moments, must be prioritised over theoretical curriculum content. In this way, education remains true to life and its concrete circumstances, the problem of living together as a household or oikos. This was Pestalozzi’s view.


It seems that this is not merely a romantic fantasy: Pestalozzi actually put this into successful practice, despite the fact that his projects were constantly disrupted by war and financial difficulties. If we could come today to an understanding that we are all one family living in the same house and that our shared community is best viewed not from a theoretical point of view through sciences such as economics (the nomos [rule] of the oikos [home]) and ecology (the logos or rational structure of the oikos) but through the lens of some other way of knowing, or perhaps being, then we may find that our problems today are in a sense self-generated.

If it is the case that we are the source of our problems, the answer must lie in being more self-aware. This is the goal of philosophy, or thinking about thinking.


The beginning and end of education is the desire to know; this never goes away, is never satisfied, because it is a requirement of thinking itself. ‘Knowing’ is an activity in which an end result can be achieved - by coming to know something; ‘thinking’, on the other hand, needs constantly to be renewed. It calls continuously for new knowing.


As beings who can think, we can experience ourselves as not only the subjects of our thinking, i.e. the ones who are doing the thinking, but also the objects, i.e. what is being thought about.


This awareness is something that can be nurtured; or not. In the teaching of thinking skills even to young children, the awareness of being able to think, of being able to stand aside from our thinking and observe it and think about it, is a basic element of the pedagogic methodology.


Writers and thinkers today are beginning to bring together the domain of mystical experience (whatever that is) with philosophy; Heidegger says, for example, ‘the most extreme sharpness and depth of thought belongs to genuine and deep mysticism’ (Caputo, 1986, p6). One leading proponent of action research has written of it ‘as a spiritual practice’ (Reason, 2000), so bringing mysticism into the vicinity at least of education, which Laurence Stenhouse (1979) believed was essentially a research process. Another author (ref. needed) goes so far as to equate hermeneutic phenomenology with the mystical process itself.


In short, it is possible that at some basic level there is a convergence between philosophy, mysticism and education, that they are three ways of looking at the same thing. This would give us a clear focus for re-thinking education that would take us back to where perhaps things started to go wrong in the 17th century.


#3: approaching Islam thoughtfully


Today’s theme is the contribution to understanding education that we might find in the Islamic tradition. However, to disrupt this intention immediately, I think it must be said that it is not possible to begin with Islam today, or any aspect of Islamic civilisation and culture from the past until now. This is because there is no way for us to understand Islam today if by that we mean the essence of what Islam is and what that meant not only in the original context of revelation and practice but in places and times where that original Islam has been authentically re-contextualised. There are of course many ways to study Islam, theological, historical, psycho-social, and so on, and each of these disciplines proposes an understanding of Islam. So when I say that today we have no way of understanding Islam, I mean of doing so its own terms, in terms that are appropriate for an understanding which does not do violence to the original and continuing essence of Islam. Perhaps, just as the answer to the question ’What is philosophy?’ should itself be philosophical, the corresponding question about Islam should find an Islamic answer.


Islam is not a science, nor is it a religion or philosophy or way of life or culture or civilisation, even though it can be correctly described in all of these ways. At this point, I am not going to say what I think Islam is; but I would like us to think about it. If we think we can learn anything from Islam, we should bring it before us in an appropriate way, as it shows itself to us in its most self-meaningful way.


The obstacle to an understanding Islam, and I would say reality in general, is the same obstacle that has led to the current state of world crisis; it is the very way we think about ourselves and the world at the most fundamental level. Down at this level, obscure, unexamined, forgotten presuppositions provide the foundations for our whole worldview. Down here, at what I sometimes think of as the level of the operating system, a massive viral corruption has been brewing for the last 2,500 years. Up on the surface, where we try to run programs, we find an increasing dysfunctionality. Urgent messages are now beginning to flash up; the whole system is in danger. While it is always the case that a metaphor must break down at some point, we might continue this one a little further: we need not just a total system restore, we need to reload the operating system itself.


The crisis of modernity, as it is sometimes called, had been increasingly evident for the last 150 years or so, since Nietzsche declared the death of God, and is increasingly well understood. The most thorough deconstruction of our contemporary cultures and civilisation has been the philosopher Heidegger who first employed the term ‘deconstruction’ to refer to the process of winding something we think  we understand back to its original emergent form so as to remove the distorting layers of sedimental accretion of meaning.


The beginning of Greek thought, 2800 years ago roughly was distinctively different from that of other cultures. This difference consisted in asking the question about what things are. As a question it seems quite simple yet it is the beginning of an inquiry into the being of things, and Being itself, which had never taken shape before in quite such a focused way; it was the beginning of Western philosophy and the beginning of ontology as a branch of what later became metaphysics, a word which. Aristotle gave us, meaning everything that was inaccessible to study by the senses. Remember, these were new ways of thinking and yet they assumed a kind of inevitability over the centuries as something obviously true. Possibly the biggest effect of Aristotelian thought was to ground the essence of ‘being’ in ‘substance’; this is what has led today to scientific naturalism – the idea that what really exists is matter and energy and everything else is kind of metaphorical or subjective.


Heidegger’s analysis of this ‘history of Being’ is that we now have reached the point where our understanding of things is basically technological: things exist in order to be available as a resource, this is how we value them, this is how they matter to us. We even see other human beings in terms of what they can do for us, and if the answer is ‘nothing’ then why should we care? (Future generations? What have they ever done for us? as the joke goes.) God, of course, is now completely out of the picture.


Given this late- or post-modern technological thinking, we have lost sight of the human as human, as ontologically distinct and privileged. We are all now merely physical objects in four dimensional space/time, our disembodied minds ghosts in the machine. This way of thinking cannot resolve its own inevitable problems, that much is clear. Where we go from here, though, is anybody’s and everybody’s business.