Wednesday 26 September 2012

Unhelpful Pressures... (2) Education Matters

What’s the matter with our education?

Materialism can be defined as the view that what you can see is all there is, and is all that is important. The physical, actual, tangible, visible world is always viewed as more important than the intangible, the philosophical, the thoughtful, the contemplative, the spiritual. What is outside our head is apparently more important than what is inside it. As such, the opposites of materialism are idealism and spiritualism.

The effect of materialism is that in recent times human development has been characterized by us being better at talking, thinking, and being imaginative about what is material than what is not. My generation has produced the mobile phone, the ipad, the plasma screen TV and the digital camera, all of which are useful, and nice both to look at and to use. But in conversation with me, a professor of engineering at Bath University recently contended that there have been no really important scientific discoveries since the invention of the silicon chip nearly 50 years ago.

Perhaps we should compare the development of the last 50 years with the extraordinary leap forward in art in renaissance Italy, or with the leap forward in music that took place in the lifetimes of Bach or Beethoven. I rather doubt there is anyone living who is going to make such an impact on music as either of those composers – certainly not Simon Cowell! In two hundred years, will lecturers in History of Art devote whole lecture courses to the developments Art in last fifty years?

Materialism makes human beings into animals that look with their eyes and listen with their ears, rather than doing both or either with their imagination. Materialism, is – I believe – making human beings fundamentally less creative. It is also, rather obviously, significantly related to the decline in the importance of religion in Western Europe, although not in the rest of the world, particularly the US, South America, Africa and the Far East.

I see three dangers from the preoccupation with all that is physically substantial: first, that our culture will become less sophisticated – in music, in visual arts, and in performance art too. I think that there will be less, in a generation or two, therefore, to make our spirits soar, less to inspire people. Second, materialism will continue to make our relationships shallower. Visitors to less materially affluent societies often observe on the better quality of relationships, and of time which such societies enjoy. Our western society sees its best expression of this at Christmas, where so many families give children presents which ensure they will play with them on their own – giving their parents time to ignore their children: the material replacing the ideal, or relational.

Thirdly, materialism will continue to make us narrowly evidential. Is it a step too far to suggest that it is partly the rise of the material that has made our exams increasingly mechanical? Since everything has been empiricised, and Andersen Consulting's maxim 'What gets measured gets managed' has been swallowed by government, today's exams demand that marks must be narrowly and provably accurate. Flights of philosophy are no longer valued. The efficient engineering of the manufacturing process must be brought to bear on the examining ‘industry’, like a modern day industrial revolution. The consequences are topical, and need no elaboration.

But materialism has had some positive consequences, too. Would we be as concerned for our planet if we hadn’t learned to be a bit more material in our considerations than our forebears? Would we be as scientifically active if we weren’t so curious about physical properties of space, and of atoms – even neutrinos.

Materialism isn’t all bad. I think it is mostly so, but not entirely. Perhaps our challenge is to spend a little time being immaterial, in a way which makes our spirits soar. This may be by looking at a piece of art, or listening to a piece of music, or spending some time contemplating the nature or existence of God. It's interesting that none of these, of course, will qualify students for the English Baccalaureate.

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