Moving beyond western theories of education?

- J A Progler -

At a recent workshop for Arab Muslim school teachers, a professor of education spoke on the theories learning with particular reference to Dewey, Kohlberg and Vygotsky. Of Arab/Muslim background, the professor received his PhD from an American university and now teaches at a university in an Arab country which has begun to seek collaborations with its local public and private schools.

The professor lectured on other topics as well: the effective teacher, verbal and non verbal communication; instructional technologies; instructional groupings, seating arrangements, large and small group and individual work; teaching methods, objectives and planning, simulations, role playing, problem solving; classroom management and discipline; testing and assessment, performance and portfolio based assessment; professional growth, reflective teaching, active research. The teachers dutifully took notes and asked questions drawn from their own experiences teaching various subjects to a wide range of local children.

A fairly representative sample of contemporary American thinking on liberal education, these topics would typically be spread out over an entire semester course on the foundations of education, with a bit more depth and some assigned readings. But the gist would be the same. Contemporary educational theory treats most problems as either technical or personal. It borrows from psychology especially Skinner, Pavlov, Piaget, and Freud in its tendency to objectify students in a way similar to how western medicine treats patients.

To this foundation, recent educational thinking has added a host of notions on human development drawn from humanistic philosophy. While no doubt offered with honesty and good intentions, the usual contradictions that one finds in such discussions were present in the professor's presentation; e.g., talking about `critical thinking' without encouraging or practising it, or emphasizing `constructivist learning' or `cooperative learning' in a strictly didactic format. It seems that if professors of education want to be taken seriously with all of these theories some of which are meaningful and useful they ought to use them in practice in their own seminars and workshops.

However, a more severe omission from such standardized presentations is that they lack any social or cultural awareness. There seems to be a general belief that theories are not born of any particular social setting and are applicable to any setting, or that the `objective sciences' (i.e., social sciences like psychology or sociology, or even to some extent the `hard sciences' like biology and physics) are neutral, universal, and value free

This is not the place to unpack these problems; suffice to say that there is vast literature which clearly suggests that the various sciences are just as socially constructed and culture bound as anything else, and therefore learning them is a form of socialization and enculturation. Educational theorists often ignore this, and in a cross cultural setting such as teaching American theories to Arab Muslim teachers, the problems become more acute and warrant careful and extended study.

In order to help understand how western theories of education might or might not be applicable to the daily workings of schools in Muslim communities, l have spent considerable time working with administrators, teachers, and students in both American and Muslim contexts. One consistent theme that emerges is a growing realization that schooling is a form of (implicit or explicit) socialization. This is observable in American schools (i.e., the phenomenon of what Native and African American educators call `internal colonization'), but it is intensified by the multiple marginalities and cultural border crossings at work in the Muslim schools, and not necessarily only those operating in non Muslim societies. One of the fundamental attributes of this enculturation is in regard to the meaning, role, and purpose of education itself.

In the west, and in America particularly, there is a very broad definition of education, especially that which is undertaken in a formal, institutional setting. Contemporary American education is rooted in Graeco Roman, Judeo Christian, scientific humanist norms. Originally founded to educate Protestant ministers and the ruling elite of colonial America, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton soon emerged as the epitome institutions of a liberal education whose norms are embedded to this day from kindergarten to advanced graduate study. To be considered `educated' in such a system, one is assumed to have taken an array of courses in the humanities, arts, and sciences.

But American education does not end here. There has always been tension between liberal and vocational education, and, partly in response to this tension, vocational schools have proliferated during the late 20th century. Some of this is also evident when secondary schools and colleges track students into vocational courses with various. Professional certificates, as is general practice in many European educational systems.

In America, the tracking is not so rigid, but the tensions are no less acute. Some American schools expand even beyond the liberal and vocational norms, offering instruction in athletics or in something as basic as learning to drive a car. Oddly, and despite its roots in the Protestant mission, most modem schooling is almost entirely secular.

The above mentioned theories of education developed to serve this western educational system, and they embody all of its contradictions and assumptions. No matter how educators fine tune them, in the end the theories of education are western theories that rely on a host of western assumptions about human nature and how the world works. But before this corpus emerged at the end of the Christian 19th century and into the 20th century, what guided teaching and learning in the west?

More significantly, how have non-western peoples and societies engaged in teaching and learning before western norms became universal norms? Or, more fundamentally, what does it mean to be `educated' outside the norms of the modern western system?

It seems prudent, if not necessary, that Muslims step back and away for some time to evaluate their own training in education-which includes careful assessment of their community needs and aspirations-before importing wholesale an educational system from the west. At best, introducing the western system is like laying a thin socio-cultural membrane over indigenous society and norms, creating a sort of cultural schizophrenia. At worst, imposing the western system of education builds a support mechanism for direct colonization, which has dogged non-western peoples for two centuries.

Ignoring any consideration of these issues cannot be seen as simply remaining 'neutral' or 'objective.' Rather, in the present aggressive climate of American triumphalism, ignorance or passivity amounts to self-degradation and indirect colonization.