The Purpose of Education

There’s a little known quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (that I found from this list) that seems to encapsulate exactly my ethos on education. So much so that if I were to use it in a lecture, I’d probably save myself a handful of slides. The quote in question is:

This is what I try to do when I teach. Of course in lectures and seminars you have to devote a large majority (at least superficially) of your time to providing information. But if students don’t know what to do with that information – if they cannot deconstruct it, pull it apart and question it – it simply becomes another bit of trivia, the utility of which is only felt in coursework and exams (or maybe a pub quiz if you’re lucky).

There are two examples of this that I like to use. The first is anecdotal evidence from seminars I used to teach on feminism. One of my favourite exercises, and usually one of the first things I would do, would be to have a simple show of hands: how many women in the room consider themselves to be a feminist? Usually you’d get one or two brave souls who would put up their hands and perhaps get funny looks. Then would come the real test: how many men in the room consider themselves to be a feminist? Usually, unless you were very lucky, no hands would go up. Except one. Mine. Now of course the seminar leader should try to remain as neutral as possible, but a) I’m probably too emphatic for that all the time (although IR students seem to think I’m a realist, so maybe I’m better at it than I think…) and b) it proves a perfect point. In this respect, lots of men think that because of their sex and gender they cannot be feminists. They have been given (sometimes false) information and they have done nothing with it. The seminar will then continue and directly question this common sense. By doing this you develop a discussion about the nature and meaning of equality, and if feminism in its fundamental form is simply striving for equality for women across the board, why would men be excluded from that struggle? Yes, there are more nuanced discussions to be had on this matter, but as a general lesson, it seems to work well.

The second example I use is usually in informal chats outside of the classroom. This is because it shows my political position, and although I’d never deny it  I don’t like to give a privileged position to any one set of ideas when I’m teaching. So if I’m chatting to a student or to a colleague etc, and we’re talking about political allegiances, I may bring up my position on morality and the political spectrum: that, in general, I don’t care if you’re a C/conservative as long as you’ve questioned why you’re a conservative. I consider myself many things on the left, some of which intersect with academia in terms of my ontological and epistemological approaches – in how I see the world and what this means for my research – but I also know that through engaging in debate (both within and outside of party politics) I have had to question my own beliefs and why I hold them. Academically speaking, there would be little point using a theoretical framework I didn’t agree with or thought would not shed light on the issues I am studying. The point is that it is vital to be critical, not just of information you are given and of other people’s positions, but of your own positions as well. Nowhere, I’d argue, is this more important than in the social sciences, where it is incredibly easy to be accused of bias – particularly if you use qualitative methods.

So when learning (and indeed when teaching) you have to be honest with yourself. What am I learning? Why am I learning it? Should I accept the first idea to come in to my head? What/why/how do other people think about issues? I feel that sometimes people are afraid to get philosophical. For me, this is what learning and researching really boils down to – philosophy. The big whys and wherefores of the (social) world. As an academic I must temper these with researchable questions and (to an extent) observable limits, but I would be lying to myself if I said I didn’t love the romance of the grand narrative. Undoubtedly this is going to affect how and what I teach. I just hope those I teach don’t believe every word I say and see if they can find out anything different.

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