Tue, Dec 23, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Tradition: an educational shackle

By Herbert hanreich

University education is a complex matter. It requires from teachers the ability to combine professional knowledge, interpersonal skills and general ideas of education. The last criterion involves the formation of the personality of the student. This is particularly so in countries like Taiwan where, unlike many European countries, the academic culture is based on a system that considers students to be in need of guidance in academic and private affairs.

Teachers here are expected to positively influence the social behavior, emotional conditioning and scholastic progress of their students. But the seeming lack of qualifications, or of vision, among teachers generally results in the sheer reproduction of prevailing values. Traditional values therefore negatively affect modern academic requirements.

General ideas of education are always imbued with values, and they usually reflect practiced values of a given culture. For this reason, they are relative. But cultural values are themselves subject to permanent evaluations. We live in them, and at the same time we judge them as either good or bad. Such “double coded” values depend on the perspectives we have available to us when engaging with matters that shape our lives.

When traditional criteria of “good” are no longer beyond doubt, culture and the individual diverge. Individuals can simply ignore or criticize prevailing cultural norms because the latter do not necessitate our actions. We can change norms and even pursue their opposite if we decide to do so.

Such an intellectual habit forms a reflective dimension that opens up a gap between the culture that surrounds us and the individual that lives within this culture. This gap, or reflective distance, is crucial for human beings to bring themselves into a relationship between their social and cultural environment and the self, thus securing a space for actions that provide opportunities necessary for designing one’s life according to one’s own ideas. It is this space that is needed by any individual in order to emerge, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant put it more than 200 years ago, “from his self-incurred immaturity.”

For if this mental space is not used by the individual itself (“self-incurred”), the result would be that contents and designs filling the space would instead be provided by someone else who has a particular interest in imposing his or her own values upon that individual. The individual would lose his or her autonomy; moreover, individuals would lose their individuality. Some philosophers even claim that individuals would lose their humanity, for it is this dimension of reflective self-determination that distinguishes us from other animals. Other animals live according to their nature; human beings live according to their ideas.

Education must prepare its subjects to cope with modern social constellations, which is vital if self-determination or freedom of the individual is to be considered a valuable goal of education.

Life without the guidance of conventional features requires a strong personality. General educational goals must now head in this direction, because here the life-world meets academic demands, which would include: the ability to think critically, the fostering of analytical skills and abstract thinking, independent judgment, encouragement toward intellectual courage and creativity and others. Educational goals are essential for both the individual — to successfully “move” in modern societies and meet high-level academic challenges — as well as for a successful modern society, and could be incorporated into the daily work of teachers at universities.

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