Philistinism and Cultural Revolution

Higher Still is not an educational programme,it is merely a framework for internal assessment with an external examination tagged on to the end of it. It seeks to merge the vocational and the academic. It shifts education towards training skills whereas education, as I understand it, is about the development of abilities. It favours the modular approach which limits content to a set of prescribed aspects which in turn are divided into a selection of bits of knowledge which can be mechanistically learned and then assessed to suit a uniform bureaucratic framework. It offers the appearance of competence in the image of a tick-box grid, without the substance of genuine ideas. In other words, Higher Still is the educational expression of philistinism.

It is also fundamentally anti-democratic. By reducing education to a network of arbitrarily prescribed assessment mechanisms, it deprives all but the already privileged of access to their birthright to the world of knowledge and ideas. It is the educational system for the global economy. Indeed, the Higher Still fiasco is what happens when business is given undue influence in social policy. Many leading figures in the Scottish Qualifications Authority have business backgrounds. They view education as a product and teachers as employees who must sell and deliver it to parent and pupil customers regardless of its intrinsic worth. The exam certificate becomes an accounts system with league tables charting annual targets in exam performance.

Those of us who pointed out the design faults were ignored and it all went horribly wrong. But, for me, Higher Still was not just one initiative too many, a focus for decades of pent-up teacher frustration, it was an attack on education itself and, consequently, it was an attack on much that is of potential benefit in Scottish culture just at the moment when, with the restoration of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish people had won the opportunity to revive that culture and restore it to its former position of universal influence. To many, this will seem an inflated claim, but I believe that those of us who have been campaigning against Higher Still have been campaigning for a vision grounded in the best areas of our tradition and aspiring to a new sense of global culture.

It was perhaps to be expected that moves towards this type of educational provision would provoke a campaign of rejection in Scotland. Nothing better defines Scotland as a recognisable cultural entity in the world than its educational philosophy and practice. This is the argument in Dr George Elder Davie’s books, The Democratic Intellect and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect which establish the identifying features of the Scottish educational tradition. He articulates the key question thus: mcmanust01pic1.jpg

…whether the aim of education is to produce people who see life steadily and see it whole, or people who are trained to look at things in detail and who are expert in isolating problems and propounding observationally testable hypotheses in regard to them and thereby producing obviously socially useful results in the short term.

Metaphysical Scotland, in contrast to utilitarian England, always favoured the former generalist, philosophical approach. It is this intellectual insistence that makes for democracy in the tradition: class, caste, colour and creed are irrelevant in a philosophically-based education. It also leads to the famed breadth of Scottish education. Students were expected to enquire into the connections between subjects, their intellectual and ethical grounding and relationships, as well as their functional application to the community. The application of knowledge was not thought to be a separate issue, far from it – the high point of Scotland’s world-wide contribution in engineering, industry, science and architecture, coincided with the high point of her philosophical and literary influence in the Enlightenment. From this generalist grounding, specialism could be pursued, safe in the knowledge that specialising students would have been so well educated in the philosophical perspective that they would always refer their specialism back to its relation and significance within the generalist context. This was the democratic, intellectual and ethical safeguard. Just think what Adam Smith would have made of contemporary business ethics.

It is an image of education contrary to most educational initiatives of the past thirty years culminating in the Higher Still Arrangements. These initiatives have not been about seeing life whole, they have ignored content in favour of a stultifying obsession with assessment and a philistine reduction of educational aspiration to the short-term needs of the employment market.

Some dismiss the democratic intellect as a myth. I have no problem with the notion of myth – it embodies the community’s aspirations and desires and I believe those aspirations and desires not only to be still relevant today, but also necessary if we are to solve the global problems which threaten us with catastrophe or if we are to deal with the mediocratic culture which is reducing our societies to the state envisaged by Auden where intellectual disgrace stares from every human face.

Mediocratic is the word used by my main source of inspiration in the campaign against Higher Still, the Scottish poet and essayist, Kenneth White and the ideas for cultural renewal which he encapsulates in his Geopoetics. White starts from a negativist perspective on modern western society. He explores the two main antidotes to western alienation – the mainly Marxist political line and the psycho-analytical line from Freud through Jung – and finds them wanting. What we are faced with is not just a political-economic or psychological problematic so much as a deep and general cultural malaise. White’s critical journey along the motorway of western civilisation culminates in a withering account of where it is headed in its alternation between catastrophe (Hiroshima, Chernobyl…) and platitudinous banality (the supermarket of happiness).

The dark, aphoristic work of the extreme negativist E.M. Cioran in his A Short History of Decay encapsulates the extremity of the modern cultural condition. mcmanust01pic2.jpg He refers to the modern human being as a convalescent aspiring to disease and makes the resonating claim that modern humanity lives in order to unlearn ecstasy, which suggests that we not only lack aspiration, but we are conditioned to lack aspiration, and our education system is the means for imposing rather than removing that conditioning.

But White does not stay in the negativist compound, as does, say, Beckett – I feel myself beyond endgame, he says. He embarks upon a critical analysis of the cultural mindscape to find a way out. He begins by rejecting the philosophical stances which underpin modern society: Plato’s idealism which leads to the fundamental western belief that reality is to be found somewhere other than the here and now, and Aristotle’s division of the world and our experience of it into separate categories. Their modern derivatives are similarly rejected – dualism in Descartes’ separation of human from nature and mind from body; rationalism which derives from this division of subject from object; and humanism with its Hegelian notion of historical progress and its exploitative approach to nature.

This leads White to the central debilitating problem in our culture – the loss of a sense of world reflected in the divisions of the areas of knowledge into discrete categories dominated by the mechanistic approach of a restricted, utilitarian science – a failure to see it whole. In Studies in Zen, a series of lectures to western psychologists, Daisetz Suzuki summed up this western cultural and educational problem: the reason why learners are unable to get to reality is that their understanding does not go beyond names and words.

In his intellectual nomadising through signs pointing to a renewed sense of world, White engages in a wide survey of cultural history. The European phenomenologists are particularly relevant to the educational debate. Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy criticises science’s objectivism as naivety and seeks to reinstate the thinking mind as the one which can perceive reality as a whole. His pupil, Martin Heidegger, in An Introduction to Metaphysics, undertakes some etymological archaeology among the western forms of the verb, to be. He excavates a sense of being in which the phenomena of the world emerge, stand and endure in the light to be apprehended by the human mind. But Heidegger goes further – when the human expresses the perception of being which opens up to this philosophical mind, he is not scientist, he is not even philosopher, he is poet: poetry says Heidegger, brings being into the light. The French philosopher of the imagination, Gaston Bachelard, in his The Poetics of Space places the human ability to perceive reality in the imagination and brings all disciplines and experiences together in his memorable description of human expression, poetry, as the flare up of being in the imagination. mcmanust01pic3.jpg

Scientists at the thinking end of their discipline have been coming to similar conclusions. Mathematicians like Mandelbrot had to fracture the language of mathematics to account for the fact that in the real world there is an element of chaos in the shaping of things which conventional, euclidian mathematics ignores. The quantum physicist, Heisenberg announced that a sharp division of the world into object and subject has ceased to be possible. The Nobel Prize-winning Belgian scientists Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers in Order out of Chaos describe the history of science in terms of a disastrous break from philosophical enquiry. They insist upon an element of molecular communication at work in the evolution of life-forms. They too go beyond the need to reunite science and philosophy and look for a poetic listening in to nature.

Anthropological studies in the field of ethnopoetics such as Lowenstein’s Eskimo Poetry and Rothenberg’s Amerindian Shaking the Pumpkin, also convey this idea of human expression as a necessary outcome of penetrating contemplation of the world. So does comparative religion’s Mircea Eliade in his Shamanism: the archaic techniques of ecstasy, an extraordinarily illuminating study of original philosophical-religious experience which suggests that the capacity for intense perceptive experience and rich expression of it is part of what it is to be human.

There is a Scotland which has always been in communion with these integrative and expressive ideas. Kenneth White repeatedly refers to the pelagian basis of the peculiar Christianity which flourished in these islands until the tenth century, not least in the form of a natural poetry like the type of poetry referred to above, and which continued to offer an underground commentary on western civilisation for long after that. The pelagian belief is that there is no original sin, consequently that redemption is a matter of reason and the will as much as it is a matter of divine grace. Pelagianism is at the root of the thinking of the ninth century John Scot Erigena’s remarkable treatise on God and nature, Periphyseon, which Patrick Beresford Ellis in his Celtic Inheritance has referred to as a Zen of the Druids. In the sixteenth century, George Buchanan, Europe’s prince of poets, laid the foundations of what we now know as the social sciences, insisted, upon the pre-eminence of reason over authority and wrote a long Latin poem on the subject of the cosmos – De Spherae.

In the twentieth century Patrick Geddes, before Prigogine and Stengers, indicated that communication is as much part of the evolutionary process as the mainstream culture’s obsession – the survival of the fittest. He united the particular and the general approaches to social science and declared that the age of mechanical dualism is ending. A generalist, whose every project had explicit educational purpose, Geddes came to the significant conclusion that the true function of human life was not maintenance or production, but art. mcmanus01pic4.jpg

So, from diverse disciplines the forward thinkers see the need for the philosophical mind to unite their perceptions, to see life whole and to give expression to that complete vision. Let me insist that the word poetry in these contexts does not refer to the current mass of more or less formulaic statements of personal-social angst which rarely goes beyond names and words. Nor does imagination refer to the simplistic products of fantasy and fiction. Poetry, here, is the expression of the human mind which has reached a perception of the world which it must express. In other words, it is the natural and, potentially, universal expression of what White calls the sense of world. There seems little need to point out that contemporary western society falls far short of such a vision of human potential, and its educational policies seem to want to stifle it.

What this selective run through areas of the geopoetical landscape throws up is the basis for a renewal of culture. It indicates that the dominant scientific-technical perspective has run to ground and it is now necessary to bring together all the separated disciplines to lay the foundations of a new cultural perspective. It holds out not just the possibility of, but the necessity for, the fully human being as one who strives towards perceptive awareness of the the world through experience, thought and action and who strives also to express that sense of world in his/her life and thought.

If culture is the problem then education is, partly, the answer. Not to suit the needs of an economic system which is inefficient, wasteful and incompetent; which no longer makes anything of genuine value; which depends upon the use of child labour, poverty wages, famine and desolation in the third world, and produces homelessness and beggary in its own countries; which is destructive of the natural world upon which it seems not to know it depends; which places faith in its survival in the computer and diminishes the energy of the human mind. Such a system cannot and will not last, and only those communities which have invested in the genuine education of their young will have the remotest possibility of doing something about it. When the west’s economy of continuous consumption falls apart, as it must, we will need minds with the critical, imaginative and expressive powers to see and do what is required. This will not be achieved by a philistine education process whose content is minimal and whose purpose is to train all but the privileged few into compliance with given systems.

In Scotland the restoration of our Parliament with responsibility over education ought to be the opportunity for people of genuine educational vision to turn back the advance of philistinism and to create once again a model of educational provision. Clearly, the Labour Party does not see it that way but has gone about the implementation of Higher Still with foolish and destructive thoughtlessness. What is hopeful, though, is that some have recognised that the seat of power is now within grabbing distance and therefore, potentially accountable. We must not allow our Parliament, nor our education system, to be a device for obsequious compliance with philistinism. Instead they must be made to become the servants of cultural renewal in the community.

© Tony McManus

From the Scottish Book Collector archives.

Tony McManus died in 2002.


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