Reflections on Satish Kumar’s “Holistic Education”

I watched a Satish Kumar lecture yesterday and walked away distinctly unimpressed. I’ll start with where we agree, move on to where I was repulsed, and then conclude with some lighter territory of where I just disagree.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: Satish Kumar
Satish Kumar

Where we would agree – and by we, I mean most education researchers and educationists – is that “education” is a bigger concept than just teaching, though it is often stripped to that essential characteristic. He discusses how the latin root of education is educare, which means to bring out. He then takes an (unacknowledged) page from Freire and slams the “banking” view of learning. OK, fair points so far.

People and institutions often lose sight of the bigger picture, sometimes even teaching gets reduced to schooling and focuses on all the institutional roles schools and universities play.  I was in a Philip Altbach seminar a few weeks ago and a faculty member noted that his entire analysis of the role of world-class “center” universities focused on their role as research producers – where did he think the role of teaching and learning fit in? Altbach replied that teaching was difficult to measure but that they were trying new metrics but was interrupted, with a bout of collective laughter, when the questioner repeated “teaching and learning.”

We all got it. Everyone knows top universities are seen exclusively in light of the research they produce and the names they attract to their faculties and departments. This is how they’re ranked, funded, and stay competitive. There’s a lot of problems with this and everyone knows it – even people, like Altbach, who have spent their careers looking at global knowledge production in university centers and peripheries. Everyone “gets” that we’re not focusing enough on teaching and learning in higher education and that we focus too much on measurable learning in primary and secondary education.  There seem very few mechanisms for removing good researchers who are bad teachers from the classroom, just as being a good teacher is seldom enough to qualify for tenure at a research university. But that doesn’t mean its fully ignored. Higher education instruction androgogies are some of the most diverse imaginable – meaning, also, some of the best and the worst. I have had both amazing and appalling teachers

Kumar started his lecture by saying that he was a person interested in education, not an educationalist. He provided his theoretical framework for what education should be – holistic, learning with the whole being. He called it his three H’s – heart, head, and hands. Current education, he said, focused only on the head. While it was important, it needed to also focus on doing things with the hands and learning how to build and foster relationships with the heart. He painted with broad strokes to draw a strawman of how schools are completely failing to nurture the hearts and hands of children (but, ostensibly, his schools were).

To which I felt rightfully repulsed. I spent five years as a teacher working with some extraordinarily kind people who, working within institutional limits, did their best to foster the emotional development of their students. It was one of my teachers that took me in for my last few months of high school after getting kicked out of my house, set me on the track of academia (something I never thought within the realm of possibilities), and handed me a copy of On the Road to get me to see there was a bigger world that was actually accessible. I did what I could to get my artistically inclined students to perform at open mic nights in coffee shops. I have variously been helped by teachers or helped as a teacher all of my life.

Even at the macro-level in educational studies we divide the goals of curriculum into (a) economic efficiency, (b) social production/reconstruction, (c), academic rationalism, and (d) child development. There is a tension between the four and usually one or two areas win out over others in different times and contexts. There’s really nothing new Kumar is adding to a very, very old debate. He’s just trying to add his name by acting like he’s the first to get there. When asked if he was seeing any progress, he mentioned a few places where they were using his ideas. Before the lecture concluded he made a snide remark about professors just trying to get their name out, write books, and publish articles. Ten minutes later he started autographing the half-dozen different books for sale outside.

Let me wrap up and conclude where I think Satish is just wrong. In Life is All About Learning, Satish makes a remark that seems to encapsulate most of his thinking:

The outcome is not the point; we must do what is right. Right action will automatically lead to right outcome.

As I heard him speak of how schools need to focus on matters of the heart, the question that leapt to mind was; “if you’re so cynical about how we’ve essentialized knowledge into rational subjects for ‘matters of the head’, what is institutionalizing ‘matters of the heart’ going to look like?”

Second, he says that “all of the big problems in the world are caused by highly educated people” like Bush & Blair’s Iraq war and global warming. People taught too much to think, not to feel with the heart. I think this assigns too much malignancy to the problems of the world, an old monk looking for evil.

The more disturbing, and likely, scenario is that most people involved in pushing for the war in Iraq and industrialization often do have good – if narrow – intentions. While “no blood for oil” might have a nice ring to it, the idea of “freeing” the Iraqi people had great appeal to a lot of people like Bush and Blair. But the idea that sectarian violence overtake the country  as a consequence of beheading a detestable regime was far from an unthinkable outcome of the Iraq War. Similarly, turning off the flow of carbon-based fuels like oil and coal would have an outcome far worse than the good envisioned by slowing global warming. Outcomes do matter. A lot. Good intentions both get lost in translation and have remarkably different (and often negative) outcomes than do-gooders want or expect.

What the world needs is more planners understanding and then harnessing the less-than pure intentions of the masses and the elite to affect the changes we need done. We need to think-through, model, and nudge our way out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. Picking up and walking across the globe to gripe about your pet global problem doesn’t change a lot.

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