Ted Trainer


What ideally should education be about?  Any answer to this question can only be a recommendation from a point of view; no one can show that Education really does or ought to take this or that particular form.  Following is a vision that I would like to offer.  It partly derives from the philosophy of education put forward by John Dewey. 


The distinction between Education and training.

Firstly it should be stressed that there is a vast difference between Education and mere training.  Our schools and universities are very effective in teaching people the basic skills, from reading and writing to things like using a computer, getting information, writing an essay, and teaching vocational and professional skills such as those that are needed to be a satisfactory doctor.  But I believe our educational institutions are in general very ineffective at Educating…because that's not their function in industrial-affluent-consumer society (…see Education; A Radically Critical View.)

Is there any distinction between Education and the ideal development of a person?  I don’t think so.  This means Education is not just about cognitive and intellectual factors, but also involves affective or emotional factors, volitional factors, aesthetic, and physical elements, dispositions, “spiritual” factors, “self-management”, and practical ideas, skills and interests.

The question is, what kind of person would you regard as “well-Educated”; what would his or her characteristics be? Following is an indication of some of the elements in Education as I like to think of it.

                                    COGNITIVE FACTORS.

Becoming more able and eager to interpret the world.

John Dewey’s philosophy of Education centred on becoming more able to make sense of experiences and observations, to interpret things, to make observations and experiences meaningful.  For example, whereas some people might come across a landform and see only a sharp V between the hills, others might recognise that it is a juvenile valley.  In this situation some knowledge of geology enables one to see more, to understand or interpret an observation in such a way as to derive more meaning or significance from it. If I were to walk with a tribal Aborigine I would see a fraction of the things he would see…there’s a medicinal plant, a lizard went though that way in the last few hours, it rained a few days ago…   Thus he knows what the signs mean and therefore sees significance, meaning that I would be totally unaware of.

Thus the point of having knowledge is to enable more sense to be made of the world one experiences, and more connections to be seen.  Knowledge can point to other implications, questions and possibilities that might not occur to other people.  “Aha, that’s a Kingfisher; so maybe there is a river nearby.”

So we could say Education is to do with the “enlargement and the enrichment of the world”.   The more Educated one is the richer and the more meaningful is the world one inhabits; the more there is in it for you and the more you see when you move about it.  Where some might see only a sharp valley others can see a young landscape and know that various other things might be observable there.  They are sensitised to other observations, meanings and possibilities.  When a geologist or biologist walks through a landscape he or she literally sees far more than others would.

Hence the role of knowledge in Education.  Knowledge is relevant or important mainly in so far as it facilitates meaning or increases the capacity to interpret experience.  I know, remember, a number of Latin words from my distant schooling but they have almost nothing to do with my Education, because they contribute almost nothing to my readiness to interpret the world I encounter.  (In fact my study of Latin interfered with and damaged my Education; it put me off languages.)

So it is being suggested that ideally Education should be seen as involving a ceaseless process of continually increasing the knowledge, skills and interests that enable one to interpret, make more meaning and see more.

The analogy might be with slowly adding things to the shelves in your mental attic.  You are the one who knows what you know and what you would like to add to the shelves.  You know how significant the addition is.  You know what the big gaps are.  You are the only one who can recognise the opportunity to fill a gap.  We all have many sparse and disorderly shelves, with scraps of knowledge and understanding, many tangled messes we might sort out some day, bits that are separate and isolated but really should be fitted together, and many mouldy old crates half full of rubbish that is steadily fading because that’s stuff which is irrelevant to our current interests.

            Sensitivity, awareness.

This realm could be discussed in terms of increasing sensitivity or awareness.  The Aborigine is highly sensitive to meanings in a landscape, and especially to the significance of tiny signs I will miss.  He is aware of much more than I am.  So as a more Educated person goes about he would be sensitive to and aware of more connections implications, meanings, possibilities.  He will be more thought-full, more thoughts would come to mind or be chased down when reflecting on something.  “Hmm, what I can I make of that.  What questions does that observation evoke?  How well can I answer them?”  This also seems to involve encouraging the mind to roam, to run on from the given. “Ah, a 2000 year old glass.  What kind of economy made that possible?  How did the maker live? Who could afford it? How is it different to modern glass?...”

In other words sensitivity and awareness seem to connect with intellectual curiosity. (The way cognitive, affective and volitional factors in Education overlap is discussed further below.)

            Sudden, radical shelf-rearrangement.

It is not just a matter of acquiring more facts or connections and steadily adding them to the useful items already on your memory shelves. Education is an irregular business, sometimes leaping ahead suddenly.  Material that is not useful to you in understanding the world fades and in time is dumped from your memory. What’s most readily taken in is information that adds greatly to your capacity to make sense of the things you want to make sense of, i.e., of things you are interested in and would like to understand better.  (Thus the close connection between knowledge and emotion or interest; see below.)

From time to time new information or experience will lead to a radical rearrangement of the shelves.  Sometimes one observation or encounter will trigger a total revision, or scrapping of one’s previous understanding of some topic.  When that happens a lot of Education is taking place rapidly, because one is jumping from one perspective to another.  Sometimes the change is to a more comprehensive and powerful explanatory position, for example enabling one to see and account for things that once seemed unrelated or contradictory.  But sometimes the jump is from a neat and simple perspective to one that is much more complicated and messy.  Sometimes becoming wiser involves recognising that the situation is not as simple as one had thought. Sometimes it involves recognising that one was mistaken in thinking one understood, and it sometimes involves accepting that something is unknowable and must remain mysterious.

From this perspective on Education it can be seen that the mere possession of knowledge might be totally irrelevant.  Is a person who has learned Greek more Educated as a result?  She knows more but this might have made little difference to her ability and readiness to see more as she goes through life.

          Significant learning sometimes comes in sharp lumps.

One of the most influential things I ever learned came in a few lines tucked away in some obscure book. It read something like, “The Winto indian mother would not say: ‘I took my daughter to the shade.’  She would say. ‘I went with my daughter to the shade.’ Thus the attitude of these people to equality, authority and power is evident in the very language they use.”

Over many years of thinking about the taken-for-granted, never-questioned obsession in Western culture with power, wealth and status, superiority and domination, and the immense problems this has caused, including now the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems, those few lines keep coming back as a jolting confrontation with the crass and arrogant thuggery built into the Western mentality.  They have somehow symbolised for me the significance of the issue, and the beginnings of my Anarchist convictions on all such matters, and my detestation of Liberalism, market systems, competition…and my pessimism for the West, and …

  Sometimes one line, or one second, or one encounter does more Educating, more shelf-rearranging, than a whole course, like when a kaleidoscope snaps into a whole new pattern.

Here’s another one: the Bedouins say, “A poor man among us would shame us all.”

A great deal of the stuff we learn at school makes little or no difference and therefore has nothing to do with our Education.  A highly competent, skilled, lawyer or doctor might be a very poorly Educated person.

            Do not practise “banking”.

Whether or not knowledge has an Educational significance depends on affective, not cognitive factors.  It is a matter of interest.  Just getting to know something might have zero or negative impact on Education (as with my knowledge of Latin).  What matters is whether one is interested in that knowledge, whether one wants to understand its significance for one’s desire to interpret the world.  The key term above is not “capacity to” interpret, but “readiness”, which indicates desire or willingness or eagerness.

This means that there is not likely to be any Educational value in giving or building knowledge in which there is no interest.  Schooling typically assumes this “banking” approach, whereby young people are made to learn a lot of things some authority thinks they will need to know someday.  That banking for the future process is not very likely to increase readiness to use the knowledge to interpret the world, because whether or not you use it depends mostly on whether you are interested in it. My knowledge of Latin made me more capable of seeing Latin roots here and there, but it made me less interested in doing so.

This does not mean that there is no place for educators to try to influence what is learned, or that the process can only be led by the whims of the learner.  Sometimes Educators can be rather sure that some things will be important for a person to process next. However they must help the learner to recognise this, and want to proceed, or all is lost.

            What would a highly Educated person know about?

A highly trained person can be a very narrow specialist.  A highly Educated person can’t.  What then would a highly educated person know about?    Different theories of General Education have differed greatly on this question, and I think many of the answers have been quite unsatisfactory.  For instance the answer implicit in the General Education program I teach at in UNSW is in effect “…56 class hours studying anything not related to the student’s core study field.”  The best that can be said for this approach is that it get’s people to think about something other than their specialism.

 About 150 years ago it made sense for Harvard to nominate three fields, and later ten, but now knowledge is to diverse and extensive that many give up on nominating subjects and say General  Education can only be defined in terms of learning to inquire.  This is not satisfactory; the question remains, what would we want our Educated person to know about?

I think the answer must obviously be, ... everything that matters!

As I see it the more Educated a person is the more he or she knows about (and more importantly, is interested in knowing about the universe.  The endless process of becoming more Educated involves coming to understand more and more about where you are and why you are, etc., (not that knowledge is all that Education involves; see below.)  Sorry, but this means the essentials of everything “important” that humans have found out and thought out are on the curriculum.  Of course we could debate for ever questions about what’s very important to know and what’s not so important, but would you be happy to say that this person is highly Educated although he doesn’t know much about theories of ethics, or philosophy of religion, or evolution, or astronomy, or scientific method, or his society?  Different people would have rather different lists but that would not matter much, because there’d be a considerable core we more or less agreed on.

Thus I have been inspired by the General Education program that first year students at the University of Keele used to take.  They would begin with the structure of the universe, then the geological development of the earth, then evolution, the development of homo Sapiens, our pre-history, the emergence of “civilization”, the major events in our history…They were in other words introduced to our context; where we humans are and how we got here.  Superficial?  Of course; isn’t that great!  How I wish I could hear a superficial one-hour lecture on so many topics, written by a team of experts anxious to give the best possible short overview of their field, designed to enlighten, fascinate and stimulate a desire to find out more.  People who can’t write such lectures, or don’t want to, would not be hired as Educators.

The field of “Big History” has more recently been based on this perspective.

What’s important here is the concept of the overview or the summary outline.  Education involves beginning with an attempt to understand the basics, come to a general understanding, grasp the whole in outline, develop an overview… of many fields.  It is not possible to become expert on more than a few important topics, but expertise is not important in Education (below.).  To become more Educated is to increase the number of important themes of which one has at least a general understanding.  Essential to facilitating Education therefore is providing these overviews, so that anyone can quickly and easily get the hang of any field they know little or nothing about, or see how to elaborate on what they know.  Writing and polishing these effective introductions, guides, elaborations, links is a central focus for Educators.

Among the many mistaken assumptions surrounding Education is identifying it with expertise, complexity, difficulty, the esoteric, and with mastery of a subject.  We organise 15 – 20 years of education to result in the graduation of a specialist in one sub-field of a field.  Specialists might learn more and more about less and less, but Educated people do not. Thus being an expert is not a goal of Education. If you want to know all about something go to the scholar or specialist, not the Educated person. Education is primarily about trying to understand the whole, or at least the big bits, where things fit, what in general is going on.  Specialists focus only on a tiny domain and go into minute detail.

Another lamentable common mistake is evident when the “highly educated” person, especially the academic, despises superficiality.  Educators prize and celebrate it!  There must be 1000 topics I have spent decades wishing I knew something about, even a little, and would eagerly have read a one page account on, if someone guaranteed that it was an excellent summary…worked up by a team of expert Educators.  Good Educators make available excellent superficial accounts for busy people.  Academics are rarely able or willing to do this, because their task is quite different; it is to nut out the minute detail and cram lots of subtleties into the footnotes. That’s important to do, but it’s not about Educating.  Of course the Educator also facilitates going on from the introductory account to a more complex understanding, by finding, writing and organising resources and guides appropriate for people at different stages in their journeys.

“Superficial” here is basically being taken to mean a brief and large-scale account of the essentials.  What we want is the one page or one chapter account which the expert in the field would say gives an excellent summary outline of the topic, the large scale map.  The writing of such outlines is not necessarily difficult but it does demand a lot of thought and care (and trying out) to make sure the reader can quickly and easily form a clear and sound understanding-at-that-initial-level.  At the next level would be the more lengthy and elaborate accounts, e.g., five pages to a chapter, crammed with links to detail on the many sub-topics involved.  A sound Educational system would have worked out how many levels and/or study guides are needed to enable people to go on efficiently to whatever depth of understanding they want.

The crucial concern with these summaries is not their accuracy or reliability.  This has been the focus of criticism surrounding Wikipedia…can the accounts be relied on if they are not written by experts?  That’s important but to the Educator more important is whether the overview is a good one; does it provide you with as good an understanding as possible, given its length.  Good here means things like, clear, comprehensive, at my level, provides connections to sub-topics and more detail, and represents or maps the field well.  Do I come away with lots of notes or underlining because there was a lot there for me?  Could I now confidently outline the topic to someone else? Do I now grasp the structure of the issue; e.g., the core claims, theories, considerations, controversies, arguments for and against?  Do I now feel I have a good idea of what it’s all about, in outline?

Because in an age of specialists there is relatively little interest in overviews, little attention is given to developing them.  (They can be found in textbooks, but only if you know where to find a good one.)  The accounts you find on Wikipedia or via Google are often very poor; not invalid, but unhelpful.  A good Educational system would put a great deal of effort into finding, writing, commissioning, revising, criticising and polishing excellent summaries, for the various levels that would help people to quickly and efficiently get the hang of  topic.


These accounts at different levels of complexity and detail would facilitate spiralling; i.e., coming back to the topic again and again at different levels in order to deepen understanding. This is fundamental to Education. Education is about continually extending, elaborating, enriching understanding. So at one time you might dip into a completely new field and barely scratch the surface, and some time later you might have time to look at the next-level-up account.  A good Education system would provide you with quick access to exactly what you need given where you have previously arrived in that field.  Educators facilitate Education, especially by preparing and organising excellent materials, suitable for inquirers of all kinds and levels.  As early as possible we would acquaint kids with this spiralling notion.

            Who’s in charge of Education?

Needless to say a major goal of the Educator is to get people to take charge of their own Education as early as possible.  You are the one who knows what you want to know.  You are the only one who can organise your Education effectively.   The Educator can only encourage and facilitate, especially by making access to excellent material convenient. In a satisfactory system there would also be extensive access to people able and willing to chat about all manner of issues, some just peers via discussion groups and others experts on topics, and especially Educators who have thought about all this and can suggest how you might proceed.

  Another important goal for the Educator is to get people to grasp the importance of Education.  Among the benefits they would point to is the sense of strength or robustness that comes from understanding the world a bit better, not being so bamboozled, not feeling that things are too difficult to understand.   Large numbers of people who fail out of school as early as possible have given up on making sense of the wider world and confine themselves to surviving in their niche, convinced that nutting things out, grappling with big questions etc. is not for them.  Education builds intellectual confidence.  It makes you more able to place and interpret and to evaluate, to be able to say, “I think that’s wrong”, “…that’s good”, “…that’s rubbish”, “…ah but he’s overlooking…”

How would you cope if on entering University for the first time they said to you, “Welcome!  Here is a list of all the lectures, films, discussions, visits, events that you could go to, and of the Educators on campus who are happy to discuss your Education with you at any time.  Now go and further your Education, and at the end of the year come and tell us how it’s coming along.”

            The most important “subject”

There would be an impossibly long list of things we would want an Educated person to know about, but there is one that is of far greater importance than any of the others.  It is the study of society.  A satisfactory society is not possible unless people in general are very concerned about their society, and very sociologically sophisticated.  We rate very badly on both factors, and that’s why we are not likely to solve the alarming problems now threatening the planet.  Nothing matters more than whether ordinary people are capable of dealing with the problem of how to run a sustainable and just society.  For some thousands of years the failure to deal with this task has caused immense suffering at the hands of tyrants and bungling politicians who have taken over the decision making, but it didn’t threaten the existence of life on earth.  Now it does.  The problems will not be solved for us by “leaders”.  (Leaders tend to serve the rich and powerful, who want unjust systems maintained, and leaders cannot go against the popular obsession with consuming.) We Anarchists can see that the problems will only be solved by a radically participatory democracy of sensible, sociologically aware, caring, committed active citizens determined to run their own small-scale cooperative local societies.  So be appalled at another of the unbelievable features of our educational system -- even though we are on the brink of global catastrophe because of deep faults in our society, schools fail to make the detailed critical examination of society their top priority.

The early Greeks understood this. Citizens discussed and decided issues and it was recognised that the quality of life and security of all depended on the quality of citizenship. The education of the citizen was therefore paramount.  All citizens were trusted with government and regarded as having the necessary skills and responsibility.  (We aren’t.) They understood that good decisions would not be made unless individuals thought carefully, discussed rationally, sought consensus and attended to the common good. The best Education for the development of such skills and dispositions comes from practising them. Thus as Bookchin emphasises, the Greeks understood that the participation in government was extremely important for the personal development, the Education of the individual. Only by participating in the political process, by making the actual decisions on life and death policy issues, could the individual learn to be a conscientious, responsible, skilled, vigilant citizen.

We are in a much better position to do this job now, given the development of the social sciences, and our capacity to research the relevant issues and policies, and get good answers to questions like, “What would most increase the quality of life around here?”

Clearly the viability of a society, let alone the quality of life it yields, depends heavily on this domain, and therefore the development of these skills and dispositions is far more important than any others.

Again The Simpler Way will almost automatically get us do this, because it will be obvious to all that we must be active, responsible citizens or we will not be able to make our locality work well.

            And another crucial subject…hobbies!

Hobbies, especially of a creative kind, are of great importance in a satisfying life.  They are especially important as strategies for restoring morale, and their significance in a discussion Education might best be in relation to how to manage one’s self (below.).  Schools totally fail to recognise this.  (Schools are places where you “work”.)  A satisfactory Educational system would help people to understand this realm, and help them to develop creative interests and skills that will serve them well for a lifetime.

The average American is reported t spend 28 hours a week watching TV;  let alone other screens.  Depression and boredom are major epidemic illnesses.  Millions are on drugs, hard, soft and especially alcoholic.  Many do self-destructive things like hang out in gangs, riot at football matches, get drunk, and drive fast cars.  They could be gardening, painting, making models, sewing, or working at the pottery club.  In the villages of The Simpler Way there will be many artists and craftsmen, with some 5 days a week to devote to their obsession, and to teaching it to the rest of us.

Perhaps the most important goal of artistic education is to increase the occurrence of aesthetic and creative experience as one goes about the world, the readiness to see things through the eyes of an artist, and to feel the uplift, the inspiration, that works of art can generate.  Artists are aware of the colours, the composition of the scene, its framing, the proportions, where the light is coming from and where it would be later in the day, how you would go about setting up a palette to get all that.  They see beauty.  Beauty can be recognised in sounds, situations, movement, personalities, moments, ideas, equations, gestures…  It is important to be primed to notice, look for, beautiful and inspiring things. Artistic Education would aim to sharpen that sensitivity in all people.  It would not primarily be about teaching how to appreciate art as a spectator, or how to do art, let alone be about producing elite artists.

The experience of creating can be so inspiring, calming, restorative, “humanising”.  It doesn’t have that much to do with talent, so all people should be helped to enjoy making nice things (including conversations and dinners).  Probably the most accessible creative field for even the most clumsy of us, and one of the most rewarding, is gardening, the art of creating beautiful landscapes.


Again it is important at the start to separate out the skills that mere training involves.  What might be some of the centrally important cognitive skills involved in becoming more Educated? The most important realm has to be critical thinking.  What this involves could be debated at length.  For the Educator the task is not primarily a matter of techniques or intellectual power.  It is again  primarily a matter of interest. The Educator’s goal must be to develop a strong and lasting desire to think about important things, to understand more, to nut things out, to assess and evaluate, to think critically, to develop defensible and informed views.

 In passive consumer society most people accept without question massive waste, the trivia delivered by the media, the gross global injustice on which their living standards are built, etc.  Above all we desperately need people who will seek to, want to ask about, think out and debate burning social issues, especially faults and problems in their society. Global problems are due to faulty social systems. In some ways our social systems are excellent, but in some they are appallingly bad and are leading us to destruction.  It is therefore of the utmost importance that people should be eager to think carefully and critically about them and to work towards better ways.

Crucial critical thinking is what some radical educators label as “crap detection”…being able to judge what is important, what is trivial, what is bulldust and bluff and rubbish.  A central question here is, “But is he saying anything?”  Much of what is written in “humanistic” fields of academe doesn’t say anything important.  Even worse, much of it doesn’t say anything very meaningful, and that’s the greatest sin.  Above all people should write clearly so that we don’t waste our time puzzling about what they mean.  Obscure writers too should be sacked.  (Most of the Post Modernists would be the first to go, followed by lots of Marxists, and sociologists in general, then most pf the literary obscurantists, an economists…the list is very long.)

 Critical thinking is not necessarily a negative or destructive activity.  It can result in the conclusion that the idea or institution or claim being examined is quite satisfactory or admirable.  It is about thinking carefully and thoroughly in an effort to come to a confident, defensible, sound and fair assessment.  In involves a readiness to keep an open mind and not jump to dogmatic or unsupported conclusions, to attend to evidence, and to listen to other views carefully, to reconsider one’s position, to hold a view only insofar as the evidence and argument warrant.


Education is usually thought of solely in intellectual terms, as if it was only to do with learning facts and mental skills.  But all that is far less important than the emotional and spiritual elements.

The centrality of interest.

It is possible to produce a knowledgeable and skilled technician who is not very interested in or inspired by what he knows.  Such a divorce is impossible with respect to Education.  Education is essentially about becoming interested in understanding the world, and wanting to increase one’s capacity to understand things, to think clearly, etc.  Education is therefore primarily an emotional, not an intellectual issue.  What matters most is interest in learning, asking questions, making connections, knowing and being more able to make sense of things.

There can be many motives for training, such as to be able to earn more money, and the goal is usually extrinsic.  There can be only one motive for Education and it is intrinsic.  The motive for Education can only be to be more Educated, i.e., to be more able to interpret and make sense of the world, because this is something that is intrinsically important to you and not just important as a means to some other goal.  Education cannot be motivated by the desire to earn more or have a higher credential. Credentials have nothing to do with Education and any credentials a person possesses give little indication of how Educated he or she is. People who have no credentials at all can be highly Educated. So we want people to learn about stars, bugs, people, history etc. simply because they are interested in doing so.  In general we cannot tell whether an Educational process has been successful until long after it has ended.  The appropriate questions are, for example, “Are they still reading the Shakespearian plays they studied three years ago?”,  “Do they think in sociological terms now, ten years after the introductory sociology course?”, “Do they like doing maths puzzles for the fun of it?”, “Do they like to look at the stars and planets now?” etc.

            The far-reaching implications of interest.

Thus Education has nothing whatsoever to do with competition, prizes, exams, grades, credentials or superiority.  It is about wanting to see more, to see more  comprehensively, meaningfully, wanting to know and understand.  Exams etc. are to do with mere training and learning of competence, but they can only interfere with Education. There is little or no sense in trying to grade “levels” of Education, since the state of one person’s shelves will differ wildly from that of the next person. 

Another radical implication is that Education cannot be boring. It is quite possible for training and schooling to be boring, but by definition becoming more Educated is about enlarging or reorganising perspectives because one wants to do this. It is about building deep and lasting intrinsic interest in ideas, in understanding things, in thinking things out, etc

This means that the main goal of the Educator is to inspire.  Unless students come to develop a strong intrinsic interest in a topic, so that it is something they want to learn about and will seek to learn about when out of school, one has failed to Educate. A teacher can train without interesting students in the subject matter, but the supreme concern for an Educator is to get his or her students intrinsically interested. If he fails at this Education will not take place.

Given this spiritual character of Education, it is not likely that very much Education occurs in schools. How many students of maths ever do maths out of school for the fun of it or take an interest in the mathematical aspects of things encountered, and how many who study literature for the Higher School Certificate ever read those novels for enjoyment later in life.  Some do, but the net effect is probably heavily negative. That is, when we make students study Shakespeare for exams we probably do far more to destroy interest in Shakespeare than to increase it.  The basic Educational question is, does this course increase intrinsic, lasting interest in the topic being studied?  Does it add to the person’s capacity and desire to think about and interpret the world?  There is little or no research evidence on how well school experience does this, so it cannot seriously be claimed that it is an important goal in this society.

The above conception of Education completely rules out most of the conventional paraphernalia of schooling, such as  bells, uniforms, set periods, exams and credentials, punishment, “discipline”, and teacher authority. These sorts of things are at best irrelevant and likely to be counter-productive if sparking interest and getting it to flourish are the overriding concerns.  For instance it is not possible to increase interest in anything, including surfboard riding, food, or advanced flirtation, by forcing people to do things they do not want to do.  Eductors therefore must work hard to go with interests that emerge and build valuable Educational experience on them, and to stimulate and nurture interest, but if their students are not enticed and an Educator then resorts to coercion this can only worsen the situation. Thus Educators must be very tolerant, vigilant, flexible, patient and cunning, ever-ready to grasp the chance to get someone to see what is fascinating about a topic, organising experiences that might trigger interest, but accepting their powerlessness if the spark does not ignite.

An Educator will watch for opportunities to get interesting experiences to lead on to more formal and systematic inquiry.  “Let’s take it home and see if we can identify it in the insect book?”  “Did you know that crabs are closely related to the crayfish; look at this part, that’s really what was his tail before he evolved into this shape; it’s wrapped under now.  And do you realise that a crab is a kind of animal that has his skeleton on the outside.  We have ours on the inside.  What’s a skeleton for?”  The goal here is to get people to want to follow up, to find out more, to be willing to look things up and read further.

Interest is of supreme importance, in life and in Education. There is no greater human tragedy than for a person to lose interest, enthusiasm, purpose, desire to do things, energy, inspiration, zest.  (Bertrand Russell saw zest as an important goal of education.)  We soon enter spiritual terrain here. Education connects with fascination, reverence and appreciation, with a sense of awe, humility, wonder, and appreciation before the vast and incomprehensible nature of the universe and the unfathomable miracle of one’s presence within it. The basic goal of teaching about astronomy for instance should be to develop a sense of awe and wonder, which will fuel a lasting desire to know more.  What’s the point if this isn’t achieved?  Einstein pointed to the significance of awe.Thus again the Educator’s ultimate task is to inspire, to open affective doors, to help people to increase their sense of the spiritual or inspirational significance of experience, to “re-enchant” the world.

Note also the implications for “discipline”. Again if enhancing interest is the goal then there is no place for making a person knuckle down to do what they do not want to do.  It is not possible to develop an intrinsic interest in anything by forcing someone to learn it. Discipline is very important, but only in the sense of the individual being able to willingly choose to knuckle down to a difficult or unpleasant task that he or she recognises needs to be performed, either for moral reasons or to serve one’s more distant interests.  In principle we Anarchists insist that no adult should ever obey authority, and people should not learn to obey.  We want people who will follow rules and decisions but only because they choose to, having come to see that they make sense.  So the kind of discipline that is central to Education is the self-discipline that enables one to persevere with the work of getting to know something one want’s to know, the reading up, sorting out and writing.  There is a world of difference between this and mere obedience, which is bad for humans. (It contradicts autonomy and the taking of responsibility…and it makes armies, states and corporations work!)

However Education can be painful. Sometimes unpleasant experiences add considerably to one’s Education. Indeed some of one’s most profound personal growth sometimes results from experiences one would have avoided if one could have. It is therefore important to review unpleasant experience to see what one can learn from it, including lessons to do with criticism, failure and one’s capacity to cope with adversity.

Closely related is the issue of teacher power.  Conventional educators take for granted the power the teacher has over people.  A teacher actually has more power than almost anyone else in society; she can accuse, attack, try, judge, sentence, punish, ostracise, denigrate, publicly criticise, and put down ... with impunity.  Why do we find such a relationship in the field of Education?  We do not allow such powers to shoppers, or chess players or train drivers.

Conventional educators usually make the seriously mistaken assumption that teachers have and should have power because there are “authorities” on their subject. The two have nothing to do with each other. If I know more about something than you do and I am teaching it to you, nothing follows about my right to boss you around. If we focus on Education we realise that the “authority” of the teacher is only to do with expertise and the power, that is the technical skill, he has to do things like explain, detect what I need to learn next or where I am going wrong, point to useful texts, etc.  This capacity in no way means he should have any power over me or makes it right or sensible for him to coerce or intimidate me.  The Educator therefore has to try to be a helpful friend. Friends do not boss each other around or force each other to do things. The Educator is not superior to the learner; he just knows more about the topic and wants to help the learner to benefit from this. Both should realise that the learner surely knows much more than the teacher knows about other topics. 

In fact if there is any notion of unilateral or oppressive power in the situation it lies with the learner, because he is the one who can say “You haven’t explained that well”, or “ I don’t want to explore that”, or “I have had enough for today.”  Of course the Educator can always respond,  “Ah, but you have to learn this next if  you want to be able to understand the subject well”, but this is not an exercise of power, it is simply giving expert advice and in a satisfactory situation the learner who has found this teacher’s advice to be valuable in the past would probably take notice of it again. So the atmosphere of intense power and coercion that exists in any school might contribute well to training (this is debatable) but  it seriously interferes with Education, yet in this status-obsessed society there are strong connections between knowledge, superiority privilege and power.  It is assumed that “educated”, academic, brainy people are superior, should be deferred to, deserve privileges, and rightly have authority over less educated people.

It is extremely difficult to eliminate power relations from Educational situations.  Try explaining to your best friend something you know and she doesn’t, without in any way giving orders or edicts, or implying that she is a bit slow to comprehend, or implying that you are pretty smart the way you zoom through it.

In most classrooms there is usually little or no overt exercise of power – but this is only because students have been well trained to obedience. They are adept at the “pre-emptive buckle”.  Many would rather not be there but have enough sense not to say, “This is boring and unpleasant and I can’t see any point to learning it.  I don’t want to be here.  I’m going to the beach.”

It is also irritating how often education is mistakenly identified with difficulty and grind. Children are expected to do school work. Hundreds of millions of children endure many years being forced to work at things they don’t want to work at.  (Compulsory school attndance is the world’s largest human rights abuse… not the most vicious but the most extensive.)  It is often assumed that something can’t be of much educational value unless it is difficult, and that easy courses therefore must be inferior. However the general rule should be that if a course is difficult it is being badly taught. A very Educationally-effective course in Ancient Greek, or cooking or surfing, which would by definition increase a student’s interest in the topic, could not be experienced as difficult in the sense of unpleasant (although it might set unwelcome challenges to assumptions and beliefs.)  This applies even to quantum mechanics. The Educator’s task is to develop those one, five and twenty page accounts that help you grasp as much as possible about the topic as easily as possible.

            “Self work.”

The reference here is to working on one’s self, one’s personal development, asking questions such as, “What kind of person am I and what kind do I want to be?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?  What strategies might work best for me, e.g., in lifting my spirits when I’m down?”  Consider the many dispositions, skills, characteristics and models Educators might help people to think about in this realm, including being more able to control one’s emotions, to recharge one’s batteries, deal with adversity, be resilient, relax, appreciate things, understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses, not react impulsively, come to terms with limits, restore morale, stand firm, count one’s blessings, balance doing and being, look on the bright side, not judge others too quickly.  How much time do schools now give to discussing such issues and helping kids figure out the strategies that work for them in these areas. How much time in schools today goes into helping people to think about what kind of person they want to be?

Then there are the interpersonal skills, such as how to work cooperatively, bring underlying conflicts onto the agenda without offending, get others to say what they feel, make group decisions, deal with difficult people, be a whistle blower….  How exciting it would be to grapple with the question, what might a satisfactory curriculum for emotional and social education look like.

One important theme here concerns the distinction between doing and being.  Western culture is astoundingly energetic. People work so hard, build, conquer, develop. Australian Aborigines are not like that.  Americans are even worse than Australians.  Western culture is obsessed with achievement, doing, striving, building, conquering, expanding.  This has driven some desirable outcomes, including scientific inquiry, but it is now highly problematic, firstly because it has generated the sustainability problem (far too much production, work and development going on), and because achievement, doing, has become a neurotic obsession crowding out and contradicting important spiritual factors.  We urgently need to learn how to stop doing and just be.

The obsession with doing indicates deep discontent; more always needs to be done, achieved.   People in western culture are typically dissatisfied with their situation, especially their income.  We are very bad at just appreciating what we have, enjoying the moment, the situation, just sitting.  People in Western culture find switching off even for a moment quite difficult, hence the meditation industry.

School reinforces the manic obsession with doing and achievement. It ceaselessly goads people to work hard, strive, never rest on your laurels, set high goals, do your best.  Yet most of us would benefit greatly from being helped to understand how to relax, how to appreciate, how to see and enjoy the gifts that do not need to be worked for. Helping people to work out their balance between doing and being would be among the many issues to do with dispositions and orientations that a satisfactory Educational system would deal with.


The foregoing themes have been mostly to do with the individual’s perspective and situation.  What about the inter-personal dimensions of Education?  How might the concept connect with social factors?

Again all sorts of social ideas, skills and dispositions would be relevant, but to me the crucial problem here is to do with “collectivism “ or concern with the welfare of the other, especially the impersonal, general other in the form of “the public good”.  It is not possible to have any society, let alone a good one made up of individuals pursuing their own self-interest.  You only have a society to the extent that you have additional things, notably social values. (The neo-liberal triumph is rapidly eliminating all but self-interest.) 

Nothing in the universe is more important than the strength of concern people have for the welfare of other beings, including nature. Compassion might be the most appropriate term for this, although the core notion here is not sympathy aroused by the misfortunes of others. It includes the positive desire to see other people, beings, systems, institutions etc. thrive, function well, “self-actualise”.  The supreme concerns are to nurture, nourish and see others flourish, and to do so not out of a sense of duty or charity, but because it is enjoyable to see others happy. This is what motivates the way parents or friends behave.

Sophisticated technology, wealth, sporting records, competitive prowess, or capacity to work hard are of paltry significance in human affairs compared with the readiness to care and to help others flourish.  Who do you value most, someone who is very rich, someone who can run faster than anyone else … or someone who is moved by the misfortunes of others and will make an effort to do something to help. Which is more noble and civilised, a society that can build New York, space shuttles and aircraft carriers, one that can conquer others…or one like Ladak with almost zero GDP per capita in which no one is poor, neglected, lonely, without meaning, or indeed unhappy. (See Ladakh; Significance for thinking about development.)

The quality of the life experience within a society, and the capacity of a society to survive let alone progress, will depend more than anything else on the degree to which its people care about the welfare of each other and their environment and the quality of their society. Only if this concern is strong will people attend to the public good, to institutions and standards, and public service, social policy and social responsibilities and the plight of the least fortunate. It is compassion which best motivates refusal to tolerate injustice, waste, ugliness and systems which do not work well. Consumer society rates very poorly here. People are increasingly indifferent to the fact that more and more people in the richest countries, let alone poor countries, can’t compete with the rich and powerful and are dumped into poverty and depression. 

We are therefore dealing here with an extremely important goal of Education.  A satisfactory society would devote a great deal of effort to working out how best to develop compassionate citizens.  The important problem is not getting people to be moved by the plight of another when exposed to it at close range.  People are usually easily moved when they come face to face with another in difficulties.  Our problem today in complex, bureaucratised mass societies is to get people to be concerned about social policies, institutions, systems and the effects on unseen others which are represented by statistics, such as the unemployment or homeless rate.  We will not have a satisfactory world until people in general are moved to action by such numbers, because they feel bad about what these numbers represent in terms of the experience of others.

Finally, a speculative thought on the possible connection between the sensitivity and the awareness theme discussed earlier, and concern for the welfare of other beings. The more a person becomes concerned to make sense of the world the more appreciative and reverential I think that person will become, and in turn the more concerned to respect, preserve, enable and nurture the systems and the beings that inhabit the universe. I think there is a connection here somewhat like the link between knowledge, virtue and aesthetic value Plato claimed. For instance, to become more aware of the extraordinary complexity, design, functioning, and generosity of the natural environment on which we utterly depend, is surely to become more appreciative, respectful and humble before it.  Surely to come to know about Gaia is to come to be grateful for all the crucial services she performs for us. The awareness or knowledge seems to bring with it an intensely moral conclusion or effect. It has effects on our emotions and volitions. We seem to recognise values, such as the “importance” of nature, not just because it enables our lives, but in the sense that a great work of art has an immense spiritual value, magnificence, “aura”, regardless of any utility or price that might attach to it. The awareness is partly an aesthetic phenomenon.  We are confronted by the beauty of natural things, such as the incomprehensible engineering in the design of any bug, with microscopic knee joints that work better than any that NASA could construct. But it is not just a matter of recognising one’s ignorance and inadequacy, one’s inability to do or even comprehend what Nature does. It is also a matter of appreciation, gratitude for undeserved and unrepayable gifts. To recognise this is to feel certain things. A sense of the sacred brings emotions and dispositions with it. I couldn’t make a bug; shouldn’t I revere such a miraculous thing?  One does not wish to harm or destroy sacred things. Indeed one wishes them well, one wishes to see them flourish. 

So I suspect that the more Educated one becomes the more sensitive to the nature of things one becomes and therefore the more caring, compassionate in some sense, one becomes.  The more one’s awareness is expanded the more one appreciates, respects and values the miraculous universe one finds oneself in, and the more distasteful destruction and suffering become, the more one wishes to see things and people preserved, contented with their lot and thriving. Thus I think an Educated person would be a “good” person.

It is likely that the kinds of dispositions, outlooks, habits of the mind and of the heart being discussed here probably can only be developed through immersion in a culture that takes them seriously, gives them space and attention, reinforces  and nurtures them.  They are not things that can be grafted on by a course or school, or added to a culture that is about individualistic competition, exploitation and greed.  It surely will take a village, a community, a new culture to Educate a wise and compassionate citizen.


The educational institutions of consumer-capitalist society are very effective  in reproducing that society.  They churn out skilled and diligent workers and technocrats, who accept their situation, do as they are told, work hard, compete, accept hierarchy, strive as individuals, seek to rise, crave wealth and status…and do not entertain radically critical thoughts.  (See Education; A Radical Critical View.)  The conditions and characteristics of schools which produce these ideas, values, habits and dispositions contradict the conditions that are necessary if Education is to take place.  A little Education occurs in schools, but only by default.  It is not a goal (although it is claimed to be).  No effort is made to check whether Education results from fifteen years of experience within the educational system so it can’t be a goal anyone takes seriously. (They say they do.)

On the other hand, if people had ten to twenty years of solid experience of the conditions that would enable and nurture Education, they would never tolerate the conditions of consumer capitalist society.  So Education could only occur in a very different society to this one.

            See also,

                        Education: Outline of a Radically Critical View.

                        Education in the Alternative, Sustainable Society.

                        The Spiritual Significance of The Simpler Way.