The lack of courage for in-depth education

by Carl Bossard*

“Life does just not start with the self. [...] That’s the simple secret of all education that it means work. Education is depth, a mental uphill process, no paved highway”.

Education requires depth and is more than the mere addition of current stocks of knowledge and “competences”. Remarks about the new Swiss “Curriculum 21”.

The present loves the surface and the superficial; art draws on the love of beautiful appearances. This has consequences – for teaching as well. However, education requires depth. That is why education and school should develop a counter force. Humans need background.

The “Zeitgeist” is surfing on the surface

The American artist Jeff Koons is probably the most successful contemporary artist. A master of shiny-smooth surface. In 2012, a highly regarded exhibition was dedicated to him by the Foundation Beyeler. It drew a large crowd. His art pleases; it is an oeuvre of Like. But looking at it critically you feel: Koons’ art remains deliberately banal. It lacks the depth, there is a lack of profoundness. It does not scandalize. No resistance emanates from the aesthetics of the smooth surface. Everything remains superficial.
Today’s data streams remain on the surface, as well. Useful information can indeed be distilled from the data clusters like Big Data. But they are additive and hardly generate insights. And hardly education. Education requires depth. You have to struggle with a cause and via the detour of the unknown you have to make it your own, unconditionally. Uncompromisingly. Whoever watches a young violinist, knows about that. She has to practice for years and she has to place playing violin above her acute whims and interests. It is only this way that scratching becomes music one day. And the unformed girl will become a confident musician, the philosopher Ludwig Hasler writes. Life does just not start with the self. And he adds: That’s the simple secret of all education that it means work. Education is depth, a mental uphill process, no paved highway. The path leads through undergrowth and scrub. That is exhausting. There is no shortcut.

School challenges the additive

But does today’s school still demand this work? Is it at all capable of that? Considering what is real and essential for a school through a zoom objective, one realizes soon: the educational mission and the school’s so-called mediation function concerning knowledge and skills have become more difficult. We are facing a much higher bulk of knowledge than once, also more complexity, and every day brings more information, and always faster.
At the same time the educational environment is losing strength and influence, because in everyday life, a loss of people’s own initiative can be observed, an accelerated shift of values is taking place and more and more families are in trouble or even in a process of disintegration. We are facing a transformation of childhood and adolescence, dramatically changing the requirements for school. Teachers are increasingly left to themselves. “Free-forces” as “educational canon” or “self-discipline” are decreasing. But the basic task remains: to educate children and young people, to convey knowledge and skills to them, as well as humaneness and character.

Mere addition

This is demanding. Primary school has assumed many tasks, a lot, probably too many. They must integrate and individualize, socialize and cultivate, teach “Frühenglisch” (learning English from an early age) and “Mittelfrühfranzösisch” (learning French from a fairly early age), train High German and develop math skills. It is supposed to introduce themes of man and environment, promote fine arts and creative work, strengthen ethical behavior and encourage children to the joy of movement. And also teach learning. Everything has become somehow important. However, when it is no longer possible to determine what is important and significant, everything loses significance.
The school development’s feature in recent years is addition. Much has been added – little was taken away. Subtraction continues to be non-existent as school operation.

Many cannot read and write

The consequences are perceptible: contents follow each other rapidly. They do not imprint deeply, will hardly become experience. The time to practice and deepen significant learning processes is often lacking. The time pressure renders lingering impossible, the hustle and bustle displaces contemplation. So the detour and the indirect are getting lost. Many things are only touched superficially. Nothing carries weight, nothing is incisive, hardly anything very important. Unfinished products become a permanent condition. The material that has been taught solidifies into a coherent whole only poorly.
How else can we explain, then, that many students can hardly read and write at the end of their school schooltime and that they “obviously are too stupid for vocational training”? (“Blick” from 2 February 2015) Or that in Zurich half of the police recruits fail the German test? Even more depressing is the fact that the Berne Education Director Bernhard Pulver just accepts this fact in an interview. Like a God-given storm. The problem is evident. Why do they not tackle this actual language disaster?

“What is the concept of man behind Curriculum 21? What are the values showing through? […] partitioning our children and youth into competences does in no way correspond to our humanistic view of man.”

Glossing over does not help – acting is necessary

Thinking happens verbally. Every thought needs a body: the language; it builds a relation to the world. The human body must be trained, it must be taken care of. Exactly the same applies to language. It must be developed and promoted. In the parents’ home, at school. This is actually fundamental and therefore self-evident, you might think. And therefore elementary it is the elementary task of school.
But the unquestionable is not simply self-evident. “I note that the students' skills in the German language are partially catastrophic”, states Matthias Aebischer, President of the National Council's Education Commission and lecturer at the University of Berne. What Aebischer has experienced first-hand ETHZ 'Director Lino Guzzella signaled three years ago: “People must be able to read, write and speak correctly. This also applies to natural scientists and engineers.” But the skills were partly insufficient, he added. (NZZ am Sonntag from 29 July 2012) Too many were not able to write properly, a fact that some studies brought to light. “Everyone who has he pleasure to read baccalaureate papers will probably be shocked,” the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” writes and the paper adds: “There are also problems refering to mathematical knowledge.” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 1 September 2015)

A look at Curriculum 21

The deficits are known, the concerns of the elementary school are no secret. The question arises whether Curriculum 21 provides a remedy? Does it stay on the surface, or does it bring depth and does it set down what is important and essential in Swiss primary schools?
The second version of Curriculum 21 comprises 363 competences on 470 pages, partitioned into over 2,300 levels of competences. Skepticism remains: who suggests that much, suggests something for everybody. But everything is the enemy of something. In other words: If the abundance of objectives seems so comprehensive, they will hardly become reality in everyday life. It is not without any reason that the Basel SP Councillor Anita Fetz stated: “An over ambitious bureaucrats mouse has given birth to a mountain of documents.” (Die Zeit from 13 October 2014)
She pronounces what not only a few fear: The many regulations might result in the fact that building knowledge and skills will remain rather random and systematic learning will come off badly. But young people need cognitive organizing structures. “If you split school and learning into countless individual competencies, the character of teaching eventually decays to dust”, Ralph Fehlmann, didactics expert at the University of Zurich adds for consideration.

Education is not an isolated training of individual competences

What is the concept of man behind Curriculum 21? What are the values showing through? Whoever reads through the new Education Bible carefully, wonders over and again. And he cannot make head or tail of it. There is a lot of talk about monitoring and measuring. But one thing is obvious: partitioning our children and youth into competences does in no way correspond to our humanistic view of man. Decompositioning humans into segmented competences hosts a technocratic mind; something soulless is breathing there. It seems that the concept of an end to end output control is more important than a humanistic support of education. Checks and tests everywhere – and the teachers function as administrators of competences. This is problematic with respect to human development which indeed repeatedly eludes the power of the disposable.
School must meet the changing new demands of society with their curricula. That is indisputable. It remains questionable whether the Curriculum 21 with its abundance causes the necessary profoundness.

The “three big Bs“ as an instructional compass

But looking at the basics may help. Our teacher of the fifth and sixth class always talked about it: You have to know something, you have to be able to do something, and these two ought to make us “think” or act in a better way. To him the “three big Bs” were important: basic knowledge, basic skills and basic attitudes. That was his pedagogical and didactic triad and it was what he demanded. This triad can not actually become obsolete, because it is the ne plus ultra. This seems
like a law of nature to me, like the tablets from the didactic Mount Horeb. But perhaps such formulations are as outdated as my school memories are.
The former wealth of subjects was modest. German and arithmetic were the central contents, additionally history and geography. High priority was given to the keeping of the exercise book, pronunciation and orthography. Everything we learned at school, we learned efficiently, both orally and in writing, with many senses, precisely and in a disciplined manner. Knowing one thing poperly is more effective than knowing a hundred things only half way. Our teacher lived up to what Goethe said and he demanded it. Do not do numerous things but do one thing intensely and accurately! – Non multa, sed multum! according to Pliny. Our primary teacher corrected every composition we wrote neatly and discussed it with each of us individually. Individual feedback is the modern magic word. We wrote about twenty compositions in a two years time. For him this meant the correction of approximately one thousand texts. Precision brings about elegance, the teacher told me. Even today I hear his sentence and I can still see how he felt responsible for my learning and my making progress.

Verticality results in education

It was a hard and strict school, demanding and challenging, striving for fundamental knowledge – an education devoting itself to a subject matter and original experience with no ifs and buts. What a change of models, themes and styles, compared to today’s. Much of it looks like black pedagogy from today’s point of view, and yet it has influenced me for my life. Our fifth and sixth class teacher embodied and demanded something that ihas been put into words by the cognitive scientist Howard Gardner as intelligence for the 21st century: disciplined and creative working and thinking. Not on the surface but in the vertical. My teacher would have chafed at Jeff Koons’ art.     •

Source: Journal 21 of 21 November 2015