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EdTech & Design, Engagement

Education: A Way of Being in the World

A review of Education as Dialogue: Its Prerequisites and its Enemies by Tasos Kazepides McGill-Queens University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780773538061.

Tasos Kazepides asserts that one cannot understand education “merely by the scientific study of human nature; it can be explicated only by philosophical inquiry” (p. 28) and in order to address educational issues effectively, “we must first address their philosophical dimensions, which have logical priority over other kinds of problems” (p. 1).

In his opinion, however, most educational administrators and policymakers do not sufficiently consider underlying philosophical issues and consequently fall into “a pernicious form of scientism that has permeated our thinking and has contributed to the unfortunate institutionalization of the concept of education” (p. 29). The end result is confusion between schooling and the process of education itself, confusion that results in a predominantly utilitarian focus within educational institutions. Education, he maintains, “is the development of persons, not the training of soldiers, lawyers, or computer technicians … [It] is not a preparation for anything; its aims are inherent within itself … Being educated is a way of being in the world and a way of living one’s life” (p. 111). Education of this sort, Kazepides argues, is best achieved through dialogue. 

Essential to an understanding of education as a dialogue is a distinction – which Kazepides claims is almost always ignored – between education and its prerequisites, and “when it is totally ignored it often renders education a useless all-embracing concept more or less synonymous with socialization” (p. 68). He explains the prerequisites of education by referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “riverbed propositions”, which constitute the foundation of all our thinking. Drawing heavily on Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, Kazepides argues that these bedrock assumptions are not learned so much as inculcated “by means of examples and by practice, not by intellectual demonstrations, definitions, or sermons. This means that children must be participants in a form of life in order to acquire the prerequisites – not merely spectators or listeners” (p. 81).

It is upon the foundation of these riverbed prerequisites that education can take place. Education, according to Kazepides, is the further development of the mind through “the logic and the standards of excellence immanent in the various disciplines of thought and action and their respective norms and language games as we practice them today” (p. 33). Clearly, induction into those disciplines requires thought, and Kazepides agrees with Plato that “thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind itself without a spoken word” (p. 90). If education is understood in this way, then it follows that education, whether it occurs in schools or elsewhere, is best conducted by involving people in dialogue. Kazepides feels that when this is done, education becomes “the most appropriate antidote to our divided, confused, rudderless, and competitive world” (p. 111).

This, then, is the essence of the extensive, precise, and detailed argument that Kazepides presents. Although it is written lucidly and in plain language, the book requires careful reading because it is such a substantial philosophical romp – particularly for those with no prior appreciation of the philosophy of Wittgenstein, which underpins much of it. The effort is, however, worthwhile because the ideas it presents are both illuminating and generative.

This is not a book for those who want to know more about dialogue and how it can be encouraged because it does not examine this practical question, but it does provide an enlightening and provocative look at the epistemological question of what constitutes an education. It clarifies terms, such as the “aims of education”, that are often used in casual and thus confusing ways, and provides useful insights into the process by which a child “bootstraps” into an understanding of the world and intelligent behaviour within it.

In the latter chapters Kazepides warns against what he sees as mis-education that is occurring and the enemies of dialogue in our society, which include not only the obvious religious and political culprits but also advertising that “turns every aspect of human culture into a commodity” (p. 138). Particularly in the age of “21st Century Learning”, this book provides a cautionary counterpoint to the instrumentalist drumbeat, a reminder of the best that we can be, and a clearly stated explanation of the challenges that entails.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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