[ Content | View menu ]

Modernism and Education: Revised Perspectives on Meaning, Value and Practice

presented at Childhoods 2005 International Conference, Oslo, Norway. Section on pedagogy.

also published in:

* refereed journal: The Paulinian Compass. Institutional Research Office, St. Paul University; Manila: vol. 1, issue 3, 2009


© 2003 Layla AbdelRahim
e-mail: swoury@yahoo.com

This paper first appeared in response to professor Livia Monnet’s attempt to teach me how to think ”in accordance with Canadian university standards”. “You have to unlearn everything they have taught you in Russia,” she wrote to me on my paper on Yuri Mamleev that I submitted as requirement for the obligatory seminar in Comparative Literature, University of Montreal, fall 2002.

Ironically, she fell for her own stereotypes, rather than listening to the person, for, I have never attended school in Russia and unitentionally she thus asked me to undo all the things “they” have supposedly taught me in English and Swedish schools, at Bryn Mawr College, at l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris, in Stockholm University, and now at the University of Montreal along with the graduate course that I took at the department of education at McGill University.

She didn’t appear to question her assumptions regarding the efficacy of teaching versus the ability to “learn in spite of school” – as Einstein put it. In spring 2003 I submitted this paper and gave a copy of it to Terry Cochran, who was in charge of the department at the time. Terry frowned and preached to me about the benefits of school: “look, my little girl goes to school and is having the time of her life. Really loves it there”. According to him, school is a blast and university rocks: “Trust me, this is the best deal one could get”.

We agreed to disagree. My response – submitted to them in March 2003 – was this essay on how institutions of learning kill because the basis of their structure is the destruction of will and of autonomous learning, as well as to shut children and students from participation in life. Alienation and murder drive the institutions of civilisation.







One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific pro blems distasteful to me for an entire year… It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

Albert Einstein


Table of Contents

  1. Avant Propos

  2. Introduction: On Learning and Love

  3. What, when, and how do people learn

  4. Institutionalization of habitus

  5. Predicting the future

  6. The industrial habitus of education

  7. The verdict

  8. Bibliography


Avant Propos

If one compares the principles of learning and child development with the social reality to which the methods of education are supposed to respond and then with the reality that these methods create, a shrewd observer may notice a contradiction between words and deeds or between goals and ends or rather between hopes and reality.

Most people today believe that schooling is necessary and indispensable. When asked why they think so, they explain that without school children will not learn how to live in this world and therefore they will not be able to live or will not learn how to let others live (the eternal question of socialisation). Most often, when asked to define their language (define world, live, learn, etc.) the supporters of schooling, it turns out, have not understood what they themselves understand by these terms and mostly argue that “because everybody knows that this is so”. Why? “Because everybody does this and so everybody knows”. In other words, we are dealing with the irrational interiorisation of institutional thought.

According to that logic, it follows that if the methods of integration and teaching how to live are successful and provide vital skills and knowledge that would allow people to harmonise with the world, then why is this harmony such a painful experience? If we are to trust the statistics on the increase of mental illness and other forms of alienation from healthy (i.e. harmonious) living, it becomes evident that suffering becomes the norm, suffering that is inflicted on children who are forced to learn to accept abandonment by their parents as normal because someone told the parents that children need to be socialised in order to learn how to obey. A method that instills in parents the belief that their children’s screaming when left alone in the hands of strangers in schools is benign demands that the parents kill their ability to commiserate with their own kin. Lack of empathy with the children’s terror and pain becomes the norm and that is the first lesson of school. If the agenda of schooling and of “civilised” parenting is to kill one’s instinct to respond to someone else’s suffering, to protect children who need our empathy, compassion, and skill not only to survive, but also to learn how to care about the world around, it becomes obvious that the curriculum is geared to kill and destroy rather than to harmonise and preserve, because, just like their parents, this is the first lesson that children learn in school.

Then there is the method itself: repetition. One doesn’t need to repeat endlessly in order to learn something that makes sense or that is logical according to the theory of life. Repetition and dressage become necessary where things do not make sense. When access to food and resources are cut off, when arbitrary laws separate the majority of the people from land and sea because someone wants to extort material and other profit from these people and from the land and resources, if people need to learn that they will die if they do not serve the interests of the owners of food and resources, then these people need to be taught by repetition the illogical truth that they will die and that they need to learn the tricks of servitude in order to have a chance to live. These people have to go to school.

Ultimately, then, a society whose people are denied the freedom of choice and the variety of choices because of some legal or social dictates is usually referred to as dictatorial or totalitarian. In such a society, harmony means the acceptance of murder – on a spiritual level, too – murder of the self, of personal initiative and of the sense of freedom for a purpose defined by someone else and not by the self. In a free, natural society, the self obeys the rules that govern the possibilities of life in a variety of forms and species. Harmony in the natural world means life. Harmony in society spells death. This dissonance between goals, reality, and meaning is evident on many levels of civilised society.

For example, in order to solve the problem of high rates of mortality of people who are forced to work and sacrifice their effort, time and the fruit of their labour for the rich, industrial and technological society with its medical and scientific solutions – ranging from vaccinations to pesticides – has created major environmental problems that, even when successful in some areas, such as having prolonged the working span of the employees, at the same time has destroyed nature and denied the majority the right to enjoy life for the sake of self-fulfillment and happiness if it happens not to be in the interest of the owners of companies and resources.

The disharmony between civilised people and their reality is evident in the large numbers of people, starting from conception, who cannot cope with their social and natural environments and are therefore medicated in order to alleviate their physical and psychological dysfunctioning. The rates of crime, suicide, allergies, madness, war, poverty, misery, etc. point to the inability of civilisation to fulfill its promise of harmony as accord with the world when it claims that education in the form of official and organised schooling is indispensable because it allegedly provides tools and skills that are necessary for people to live “successfully” in this world. But, what is the reality that we are being sold as inevitable and what are those tools and skills that we are told to be indispensable?

In this paper, I analyse the basis of contemporary education. By education, I mean the methods of socialising and institutionalising a person that span the period from infancy through university; in other words, any social institution that claims the right to transmit necessary skillsi to members of society.

Contemporary globalisedii education derives its method from the goals and cultural essence that originated in Western Europe and that conquered and stifled other indigenous values and methods of cultural transmission around the world. Victory usually comes when one party overpowers another. It implies the successful implementation of violence and fear that lead to the enemy’s capitulation and subordination. The method and logic of the winner become part of the syllabus of the supposedly successful tactics to be transmitted to future generations. The methods of grading and policing thought processes that are behind the construction of post-industrial society are also indispensable components of a curriculum of violence that aims at subordination and fear by the opponent.

In this light, grades tell more about the one who grades than about the one being graded. However, in practice, people believe that grades belong to the sphere of the natural, organic methods of evaluating the organic possibilities of an organic person and that without them they cannot regulate and stimulate learning and development. In this essay, I examine some of the problems and contradictions in practice and terms. For, praise and reward act in concordance with the penalty of death by starvation, stifling, imprisonment, violence or whatever negative methods of schooling in order to promote, in addition to docility, the deadly competitiveness that becomes particularly evident on the lower social echelons, because the poor have already been brutalised and dehumanised by poverty. They are naked, hungry, and angry. All resources and space being denied to them, they can harm only themselves and bicker only among themselves, since no invitation to the bacchanalia has been extended to them.

These notions may have biologistic, deterministic, functionalist, structuralist and whatever other post- or pre- connotations. It is not surprising, for we can hardly escape our predecessors who have in waves taken root, then grown into trees, shed leaves and gone to sleep in our iconographic educational methods. I hope that the reader will venture with me beyond the binding explanations.



Introduction: On Learning and Love

Most Americans don’t really like children… even their own! Adults don’t trust youngsters, and school is an institutional expression of that fact. To put it another way, one of the foundation stones on which schools rest is a great big rock that says children are mostly no damn good. I know that’s true… I’ve spent a lot of time observing how society treats children. Look, I could give you a ten-hour interview entirely on the subject of adults’ feelings towards young people, but let me tell you just one tiny example. I recently read a construction design manual that was full of surveys showing buyers’ preferences concerning townhouses and clustered housing. And the number-one concern of potential owners was that they not live in a place where they could hear the sounds of children playing. They weren’t talking about the noises of youngsters smashing bottles or having gang fights with zip guns, mind you… no, the buyers queried were objecting simply to the sounds of children having a good time together.

John Holtiii


Any production, ideal or material, cultural or mundane depends on the forces that drive individuals to reproduce their species; for, the production of ideas and objects is possible only through the reproduction of bodies, minds, and souls to carry forth meaning and ideas, where our selves and our creations – i.e. our culture – can ensure survival only if its meaning and knowledge are transmitted to the generations that come. Even the seemingly self-evident objects such as a table or a spoon first has to be made and then has to be understood as table and spoon in order to be used as table and spoon in say the European meaning of the thing. Things become much less self-evident and complex when they concern other objects and cultural practices, such as pampers, computers, art, et al.

Our existence itself thus owes to a combination of forces such as the physical or biological, mental, emotional, and other elements known and unknown to us that hold us together in the form and experience of a human being.

The initial force that pushes us to create and procreate is the desire to create and procreate regardless of our mortality, or perhaps because of it. This desire forms the basis of certain emotions and forces that drive a living creature to “give” the most of oneself – knowing that what we give will remain with this other self that we help come into the world we leave behind. This giving includes imparting one’s time, effort, genes, blood, emotions, material and non-material heritage such as knowledge, language and everything that is included in all the previously mentioned and unmentioned gifts to life.

The forces of giving and creating are at the core of the sentiment that many languages designate as “love”. This definition of love is antithetical to the same term used in Western languages and which Freudiv, as a perspicacious observer of Western culture and values, defines as the desire to possess the object of personal gratification.

Since the sentiment that drives a living being to give and to create gives the feeling of gratification, sometimes, any feeling of gratification can be mistaken for love. Freud’s definition of this term is a perfect illustration of such confusion. Semantically, the term “love” retains its original positive value and connotations, while in practice, giving has been substituted with taking or possessing. Thus, the forces that prompt “life” have been replaced with those that prompt “death” – since whatever we keep and fail to transmit dies within us (as memory) and with us.

Literacy and historical monuments are an attempt to overcome this problem of death. They are also an attempt to render redundant human contact. However, since texts and monuments can be useful only when understood, the transmission of meaning remains vital and hence there is a constant battle, a pull back and forth, between the forces of selfishness and gratification with the forces of giving and love. The victory in this battle has been inaugurated with the establishment of educational facilities as an institution.

To reiterate the above point, at the basis of life lie the forces of love and reproduction, while at the basis of personal gratification that prompts the desire to possess – which is the opposite of transmit – lie the forces of death. Education is the method of expressing and transmitting these forces of life and death – a method that promotes a specific culture and society. In contemporary globablised capitalist culture, it heeds the destructive forces because its logic is to separate children from parents, to “liberate” parents from children and thus to break the intimacy of their relationship. It inculcates a specific world-view and hierarchy in order to create individualism that is falsely believed to be self-sufficient seeking constant self-gratification through consumerism and the possession of living and non-living objects of desire.

This contradiction between culture and nature becomes even more apparent if we consider the physiological development of living beings.



What, when, and how do people learn

Ilya A. Arshavski, a Soviet physiologist, studied children’s learning and human behaviour at the laboratory for developmental physiology, which he directed between 1935 and 1978 in Moscow. After the laboratory was closed down, he continued his research and publications until his death in 1996 at the age of 93.

In his work, he revealed the interdependent processes of learning and growth and proposed a thermodynamic theory of individual development of organisms. His teacher Ukhtomski’s notion of variations of weight of living systems helped Arshavski to discover that movement and activity bring about the surplus anabolistic processes that result in the organism’s growth and developmentv.

Lena A. Nikitinavi, a Russian educational theorist, discusses Arshavski’s findings in light of Ukhtomski’s notion of dominanta.

First, Nikitina cites the Energetic Rule of Motion: “If I move – I grow”; and: “as long as I move – I live”. This rule works because of the principle of surplus anabolism or the process of surplus restoration: when the energy storage has been depleted, the organism recovers and stores more for future use. Hence, by reaching the limits of our capacity – i.e. by using up our storage – we increase it. This process affects muscle, bone and organ growth, including the brain. The reverse is atrophy.

The second rule states that in order for growth or learning to occur, the organism has to reach its maximal level of stress. However, this stress level should ALWAYS stay within the limits of physiological stress that can only be determined and regulated from within and NEVER from without. In the case of stress from outside the organism, it transforms from stress of pleasure to the negative stress of destruction whereby the organism gets crushed this is self evident when it comes to squashing a cockroach with your palm, for example. In short: with all my might but within the limits of pleasure, Nikitina “translates”.

We can already see that these two rules have been evicted from the educational establishment where children are forced to sit and be quiet for unnatural lengths of time and whose bodies and selves are controlled by means of outside forces and curriculum.

The processes that govern learning and growth include its organisational work, which Ukhtomoski called dominanta.

The dominanta, explains Nikitina, is the main organiser of our brain. It concentrates all of ourselves towards the achievement of a particular goal passing through four stages and relying on specific conditions.

Stage 1: Excitement: the dominanta collects resources, concentration, energy, memory, creativity for a specific task and mostly works with nerves.

2: The domains of the brain) not needed for the specific task slow down or even switch off. They stop reacting to stimuli that do not concern the task.

3: In the meantime, the brain is busy “sorting out” stimuli from within and without – most of which the brain blocks out or brakes down while letting in those that are helpful to the task in question.

4: The task is concluded. The exhausted “artelvii“, i.e. the cells of the main centre of excitement, slows down and goes to rest during which time restoration of “work energy” occurs with surplus the process is called anabolism. However, this occurs ONLY on condition that the dominanta is concluded. The task may need hours, days, weeks, months, whatever, but the begun dominanta must be realised, otherwise there will be no growth in that sphere. Ousting or interrupting it by another dominanta leads to atrophy.

These conditions bring us back to Arshavski: action, rest and stress induce growth and they all rely on strictly self-regulatory mechanisms that signal when to change activities (physical vs intellectual, for example), how much to strain and when the task is complete. If forced to overwork, the dominanta exhausts itself and does not have the time to recover and hence dies. At the same time, if it does not reach its maximum limits of physiological stress, it cannot recharge with surplus anabolism and hence atrophies.

In conclusion on learning and growth, dominanta and its realisation is a complex process that involves at least social, psychological, physiological elements and probably others that humanity has not yet discovered. The process of dominanta can ONLY be a personal endeavour and ensures the variety of interests and personalities that are necessary for cosmic balance. It is endangered by timetables, bells, disruptions and coercion. Success in the process of dominanta requires the effort of WILL – it can never be achieved through punishment, blackmail, or prizes where good and bad grades, scholarships or the retraction of money are efficient tools that act as the negative stress of destruction exerted from the outside.

Rearing and caring for the dominanta, according to Arshavski, is the ultimate expression of love. By that he means that respecting one’s own and the other’s dominanta inevitably creates conscientious, creative and respectful creatures and can solve the problem of the increasing social violence, crimes committed against people and nature, and wars.

However, contemporary society is so organised as to maximally destroy the WILL and the dominanta creating docile workers and consumers. The medical and educational sectors are the crucial “departments” of this Institution responsible for the transmission and re-enactment of these self-destructive values that nurture Freud’s version of “love” rather than Arshavski’s.



Institutionalisation of habitus

“Institution” is at the core of the establishment we refer to as education as well as of other inter-related social organs. The term “institution”, in this essay, designates the social practices that have been organised as the skeletal bone of social structure. It is more than just structure though. Institution takes life first in the belief, the logical and mostly illogical faith and the feeling of belonging through similarity, routine, and confirmation in actions, experiences, feelings and aspirations that people often see as natural, inevitable, organic. In other words, society itself is Institution.

Second, the institution is realised through specific feelings, attitudes, and acts. It can never be only words or only structure. It needs people to live according to its needs. Through people it acquires its organic aspect.

Finally, the institution, specifically the Western capitalist/democratic model (not all institutions are the same), is hierarchical, pyramidal, because the powerful, wealthy, elitist top and the weakened, impoverished massive bottom can thus secure their mutual existence as well as the body and structure of the institution itself through supervision, desires, beliefs, meaning, practice, aspirations, identity, faith…. Hence, authority and values are concrete elements that ensure the smooth functioning of institutions and forge the necessary desires. For, those at the top of the hierarchy need the adherence of those on whom they depend at the bottom of this structure and who are much more numerous. The laws that protect those at the top (invented by their own smart selves) can exist only if those at the bottom believe in them and adhere to them. Through this collage of organic individuals and their adherences, praxis and faith, the institution attains its totalitarian, hierarchical, independent and organic quality.

Thus, any social institution depends on dogma (“natural” science, religion, philosophy, etc.) to offer “convincing” explanations – particularly to the disinterested parties – as to the natureness of the world and human experience.

“Education” first formulates those explanations and then educates people appropriately to their social roles, ideally to desire and to “choose” the imposed positions and functions. This becomes apparent when someone gets treated medically or “therapeutically” for not choosing an assigned role or not being happy with it. Most psychologists, therapists or psychiatrists in an attempt to “integrate” “depressed” or unhappy individuals readily prescribe a variety of drugs or “professional” methods of intervention to make the person “adapt” rather than accept depression as a sign that the social world is not always kind, just, or lovely.

In fact, I argue that the methods, in pedagogical and psychological interventions, themselves are a curriculum in their own right, inculcating a specific habitus through which individuals may continually reproduce their institutions. It is this interdependence of institution and education that makes the essence of education tricky and elusive.

In The Logic of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu analyses the inscription of history within the flesh, blood, and the bone marrow of the human being.

“The habitus – embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history – is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product. As such, it is what gives practices their relative autonomy with respect to external determinations of the immediate present. This autonomy is that of the past, enacted and acting, which functioning as accumulated capital, produces history on the basis of history and so ensures the permanence in change that makes the individual agent a world within the world. The habitus is a spontaneity without consciousness or will, opposed as much to the mechanical necessity of things without history in mechanistic theories as it is to the reflexive freedom of subjects ‘without inertia’ in rationalist theories”viii.

Bourdeu’s habitus reveals the processes that underlie the embodiment or the materialisation of history that drives a person to make specific decisions and commit certain actions. In a way it becomes the meaning of human life inscribed in the human being as text; more important, it becomes an inevitable text, despite the fact that often it may seem as original or innovative. The drive that causes a person to commit certain acts or take specific decisions is the same force that prompts a person to extract particular meaning from anything that exists around. In other words, our emotional and intellectual reactions come from a deeper than the conscious level, they come from the forgotten intelligence of the flesh.

“The dialectic of the meaning of the language and the ‘sayings of the tribe’ is a particular and particularly significant case of the dialectic between habitus and institutions, that is, between two modes of objectification of past history, in which there is constantly created a history that inevitably appears, like witticisms, as both original and inevitable”ix.

Bourdieu links the habitus of individualised history to that of the institution because the institution is made up of individual bodies, but at the same time institutions create their individuals and bodies – a kind of predetermined cycle of reproduction:

“to be reproduced in the form of the durable, adjusted dispositions that are the condition of their functioning, the habitus, which is constituted in the course of an individual history, imposing its particular logic on incorporation, and through which agents partake of the history objectified in institutions, is what makes it possible to inhabit institutions, to appropriate them practically, and so to keep them in activity, continuously pulling them from the state of dead letters, reviving the sense deposited in them, but at the same time imposing the revisions and transformations that reactivation entails. Or rather, the habitus is what enables the institution to attain full realization: it is through the capacity for incorporation, which exploits the body’s readiness to take seriously the performative magic of the social, that the king, the banker or the priest are hereditary monarchy, financial capitalism or the Church made flesh”x.

The inculcation of habitus is thus vital for the life of institutions. However, it is replete with problems and contradictions. For example, if in the animal kingdom the interests of the individual coincide with the interests of the species and, in the words of Arshavskixi, animals are conscientious because they follow the laws of nature, the human being has a choice and often makes the choice that disobeys nature at large as well as the nature of the particular species, often to personal detriment. Illustrations of this conflict between the interests of the institution and its individuals to which Freud refers as the “destructive instinct”) abound.

Because interests often conflict, it is crucial for the institution that its individuals make choices for its advantage regardless of their own needs. This reproduction of the institution takes over the personal concerns through the insemination of the institution’s drive that prompts specific reactions, feelings, and what Bourdieu calls praxis the economy of effort) through automatic behaviour that habitus makes possible at the irrational, automatic, even bodily level.

This drive is not something inherent, genetic, or religious. It is socially instilled physiology. If learnt naturally obeying the conditions outlined by Arshavski, the instilled drive bears the instinct of life and love. If, however, the being develops in a suppressed and oppressed environment, the habitus becomes that of hatred and destructionxii. In both cases, the socialised individuals continue at all cost to reproduce their institutions.

In this essay, I discuss two examples of how people choose the interests of their institutions, even when those work against themselves. The first example is an obvious one, the second, my case study, is much less so.



Predicting the Future

The most profound decisions about justice are not made by individuals as such, but by individuals thinking within and on behalf of institutionsxiii.

Institutions bestow sameness, they confer identity and reproduce themselves with and through individuals.

Institutions are embodied in individual experience by means of roles. The roles, objectified linguistically, are an essential ingredient of the objectively available world of any society. By playing roles, the individual participates in a social world. By internalizing these roles, the same world becomes subjectively real to himxiv.

This is why, Douglas explains, societies experiencing famine in Africa will always reproduce the social patterns, hierarchies, and roles: everyone knows which group is going to be the first to starve out, yet every member of that society, including the group itself, will accept and re-enact the roles almost to the letter – beginning with the “international development and peace keepers” and ending with the dying out persons and groups themselves. The meaning of such suffering will have little, if any, bearing on how those responsible for the genocide in the “civilised” world continue to behave, and none of the parties neither those responsible for nor those profiting from starvation, and not even the starving persons themselves) modify their behaviour because the drive will always assign the necessary meaning to their actions and to human suffering regardless of experience or the linguistic meaning of the terms.

Thus, it is possible, even though unpleasant, for the well-off worlders to watch during supper victims of wars in Balkan or African or Middle Eastern lands while participating in the consumption of the same products that render such wars necessary: coffee, petroleum products, sugar, coca-cola, or whatever else that makes one life-style depend on the suffering of others, including, or even particularly on those dying on the TV screen – thus, a life-style of satisfaction depending on starvation and vice versa, if you wish.

Of course, this is less obvious when the victim reproduces the institution. Douglas however makes a convincing illustration of how victims of famine re-enact their roles despite the availability of food not only in the world at large, but even in their own land.

Moreover, the depiction of the events of famine, war and death may be extremely verbose – in fact, it has got to be verbose; for, language and verbosity veil content.

The verbose aspect of contemporary Western society is relevant to our topic precisely because education depends on literacy and verbosity having substituted the natural learning patterns of action and motion i.e. growth) with inaction and verbal abstraction i.e. substraction) – it has substituted learning with teaching and concrete learning with verbose teaching. In other words, the contemporary method of institutionalisation depends on the atrophying of the dominantas and on the zombification or the filling in with excessive verbal “information”. Again, it is the forces of life that are replaced with death producing a verbal flood.

The example of the victimisation of the societies that Douglas studied in Africa outlines a pattern where individuals favour their institution even when the institution’s interests harm them. We can discern a similar pattern in the West, albeit less obvious because Western “society” thinks of itself as well-off, promoting the myth of the Individual or the Self as something “free” and “independent” of others and the world.



The Industrial habitus of Education

Propaganda of the virtues of industrialisation imposes the idea that industrialisation has liberated people from work; for, supposedly machines have replaced the personal effort making life easier and more comfortable. In reality, however, people spend more time at work and less time with families than in pre-industrial times, where working people had the time to work, feed the wealthy land-owners, entrepreneurs, politicians, government administrators, etc.), raise their own children, the wealthy children even nursing them), and to transmit culture and knowledge.

Continue to part 2

No Comments

Write comment - TrackBack - RSS Comments

Write comment