Developing alternatives to the western pattern of “modern” education

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Rajab 29, 1422 2001-10-16

Book Review

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 16, Rajab, 1422)

NON-WESTERN EDUCATIONAL TRADITIONS: ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO EDUCATIONAL THOUGHT AND PRACTICE, by Timothy Reagan. New Jersey and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. 2nd ed.: pp. 263; pbk. $23.

What is commonly called “modern schooling” was developed in Europe and America during the nineteenth century. But, contrary to traditional narrations, modern schooling was not developed by religious thinkers, social activists or philosophers of education. Modern schooling was developed by wealthy and powerful industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller. These men’s vision was of schools as training-grounds for the industrial economy they were building, and as control mechanisms for the fragmenting society they lived in. With ideas taken from Prussian military academies and the organisation of large-scale industry, such men developed “factory schooling.”

Factory schooling had two main goals: to prepare workers for the mechanical routine of factory labor and to instill a hierarchy of authority in the citizenry. The former goal was achieved not by books and lessons but by the routine of schools, with their bells, rooms and timetables resembling those of factories. The latter goal was achieved by the application of behaviorism, the new science of psychology, which shaped human behavior by strict use of rewards and punishments. Thinking was not much encouraged, as it was believed that thinking people do not make good laborers and may demand more political participation. Meanwhile, the children of the rich attended elite private schools that taught the skills to manage wealth and society.

Much critical commentary has been written about factory schooling, including recent work in the history of education that has identified it as a necessary part of social control. It is no mistake that schools in the former Western colonies resemble those in the West, since social control was the goal there too. The irony is that most of the colonies never had the industrial base that required the first goal of factory schooling: to provide docile factory workers. Even after independence, factory schooling was not questioned; most believed that there was some connection between an assumed Western prosperity and supremacy and the type of schooling developed in the West.

All this is changing. In the West, factory schooling is under scrutiny and many of its structures and methods are being questioned or abandoned. Behaviorism, for instance, is being replaced by constructivism, a philosophy that puts more emphasis on individual thought and problem-solving. Many schools still look like factories, but they are restructuring in other ways that de-emphasise the rigid routine of factory life, which is no longer relevant in the largely de-industrialised West. While factory schooling “worked” to achieve its goals, no one is quite sure of these new structures and methods, or even whether there is a new goal. Clearly there is a major social experiment going on in the West around the meaning and purpose of schooling. Eventually a new system may be found, but it seems that in the interim there is room to explore several alternatives.

One area that may inspire exploration is non-Western education. Although Western colonisation marginalised local and regional educational traditions, many are still alive. The field of comparative education is taking centre stage in the current search for alternatives, and several books have recently been published that explore various forms of indigenous knowledge and wisdom. A good introduction to some of the issues in this recently reinvigorated field can be found in Non-Western Educational Traditions, Timothy Reagan’s new introduction to comparative education, now in its second edition with updates and an added chapter.

Reagan begins with an introduction to comparative education, and explores the concepts of “ethnocentrism” and “oral tradition.” He warns readers to avoid seeing non-Western traditions through judgmental Western eyes. Since modern schooling is the dominant paradigm, and has been for over a century, he rightly sees it as a challenge even to begin to imagine different forms of education. One aspect of the dominance of modern schooling is the emphasis on graded book-learning, formal and mechanistic. Many of the alternative approaches to education that he introduces make use of the “oral tradition” in learning, which puts more emphasis on interpersonal relationships and the authority of the spoken word over written texts. One outcome of colonisation was that oral traditions were belittled as somehow unreliable, so, as Reagan notes, it may be difficult for those schooled in the modern way to see the benefits of non-Western educational practices.

After laying down some formative thoughts on comparative education, Reagan turns to introductory discussions of specific non-Western educational traditions. In addition to chapters on African, Meso and Native American, Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim education, which have been updated for the second edition, this new edition adds a chapter on the education of the Rom, the wandering peoples of Europe and America, often called Gypsies or Romanies. Because it is written as a textbook, the chapters are not meant to be rigorous treatments. Rather, Reagan outlines the basic beliefs of each tradition and answers some core questions on the nature and purpose of education for each. Chapters conclude with several “questions for reflection,” typical of textbooks, and a list of references and further reading, the latter more useful than the reflections.

What Reagan seems to be trying to do is provide a basis for discussing modern schooling in relation to various non-Western educational traditions, although he does not provide any analysis of modern schooling. Rather, he peppers the comparative chapters with references to modern schooling, perhaps assuming that readers do not need any systematic statement of it. But what readers may well end up doing, for better or for worse, is comparing their own perceptions of modern schooling with the non-Western traditions according to the way he has laid them out in the text. In this sense, then, it is not really a comparative text, although the impulse to compare cannot be avoided. To help this, Reagan does two things: first, he tries to weave some general questions through all the chapters as a common baseline for all educational experiences, and then he lays out some of the unique and culture-specific features of each tradition.

The common questions, necessarily general, concentrate on the meaning and purpose of education within the worldview of a culture, the ways that different cultures decide what is and is not important for people to know, and the methods employed in teaching and learning. In other words he weaves questions of ontology, epistemology and methodology throughout the text as a common baseline for comparison, while also pointing out the unique elements and additional questions of each tradition as needed. Each chapter is brief and succinct, though not facile or simplistic, and Reagan seems to be making an effort to respect all the cultures he is surveying.

The litmus test for cultural sensitivity in such books, especially those published in the West in recent years, is the treatment of Muslims and Islamic traditions. Reagan’s chapter on Islam is entitled “No Gift is Better than Education: The Islamic Educational Enterprise.” He gets off to a poor start by repeating the orientalist dogma that Islam is a “Western religion.” One danger of this assertion is that it suggests that the superficial similarities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism imply a deeper affinity. But beyond that the only real Western religion is polytheism, and the degree to which they are corrupted by polytheism is the degree to which they are Western. By this criterion, Islam is not a Western religion because it has resisted polytheism. To think of Islam as a Western religion is simply a mental crutch for Western orientalists who prefer to study Islam as an extension of the Judeo-Christian religions. Reagan justifies including Islam as a “Western religion” in a book about non-Western traditions by saying that the West perceives Islam as “alien and different.”

Despite this weak beginning Reagan’s chapter on Islam is relatively even-handed. He lays out the basic belief-structure of Islam, the life of the Prophet and the role of the Qur’an. He uses a few orientalist sources, such as Hans Kung (who claims that the Qur’an was copied from the Bible), but he also uses several mainstream Muslim sources (such as Suzanne Haneef’s popular introductory text), so the overview of Islamic beliefs is passable. Reagan also makes use of some contemporary Muslim thinking on education, such as the Islamisation-of-knowledge discourse that was popular in the 1980s. In the section on philosophy of education, he discusses Imam Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun’s views in relation to the Greek tradition, and lays out the structure of Islamic schooling from the kuttaab to the university. He mentions a few ayaat and hadith, and ends by reminding readers that Muslims regard Islam as a way of life. It is probably asking too much of a book like this that it cover Islam in any greater depth.

In fact, its attempted breadth is probably its main shortcoming; readers wanting detailed expositions of the non-Western traditions covered here will have to look elsewhere. But it is a valiant effort, useful as a rudimentary introduction to non-Western educational traditions, made more effective by the author’s reminder that modern schooling is no longer relevant in the twenty-first century, and that there is room to innovate alternative approaches, and to rediscover those approaches to education that were marginalised by Western colonisation. This is a reasonable starting-point from which to begin in earnest the project of recovering and developing all the traditional wisdoms of humanity.

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