Higher Education and the holistic self

Here are some thoughts on getting halfway through An Introduction to Philosophy of Education by Robin Barrow & Ronald Woods.

We looked at a chapter of this book last term and I really enjoyed it so I thought I’d buy it. My intention for my T&L assignment is to write a theoretical analysis of the Purpose of Higher Education, and I thought reading this book would help me to philosophise about Higher Education, deepening my thinking into its purpose. According to Barrow (who updated this most recent edition alone), philosophising is a skill; it is not sufficient to know the rules – it needs to be practiced. I think what I do in preparing my posts for this blog – thinking, talking to others, relating what I am reading to contemporary events – is philosophising. But of course I’d like to get better at it. Having got halfway through the book, it doesn’t look like the precepts or rules of philosophising are going to be made explicit – or that the authors are going to give me specific exercises. I guess the idea of this book is to engage with the authors’ own philosophising about education, and respond to it.

Robin Barrow seems to me to be an interesting fellow. I think we would get on famously. I would try to persuade him to replace half his ‘he’s for ‘she’s, to stop peppering his writing with Latin terms like an unbearable toff, and perhaps – if he can bear it – to refer to a female author once in a while. He would in return – I imagine – be totally charming, and summarily dismiss all my suggestions.

The question Barrow and Woods seem to be answering in this book is ‘what is education’. ‘What is education for’ is perhaps a slightly different question, and ‘what is higher education for’ – maybe different again. But this is probably as good a place to start as any, particularly as the authors emphasise educational aims as the basis for all discussion of educational problems.

Interestingly, when Barrow talks of the purpose of philosophy I hear something fundamental; the advancement of our own ideas and the development of our own responsibility, which enables us to lead an authentic existence. He could be talking about the purpose of education – at any stage in life. Or indeed the meaning of life itself. Need I actually have read on?

I think so, yes. There is some great content in this book that had helped me to make better sense of other things I’ve read – especially the sections about Plato and education in early civilisations. There are some parts that don’t seem that relevant at first – e.g. the chapter defining indoctrination – but in hindsight I realise that having a clear idea of what education is *not* is needed to understand what it *is*.

Looking back over my reading notes, I feel that what bothers me most is the lack of discussion of what is to be learned through the education system, and what is to be learned outside it. Here are some examples of what I – in my opinion – feel to be key skills for living well in the 21st century:

      1. How to eat (real, fresh, non-processed food, etc.)
      2. How to move & rest (good quality sleep, posture, functional movement – e.g. safe & efficient running, sitting, lifting)
      3. How to concentrate (e.g. focus, active reading, meditation)
      4. How to communicate (e.g. writing, group & 1-2-1 discussion)

My opinion at the moment is that these four skills are of equal importance and are the basis for thinking, learning, the good life and an authentic existence. I think only the last two need to be embedded formally into university curricula, but HEIs can and should do a lot more to help their students to eat well and cultivate good habits of the body. Campus environments are particularly destructive to physical and mental health. Freshers’ Week (and every other week) is an ethanol fest. Campus shops sell caffeine drinks, inverted sugar syrup flapjacks and other highly processed, packaged food that serves the manufacturing industry while being hazardous to health and the environment. ‘Kitchen’ facilities are often not set up for communal cooking, and traditional canteens are being replaced with pizza and sandwich bars. There is a culture of partying into the night and being eternally online. Even the sports clubs are often a mask for yet more excessive drinking. And guess what… student mental health is in decline.

Learning the ways of an academic discipline and making friends for life is all well and good, but if higher education is to play a part in developing our sense of responsibility, I think it should be a place where people learn how to live in a more holistic sense. Maybe I am being a boring health nut…

It is important to note that I hated university; it was easily the worst three years of my life. The nicest thing about it was the rambling society; long weekends away on wild, windy moors, youth hostel log fires and playing a simple game with spoons (called ‘Spoons’). Even this was a struggle at the time. Everyone was rather shy (lack of alcohol?), and I had anorexia, which made me permanently cold and tired – not good for enjoying a country walk.

In the Guardian article linked to above, the CEO of Universities UK is quoted as saying that universities were ‘academic, not therapeutic, communities’. I simply do not believe that is is possible or desirable to compartmentalise academic learning in today’s mass HE system. The level of therapeutic intervention I needed at university was possibly beyond what was available on campus; however it is obvious to me that the living on campus enabled – even normalised – my disordered eating and contributed to my social isolation and the worsening of my psychosis.

If we are to have these ideas about the purpose of higher education that looks at the self and our existence in an holistic way, we need to examine how modern institutions are fit for such a purpose and look at the student lifeworld as a whole; not merely curricula. Not being HE-focused, I doubt I’m going to get such an analysis from this book, but I will press on and see what connections are there to be made. Robin Barrow’s university experience (at Oxford in the 60s) would have been very different to mine. He probably had an awesome time. I’m sure he would have been properly fed at least.

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2 Responses to Higher Education and the holistic self

  1. paul martin says:

    I was prompted to get out a similar era (Pelican paperback) book: The Challenge To Education by George Pickering (1967) – yours is 1975. What I found interesting was the sense that the current problems in HE were not new, indeed the author quoted Livingstone (ex VC Queens Belfast) in 1941 describing “a vast gap” in education, and others before him. He thus efficiently lays out the problem’s aspects but does not have a solution apart from talk of Royal Commissions and identifying the need for the will to change. Hmmmmm

    • This has been a common theme in my reading on the EdD. It is particularly frustrating to read of historical events and periods that we have simply not learned from, or that a current state of affairs was predicted decades ago! I do recall a Brian Cox episode that explained how it took several generations to invent the spear… Education is arguably more complex than a spear, but I do worry that we’re actually going backwards – losing sight of what education is for.

      Hey, can we take a step back here guys? Let’s remind ourselves what this object is for! It is for killing things to eat, yes?

      Perhaps as a civilisation we have now developed past the point where we can reach an effective consensus on these matters?

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