Pedagogy of the Empowered
The Baha’i world has been learning how to use an education program to raise capacity in individuals and populations to take charge of their own spiritual, social, and intellectual development and to build communities that understand the dynamic coherence of material and spiritual prosperity. Based on the conviction of the nobility of the human being, on the oneness of humankind, and on the principle that science and religion are two complementary systems of knowledge and practice by which civilization advances, this educational system regards “man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value”, and believes that “education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”
Of course, we know that our perceptions are built upon our assumptions. Thus, as first glance, an onlooker might perceive simplicity, tangentiality, indoctrination, limitation, rote learning, or a whole list of other problems. Perhaps this perception is biased by assumptions and values adopted by society’s conceptions of education – which breed passivity and facilitate oppression. And perhaps another look might help.
Current models of education are information based. They consider a human being as an empty receptacle waiting to be passively filled with information and technical skills necessary to fill positions in an economic system to maintain the status quo. They aim to provide enough thoughtfulness that a high-school graduate can vote in an election, yet not so much thoughtfulness that he will question the political system. Education as society knows it promotes a false-dichotomy of right/wrong in order to allow for a highly simple method of evaluation, which conveniently can be capitalized (pun intended) by the economic system to brainwash consumers to buy the “right” product over the rest. And current systems perpetuate a fragmented view of reality in order to make the minds of their graduates easily able to be controlled by those with power, yet build in enough curricular association to prevent complete disintegration of what holds together various disciplines.
The Ruhi Institute, which provides a highly successful example of a set of curriculum that adopts an entirely different set of assumptions about human nature and education – some which are mentioned in the first paragraph. Its foundation is the Word of God as revealed by Baha’u’llah. Regarding its pedagogy, here are a few thoughts:
– Ruhi curriculum is not content and information based, but rather concept based. The purpose is not to impart information but to advance understanding about concepts. If one just takes a glance at the material, under the assumption of information-provision, one might think “there isn’t anything in here I didn’t already know, any new information, any dates or facts”, and one might perceive it too simple. However, the purpose of human life is to achieve understanding: “…the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding…” and “Man’s distinction lieth not in ornaments or wealth, but rather in virtuous behavior and true understanding.” To understand is a verb, and its corresponding subject is the human mind. It’s object is a concept. Through advancing understanding, the human mind is able to generate insights into reality; to produce knowledge, sciences, and arts; to effect a change of cultural; and to advance civilization. By imparting information, the mind simply gets information. Paradoxically, then, curriculum based on facts are actually more simplistic.
– The questions in the Ruhi curriculum are designed to engage the participants with the text. At first glance, a fill-in-the-blank question may be simplistic, rote, mindless even. Under current educational assumptions, it may seem very low-level. However, the purpose of education is to advance understanding and enable participants to generate insights from the ocean of the Revelation. In order to do this, in order to discover pearls in an ocean, one must interact with the words and concepts. Take math as an example. Simply reading 3+4+7=14, and then discussing it, might not advance understanding about numbers. If the goal was information, perhaps one could waste a lifetime memorizing the sums of various combinations of numbers. However, 3+x+7=14 requires operation; requires interacting with the numbers. What kind of integer, when added to 3 and 7 make 14? What kind of deeds lead to the betterment of the world? This type of operation can then grow in complexity. 3x+5=6x-7. And so on. It is through operations, through interaction, through engaging, that someone learns the concepts behind numbers, and similarly the concepts within the Word of God.
– The true/false questions can also be misperceived under current educational assumptions. Society’s educational models are based upon a system of evaluation founded on a right/wrong dichotomy. In this paradigm, a true/false question is meant to evaluate the test-taker to see if they recalled the information correctly, and to see if they got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. However, again, the questions in the Ruhi curriculum are carefully designed to advance understanding. It breaks down current paradigms by creating true/false questions which are ambiguous, thus opening up space where understanding can be advanced in all participants through a discourse – in which people of all backgrounds of mind can advance understanding on equal footing, supporting each other’s advance and respectful of the knowledge that each one possesses at any given moment, and in which all can benefit from a diversity of perspectives. Under an anachronistic evaluation model of education, however, ambiguous true/false questions just seem poorly worded.
– Humanity is one. And the human being is one. Thus, all aspects of the human being are one. And all fields of human endeavor are one – a collective investigation of one underlying reality. Over time, human society has successfully fragmented educational disciplines (as it has fragmented all aspects of life). It has become popular to claim a multi-disciplinary approach to education, yet all current education does is associate disciplines together. When studying physics, a series of math problems about gravity are presented, as a way to integrate math and physics – but the result is only an association (and hard math problems). True integration occurs when education revolves around the understanding of concepts, the acquisition and generation of knowledge, the development of skills and attitudes, the formation of habits, the strengthening of qualities, all related to performing an act of service. Here, service becomes the key to coherence and integration – the balance. Because in the end, isn’t the purpose of education to reveal the gems of an individual and enable mankind to benefit?
In the curriculum of the Ruhi Institute we have a potent example of how education can empower the masses of humanity to take charge of their own development and contribute to the establishment of a new world civilization – a pedagogy of the empowered.