Education: Looking Forwards or Backwards

Elena Liotta

We live in a period when universities are facing a variety of crises and there is much talk of reform. In particular there is concern over the attitude of students who today see themselves as consumers who demand a cost-effective and efficient service that will provide them with the necessary skills and qualifications for future employment. In this article I argue that such reforms and discussion should be held in a much wider context, that of social values as a whole and, in particular the education of young children. To redesign university degree courses and carry out research didactic material for minds that have already been made rigid through approaches to early education is very much a case of closing the stable door after the horse has left.

My own experience is that of twenty years of clinical work with adults, in addition to responsibilities for education within local government, and I am convinced that not only a child’s relationship to its parents but the entire conditioning brought about through the wider social environment has an enormous effect on mental health, the development of mature emotional and intellectual attitudes. It is at this level of social attitudes and values that a radical rethinking is needed.

Knowledge management and educational theory may be seen as being “scientific” and “rational”, nevertheless I believe that a major problem exists and one that has its origins in the split between scientific research -i.e. critical thinking and acquisition of knowledge – and the concrete application of this research.

A truly scientific approach to education, and to psychology, should foster honesty in observation, evaluation, recognition of error and adherence to facts. It should be able to confront reality not only though the pseudo-objectivity -of instruments created by non-objective minds, such as tests of all kinds, evaluation scales, an so on,- but also by observing, in a natural and non biased way, the unfolding of the everyday life of people. Why, for example, is there so little emphasis given to adult education, psychological formation and awareness of educators? The connection between the kind of education imposed on children of western societies in the last 50 years and the actual psychological situation of the resulting adults, is never made. Should not this be a scientific aim: to verify the result of the manipulation of variables?

Ironically, I feel that this is not the case when it comes to “scientific” education and psychology. Rather a sort of blurring and confusion of principles has occurred between what is supposed to be objective and the more subjective elements involved. Of course it is also the case that in our modern world that there seems to be no time to observe and evaluate the effects of the changes that are follow each other with increasing speed. These problems becomes particularly serious when we approach disciplines that immediately affect the minds of human beings – such as psychology and education – and even more so when the minds are those of children who do not have alternatives or possibility of choice.

To make a particular critique of the supposed scientific approach to education and psychology – let me take the discovery that, even from birth, children are particularly open and possessed of a variety of competencies. This has brought about the situation whereby educators are constantly seeking to supply stimuli, information, experiences, and anything that will turn children into miniature adults as rapidly as possible. The opposite view would consider that, given the richness and openness of a child’s mind, it does not immediately follow that an external agent – the adult, parent or teacher or other – should stuff all that mental space. Neither does it follow that ‘potentiality’ in intelligence should imply the premature actualization of all its traits.

The emotional area of the mind is, from birth, particularly vulnerable and unformed. Healthy development calls for a gradual and spontaneous unfolding in the presence of adequate relationships. This particular fragility is so critical that it can affect the evolution of intelligence in dramatic ways. If we push a development on one side, we alter the general delicate balance of early relationship and bonding, the general maturation of the nervous system and psychological growth. The results can determine the entire identity of the future adult personality. Self-Identity has delicate roots in sensorial experiences that are tuned in the space-time of the growing infant and child and not in the space-time of the adult. Scientific research should therefore not only be confined to cognitive areas alone but should acknowledge this simple, universal and objective truth of the importance of emotional development. Indeed, it is useless to play lip service to the notion of ’emotional intelligence’ unless educational practice does not change as a consequence.

My long clinical practice with adults as a Jungian psychoanalyst and the parallel experience in the field of education have shown to me how the measurable changes in the style of life have affected the psychological structure and the mental health – both individual and collective – of the contemporary human beings. Family, community, social relations have been transformed by the organization of work and by the consequent setting of urban life. Children have been victimized by the strong and decisive turn that western economy and societies have imposed to the entire word.

This all too rapid and violent uprooting of traditional and historical social settings, as well as the destruction of the natural environment, is the cause of contemporary psychosocial disturbances. As a result, psychological disturbances and serious psychopathologies are steadily increasing. Indeed, if things do not change we are in danger of globalizing neurosis, psychosis, borderline and psychosomatic syndromes beyond their natural incidence. If this situation is to be prevented then education, as a general issue, must be addressed from different perspectives. I am amazed at watching the ways in which the effects of a wrong educational approach during infancy and early childhood are thrown back upon the victims and then symptomatically corrected through medication and without an critical appraisal of the entire situation. As a result experts are helping other adults to chemically calm down children who, in turn, have been hyperactivated by the same adults through all kinds of stimuli, expectations, anxiety contaminations, and who knows what else, including food and environment pollution and other external agents.

Let me give one example, from my own experience, as to how an apparently innocuous change, made in the name of efficiency and rationalization of resources, has had a marked but subtle influence over young minds. This occurred in a territory of distributed minor centers, rural centers, gathered around a main city of 22.000 citizens. A national law, that had been designed to improve the delivery of educational services and provide extra curricular activities, as well as saving money, defined the ratio of children to the number of schools. As a result, a local elementary school had to be closed and the children sent by bus to a larger and more distant school. The children in question lived in a rural environment that provided a wide variety of natural stimuli. In addition there was a strong tradition of family bonding and protection. Nevertheless, and despite protests on the parts of the families involved, children were bussed to the new school.

The story does not end here for, by coincidence, a psychological research survey was being carried out at the same time. This was designed to discover a child’s internal perception of space and time, and the way that related to the external “objective” space and time in which they lived. Those who had traditional lived and gone to school in rural areas and small communities had a strong concordance between their interior conception of space and time and that of the outer world in which they lived, played and worked. However, things were quite different for the newer generation of elementary school children. Even those who lived in the countryside now played very little outside the house. They spent long periods in front of the television, computer, or involved in table games. They moved around by car escorted by their parents, or in special buses. They no longer had a direct experience of the connection body-senses-space-movement-distance and so lost the opportunity of maturing a sense of distance or direction in space. It was a case of moving from one box to another with a corresponding contraction of the sense of time.

To the layperson this may not seem such a drastic change. Yet the alteration of these two categories of space an time affects the stages of psychological development, from concrete, sensory perception to conceptualization, to symbolization and finally to action. The children surveyed were now growing up with a sort of imprinted speed. They had a decreased tolerance of inertial moments. They did not develop psychological qualities necessary to learning, such as patience, tolerance to frustration, to repetition, boredom. They did not learn the spontaneous implementation and correction of errors, nor a global capacity for awareness, let alone for contemplation. Such children became easily agitated, aggressive and unable to play in groups. And these are the very children who, in their late teens are entering out universities. These are the same minds for which were are envisioning university reform. Clearly any consideration of the future of higher education should have its roots in the values of early childhood.

Increasingly children all over the world, no matter if they are in city or country, are living in artificial pseudonatural environments, or in the mental, virtual environment of television, computer games, amusement parks. Children of the affluent world have seen everything and named everything, but touched and had very little real direct experience. And what experience they do have comes in a special laboratory form, the ateliers in classroom, where they ‘make experience’ of the senses! At the moment it is difficult to foresee the middle and long term implications of these changes or to evaluate the preventive action one should take. But intuitively, and based upon experience with adults, psychotherapists know that this is not the path to mental health and balance, to relative freedom from anxiety and stress, and to a holistic life in the world.

This is why, in thinking about education, I am questioning where our horizon should be placed. Is it located in front of us, where one usually looks for the horizon? Or is it behind us, a place where the horizon continues to exist but where we do not normally see it? Having always felt to be progressive I strangely and surprisingly find myself looking for a paradoxical backward or retrospective horizon rather than a forward one, as we usually imagine the future. I call it retrospective because it represents a return to the body and implicitly also to the past – or to put it another way, to the continuity of life. It is represented by the genetic and constitutional equipment of each newborn child, as a new opportunity to respect our basic nature and start again without repeating the same errors: provided, that is, we realize and recognize those errors and name them for what they are. James Hillman speaks of the importance of a ‘growing down’ approach, challenging the idea of progress as accumulation and linear, productive upward movement, typical of the first 20th century.

If not in institutional Academies or in the destructive protest, where and how are we going to find possible solutions to these problems that are surrounding us at this horizon? We can at least begin by talking to each other, horizon-tally. That is, by respecting our own professionality and its limits, daring to question the reality of our work and its shadows, confronting without prejudice our experience and trying to learn from each other. Here at Pari we have been attempting such an experiment. It is a communications laboratory that includes within its a microcosm all the variables and the problems faced by great part of the world today. The point is how and when our reflection will turn into action. Pari may be only one small region, but action is possible in little environments. Pari is where we discuss actions performed in the places where we live and work. But Pari is not an imaginary place. It is a reality, a living example of a place that has integrity and one should carefully consider what to do with it not to ruin this precious quality.