Paul Feyerabend

Education as imposition




A powerful reflection on the maniulation and imposition that is called modern education and Western science.

Source: Paul Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, 1978.



The way in which social problems, problems of energy distribution, ecology, education, care for the old and so on are 'solved' in our societies can be roughly described in the following way. A problem arises. Nothing is done about it. People get concerned. Politicians broadcast this concern. Experts are called in. They develop a plan or a variety of plans. Power-groups with experts of their own effect various modifications until a watered down version is accepted and realized. The role of experts in this process has gradually increased.

Intellectuals have developed theories about the application of science to social problems. 'To get ideas' they ask other intellectuals, or politicians. Only rarely does it occur to them that it is not their business but the business of those immediately concerned to decide the matter. They simply take it for granted that their ideas and those of their colleagues are the only important ones and that people have to adapt to them.

What has this situation got to do with me?

From 1958 on I was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. My function was to carry out the educational policies of the State of California which means I had to teach people what a small group of white intellectuals had decided was knowledge. I hardly ever thought about this function and I would not have taken it very seriously had I been informed. I told the students what I had learned. I arranged the material in a way that seemed plausible and interesting to me - and that was all I did. Of course, I had also some 'ideas of my own' - but these ideas moved in a fairly narrow domain (though some of my friends said even then that I was going batty).

In the years 1964ff Mexicans, Blacks, Indians entered the university as a result of new educational policies. There they sat, partly curious, partly disdainful, partly simply confused hoping to get an 'education'.

What an opportunity for a prophet in search of a following! What an opportunity, my rationalist friends told me, to contribute to the spreading of reason and the improvement of mankind! What a marvellous opportunity for a new wave of enlightenment! I felt very differently.

For it dawned on me that the intricate arguments and the wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeed in enslaving everyone else with their ideas. Who was I to tell these people what and how to think? I did not know their problems though I knew they had many. I was not familiar with their interests, their feelings, their fears though I knew that they were eager to learn.

Were the arid sophistications which philosophers had managed to accumulate over the ages and which liberals had surrounded with schmaltzy phrases to make them palatable the right thing to offer to people who had been robbed of their land, their culture, their dignity and who were now supposed to absorb patiently and then to repeat the anaemic ideas of the mouthpieces of their oh so human captors? They wanted to know, they wanted to learn, they wanted to understand the strange world around them - did they not deserve better nourishment?

Their ancestors had developed cultures of their own, colourful languages, harmonious views of the relation between man and man and man and nature whose remnants are a living criticism of the tendencies of separation, analysis, self-centredness inherent in Western thought. These cultures have important achievements in what is today called sociology, psychology, medicine, they express ideals of life and possibilities of human existence. Yet they were never examined with the respect they deserved except by a small number of outsiders, they were ridiculed and replaced as a matter of course first by the religion of brotherly love and then by the religion of science or else they were defused by a variety of 'interpretations'. Now there was much talk of liberation, of racial equality - but what did it mean?

Did it mean the equality of these traditions and the traditions of the white man? It did not. Equality meant that the members of different races and cultures now had the wonderful chance to participate in the white man's manias, they had the chance to participate in his science, his technology, his medicine, his politics. These were the thoughts that went through my head as I looked at my audience and they made me recoil in revulsion and terror from the task I was supposed to perform. For the task - this now became clear to me - was that of a very refined, very sophisticated slavedriver. And a slavedriver I did not want to be.

Experiences such as these convinced me that intellectual procedures which approach a problem through concepts and abstract from everything else are on the wrong track and I became interested in the reasons for the tremendous power this error has now over minds. I started examining the rise of intellectualism in Ancient Greece and the causes that brought it about. I wanted to know what it is that makes people who have a rich and complex culture fall for dry abstractions and mutilate their traditions, their thought, their language so that they can accommodate the abstractions.

I wanted to know how intellectuals manage to get away with murder - for it is murder, murder of minds and cultures that is committed year in year out at schools, universities, educational missions in foreign countries. The trend must be reversed, I thought, we must start learning from those we have enslaved for they have much to offer and, at any rate, they have the right to live as they see fit even if they are not as pushy about their rights and their views as their Western Conquerors have always been.

In 1964-5 when these ideas first occurred to me I tried to find an intellectual solution to my misgivings that is, I took it for granted that it was up to me and the likes of me to devise educational policies for other people. I envisaged a new kind of education that would live from a rich reservoir of different points of view permitting the choice of traditions most advantageous to the individual. The teacher's task would consist of facilitating the choice, not in replacing it by some 'truth' of his own.

Such a reservoir, I thought, would have much in common with a theatre of ideas as imagined by Piscator [1] and Brecht [2] and it would lead to the development of a great variety of means of presentation. The 'objective' scientific account would be one way of presenting a case, a play another way (remember that for Aristotle tragedy is 'more philosophical' than history because it reveals the structure of the historical process and not only its accidental details) a novel still another way.
Why should knowledge be shown in the garment of academic prose and reasoning?
Had not Plato observed that written sentences in a book are but transitory stages of a complex process of growth that contains gestures, jokes, asides, emotions and had he not tried to catch this process by means of the dialogue? And were there not different forms of knowledge, some much more detailed and realistic than what arose as 'rationalism' in the 7th and 6th century in Greece?

Then there was Dadaism [3]. I had studied Dadaism after the Second World War. What attracted me to this movement was the style its inventors used when not engaged in Dadaistic activities. It was clear, luminous, simple without being banal, precise without being narrow; it was a style adapted to the expression of thought as well as of emotion. I connected this style with the Dadaistic exercises themselves. Assume you tear language apart, you live for days and weeks in a world of cacophonic sounds, jumbled words, nonsensical events. Then, after this preparation, you sit down and write 'the cat is on the mat'.

This simple sentence which we usually utter without thought, like talking machines (and much of our talk is indeed routine) now seems like the creation of an entire world: God said let there be light, and there was light. Nobody in modem times has understood the miracle of language and thought as well as the Dadaists for nobody has been able to imagine, let alone create a world in which they play no role.

Having discovered the nature of a living order, of a reason that is not merely mechanical, the Dadaists soon noticed the deterioration of such an order into routine. They diagnosed the deterioration of language that preceded the First World War and created the mentality that made it possible. After the diagnosis their exercises assumed another, more sinister meaning. They revealed the frightening similarity between the language of the foremost commercial travellers in 'importance', the language of philosophers, politicians, theologians, and brute inarticulation.

The praise of honour, patriotism, truth, rationality, honesty that fills our schools, pulpits, political meetings imperceptibly merges into inarticulation no matter how much it has been wrapped into literary language and no matter how hard its authors try to copy the style of the classics and the authors themselves are in the end hardly distinguishable from a pack of grunting pigs. Is there a way to prevent such deterioration?

I thought there was. I thought that regarding all achievements as transitory, restricted and personal and every truth as created by our love for it and not as 'found' would prevent the deterioration of once promising fairy tales and I also thought that it was necessary to develop a new philosophy or a new religion to give substance to this unsystematic conjecture.




[1] Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) was a theatre director and producer. He stressed the socio-political content of a drama.

[2] Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) was a playwrigth and a poet. Afer the Second War World he was instrumental to establish the theatre company Berliner Ensemble with his wife and collaborator, the actress Helene Weigel.

[3] Dadaism, a movement of avant-garde that emerged in Europe in the early 20th century. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent toward violence, war, and nationalism.


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