A Connective Philosophy of Education
What is There to Teaching in Teaching?
By Dr. Peter Calvo
Problems in modem educational theories can be identified as the conflict between techniques and fundamental aims, between methods of operation and first principles. Heavy emphasis on what has been perceived as “scientific facts” has denuded the world of education of the ability to answer the basic questions of philosophy that are central to a balanced development of the mind in any discipline. New advances in educational techniques have placed enormous pressures on universities and other centers of learning to construct programs of teaching based on new scientific knowledge. In some ways, this may not be a bad thing in itself. However, too great a reliance on this kind of methodology is bound to lead to catastrophic consequences, if it is used to dictate the nature and scope of the teaching agenda at the expense of the realization of the wider, and in many ways more important, educational objectives. If “new technology” is used to rewrite educational programs in terms of “controlled variables,” “objective criteria” and “calculus of skills,” it will merely lead to a narrowing of opportunities open to the creative mind and a serious decline in educational standards.
It is clear that if we are to understand the learning and the educational process in any depth at all, we must be able to construct for special study a system of belief that is inherent in human beings from the earliest age and that is interactive with a range of other phenomena in the process of intellectual growth. Such a system would be concerned with the study of educational competence and performance. These are qualitative phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of mere techniques, statistical inference or behavioral semiotics. A philosophy of education ought to be concerned with the qualities of the mind that are involved in the creative act of intelligence, thought and feeling. It ought to be concerned with the properties of normal intelligence used for the expression of ideas characteristic of genuine human reality.
It was Naom Chomsky who in a series of path-breaking works, in the post-war period, established the belief about certain universal and innate human competencies. At a time when the world might have fallen prey to an electronic jungle of information-processing, robotics and cybernetics, Chomsky infused the field with his rationalist and egalitarian idea that the mind is “species-specific” and transcultural; that it has an innate capacity for sorting, classification and meaning. This became the prime-mover in the cognitive revolution that was based on Chomsky’s thesis that there is an innate and universal grammar that allows infants to learn any language with remarkable ease. Although this was a revolutionary idea at the time, it is now generally accepted as a fact and as the basis for a comprehensive model of the mind.
What emerged from Chomsky’s neo-classical work was that the human mind has many competencies or distinct modules that are brought into play in understanding the world through the operation of the universal grammar. Put somewhat differently, the mind has a wide variety of innate capacities, each designed for performance of specific tasks.
It may be argued that Chomsky’s system points to an anthropological model of learning, using anthropology in its earlier form, meaning humanology. In this latter sense, Chomsky ensured that the theory of human understanding would be firmly based on mental abilities specific and common to all human beings. Such an anthropological system of learning starts from the assumption that there are certain general, complex and important truths about all members of our species.
It must, however, be immediately understood that this anthropological derivation from Chomsky’s work, has nothing to do with ethnography of any kind. It has nothing to do with those entrancing ethno-cultural clinics that thrive in all sorts of disciplines, particularly in music. If we pose the question, “What is it about our species that makes learning possible?”, we would have taken the first step towards an anthropology of education defined in the above sense. If this anthropological derivation of Chomsky’s analysis is correct, then it must mean that there are first-principle educational categories that are shared by all peoples; that there are universal competencies. Free-falling bodies accelerate to earth at a rate of 32 feet per second squared; Pythagoras’s theorem; the first three minutes of the universe; the origin of species; the line of a melody; or the image in the granite; these can be shared and “species-specific” innate abilities. Such innate abilities are preconditions for the acquisition and development of knowledge.
To formulate a philosophy of education based on such innate abilities, would require a clear distinction between the ability to explain the interaction of physical bodies (techniques) and the ability to explain the basic properties of thought (the creative act). This is what Chomsky would probably call the quality, and not the degree of complexity of the mind. To take the inner landscape of the mind as it is, the mind inexorably travels along its learning path on two distinct levels. On one level, it examines, sorts out and absorbs the corporeal body or physical relationships in an infinite series of taxonomic observations. This is the “surface structure” or the technology of understanding. For example, using a parallel argument to that of Chomsky’s, statement “the immortal Beethoven created the incandescent C sharp minor” consists, in terms of its corporeal structure, of the subject ‘The immortal Beethoven” and the predicate “created the incandescent C sharp minor.” This is the surface structure of the syntax relating to a physical sound in the English language. But once this sound is produced, the mind travels along a second level of perception that relates to the meaning of the sound, at once a deep and limitless world of creative interpretation. This is the “deep structure,” or the universe of meaning. The deep structure in the above example, for instance, contains four propositions: “that Beethoven is immortal, “that he created the C sharp minor,” “that the C sharp minor is incandescent” and “that it is not possible to get too close to Beethoven’s C sharp minor.” These are unspoken propositions whose interrelationship forms the deep structure of the physical sound.
The two levels of learning, sound and meaning, are brought together by certain mental operations that can be called connective transformations. These transformational operations are concrete mental operations carried out by the mind connecting deep and surface structures together, bringing the world of technology to the world of meaning. The transformational link, therefore, consists of generative principles that connect the physical world to the creative world. Putting the matter differently, the mind possesses its own generative and universal grammar with infinite interpretative powers in an unending sequence of creation. The mind makes “infinite use of finite means.” Hence, a connective philosophy of education.
A system of education based on these principles must have rules and methods that delineate deep and surface structures and the transformational relation between them. The study of such a system is the study of human intellectual capacities. In principle, it should be possible, on this basis, to construct the content and methodology of teaching in every discipline. This educational theory would aim to achieve two things: to establish the rules that constitute learning in any particular field and to determine the principles that govern the rules. This will amount to an acquisition model.
An Acquisition Model of Education
To the question, “What is it about us that makes learning possible?”, this acquisition-educational model provides an immediate answer. Because we have the ability to connect innate capacity to acquisition of knowledge through the physical-meaning-transformation nexus in the normal operations of the mind. The more balanced the nexus the more fruitful the acquisition process. An educational program that neglects the creative aspects of acquisition, neglects the fundamental properties of the mind. When the formal unity of these parts breaks down or disappears, the educational system is dead, dying or chronically deficient. When the content and methodology of teaching ignores or is ignorant of this innate intellectual schematism that determines the degree and quality of acquisition, then the educational system falls on its face in failure.
The model of education presented here starts by asking, “What is acquired?” and moves from there to a study of acquisition. Alternatively, the question “What is learned?” leads to the study of learning. Put more differently still, the educational structure should be inclusive enough to account for the acquisition of knowledge and yet not so inclusive as to be incompatible with innate capacities. This supports the conclusion that intrinsic organization plays a very great role in education.
If teaching is what teachers do, then these conclusions are relevant to teaching in all domains of human learning. Indeed, given the deeper structures, fundamental mechanisms and universal principles of this system, the organization of educational programs should differ very little, despite considerable local diversities.
Taking music as an example, a complete teaching program can be devised on the basis of this neo-classical model of education. I have dealt with this topic in a slightly different context elsewhere and do not wish to repeat the argument here. (The Foundations of Musical Intellect, Guitar International, December 1990). However, some general comments can be made. Education in music, as in other areas of learning, is an indivisible process. For example, the fundamental categories of music are sound, form and number. These are shared classification or basic-level categories of music that are shared by people everywhere. At higher levels of musical experience there are sub-categories and groupings of a more specific kind, but the basic-level categories have a universal presence. Messiaen’ s bird songs of the central valleys of France may have a certain tribal and specific meaning for the composer, formulated in his own musical language, but the essential basic-level bird song of a crow is coextensive with anyone else’s crow song anywhere else, and appreciated as such immediately as recognizable sounds. This is innate music which needs musical grammar for its full expression.
In terms of the general model of education shown previously, the derived musical model would have musical grammar as surface structure and musical meaning for deep structure and performance for acquisition.
A Model of Teaching Music
There is a universal and innate grammar of music that acts as a precondition for human musical abilities, knowledge and skills. The elements defining deep and surface structures in music are such phenomena as talent, intuitive perception, imagination and creation on the one hand and technique, memorization, musical syntax and imitation on the other. The latter is a matter of musical technology, the former a universe of musical meaning. There is not just one grammatical machine within the mind to achieve this competency in the musical language, but many cognitive modules that realize this end.
The purpose of musical education is to assist modules within the mind, designed for specifics, to come to full fruition or working order; to help the built-in cognitive skill to sort out musical processes and tradition. Creative teaching would require taking the indivisibility of this framework as one of its first principles. It is necessary for teaching to advance simultaneously along the entire system, if the deep aesthetic and spiritual results necessary for inner musical freedom are to be achieved.
A complete philosophy of education is indispensable for effective teaching and transmission of knowledge, ideas and skills. However, there will always be an infinite amount of musical knowledge of which man cannot always be conscious. Infinite number of melodies, languages and forms waiting to be carved out of the same granite that Beethoven’s 5th was. As Kierkegaard said, “Man is always more than he knows about himself.” And music, surely, will always be more than man will ever know about it. That, certainly, is a happy conclusion.
Dr. Peter Calvo founded the Australian Institute of Guitar in 1969. Since then the Institute has rapidly become a focal point for teaching and performance.
Currently, apart from teaching, Peter also devotes much time to composition for the guitar, including 90 pieces for the volume The Art of the Guitar, Three Miniature Suites for two guitars and Suite Eclectica for solo guitar