Cultural-historical theories of human behaviour suggest that all human activities incorporate inherent contradictions. As efforts are made to resolve these contradictions, such activities evolve and mature over time. How might such theories be applied to education? What are the contradictions associated with education and how do we seek to resolve them? When I reflect on my own practice as an educator, I am aware of contradictory lines of thinking about the purpose of education, as well as contradictions that become evident within different aspects of practice which educators appear to try and resolve in different ways. However, dialectical theory, drawing on the thinking of Hegel and other continental philosophers, suggests that contradictions, brought about by two opposing ideas or ways of doing (let’s call these A and B), are not resolved by simply identifying the truth of one at the expense of the other. Instead, the dialectical challenge is to find a new way of thinking or doing, an emergent reality that represents a synthetic whole which negates neither A nor B, but represents something distinctly different to both A and B—what we might wish to designate as C.
The emergence of option C, which represents a new entity ontologically distinct from its precedents A and B yet has its genesis in both, often represents a significant turning point or paradigm shift in our practice and associated thought. Theologically speaking, the concept of grace represents such an option C, emerging from the dialectical tension between mercy and justice, but bringing them together such that both mercy and justice are united in the one act of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As well, the notion of a resurrected body is a dialectic option C that emerges from the two primary notions of body and soul. The dialectic becomes a powerful rhetorical tool for teaching in general, whether this is teaching the bible or teaching English or mathematics. It begins by setting out the two options which present themselves on first inspection, before suggesting a third which overcomes the limitations of these two options. Of course, the dialectic remains a tool, open to misuse and misappropriation, and simply asserting that C exists and emerges from the dialect involving A and B does not necessarily make it so[i].
What, then, are the contradictions we find in the practice of education? One example is the contradiction between dependence and independence. Education is often described as the process of taking a dependent child and training them to be an independent adult. The typical narrative suggests that dependence needs to give way (eventually) to independence. Dependence and independence would appear to be logically contradictory, and our approach in education is to build their independence, gradually enabling them to be less dependent over time. That is, we resolve this contradiction by negating dependence.
And yet, from a Christian perspective, I don’t think that independence is necessarily what we are trying to achieve. Independence is not a fundamental characteristic of the redeemed humanity in the New Testament—indeed, sometimes it is dependence (on God at least) which is encouraged. Interdependence would be my preferred goal. While there exists an individualistic spirit in our time which sees independence as paramount and the endpoint of education (we talk about independent learners almost every day), what would look different about our practice if we pursued instead the goal of preparing students to be interdependent learners? Interdependence incorporates intellectual humility, and encourages us to engage with others with an openness to learn and an openness to share. Interdependence is essential if we are to continue engaging with others, acknowledging our reliance at times on the expertise of others as we seek to understand complex issues such as climate change, resource management and the current geopolitical realities.
The reality of the coming kingdom of God can provide a framework for resolving some of the contradictions we experience in education—and not only education. Next time a contradiction threatens to contort your area of practice, step back and give it careful consideration: it may be the gateway to a whole new approach.
Dr James Pietsch is the Principal of Inaburra School, Sydney. After studying psychology and mathematics, James undertook a PhD in education at Sydney University, focusing on sociocultural theories of mathematics education. He is married to Margie and was the Dean of Residents at New College from 2003-2009.
[i] One such example of the dialectic being misused is in the theology of F. C. Baur, who suggested that the New Testament emerged from a conflict between Petrine (Jewish) and Pauline (Gentile) interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. One could also point to Marx’s attempt to make the historical facts fit his dialectical theory as another misappropriation.
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