This article is based on the Shivangi Verma’s undergraduate research project under the Dr. Jyoti Raina’s supervision. In this piece they interpret American philosopher Eric Fromm’s concepts of having, knowing and being to understand gaps in school curriculum theory and practice.
The French enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau first proposed a romantic view of a child’s nature in which children were regarded as inherently educable. He theorized that children are born endowed with a tendency to learn and a formal school education system is unnecessary. In his educational novel Emile he argues that children are born perfect and it is society that corrupts them with imperfections through a distorted school system. He educates the fictional boy-protagonist named Emile not in a school but in a solitary life in the countryside. In this natural education there was no curriculum, or instruction; no books, no teachers and no examination (1). Of course his novel is only an impracticable utopian ideal yet it continues to be regarded as a cult classic in education. He rejected the prevailing school system of his times not only for its indifference to the child’s nature but also for propensity to corrupt children by social association with the adult members of society. In educational theory, Rousseau continues to be celebrated as the chief architect of child-centered education.
Rousseau’s theory of natural education suggests that education needs to trail nature’s lead by letting childhood enjoy its full share of freedom while following the instinct to learn. The teacher instead of giving precepts must let the child- scholar find them out himself. The role of the teacher, if any, is non-interventionist in the child’s development. His theory of natural education reverberated back in my mind when I studied the existentialist approach in another educational theory course: curriculum studies. Like natural education, the existentialist curriculum does not follow a prescribed subject matter. Instead it does away with texts, instruction and teachers (particularly teacher authority); and locates teachers and students on the same level so as to facilitate an exploration of children’s immediate interests (2). Teachers are not subject matter experts anymore but need to simply be keen observers of children as unique individuals. There is no need for them to be subject specialists anyway since the aim of an existentialist curriculum is personal meaning making. A curriculum therefore cannot be meaningful unless it connects with the student in a deeply personal way (3). It is the learner-child and not the knowledge domains that are considered the center of education. Life, human existence and school curriculum are not separated from each other.
In the process of teacher preparation we were engaged not only with curriculum theory, as mentioned above but also curriculum practice. The latter was in fact the major component of the coursework as most of the final 4th year programme was spent mainly in online teaching at an elementary school. My observation was that in practice the very definition of education via school curricula was acquisition of a given body of pre-defined knowledge (4). Curricular practice was constituted by texts, books and instruction which largely disregarded children’s existential realities like their interests, inclinations and out-of-school knowledge . The aim of the school curriculum was to learn (read rote memorise) fragmented disciplinary knowledge domains for assessment through a system of public examinations (5). The decontextualized textbook centered curriculum eradicated possibilities of children’s meaning-making by learning on their own. There was no practice of a natural education or an existentialist curriculum.
There was a gaping contrast between child-centered curriculum theory and its practice that was otherwise. This isn’t merely an ideological discrepancy but generated a disturbing cognitive dissonance. As if a fog was obscuring my own personal theory of teaching and curriculum. Our search for meaning took a trans-disciplinary path forward to make greater sense of the two contrasting visions. We probed the questions of curriculum against more penetrating realities of human existence, philosophy and society. German-American philosopher Eric Fromm (1900-1980)’s lesser known classic To Have Or To Be? showed us the way (6). The book undertakes an analysis of the two modes of human life: the mode of having and the mode of being. Though the main focus of the book is on the concepts of ‘having’ and ‘being’ mode I was equally struck by its perspective on having knowledge and knowing. This may be because as a student-teacher I am concerned with learning, teaching, conversing and loving. These three concepts- ‘having’, ‘knowing’ and ‘being’; became a riposte through which I navigated through the obscurity of the cognitive fog that had surrounded me in curriculum studies.
Having, Knowing and Being as Modes of Life
The concept of having helps us to materialize objects, thoughts and experiences in our lives. It tends to make individuals hang on to his/her beliefs rather than accepting the other perspectives. Our happiness is smoothed by what we own, what we achieve and what we have acquired. We only tend to value our goals and our possessions. In the having mode of existence my relationship to objects, ideas and my occupation is acquisitive, controlling and self-aggrandizing.
The idea of being is fundamentally different from that of having. It aims to provide life an enlarged meaning that enriches our satisfaction with ourselves notwithstanding what we collect. As a mode of everyday living it has a sense of independence, freedom and inwardness. Its relationship with having is antagonistic. Only to the extent that we decrease the mode of having, cease the quest for identity, psychological security and social achievement; can being emerge. Being is at the heart of the individual’s tendency to love, progress and advance toward self-actualization.
The concept of knowing helps us to penetrate through the surface in order to arrive at the deeper roots. Knowing something means that the knower has experienced knowledge through a meaning-making process. When we shift from acquiring information to internalizing it and earn its ownership as knowledge, then we say that we have understood the art of knowing.
This distinguishes the three in a fundamental way. ‘Having knowledge is taking and keeping possession of available knowledge (information); knowing is functional and part of the process of productive thinking’ …‘Having refers to things and things are fixed and describable. Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable. The mode of being has at its prerequisite independence, freedom, and the presence of critical reason’.
Having, knowing and being gaze on school curriculum
The curriculum practice that I observed as a student-teacher intern was framed in the having mode. Curricular knowledge was practiced almost like an object to be possessed. Moreover the prescribed texts are viewed as authoritative sources of knowledge in a having curriculum framework, waiting for acquisition. Learning consisted of an accumulation of correct answers to be reproduced in a testing situation to demonstrate children’s ownership of knowledge. This approach ignores children’s lived experiences and personal knowledge which does not foster the processes of knowing. My classroom observations during the school internship highlighted to me the alienation between children’s lives and school curriculum as practiced by the teachers of the school. Coupled with this the school disciplinary curriculum domains were fragmented. In language education for example I observed lessons where topics like adjectives, prepositions or pronouns which are in fact aspects of children’s everyday language were taught disjointedly mainly by referring to exemplar sentences from puritanical grammar textbooks. Such an approach not only alienates children from the curriculum but also denies the possibility for co-creation of knowledge by letting the teacher also learn from the students (7). During classroom observations I also noted that the teacher would only come to the online class, teach and go. Children would speak only when they were asked to which does not nurture knowing curriculum mode. In recognition of children’s need to know I prepared a lesson based on a picture story titled ‘Clever Tailor’; for teaching adjectives. The story was about the innovative work of a very adroit tailor who redesigns his old, colourful turbans (a common head covering based on cloth winding worn by Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men) into some new clothes for his wife and children. The story had scope to incorporate several adjectives which made it intellectually exciting for children since they can see men around them wearing turbans of different varieties. However my knowing approach did not align well with the centralized curriculum of tightly defined grammar topics in an examination oriented school education system of our country. The long hours this knowing process took up soon turned into a curriculum burden. This brought to the fore a realization that our prescribed curriculum does not provide adequate space for children’s need to know. Being curriculum simply means to enjoy the delight of the knowledge and live it. The curriculum practice consists of formal teaching and textual learning with minor non-scholastic side-shows. This does not facilitate children to understand the total process of their own growth and development. So where is the scope for being in curriculum practice?
Understanding gaps in curriculum theory and practice
I turned to mainstream philosophy in order to understand the gap between a child-centered curriculum theory and the knowledge-centered curriculum practice. The American philosophical concepts of having, knowing and being; proposed more than 50 years ago; provided a useful gaze. The curriculum teaches children in school the having that the sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 degrees, every sentence has a subject and a predicate and that the earth is at the center of the solar system. It never stops to being in the unique moment of the now, one that was never before where each ray of light travels just once. Why must students and teachers always learn or teach? Why can’t they sometimes simply be?