Western education may be defined in various ways.
Metaphysical and Epistemic Description
One of these methods of definition is in terms of the nature and sources of the metaphysical and epistemic roots of knowledge that structure an educational curriculum.
Structural Character of Cognitive Systems
By 'nature' in reference to a body of knowledge or a structure of ideas, I refer to the contents of a body of knowledge in terms of an organisation of a body of ideas into a correlative unit. This involves a consideration of the individual character of each of these ideas and the manner in which they are interrelated within the cognitive system. When you have such a cohesive unit, designed to be used as a template guiding the development of further knowledge, you have a cognitive system. Such cognitive systems are at the centre of educational systems. Various civilisations, at various points in their history, may be defined in terms of the formal and informal development and application of the cognitive systems privileged by that civilisation.
Metaphysical and Epistemic Roots
By ‘metaphysical roots’, I refer to the conception of the nature of the cosmos that underlies an educational curriculum. With reference to metaphysics, I mean ideas about the nature of existence, in what sense a phenomenon can be said to exist and the relationship between the various existents or forms of being that constitute the cosmos. Every educational curriculum can be described as structured in terms of a metaphysical framework. That metaphysical framework demonstrates a cognitive, social and even geo-political history.
In referring to epistemic roots’, I refer to the ideas and practices about the nature of knowledge, how to assess the validity of knowledge claims and apply knowledge that are privileged in an educational curriculum. These epistemic roots again demonstrate a cognitive, social and geo-political history.
One could describe the current metaphysical roots of Western education and perhaps even of Western society as founded in the European Enlightenment, as demonstrated by a focus on the human being as 'the measure of all things', as the central point of reference for understanding the cosmos. The conception of the human being that is privileged within this scheme is again one that achieved prominence in the Enlightenment, a human person defined primarily by their powers of reason.
That observation leads to the epistemic roots of Western education. The epistemic roots of Western education consist in a focus on the publicly assessable use of reason as the primary method for arriving at knowledge. By publicly assessable, I mean that the use of reason in such contexts should be such as to be capable of assessment by others using their own reason.
Pervasiveness of and Selectivity in the Metaphysical and Epistemic Roots
of Western Education
These metaphysical and epistemic conceptions are so fundamental to contemporary Western scholarship and education that they are often invisible in terms of being questioned by those who practice them. They are challenged from time to time, however. Examples of this are efforts to contextualise the use of reason by post-modernists, by demonstrating the relationship between mind and body and the role of the non-rational, along with other examples across the centuries.
The fact that these metaphysical and epistemic conceptions are not automatic but represent choices made out of a set of possibilities is demonstrated by the fact the actual metaphysical and epistemic conceptions that inform and are demonstrated in the conclusions of the work of seminal figures in Western are not always identical with what I have just described as central to Western thought. The current conceptions that define Western education were not always dominant at various periods of Western history, as in the Middle Ages, for example.
Descartes, Newton, Plato, Kant, Johannes, Kepler, among others, cannot be described purely in terms of those metaphysical and epistemic conceptions, and yet, the educational system to which they have become central is based on those metaphysical and epistemic roots that represent only an attenuated form of their multi-faceted achievement.
Geography and Race
One could also describe an educational system that characterises a civilisation, in this case, Westerrn civilisation, in terms of the geographical locations and races of the figures subsumed within and privileged by that educational system. With reference to Western education, to the best of my knowledge, its seminal figures in terms of ideas about the nature of the cosmos and the character of knowledge are fundamentally European. This tradition has been carried beyond Europe through migration and colonialism, to North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia. I don't know anything about education and scholarship in South America so I can't comment on that sub-continent.
Developments since the closing years of the twentieth century have introduced North Americans, Asians and Africans into the canon of Western scholarship but I doubt if these new figures have made fundamental changes to the conceptions of the nature of the universe and the character of knowledge established by European thought. I would need to know more about these developments, though, to adequately assess the degree to which this is true, which I think it is.
Seeming exceptions to this description of the foundations of Western thought and Western education as being in Europe, Europe as it existed before the emergence of a multicultural concentration of thinkers and writers in European society could be described as reinforcing this argument by demonstrating strategies of selection and assimilation through which Western scholarship and education has defined itself as a distinct brand.
St. Augustine of Hippo
Such exceptions would seem to be, for example, St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African scholar and man of religion who occupies a seminal position in various fields of Western thought where he has been a point of reference since he passed away in the 5th century. No comprehensive survey of various branches of Christian theology, of aesthetics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, autobiography and the philosophy of history in the Western tradition is complete without a discussion of Augustine's consistent influence on European scholars and writers, an influence that is reflected in the manner in which these European thinkers have shaped Western thought.
Augustine's influence on European thought, the ground of Western thought, was possible because Augustine was thoroughly assimilated to Christian civilisation as it existed within and beyond Europe as propagated by the Roman Empire, of which Augustine was a member in his native Tagaste and Hippo, where he was bishop, a region described as in present day Tunisia. This assimilation involved his being steeped in classical European thought and the dominant European religion of his time, Christianity, as represented by classical mythology and philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism, which he transmuted in contact with the Bible and other fundamentals of Christianity, an assimilation also demonstrated in what is described as his magnificent Latin style, Latin being of course the official language of the Roman Empire, an assimilation also evident in his identification with the European metropolis as a point of reference, as shown by his pilgrimage to see his much admired Bishop Ambrose in Milan.
Augustine may therefore be described as thoroughly Europeanised. In an era before the description of colonised peoples, particularly Africans, as not worthy of learning from by the coloniser, Augustine's Europeanisation enabled his assimilation within European thought from as late as Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century to as recent as Martin Heidegger in the mid-twentieth century.
Another seeming exception is the transmission of ancient Greek thought to Europe in the Middle Ages by the Arab scholars. Western scholars assimilated the Arabic contribution but these Arab scholars did not subsequently play a significant role in Western philosophy. An exception to this blanking out could be Ibn Sīnā,, better known as Avicenna, whose pioneering work in medicine seems to have been subsumed into Western medicine.
Other seeming exceptions are in mathematics, where insights from various civilisations have been interpreted by Western science and their sources acknowledged. That acknowledgement, however, seems to still privilege Western and particularly European scholars as the foundation of what is known as mathematics in the modern sense. I don't know enough about mathematics to know if this view can be challenged. . There are non-Western mathematicians in the more recent mathematical canon, like Ramanujan, but they seem few to me.
I am not informed enough on the sciences to give a thumbnail survey on them in relation to those issues but I suspect that the same point might hold there.
Selectivity in the Development of Western Education
Western valorisng of Western civilisation through the character of its educational system has been central to the creation of a body of knowledge and of strategies for disseminating knowledge that can be correctly described as Western education.
This process of valorising one's own civilisation by excluding ideas and achievements from other civilisations in the process of building one's own educational system emerged for a number of reasons.
These reasons could be described as including lack of access to information about other civilisations, difficulties of understanding those civilisations and relating them to the social and individual experiences of Europeans, whose history is at the centre of Western education, as well as efforts to valorise Western civilisation at the expense of other civilisations, along with what seems to be a process of selection from the achievements of seminal figures of Western thought, who could be described as encapsulating a multi-faceted scope of achievement that their descendants were not able to integrate in its entirety but could assimilate only piecemeal into Western education as it developed over the centuries.
The selections eventually arrived at from the works of these seminal figures and emphasised in the educational system can be described as arrived at through various processes, one being through the outcome of battles for legitimacy between various cognitive paradigms, paradigms defined in terms of particular metaphysical and epistemic perspectives and their related cognitive histories.
Changes might be emerging to these paradigms, as represented, for example, by the presence of Asian thought in various disciplines, as in philosophy of mind and neuroscience.
Examples of these are Self, No Self? : Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological and Indian Traditions, published by Oxford UP( 2010) , The Measure of Things: by David Cooper, which draws on Buddhist and European secular philosophers, again published by Oxford UP (2002) and Ornella Corazza's essays and her book Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection published by Routledge (2008) which draw significantly on Japanese philosophy. Corazza describes her research as to developing " new strategies to enhance our lifestyle by bridging science and Oriental traditions."
For these initiatives to be described as significantly affecting Western thought would require not only discussion of them in isolation from European roots of the Western tradition, which might have been the position before the last 50 years or more, to the recent correlative discussion represented by the two Oxford UP books, to rethinking the foundational ideas of inherent in this educational system, as Corazza seems to be doing, all the way to creating curricula that reflect such re-evaluations in terms of how people are thought to search for and validate knowledge.
An educational system based on different metaphysical and epistemic conceptions, drawing from a different style of privileging cognitive history, could approach the entire body of global knowledge differently.
The Potential of India
Such systems might emerge in India, for example, which is engaged in vigorous publishing of all kinds of books, and republishes under licence books on India published in the West and sells and exports these books at cheaper prices than the Western originals – the West in this instance being European and North American, particularly US publishing companies.
Perhaps the Indians will develop a system that correlates their own indigenous educational systems with the Western system they got through colonisation by England.
The perspectives expressed in this essay might be simplistic in some ways, but they could be useful for characterising the relevant issues.
17 January 2012