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Navigating the Complexities of Education

(Note: The following is a long extract from E.F. Schumacher’s ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ relevant to this blog’s discussion on education.)


Take a design problem—say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered, which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is simply ‘the answer’—a bicycle. Why is this answer so stable in time? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe—laws at the level of inanimate nature.


I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you study them, the more the answers converge. They may be classified into ‘convergent problem solved’ and ‘convergent problem as yet unsolved’. The words ‘as yet’ are important; for there is no reason, in principle, why they should not be solved some day.


children playing in school

It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people set out to study a problem and come up with answers that contradict one another. For example, life presents us with the human problem of how to educate our children. We ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them tell us this: Education is the process by which existing culture is passed on to the next generation. Those who have (or are supposed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. This is quite clear, and implies that there must be a situation of authority and discipline.


Now, another group of our advisers says this: ‘Education is nothing more or less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, who is concerned to make available good, healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human being can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.’ Education, in other words, as seen by this second group, calls for the establishment not of discipline and obedience, but of the greatest possible freedom.


Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true, its opposite cannot be true at the same time. It also insists that, if a thing is good, more of it will be better. Here, however, we have a very typical and very basic problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, ‘straight-line’ logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.


There is no solution—and yet, some educators are better than others. How do they do it? One way to find out is to ask them. ‘Look here,’ they might say, ‘all this is far too clever for me. The point is: You must love the little horrors.’ Love, empathy, understanding, compassion—these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilise these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently: that requires a high level of self-awareness, and that makes a great educator.

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