Friday, 1 November 2013

The Cooperative Gestalt

One of the most significant contributions of the Enlightenment is its transformative approach to learning. By shifting the focus from static authority-based teaching to progressive lifelong learning, it enabled us to think and interact with one another in a radically critical and democratic way, which opened up new opportunities to improve our lives.

But just as it has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the Enlightenment, the value of progressive lifelong learning has also been increasingly undermined.

So let us take stock and ask ourselves:
What exactly is distinctive about progressive lifelong learning?
What makes its cultivation of the cooperative gestalt so valuable?
Why are some people against it?
& what can we do to promote it in spite of the obstacles before us?

What is progressive lifelong learning?

Instead of accepting that one individual or group of individuals can claim that by some special privilege they alone can know what ought to be believed, and others must accept on their authority what they are told to believe, progressive lifelong learning assesses and shares ideas on what is to be believed in an on-going, provisional manner that is open to anyone to contribute, question and revise. A hypothesis, which may be upheld at one time because of the weight of probabilities supporting it, can come to be amended or altogether rejected should new evidence and interpretations cast doubt on its reliability.

The value of the Cooperative Gestalt

What makes progressive lifelong learning so valuable is not the production of new knowledge as such. The monumental Encyclopaedia produced by the leading Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century is hardly of much value as a source of knowledge now. Neither is it special in setting out a definitive methodology for acquiring knowledge, or simply being a modernist spirit in seeking to overturn ideas of the past. Its real value lies in cultivating what may be termed the ‘Cooperative Gestalt’, a mindset that disposes those who have embraced it to:
(1) view others without prejudice as fellow human beings with whom one can collaborate on equal terms to pursue shared objectives;
(2) explore with others on what may be believed on the basis of the open exchange of evidence, testimony, and experiments that are available to public scrutiny; and
(3) involve others in making decisions on matters that are not already settled by common consent, under conditions of informed discussions and mutual respect.

Opponents of progressive lifelong learning

The more people interact with others with the Cooperative Gestalt, the more we approximate a truly inclusive society, grounded in solidarity, and helped forward with the shared deliberations of critical minds. But it is precisely because this would undermine the power of certain exclusionary groups to do as they please that progressive lifelong learning has such implacable opponents. From fundamentalists who want to be able to push their unquestionable doctrines, to ‘I’m more than alright, Jack’ plutocrats who want education to serve their narrow profiteering ends, they would like to see progressive lifelong learning fade away. The problem is compounded by muddled relativists who think nothing taught can ever be better or worse than anything else, not to mention the ‘this glass is one-tenth empty’ brigade who belittles everything about the Enlightenment because it did not achieve improvements in every sphere of life over night.

How to support the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt

In order to counter the attempts to marginalise progressive lifelong learning, and promote the cultivation of the Cooperative Gestalt, we need to address the needs, so to speak, of the head, the heart and the hands. The head needs to be reinforced with greater understanding. It is important to explain why it is better to learn continuously in an open and inclusive manner so that we are able to make the most of changing circumstances for the good of all. The heart needs to be stirred with passionate concern. We should explore diverse means – fiction, art, film – to fire up the desire to resist attempts to shut down the cooperative mindset. Last but not least, the hands need the practical tools to bring about changes. We should make use of the many resources available to strengthen the impact of progressive lifelong learning.

(For more information on resources available to help teach the Cooperative Gestalt, see ‘Learning more about Cooperative Gestalt')

[The above is based on the talk given by Henry Tam at the ‘Power of Adult Learning’ conference, 23 October 2013, held at the University of Edinburgh (jointly organised by WEA Scotland, Learning Link Scotland, the Scottish Community Development Centre, Dyslexia Scotland, and Lead Scotland).]

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