Education and dialogue have gone together from the beginning. If we take a look at the history of both eastern and western civilizations, we see that their most formative periods were characterized by the sense of eager questioning that is at the heart of the dialogical process. Dialogue, which in principle is a conversation between two or more people, begins with a sense of probing and sharing. Dialogue cannot be separated from the search for truth, just as truth cannot be divorced from the sense of order and beauty. Dialogue is a process of communication whose essence is the unfolding and sharing of meaning. This meaning may be part of an accepted body of knowledge or it may be something undiscovered or in the making. Being heuristic in nature, the dialogue process involves an active participation in learning. Since this kind of participatory learning can only take place in freedom, dialogue is not a process that can be dominated by authority. Its practice is guided by a universal concern with the totality of learning, which is the whole of existence, and it is not aimed at achieving any kind of conformity. Such an approach requires not only a measure of objectivity and clarity in thinking but a quality of sensitivity to the whole movement of communication as it reveals both the facts concerning the matter under discussion and the inner responses of the participating individuals. Such a broad scope and open-ended structure imbue the dialogue process with a high creative potential.
Education, which currently is mostly in the hands of the State, has been entrusted with the formation of capable and responsible citizens who can then take on the different functions needed to sustain and improve the general welfare of society. Such an aim, which is now fast becoming universal, might be defined as a process of socialization, with its pragmatic emphasis on efficiency and progress along scientific, technological and economic lines. Such progress depends on the cultivation of capacity and the accumulation of knowledge, both of which, it is hoped, will be guided by an overall ethical concern. While socialization essentially involves a measure of conformity to the given collective setting, the individual is nonetheless given pride of place in terms of his contribution and achievement. Not only is such an approach driven by the ingrained evolutionary will to survive but also by the search for social status and personal success. These psychobiological elements infuse the whole process with the sense of an overwhelming necessity, both in physical terms as well as in the pursuit of the socially approved ego-ideal.
Knowledge has come to be seen as the key to the overall development of the so-called modern world and the mainstay of its living standards. As a result, education has been turned into the primary channel for the transmission and cultivation of knowledge. In the educational context knowledge generally refers to the field of information that constitutes the wide scope of graded academic studies as well as the value systems involved in the given cultural context. Human society seems to have evolved in the belief that the greater our knowledge the better equipped we will be to deal with both the practical matters of survival as well as the ethical implications of living. The drive for knowledge has not only been motivated by these aims of material and moral order but by the curiosity to ascertain the nature of things independently of their being of any use to us. The importance of this knowledge cannot be underestimated, as without such a gathering of facts there is no ground for objective thinking. It has also been assumed, not without reason that the logical order of thought is akin to the natural causation of phenomena, thought being the abstract reflection of a deeper universal intelligence which is at the source both of nature and of consciousness. In this view the logic of thought would be a mental reflection of the Logos at the very origin of creation. This kind of assumption was at least implicit in the whole Hellenistic stream of culture that informs the development of Western civilization to this day. Thus in this stream, thought and intelligence have been closely identified, the intellect being the faculty of factual, sane and rational thought whose very precision is not only capable of establishing internally consistent epistemological systems but also of opening the way to insight by way of dialectical inquiry.
It is interesting to note that dialectical inquiry, which is at the heart of Socratic or Platonic dialogue, proceeds by means of challenging one assumption after another. Most thinking, whether in science or in the mundane business of daily life, proceeds from assumptions, which are the hypothetical foundations on which all subsequent thinking is based. These tend to be of the nature of universal statements, i.e. pertaining to the whole of a given set of phenomena whose relevant character is thus encapsulated and made to serve the deductive process that deals with its concretely identifiable instances. Every general system of thought is structured along these lines, from classical Euclidean geometry to modern constitutional governments, from economic systems to religious creeds. The premises, considered either self-evident or else sanctioned by a superior and unquestionable authority, become the determining factors of the necessary consequences, be they constructive or destructive. But this is what we generally mean by thinking, which is therefore essentially a conditional system whose unexamined foundations can lead to dangerous states of sustained incoherence, as in the whole field of religious and nationalistic ideation and belief. This blind operation of thought is what would make an unexamined life not worth living, bound as it is in fragmentation and sorrow. This other view of dialogue, therefore, constitutes the needful examination of the assumptions on which our current collective and individual thinking, with its feelings, is based.
When carried to a sufficient depth and with due intensity, this process of questioning the suppositional ground of thinking leads to an eventual impasse, when the known can no longer answer. It is at this point that the whole movement of dialogue becomes truly alive and creative. Then the answer can come only from the question itself as it is unfolded in the dialogical process. This opens the way for direct perception or insight to take place, a perception not dependent on what has been previously known, though it may be capable of translation into knowledge. Such perception can be said to be the proper realm of intelligence and such intelligence can be said to be the very essence of the learning process, therefore of the truly mathematical. This is the implicit journey of inward freedom away from the shadow play in the cave of knowledge to the light of direct seeing. This process of creative learning and insight, which is unfolded in dialogue, is also at the heart of all holistic education.
Insight might be defined as the active principle of intelligence in any sphere of life. It may involve some degree of recognition, but in essence it goes beyond the operation of the known. Science itself has moved on to deeper levels of understanding by means of insight into its own specific fields. Art and religion have done likewise. It is in the quality of insight that the infinite freedom and wholeness of learning finds its concrete manifestation. This is what, in my view, leads someone like K to deny the connection between learning and the gathering of knowledge, be it through book reading or direct experience.
Both Einstein and K were unanimous and definite in their diagnosis that knowledge is dead. Such an apodictic statement represents a tremendous challenge not only for the emphasis on knowledge in education but for the whole psychological structure of human consciousness as currently grounded in identification. Knowledge has its own place and validity, of course, as is daily demonstrated in the most common of tasks. Without a proper background of information and training, we would find it hard to manage in our predominantly cognitive world. But in this view living in knowledge, by knowledge and for knowledge is tantamount to living on the ashes of what has been and, therefore, not living at all. If to the inherent death of knowledge we add the binding of the psychological self to particular provinces of the known and its survivalist strategies of the search for pleasure, security and becoming, then we can hardly be surprised that our individual and collective aims should prove to be even deadlier. For knowledge is power, both in the practical sense of enabling us to do things as well as in the cruel intent of lording it over others. This view of knowledge that includes not only the aspect of received information, opinion and belief but also constitutes the very reality of our psychological identity necessarily involves the dialogical self-inquiry that opens the way to insight into the nature of the psyche; it is on this understanding that the creative wholeness and integrity of humanity depends.
It has been known since antiquity that there will be no peace in the world unless human beings become truly wise, which means until we understand ourselves and the proper place of knowledge and awaken the insight into the very nature of the good. The good is the whole and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Knowledge and the thinking-feeling derived from it are essentially parts. In fact, they belong to the level of the material process, which in principle would make them subject to the laws of causality. This can be readily verified in an examination of the reflex nature of thought-feeling, whose Pavlovian conditioning operates along deterministic behavioural lines. Such conditioning is essentially a blind identification between an ideational construct (associated stimulus) and an instinctual drive. As dialogue springs from the abiding search for meaning, this structure of conditioning, however natural otherwise, is one essential area of examination, as it affects human wholeness at all levels. Reflex structures may be indispensable in certain areas of functioning but they prove fatal in other areas, where the quality of self-awareness is absolutely necessary. The reflex process, grounded on the blind operation of deeply held assumptions instilled by thought in response to experience, operates on what is essentially an unconscious process of recognition. Psychologically, which means in relationship, this process represents the highest possible danger, as can be readily verified in all the current instances of human conflict. Any responsible form of education has to tackle this issue of persistent and widespread conflict among human beings, which means delving into the nature and structure of conditioning, thus awakening the needful intelligence that can then stand as the true guide of thought-feeling.
The dialogical process represents the essence of an inquiring mind whose area of concern is the whole, therefore including the reality of nature and the social and psychological dimensions of man, with their epistemological, ethical and ontological implications. Dialogue is not necessarily a panacea but it opens the way for the free flow of meaning in what is currently a fragmented and destructive field of unexamined assumptions and conditioned identifications. Dialogue shares the same central concern with wholeness as education and that is why it is at the heart of it. Education is a deepening conversation of human consciousness with itself in its abiding search for truth and its responsible freedom. All knowledge can come into it but its holistic intent necessitates the awakening and operation of a quality of self-awareness and intelligence that alone can serve as the needful light in an otherwise dangerous reflex process.
The process of dialogue is necessarily fluid and unpredictable, making it perhaps more akin to art than to exact science. It can tread common ground and yet serve to turn old knowledge into a new discovery by virtue of its heuristic approach. This makes all the difference in the quality of the acquisition of knowledge, as it is then something endowed with vitality rather than the more usual practice of rote learning or outright indoctrination. Such a dialogical approach to the acquisition of knowledge is a necessary aspect of teaching for understanding. But dialogue does not stop there. It then opens the way to insight by drawing on the awareness of perceived contradictions or incoherence and putting the given subject into question. Furthermore, as it leans on the native quality of human sensitivity, it moves naturally and spontaneously into areas of difference that give learning a quality of inherent newness. As its field is not specialized but is open to all learning, the whole inner dimension of self and consciousness comes necessarily into its purview, turning the eye from the outer to the inner, from natural science to self-knowledge, and back again. This fluid movement from the inner to the outer and from the outer to the inner makes for the dissolution of this traditional division in the field of reality and undermines the separation between individual and society, as they are seen to be complementary aspects of a single process. In this way dialogue serves to dismantle the ingrained structure of fragmentation between man and nature and between man and man.
The proposal in this very general reflection is that dialogue has a central role to play in the process of human liberation and enlightenment. The question then remains as to whether such a dialogue can be implemented in the educational context and whether an education really exists that can take such a holistic vision on board and bring it to fruition. Much more would need to be said on all the aspects touched upon and on many others that have been left out of account due to the limitations of time and space, but one thing is clear, namely the unavoidable intent of wholeness implicit in the educational and dialogical endeavours. It is the writer’s view that such an approach is a necessary contributing factor to overall order and creativity not just in the field of education but in life generally.