During the following days of your congress, you shall hear many knowledgeable people with rich experience in the field of Service learning. But what can you expect from a philosopher? Philosophers are dealing with trivial, everyday things, well known to anybody. The only ambition I can have in this assembly is to try to look at your common topic from another point of view, in other, perhaps forgotten or overlooked connections. This is, with your kind permission, what i shall undertake now.
Usually, we are looking at education from the point of view of the single pupil, of the educandus, of the individual child and his or her curriculum, of the „carriage“ of his life and his future career. This habit is part of the overall modern individualistic tendency, made possible by the level of security and comfortableness of our life conditions, at least in the more prosperous, more wealthy part of the world.
The modern conviction, which takes for granted that everything should turn around the individual, that the very beginning, the source and the ultimate goal of anything in the society is the individual, almost made us to forget the other side of human condition. Namely, that men and women have to live in some sort of society. According to Aristotle, whoever does not need to live in a society, in a city, is either a god or a beast. Thus, let us to look at education from the point of view of the society as a whole.
At the difference of criminal stories, where the plot should be unveiled at the end only, in academic lectures it is a good habit to declare in advance, what one intends to say. Now, my theses run like this:
1. Education is one of the necessary functions of each society.
2. The educational system is there to assist and to guide children in their twofold task of maturing into grown-up persons and into members of their society.
3. Thus, the goal of education is – among other things – reproduction of the society.
1. As for the first point, I would like to advocate anthropological evidence. One of the most prominent treats distinguishing humans from other primates is the long time-span between childhood and maturity, usually considered as consisting of several distinctive phases. Some anthropologists describe human birth as „physiologically premature“: from the point of view of its developement, human child is born at a much earlier stage than any other animal. A comparable degree of bodily developement with, say, a newborn chimpanzee, would require gestation time twice as long – some 20 months or more. Obviously, the birth of such a child would be even anatomically impossible.
The curve of further growth of the human child is highly irregular, consisting of periods of accelerated growth and of stagnation. The developement of some organs starts very early, so a newborn childs head is unproportionately large, whereas the developement of others is clearly delayed: thus, e.g. female genitals are anatomically finished at the age of 4, start to be physiologically active at the age of 12, but it is not before the age of 16 or 18 that a woman is able to bear and to care for own offspring, this is before she attains social maturity. These are only some examples of the huge distance between a child and a grown-up human.
For this very early birth of the human child, I have just mentioned anatomical reasons. But there are other, social reasons, maybe even more important. In his early life, human child has to master many, many challenges, much more than any other animal. It has to learn to cope with the flood of sensual experiences, to master his own body, to learn his mother language and much more, where it cannot lean upon the rich instinctive equipment as the other animals. Darwin, asked about the period of his life in which he had learned most of all, answered without hesitation that it was in his first three years. It seems that the chances to master sucessfully these overwhelming challenges are the better, the sooner the child is exposed to them. Now, most of these challenges are in fact social, to be answered and solved in a human surrounding, among other humans, with their assistance and help.
2. This elementary support is normally provided by the parents and the family, who have been the first microsociety for each one of us. In societies with low population density, with feeble social interaction and with very simple organization, this exposure to the family society was sufficient to guide the growing child both to its personal maturity and its social integration. As long as most of social contacts played inside the larger family and as long as all families lived under very similar conditions, there was no need for a particular social training.
The further developement of human societies has led to smaller families with more privacy on the one hand, and on the other hand to more and more heavy dependence on other members of the larger society, e.g. to a rich labour division. In modern societies, the need for more and more complex social skills emerged, which might surpass the abilities of the parents. Precisely the democratic ideals of civic eqality, individual mobility and participation require much broader communication skills than those sufficient in a small, traditional and settled village community. Each child, after having acquired the basic mental and spiritual equipment of his near surroundings, has to be brougt up to surpass the specific cultural, linguistic etc. habits of his own microsociety – just to be able to seek his or her own way in the society at large.
These important, though relatively recent requirements cannot be fulfilled by any other than by a specific social institution – the educational system and its schools. Though these social educational systems developped in various societies autonomously and independently, they reached a surprising degree of similarity throughout the world. Starting from very different initial settings – from local and independent church schools, or as large top down established systems of absolutist states – they all take today children at the age of 6 or 7 to elementary schools and give them from 8 to 10 years of common education. Though the local conditions of schools and teachers may differ considerably, there is a very large consensus as to the necessary contents and goals of elementary education for all.
The basic task of any educational system, i.e. the help and guidance in acquiring personal and social maturity, in enabling each child to take part in both private and public life of his or her society, should not be obscured by the flourishing of various branches of vocational or professional education. Preparation for a specific future social role or profession is a superposed task, an addition, not an alternative for the basic educational goal.
3. The task of reproduction, which is one of the very basic tasks of every living being, takes with us humans a significantly broader signification. As „social animals“, we cannot reproduce on the individual, biological level only, but we have to ensure the reproduction of our societies as well. This is, by the way, the main reason, why all educational systems are nowadays financed or at least co-financed from public budgets and at least supervised by some public authority.
To be able to play a reasonable role in present-day society, each child has to learn a lot of social and technical skills of our societies, including language mastery, reading and writing, some ability to handle with quantities and numbers and some level of understanding of the society and of its governement or state. At least in Europe, each child should learn some foreign language. Just at present we have to think about including even more specific and highly technical skills, e.g. car driving or computer manipulation.
But the task of reproduction of the society is not complete if it does not include some sort of preparation for public and even political engagement in the community, in the state: all future mayors, MPs and presidents of our countries are among our present-day pupils and students. This, all our students have to know, as well as to have some idea that a public office should not and cannot be a simple profession, but is at the same time a personal burden of particular responsibility.
And this is exactly the point, where my exposé turns back to the specific occasion of your conference. Service learning is a dignified educational tradition in the US and in some other nations with prolonged democratic experience. At the first glance, its aim is rather humanitarian. But – as I just tried to explain – it is even more. It is an occasion for each student to practicise and to exhibit his or her ability and willingness to take some appropriate part of public responsibility as well. To make some first steps in this extremely important field where we do not care primarily for ourselves. Without this experience, without the young people, who partake it, the future chances of democracy would be in my opinion much more gloomy than they really are.
(Service Learning Conference, 28. 4. 2002)