Reflections on Human Nature and the Concept(ion) of Education

Reflections on Human Nature and the Concept(ion) of Education
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By Raheel Bashir

Education, since the beginning of the modern scientific revolution, has been deemed as the highest want in life. The purpose of education is to inculcate the need for inquiry and creativity; searching the riches of the past and internalizing the parts that are useful, developing the impulse to present challenges to the dominant doctrines and using imagination and light of reason to seek the alternatives.

The Enlightenment conception of education was put forth by Wilhelm van Humboldt, an intriguing philosopher and founder of the modern university system. His own thoughts serve as an exemplary case. Humboldt’s concept of human nature is that “the true end of the man or, that which is described by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.” Similar to the thoughts expressed by Immanuel Kant in defense of the French Revolution during the post-revolutionary terror, Humboldt holds that “nothing promotes the ripening for freedom so much as freedom itself. The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to heighten this power is the only way to supply this want”. Man is fundamentally a searching, self-perfecting being, carrying a need for free creative work without the constraining effects of arbitrary coercive institutions.

Reiterating J.J. Rousseau (Discourse on Inequality), Humboldt states, “There is something degrading to human nature in the idea of refusing to any man the right to be a man.” He places trust in effects of dissemination of scientific knowledge by freedom and enlightenment. Indignant at the mode of education pre-occupied with transmission of knowledge to humans, who merely act as passive recipients, Humboldt proposed a contravening model which fosters “the cultivation of the understanding, generally achieved by man’s own ingenuity, his own activity or his own methods of using the discoveries of others.” For Humboldt, education is a free, creative and co-operative enterprise that must provide opportunities and intellectual challenges for self-fulfillment. In an influential essay titled “Language and Freedom”, leading American linguist Noam Chomsky argues the even language cannot be strictly taught but “only awakened in the mind. One can only provide the thread along which it will develop itself”.

Humboldt’s analysis is not restricted to educational practice; it goes well beyond it and raises the question of work. He remarked, “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature”. The question of alienation of man from his true nature was further elucidated by Karl Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Influenced by the tradition of German and French Romanticism, Marx opined that alienation is the consequence when man acts in purely mechanical way, reacting to external needs and demands rather than in ways driven by his own energies and instincts. The Alienation of man from his essence is precisely due to Humboldtian reasons.

Humboldt would have appreciated much of John Dewey’s views on education. Writing in “Democracy and Education”, considered seminal work on philosophy of education in twentieth century, Dewey described educational process as “one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming aspiration and that the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end.”

He was of the view that knowing and inquiry were like an art that require experimentation and testing, for each student to undertake the pursuit it in his own way. The teacher merely acts as a facilitator and the students, working in collaboration, explore the structures of knowledge within the context. Dewey contended that democratic approach in education, with equal participation from teachers and students, creates an opportunity for personal growth and cultural development.

Humboldt might also have found congenial the radical extension of these ideas by Paulo Freire, the leading advocate of Critical Pedagogy in 1970’s. Freire was concerned with the “liberation of the oppressed” through a co-operative teacher-student educative model. Like Dewey, Freire was also critical of transmission of mere facts as a goal of education, terming it the “banking concept of education” in his most important work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire writes, “In the banking concept, the scope of action allowed to the students extends only far as receiving, filling and storing the deposits.” This traditional style is aimed at keeping the oppressed powerless and maintaining the existing structures of domination.
The rasion d’etre of liberating education, according to Freire, is conscientization that is, raising awareness. Freire argues that dialogue and critical thinking enable the “oppressed” a deepened consciousness of their social and political realities and it posits as fundamental that the “people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation.” The theoretical inquiry must provide a guide to the relentless struggle for liberty and justice. The structures of authority and hierarchy must be put to challenge and if they can’t be justified then they ought to be replaced by something more just and equal.

The author is an engineering graduate from NIT, Srinagar and can be reached at:

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