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When anything goes wrong in society, people promptly point the finger to education. Recurring social problems such as student clashes, interethnic or interfaith conflicts, corruption and moral decadence are assumed to be indicative of failure in the education system.
Recently, some people, including government officials, enthusiastically proposed that anticorruption, character building, sustainable development, scouting, traditional martial arts, and even soccer should be included as school subjects. In brief, people want to put anything valuable into the curriculum.
Granted, those additional subjects would have made the curriculum inflated and unmanageable. Parents complain that their kids are burdened by the number of school subjects and extended learning time. This brings us to the issue of school subjects versus education aims. Confusion begins when people mix them up.
Education in general is aimed at making man more human, enabling him/her to understand human nature and the universe. Without a proper education, people become meaningless and they are bound to fail in life.
As meaning is abstract and infinite and learning time and space are limited, the curriculum should be structured cost-effectively. Therefore, education should be conducted on the basis of knowledge about human nature, its actuality, potential and possibility within a particular culture.
Philip H. Phenix in his book Realms of Meaning identifies six classes of meaning, indicating general kinds of understanding a person should have as a member of a civilized community. They are symbolic, empiric, esthetic, synnoetic, ethical and synoptic meaning. People should challenge the curriculum when it fails to inculcate the meaning. The meaning, not the subject, matters.
Students develop meaning through school subjects or disciplines. Meaning is more or less fixed while school subjects are not always clearly assignable to a single class of meaning. Literary works, for example, can be used to teach multiple meanings — be it symbolic, empiric or esthetic meaning.
Classification of meaning is important for facilitating student learning and for allocating school subjects. Practically speaking, meaning delivery is in the hand of teachers. The six categories of meaning are elaborated as follows.
Students are taught empiric meaning through language and mathematics to enable them to use symbols meaningfully in communication. Literacy and numeracy are basic for human life. Therefore, language and mathematics, along with science, constitute core subjects in schools across the globe.
Students are taught empiric meaning through the scientific enterprise, i.e. physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences to discover truth. While symbolics is based on form, empiric is based on observable facts. The teaching of sciences is to enable students to discover truth.
At lower elementary levels, where play-based teaching is appropriate, there is no necessity to separate natural science (IPA) from social studies (IPS), as both are assignable to teach empiric meaning. The Education and Culture Ministry, commencing this year, is now redefining both subjects. From a pedagogical point of view, the focus should be on inculcating the empirical meaning rather than school subjects.
Students are taught esthetics through music, visual arts, the arts of movement, literature, etc., to enable them to grasp esthetic meaning in life. Esthetics sharpens student feeling and sensitivity. The focus of teaching music is not to train students to be musicians but to develop musical sensitivity. The very end of teaching art is appreciation, not description of it.
Synnoetic meaning is simply tacit knowledge as opposed to explicit knowledge. Different from symbolic meaning, which is abstract, synnoetic meaning, is personal meaning based on experience. Through literature, psychology and religion, teachers develop in students an existential meaning of their own life.
Ethical meaning provides students with informed decisions to do things. It arises out of disinterested perception, while esthetic meaning arises from subjective perception. Students may have active personal commitment to a particular type of dancing at the cost of ethical meaning. In ethics, activities are done for purposes of public participation, as the public tends to share intersubjectivity on what is right or wrong.
Through religious education, citizenship (PPKN) and Pancasila, teachers instill moral teaching on students. The outcome is not explicit student knowledge on the subject but rather putting moral values into practice. Physical education can also be used for teaching moral values such as fairness, sportsmanship, team work and a respect for rules.
Synoptics, or synopsis of meaning, suggests an integrative function of all meanings elaborated above. History and religion are the major school subjects that promote synoptic meaning. Teaching history is not to memorize past events but to make sense of them in an integrated way. In the end, learning history is to improve the present and future.
We have elaborated on the aim of general education — to provide students with six realms of meaning to make sense of themselves and the universe — however, we cannot put everything praiseworthy and desirable into the curriculum.
The six meanings can be inculcated through multiple school subjects. Obviously elementary, secondary and tertiary students need different levels of understanding of the meaning. The curriculum should be
Which subjects propagate what meaning and at what level of education are vital curricular decisions to make. What matters most is the teacher who controls the class to inculcate the meanings.
The writer is a professor at the Indonesian Educational University (UPI) Bandung.