Education requires interpretation at all levels
There can be no education without interpreting the kind of situation we are in, the kind of learner involved, the kind of knowledge and skills we need to teach, and the approach to teaching and learning we wish to take. This raises the question as to what the right approach is to interpretation in holistic education: it is a question of hermeneutics.
When we use sources of ideas and practice for holistic education, we need to interpret those sources, if they are to inform what we think and do. Every situation is different and every learner is different. This means that if we want to apply, say, the advice that certain kinds of skills are best acquired through a short time of intense practice, we need to assess whether the skill we are about to teach is such a skill and whether it is right for the learners involved to do such blocked practice at this particular point in time. What is more, we need to make a judgment about what exactly it would mean to practice the skill in question in such an intensive way.
Another way of putting this is to say that there is no way of mechanically implementing findings from research in the educational situation we are concerned with. Or, as the saying has it, there is no teacher-proof curriculum or method; all teaching depends on a good interpretation on the part of the teacher to be successful.
And it is not just the practicing teacher who needs to interpret the syllabus and the methodologies involved. Interpretation is there at all levels: from the basic decisions about what provision the school is to offer, to questions about curriculum and pedagogy, school leaders and policymakers are called upon to interpret laws and regulations, demands from business and parents, and suggestions from research.
Importantly, the learner too cannot participate in education without interpreting what is being asked of them and what the best way is of responding to the educational situation they find themselves in. So, in working out an approach to interpretation, we are not only establishing a way in which holistic education can adopt ways of thinking about education and suggestions for practice. By selecting a hermeneutics that is suitable for holistic education, we are also modelling forms of interpretation the learner can adopt in relation to this education.
The kind of notion of interpretation we adopt matters
The question of what the appropriate hermeneutics is in the context of holistic education may seem arcane. But as we saw earlier, holistic education needs to be grounded in a sense of the whole that cannot be captured in words, ideas, attitudes or practices.
This means that we need a form of interpretation that can, at least to some extent, do justice to the fact that holistic education is always in conversation with that which cannot be grasped in thoughts and practices. Not only that, there needs to be in our hermeneutics an openness to that which cannot be put into words or captured in practice.
What is more, we also saw that in the process of holistic education the one engaging with the whole becomes more whole in themselves, which means that we need a hermeneutics that has space for the self to be transformed in the process of trying to understand what it is they need to do.
In order to clarify the importance of the hermeneutics we adopt, we can look at two examples of interpretation that do not meet the criteria of being able to connect with that which cannot be put into words, ideas or practices, while transforming the one engaged in the interpretation.
The limitations of taking the separate individual as the starting point for interpretation
The first approach to interpretation that does not meet our criteria is one that takes as a given that the one interpreting is separate from that which they are trying to understand. This notion of the separate self is there in those notions of the individual that presuppose a desire to maximize self-interest on the part of the individual. For example, in evolutionary psychology, the individual is often thought of as being driven primarily by the urge to survive and reproduce, and that its psychological structures are a reflection of that urge, which consequently colours all interpretation by that individual. But, because this account of interpretation as being based in self-interest begins with the part (the separate individual) and not the whole (life or the world in its totality), it does not allow us to express the quality of wholeness we need in holistic education. So, whatever merits the form of interpretation that takes as its starting point the separate individual may have in other contexts, it is not one on which we should base holistic education, for the simple reason that we have already said that we need to start from a sense of the undivided whole.
The limitations of taking a pre-established world as the starting point for interpretation
The second approach to interpretation that goes against the criteria we have laid out for holistic education is that which takes a certain kind of world as given. This is perhaps most evident in interpretative approaches that take, say, a sacred text as inviolable, as a result of which only those interpretations that fall within the possibilities of that text are thought valid. But a more subtle variety of an interpretative approach that takes a certain kind of world as given is that which presupposes a strong form of materialism. When all valid interpretations need to meet the criterion of fitting in a materialist worldview, this poses a problem for holistic education, because the whole may not lend itself to being captured in purely materialistic terms. This is not to deny the validity of science, but to acknowledge that hermeneutics deals with human thought and feeling and culture. It is to acknowledge that much of what we experience is not material, and that the presupposition that everything we experience as not material can ultimately be reduced to matter does not come out of an experience of the whole itself. Again, a strictly materialist view of the world has its use in certain contexts, but holistic education is not one of them, because for many, if not most, people the experience of the whole is not strictly material.
The need for an approach to interpretation that starts with the whole of life
These two examples—presupposing a separate self or a purely material world—show that the kind of interpretive framework we select affects how we think of the wholeness that founds holistic education. We need a framework that is able to begin with the whole of life, without dividing the body from the mind, one individual from the other, or mind from matter. It also needs to be able to allow the individual to be changed by the process of interpretation itself, so that they become whole, because in the process of learning to grasp the whole of life, we ourselves become whole. That is, the way we engage with the elements of holistic education needs to itself happen in a way that is consistent with the essence of holistic education as beginning with the whole, being shaped and guided by the whole, and becoming whole as a result.
Full attention in the present moment
When we engage with sources that can inform us about the ideas, attitudes and practices we may want to adopt in our attempt to create holistic education, it is important to be aware from the outset of their limitations.
The first limitation is that no description or expression of a moment in holistic education can do justice to the whole of the educational moment. For example, a teacher may have found themselves in a situation where they were aware of a sense of wholeness shaping and guiding what was happening in the classroom. They may report the sense that there was no division between themselves and the learners; they may have felt there to be no division between what they experienced inwardly and how they acted outwardly; they may have been aware of the whole movement of learning being guided by an intelligence that was greater than anything their own mind may have come up with; and, finally, they may have had feedback from the learners that they had a similar experience during the lesson. But even if the teacher in question was highly skilful in describing the events of the lesson and expressing what they experienced, these would not ever capture the whole of it, because all description and expression, all language, is partial. And the part can not express the whole.
For us this means, first, that we need to be aware that the essence of holistic education cannot be captured in attitudes, practices, and ideas, because these can never capture the wholeness of holistic education. Second, it means that we need to open ourselves up to wholeness in a way that is not dependent on the sources we use to inform our attitudes, practices, and ideas. This opening up starts with the acknowledgement of the essential limitations of all attitudes, practices, and ideas. But this does not mean that we turn away from any sources that may inform what we do, on the contrary, we open ourselves to these sources even as we are aware of their limited use. But we do not only open ourselves to what the sources tell us about cognition and spirituality, about approaches to learning and curriculum. We also open ourselves to the whole of life as it is with us here and now.
As we open up both to what the sources tell us about education and to the present moment in which we ourselves are, there is an awareness of the inner and the outer that is undivided. AS we take in what we hear or read without shutting out whatever else is happening in and around us, the meaning of what we take in can unfold freely. We do not seek to control our response to it, but take our own reactions as part of the whole that is being revealed. And if the reading or listening happens against the background of a particular question we have (for example, a practical one about how to teach a certain topic) that question is kept in view as well and allowed to change as it will. There are, as it were, multiple processes going on and we are aware of all of them in a way that allows them all to unfold and reveal their inner meaning. And all this happens within an undivided field of attention, part of which consists of an engagement with the sources we have selected, to help us create a practical education, in the process of which we also learn about ourselves.
The oneness of consciousness
The second limitation we need to face up to, when we engage with what others have said about education, is that language is a self-referential system, in relation to which the non-linguistic world is always going to be other, alien. That is, the medium of language always stands between the one using the language and that to which the language refers. For the one describing or expressing, this means that the language they use is always coloured by their cultural and personal background; the language they use is never tailor-made for the occasion but taken from the collective pool of the language. For the one interpreting the description or expression, this means that what they understand is also coloured, this time by the conventional meaning attached to the words, gestures, practices, attitudes and ideas circulating in their cultural and linguistic world. So—apart from the fact that the experience of wholeness cannot be captured in terms of attitudes, ideas, and practices—there is the added difficulty that both what we say and what we hear is always coloured by our cultural background.
For those of us aiming to put a sense of wholeness at the centre of their education, it is important not to get bogged down in this apparent mismatch between the different cultural backgrounds of those involved. It is important to recognize that what we hear and read is produced by the same human consciousness as that with which we interpret it: any differences in culture notwithstanding, there is only one human consciousness. So when we are interpreting the expressions and descriptions produced by others, the fact that we are limited in this interpretation by our own cultural background means that the meaning we find there is always to some degree the meaning we ourselves have projected there—and in that sense our interpretation is not separate from that which we are seeking to understand.
But at a more inward level too there is not a clear division between the interpreter and that which is being interpreted, because what we read is produced by the same human consciousness. The consciousness of the one who produced the source we use too is limited in its understanding and expression by the culture it is part of. What is more, it is a consciousness that has the same basic traits of being embodied, of fearing destruction and hoping for a better world. It too needs to make sense of the world and act in it. And it too, hopefully, has a deep wish, born out of love, to educate the young in a way that is holistic in the sense of being healthy, sane, and in touch with the spiritual dimension of life that is in itself the source of wholeness. So, apart from seeing that no description can ever capture the essence of holistic education, we now see that at a deep level there is no division between ourselves and the one whose description we read. And this opens the way to a manner of understanding the sources we consult that is itself holistic.
Leaving space for something new to enter into our interpretation
A further requirement of the approach to interpretation we adopt in holistic education is that it contains a creative dimension. This is in part about the account of interpretation doing justice to the fact that it is not possible to reconstruct exactly the meaning of something someone else has said or written, because we always interpret the source against the background of our own language, culture, and situation in the here and now. So, if we are honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that every interpretation is also a creation in the sense that however we understand the source, our understanding is never an exact copy of the understanding of the one who originally produced it.
But there is also the possibility of a deeper creativity being at work in our reading of the source. This follows from what was discussed in the two previous sections. First, there is the possibility of opening up to life in the present moment, while we are engaging with the source, with the result that the sense of the whole begins to shape and guide our understanding of the source. Second, there is the possibility of the division between ourselves and the source dissolving, as we see that both the mind creating the source and the mind interpreting it are part of the same human consciousness. Together these two insights into the nature of interpretation can make us go quiet inside: we see the limitation of any attempt to capture the whole in attitudes, practices, or ideas, at the same time that we see that there is no essential division between our own inner world and that of the one who produced the source in the first place. This then gives rise to a moment of inner stillness in which there are no divisions between us and the source, the world around us, the situation we are in.
This moment of holistic silence, when the insight that no description can ever capture the whole, then gives space for the whole to shape how we respond to the situation we are in. This moment, when we have let go of any division between ourselves and others and the world, is open to the whole in such a way that all attempts to grasp it from out of a partial understanding appear futile, and because we have seen that all interpretation is necessarily partial, the normal processes of interpretation stop and there is a pause in which the whole can guide our understanding of the situation. True, once we proceed to talk or act in response to the situation, we will need to once more engage with the limited forms of description and expression given to us in our culture, in cognitive science, in approaches to teaching and learning, or in the skills and knowledge that make up the curriculum. But nevertheless, the essence of our education will have been holistic, because holism is an inner quality, and that inner quality was able to shape our education in that moment of insightful silence.
A hermeneutics of oneness and silence
The kind of hermeneutics put forward here can, to a large extent, be found in Gadamer’s work, specifically his major opus Truth and Method (Gadamer, 1975), and in a discussion of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by James Risser (1997). More specifically, the notion of interpretation as always being limited because of the limited nature of language, the notion of the one interpreting not being essentially separate from that which they are interpreting, and the notion of there being an unavoidable creative moment in any interpretation can all be found in Gadamer’s work and Risser’s interpretation of that work.
But neither Gadamer nor Risser were concerned with the possibility of holistic education, and in order to adapt their hermeneutics to the demands of such an education, I have drawn on the educational philosophy of J. Krishnamurti, whose pedagogy serves as the binding force of the different elements of holistic education discussed in this and other posts. Thus, Krishnamurti’s notion of a form of attention that is whole and undivided, aware of all that happens in one’s consciousness as well as in the world around one, was introduced to amplify the need to see the limitation of all interpretation. Also, Krishnamurti talks about there being a pause in our deliberations, when thought goes silent, out of which a new, creative understanding can come that is not partial but grounded in just such an awareness of the whole of one’s inner and outer world.
The final responsibility for what is written here does, of course, rest with the author, because it is his understanding—or lack thereof—that provides the foundation of the points made in this piece. What is written here does not claim to be the last word on the topic, but aims to be a voice in the conversation about what it means to create a form of education that is healthy for the body, sane in mind, and in touch with the kind of wholeness that is spiritual in nature. In that sense, it is in line with Gadamer’s assertion that when we interpret sources, we are participating in a conversation, where the aim is not to settle things once and for all but to move the conversation forward in a productive way. The approach taken here is also in line with Krishnamurti’s point that when we engage with sources, we need to come to our own understanding of the matter at hand and be honest about the ways in which this understanding may be tentative, because we may not have understood the whole of it.
Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and method. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Risser, J. (1997). Hermeneutics and the voice of the other: re-reading Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press.