Building the Path to Intellectual Autonomy

A Reflection on “Hayek and Liberal Pedagogy” by Robert Garnett.

There are two environments for learning, one where the students participate actively and consciously, and another in which they are passive and unconscious. To explore these environments, Robert Garnett uses Friedrich A. Hayek’s and Parker Palmer’s ideas. Hayek’s concepts of knowledge, learning, and spontaneous order serve as a basis to understand the complexity in education. While Palmer’s interpersonal dimensions of knowing and learning, help highlight the different features of a learner. The combination of both of these thinkers’ ideas results in an alternative pedagogical way of celebrating the individual, through the nurturing of intellectual autonomy.

The common assumption in almost every learning environment today is that knowledge is transmitted better through someone that already has all of the information. This is a top-down way of learning. He uses the word taxis, a word from ancient Greek meaning “arrangement,” to describe his view of education. This view means that a single person engineers both the means and ends of the educational experience for other individuals. The problem with this is that knowledge is so vast that it is impossible to contain it in one single mind. On top of that there still is knowledge that hasn’t been discovered yet. Garnett explains this in his essay by making reference to Hayek’s “man on the spot” concept. Through it he describes how “every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information” of his specific circumstances and of his time and place. This “unique knowledge” might be beneficial for the rest of individuals. The economic problem Hayek exposes in his essay is how to make this knowledge available to everyone in order to make more intelligent decisions.

This exact same question arises in education as well. The mission of education is to enable individuals to form their own judgments, discover new knowledge, and add new knowledge to humanity. Our traditional education system doesn’t provide the right environment for individuals to explore these areas. These traditional ways of teaching/learning are classified as taxis pedagogies, which have proved that they stagnate the process of discovery of each individual by presuming that one mind can know it all.

If the traditional education system isn’t working, what needs to change in order to empower individuals? Garnett explores this issue through the question: How can we induce “those who know where the relevant information is to be found” to employ their unique abilities to discover and convey previously unknown or inarticulate knowledge?

Palmer states that the way to enhance this process is by creating a community of truth, namely, a classical liberal pedagogy. The main goal of liberal pedagogy includes some of the characteristics of the mission of education, which are mentioned above. Garnett expresses that the crucial task of liberal pedagogy is to increase the students’ connectivity to the different orders of learning “in order to discipline and inspire their thinking, cultivate their intellectual autonomy, and enrich their contributions to the learning of others”.

This means the transition from taxis pedagogy to cosmos pedagogy. Cosmos, as defined by Hayek, is a spontaneous order with a series of rules that facilitate the interactions within individuals. Applied to the pedagogical arena, cosmos would facilitate the interactions between the learner, the teacher, and the class as a whole.

This can be compared to the marketplace. When learners have the right environment to interact freely with one another, they will produce, consume and exchange knowledge. This exchange is easily understood with the example Garnett gives in his essay, which is built on the ideas of Paulo Freire. An idea of Paulo is that when teachers persuade students to share their insights, questions, comments, confusions, and understandings with the rest of their peers “the more effectively the classroom cosmos can transform students’ privately held ideas (‘money in their pocket’) into intellectual resources (‘money in the bank’) for the learning community as a whole”.

Garnett’s main contribution in this essay is presenting how Hayek and Palmer’s ideas merge in the pedagogical field. Both thinkers stress the importance of the impersonality of the learning process. The impersonal elements refer to the spontaneous, rule-guided interactions among autonomous individuals, as described in Hayek’s markets.

However, liberal pedagogy is also composed of a personal process, which constitutes planned, conscious and face-to-face interactions. It’s interesting to realize that Hayek said that the mix of both processes, personal and impersonal, usually results in an impossibility. Nevertheless, Garnett extends Hayek’s analysis to prove that liberal pedagogies are both personal and impersonal using Palmer’s vision of the educational process.

For Palmer, there are two ways of knowing. The first way of knowing is through the “Objectivist Myth of Knowing”, which is when an authority or expert transmits his object of knowledge to learners.

The other way of learning is through the “Community of Truth”, which centers on the subject. This community gathers around a common subject and is guided by shared rubrics, rules, or values. In this alternative, the participants order themselves spontaneously in the process, always focusing on a subject. This alternative reconciles the personal and impersonal aspects of the classical liberal pedagogy.

In the alternative described above, both students and teachers are held accountable for what they say and do. For Palmer, the spirit of this community is to introduce individuals to a world larger than their own egos in order to expand their personal boundaries and have a sense of community. Both Hayek and Palmer, appreciate the subjectivity of the knowing process, as Garnett expresses:

“While emphasizing the market-like impersonality of the social learning process, Palmer and Hayek also appreciate its subjective dimensions. They each conceive the space of knowing and learning to be populated not by the generic subjects, objects, and methods of modernist epistemologies but by diverse and concrete subjects, each bearing a unique set of knowledges and identities”.

The quality of this environment should be both comfortable for one to speak what one holds as true, but at the same time challenging. In a way, the community evaluates and scrutinizes our claims. Palmer explains that the teacher has to create a safe place in order to encourage discrepancies between students. Only by being in a comfortable place, students are most likely to do the hard things, “exposing one’s ignorance, challenging another’s facts or interpretations, claiming one’s truth publicly and making it vulnerable to the scrutiny of others”.

This is not meant to humiliate anyone; the main purpose is to explore truth and create more knowledge. It is on “the dynamic conversation of a community that keeps testing old conclusions and coming into new ones” through which Hayek and Palmer agree. The production of new knowledge takes place through building connections and appropriate new ideas. It is a marketplace of ideas, where distribution of existing knowledge happens, and where the intellectual entrepreneurs connect the dots to create even more knowledge. Discovery then takes place both individually and collaboratively.

This process is beneficial to everyone that’s participating in the community. It would not only provide the ground for individuals to explore and express their thoughts, but also give them feedback on their thinking process.

This sine qua non (knowing thyself) process is highly valuable if we want to have a free society that recognizes the autonomy of each individual, and at the same time evaluates him or her by the standard of reason and truth. I think Hayek puts it beautifully in his essay “New Studies in philosophy, politics, economics, and the history of ideas” (1978):

“The central belief from which all liberal postulates may be said to spring is that more successful solutions of the problems of society are to be expected if we do not rely on the application of anyone’s given knowledge, but encourage exchange of opinion from which better knowledge can be expected to emerge. It is the discussion and mutual criticism of men’s different opinions derived from different experiences which was assumed to facilitate the discovery of truth, or at least the best approximation to truth which could be achieved. Freedom for individual opinion was demanded precisely because every individual was regarded as fallible, and the discovery of the best knowledge was expected only from the continuous testing of all beliefs which free discussion secured”.

It is evident that the taxis pedagogies are stagnating us, preventing us to advance our own intellectual freedom. The centrality of the taxis is limiting the individual’s capacities, which in consequence decline humanity’s flourishing.

On the other hand, the community of truth presents a model that facilitates individual learning, intellectual profit opportunities, and profit-and-loss feedback. It is apparent that through top-down transmission of knowledge, individuals don’t genuinely learn because the process isn’t’ meaningful to them. They just become passive consumers, with almost nothing to build on or to improve.

As Hayek puts it, autonomous thinkers are harder to dominate because they recognize their freedom and individuality. I believe that advancing the values and ethics of liberty, starts in education and the only way to advance them is through the individuals’ own experience with them. This will help advance liberty tacitly. By this I mean, that when young minds value the importance of freedom, they will fight for it in every single aspect of their lives, which in the long run will advance liberty in general and change the traditional values of institutions. Garnett concludes that the Hayekian approach to education advances the liberal goal of educating young minds to “value intellectual freedom and exercise it responsibly, rather than training them to learn to think only as instructed by their superiors”.

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