In a deliberate twist on the theme of the CAP Conference and this journal, I would like to address the two sides of the coin of human authenticity and consider the educational implications of each. I start with the premise that education has two major purposes which fall under learning how to live well. One is learning to become a good person; the other is learning how to live well with other people and both are for the benefit of both the self and others, hopefully at the same time. When I am done you might say I know all this, have known it for a long time. My point, however, is different – I believe through temporary amnesia, intellectual laziness or some other mind freeze we neglect these matters or take them for granted. We are not as deliberate and explicit as we should be as educational leaders about living authentically.
When our children are born they are born into a world already inhabited with people, people with whom they need to learn to live, hopefully thrive and not just co-exist in the same time and space. On the flip side, children are born into the world as unique, authentic individuals even in the case of multiple births. To give meaning to individuality we who were here before must help children maintain their individual character to some extent. In this view, education is how we as adults reconcile these simultaneous but different human realities.
What does it mean to live well among other people also living well? Our best sense of that is that this demands a democratic togetherness. This notion of democracy, however, is more than a system of governance or an exercise in self-governance – it describes a way of life and a spirit of living in a way that respects all others, includes all others and grants them equal rights and privileges. I assume it’s safe to say that we are not born with these inclinations; we have to learn them. The educational challenge is to keep democratic dialogue alive and well – we cannot just assume that it will just happen, particularly if we continue to tell our children that education is mostly about getting jobs.
On the other side of the coin, we are also not born as good people – we are neither good nor bad – we simply are. Again, it’s safe to say we must learn how to be what passes for, and what we believe is, being good people. Put another way, children must be taught to be good people and contributing participants in a world created for us by us.
Kieran Egan theorizes that a reasonable way to look at education is achieving various types of understanding – somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic – somewhat age developmental but not like stages of growth. Tom Green sees education as the formation of conscience dependent on acquiring human norms – the consciences of memory, membership, craft, sacrifice and imagination. Both are dependent on adult-children interactions (teaching) and the context of the cultures and societies in which we live. Roughly these conceptual schema resemble and reinforce each other, in my interpretation, as learning adaptation, association, agonization, affiliation and altruism. All three ways of looking at education require that you are capable and skilled in all in order to be called “educated,” using various degrees of all to make reflective (wise and ethical) judgments about the situations we find ourselves in as humans.
All are also required for us to live authentic lives as individuals and with other individuals. We must learn to continually adapt to changing situations in the world and in our lives. When we are born we adapt somatically in response to physical stimuli. As we age we adapt either intuitively based on our minds’ memories of what seems or feels right, or we adapt consciously, choosing what we thinks serves our purposes and those of others.
We need to learn to associate with others so that we can at least co-exist, but more importantly, work together for the common good. When young we imitate and accept the myths of our parents or other exemplars in regard to matters of membership in our families, cultures, communities and societies. Throughout our lives we have to choose which myths of courtesy, hospitality and social bonds we wish to ascribe to.
We need to agonize positively, as in think critically, about ourselves, our own conduct as well as that of others, as educational leaders of those for whom we are responsible, including coming to terms with what we and they are capable of, good at and should bring to a situation because of their authentic best. When we are young we assert our individuality in a variety of ways, perhaps experiment romantically with our uniqueness and we find out what abilities, talents and crafts suit who we are.
We need to affiliate, know how to work with others and who to work with, to achieve our human objectives – I know of no one who can go life alone, and our systems are affiliations. Growing older educated people get past thinking what other people think of them, as in what would people think, to seeing more astutely how they are seen objectively by other people. We understand that we must all sacrifice some of our individuality for the sake of other’s individuality and for the sake of the whole.
Finally, we need to learn altruism, somewhat sacrificially and ironically, that we need to do certain things without expecting any rewards or even expecting that what we are hoping to happen will. The significant difference is that we become more aware, by virtue of employing our moral imaginations, of the ironies inherent in human behavior and human action, including our own. None of us live theoretically consistent lives.
If this too simplistic conceptualization makes sense, or all sounds familiar, these are exactly the conceptual resources and tools that are available to us as teachers and educational leaders, and most of us have learned them and employed them in various degrees in our educational careers. However, they are not necessarily measures of success and, in fact, can’t be measured in the conventional ways we measure achievement. How much critique is the right amount? How much skepticism? Even, how much caring? How do we know we’re doing what right for us and others? These are standards of a different sort that determine human meaning, worth and excellence, standards judged to be useful, good or right according to the human situation.
The mark of the educated person is good reflexive judgment – thinking and doing the right thing in the right for the right reason at the right time – and that requires that we are able to use our learnings in the right mix to the right degree. And since our ideas of right and good (truth, justice and beauty) are developed and achieved in community with others, our schools represent an excellent opportunity to emphasize and make them explicit. Being true to our humanity requires using these philosophical concepts of moral authenticity – individuality and democratic solidarity as collectivity – as guideposts, touchstones and references (our life GPS) for our educational leadership efforts. In other words we need to celebrate our democratic heritage deliberately and out loud, just as we do our jobs and other aspects of our lives, in the presence of our children and young people. We cannot simply take for granted that they will learn to be good democratic people implicitly because of who we are, what we do and where we live. Jean Bethke-Elshtain declares democracy to be on trial, I believe, given current socio-political inclinations, it is at risk. Education is our opportunity to preserve it for our children, educational leaders can prepare and show the way.References and Good Reading
BETHKE-ELSHTAIN, Jean (1993) Democracy on Trial, Concord, Ontario: Anansi Press.
COULTER, David L. & WIENS, John R. (2008) Why Do We Educate? Renewing the Conversation, The 107th NSSE Yearbook, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc.
EGAN, Kieran (1991) The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
GREEN, Tom (1990) Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, Notre dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press.