Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be An Educated Person (in which I use my new favourite word: cognocentrism)

Here's another paper I wrote for foundational theories of education class....

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau

What does it mean to be fully human? This is the question that most concerns the two philosophers that I will discuss, Rousseau and Paulo Freire. I also wrestle with this question—it is an urgent, serious, and deeply personal inquiry for me. For me, and for these great thinkers, the purpose of education is to bring humans closer to a state of full humanity. Thus an educated person is a fully human person.

Rousseau felt society was corrupt and contaminating: “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.” Civilization, he believed, did not make people happy, in fact quite the opposite. Education in his time often consisted of focusing on rehashing long-ago exploits of “heroic” figures. As well, in a wonderful description that fits what Freire would term later as the “banking model” of education, Rousseau derides the worthlessness of common teaching methods that he witnessed: “My picture of hopeless stupidity is a pedant teaching the catechism to children.”

For Rousseau, the focus on top-down learning imposed by a corrupt, corrupting, and certainly not heroic authority was useless—worse than useless, it was the cause of society’s ills. “We must,” wrote Rousseau, “choose between making a man or making a citizen. We cannot make both.” His solution was to remove the student to a natural setting where the learning process would come primarily through sensational experience rather than verbal bullying and brainwashing. There, where “life is the business [Rousseau] would have him learn,” the student would become a free and self-loving being—self love as opposed to self-esteem, esteeming oneself above others as the result of living in a corrupt society.

For Rousseau, the educated person, or the fully human person, had a deep connection with nature. He had a love for self that also translated into being a person who is part of an order that would be created by other self-loving educated people called the “common good.” In other words, though Rousseau would take his student out of society, the result was supposed to be, not just a better person, but a better society once the student (and others like him) was ready to go back.

Like Rousseau, I see a more fully human person as one who is connected to the natural world, one who is engaged with her senses and one who is self-loving. I too see self-love as an underpinning for the common good of society. As Rousseau saw it, and I agree, when people have the self-sufficiency of self-love they are more authentically free and able to make their way in the world without resorting to dysfunctional methods of getting what they want (manipulative, corrupt, contaminated). Self love=better, happier person=better, happier world. But his idea of raising children like orphaned bear cubs seems crazy or at least unworkable. And his unqualified rejection of society (though I do understand where he is coming from) is overbearing and unbalanced. Wrote Rousseau: “Give us back ignorance, innocence and poverty.” No thanks, I say, and so did Freire.

For me and for Freire, an educated person needs to be engaged in the world, society and nature. And for Freire, disengagement from these occurs when men have been oppressed, i.e. ignorant, impoverished and innocent of the ways of the world. He has no rosy glasses when discussing the lot of the peasant class. Freire wrote that the purpose of education is to help men become “fully human” (we both use the same words) and like Rousseau (and me) he talks about freedom and self-love when he says education is for men to become “beings in themselves.” As mentioned above, Freire deplores the “banking model” of education, where the teacher represents an all-knowing authority and the students listen “meekly.” This system, according to Freire, is deadening. It sucks meaning and power away from the student; it keeps the student in his place, i.e. a handy/uncomplaining cog/worker in the economic system that serves only a few; the student is not meant to question and has no skills or confidence to do so.

So for Freire, a fully human, engaged, educated person is one who is able to think critically and creatively; he doesn’t just solve problems handed to him, he poses problems—this inquiry “rejects communiqués and embodies communication.” He is conscious and not only is he conscious, he is conscious that he is conscious. Freire fills in some of Rousseau’s blanks. Yes, liberation or freedom is the result of education but liberation is not just a theory, liberation is theory in action; a fully human person is one who acts upon the world. Liberation is transformative for the person and for the world; his humanization makes him empathetic and that shifts society.
Here is Freire’s “agenda in a nutshell” (Grigg):

"Problem-solving education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that men subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process by overcoming authoritarianism and an alienating intellectualism; it also enables men to overcome their false perception of reality. The world—no longer something to be described with deceptive words—becomes the object of transforming action by men which results in their humanization."

I, too, believe we must fight for our emancipation and overcome our false perception of reality. I, too, believe we must transform the world through action.

I would take it a step farther than Freire. For me, oppression is not solely about class struggle (although, of course, that dynamic is still very much at play, especially in the global sense, e.g. developed world, developing world and Africa) or gender struggle or race struggle, etc. I am interested in the oppression of congnocentrism (thank you, Lance, for teaching me this word). This oppression affects every human person on the planet.

Of all the philosophers we studied, Freire probably comes closest to describing what I think of as a fully human person and my ideas about the purposes of education. Rousseau resonated for me in his pained critique of society and his palpable yearning to be connected to something good and pure. My idea of a fully human person has all those traits valued by Freire (empathetic, confident, critical, conscious, communicative, collaborative, creative, problem-solving, active, engaged, etc.) as well as those prized by Rousseau (good, pure, moral, self-loving, sense-attentive).

I will add to these: a fully human person is a whole person. She is more than thinking and acting upon her thoughts or consciousness. Her consciousness is bigger than mental activity; it is integrally connected to her physical body and her emotional/spiritual self. She moves, she plays, she sings, she dances, she is sensual and sexual—physicality is not reduced to eyes reading, fingers typing, feet walking, hands creating, etc. She uses her body fully and creatively—she is comfortable in her own skin. She is emotionally aware, comfortable with emotions, conscious and aware of her emotional being. She is able to have a level of spiritual peace even in physical or mental or emotional discomfort because she has been able to live and grow without the imposition of phony emotional and physical limits. She is able to have these experiences in communion with others. She has access to joy. She has fun!

God, I wish I were this person! Like Rousseau and Freire, whose sufferings made them formulate their educational theories, my profound sense of loss of my whole self has shaped my own ideas. You don’t like the term meta-cognition; I don’t like the term depression. Too fucking reductive. Sure, take pills to make you feel better, who am I to say that’s a bad idea? I’ve done it myself. But please don’t tell me it’s just because of brain chemistry! “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” You don’t need to tell me.

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