If We’re Not Teaching the Self, What’s the Use?

I recently attended a conference at The Perkiomen School in East Greenville, PA on “Disrupting Education.”  Sure, it’s almost a cliché by now, this disruption thing.  However, when we’re disrupting the thing I do for a living, I’m listening.  I’m not one to sit on my laurels, trot out yesteryear’s lessons and hit replay.  If I’m not making my students uncomfortable in what they think they know, if I’m not “disrupting” their weltanschauung, I’m not doing my job correctly.

The conference attracted me not only because of the title.  Their keynote speaker was Ted Dintersmith, and I’ve been eager to see him since viewing Most Likely to Succeed and reading his latest book, What School Could Be.  Schools around the nation and world have looked to MLTS as an example of what’s possible in reimagining education, and countless educational leaders are using What School Could Be to help them identify models for redefining their own districts or schools.

Image result for what school could be

Dintersmith’s vision is not without its critics.  The more Marxist among them point to his history as a venture capitalist, to his links with big money and corporate big-wigs.  And then there are the more generic arguments that simply identify his vision as naive and too far outside the vision of the “Public School.”

After hearing Mr. Dintersmith last week, I don’t believe his critics.  He is as concerned about the state of public education as the best parents I’ve ever heard, and he is quite aware of the pressures and limitations put on schools.  His book is overwhelmingly focused on innovative public schools, and his vision is solidly founded upon his recognition that perhaps the most valuable courses he ever took (he has advanced degrees in physics even though he went into venture capitalism) were those in his BA–English.

But aside from the STEAM focus and the Project Based Learning methodology that Mr. Dintersmith points to over and over in his work, it is quite clear when you hear him speak that what really matters to him is relevant, real work that meets, in a very “Glasserian sense,” the needs of the learner.  (See my notes from his Keynote Q&A below.)

Dintersmith Notes

Furthermore, Dintersmith’s insistence on a learner-centered experience adds more energy to the tidal wave of articles and ideas hitting my news feeds in the past month on the importance of helping students develop a deep sense of identity and purpose in their work.  In fact, I attempted to capture, in a prominent way, this very notion in my notes when, in the upper right I posit the importance of a curriculum of self-knowledge surrounding the questions of “Who am I? What will I do? and Why does it matter?”

For most English teachers, such a focus is nothing new.  My own students have journeyed through a unit addressing the question of “Who am I?” with texts from Aristotle, Hume, Descartes, Edgar Allan Poe,  Jack Bowen, the existentials, Prof. William Cronon, even The Matrix.  While at first confused by the deep and often skeptical look at the nature of their being, students come to understand the way in which their choices and actions help define who they are and why living a life of intention matters.

And even at a systemic level, such a focus on the philosophical is not new to American public education.  Almost since its inception, our system of education has counted among its other goals (the Civic and Economic) a weak devotion to the development of a child’s highest personal talents.  What is new, however, is the preponderance of work currently being done to focus us far more on helping students develop a clearer answer to the question of “Who am I?”  See, for example: Prof. Yuval Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyChristian Talbot’s recent post referencing Harari’s work.  Will Richardson and the Modern Learners: “The Most Important Skill for the Future: Being Human.  And Scott Barry Kaufman’s recent Scientific American Article on Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

Kaufman’s article is particularly interesting in that he is updating and reconsidering the work of Abraham Maslow.  Not just Maslow’s hierarchy/pyramid (a mischaracterization of Maslow’s work, Kaufman argues) but all his work on self-actualization.  The resulting article ought to be read by every adult concerned with the health, education, and well-being of our children.

The upshot here is not that we are entering a new “me” generation where it’s all about the self.  Rather, what does matter is that in a world that is ever more connected, ever more intrusive into our time and our lives; and in schools where status and ranking continue to rule over learning as the goal of education…in such a state we are recognizing the psychic fallout of such pressures and concerns.

In the end, all of us involved in education need to take a good long look at ourselves and what our systems of testing, ranking, ordering, filing, and grading have done to the humanity we (ought to) bring to our work, and the humanity we seek to engender in our children.  Such concerns are not mutually exclusive of deep, focused, academic work.  Indeed, they are the very precursors and foundations that allow for such work to happen in the first place. Univ. of Pennsylvania professor and proponent of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman put it best:

Those who regularly read my irregular posts are familiar with my take on the three main goals of American Public Education.  We educate for economic reasons: A secure economy is the foundation of a capitalist democracy, and when the economy goes south, our democracy suffers.  (Yes, I realize it’s a rather sanguine view.)  We educate for civic reasons:  to create a populous capable of continuing this, the world’s longest running experiment in self-rule.  But the third goal, the personal ends of education, is often overlooked.  And it is this goal, especially in a world as uncertain, shifting, and “disruptive” as ours, that commands us to know ourselves better, and in doing so, to better adapt to the systems we create, and how they create us.

Thus, I’ll be exploring the importance of ontology and self-knowledge as fields of study further over the coming months.

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