Remembering Our Educational Values
by David T. Hansen - September 03, 2002
A discussion of the hidden values highlighted by the tragic events of September 11th
My response as a teacher and that of my students to the tragedy of September 11 calls to mind a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that has always impressed me and, I hope, influenced me:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. One is unable to notice something, because it is always before one’s eyes.... And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful (Wittgenstein, 1953, p 50, # 129).
I think that what Wittgenstein describes holds true for a great deal of educational practice. It holds true for educational values that reside at the core of the human experience of teaching and learning. In highly compressed terms, these values boil down to the idea that education means broadening, deepening, and enriching human insight, knowledge, and understanding, not rendering them more narrow, shallow, or impoverished. It seems to me that these values are often taken for granted. They are “aspects” of education that are crucial for meaningful practice, yet are often, to recall Wittgenstein’s terms, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.” In these remarks, I want to talk about what it might mean to remember our educational values, to let ourselves be animated by them, a task that takes on renewed significance in the wake of September 11.
When that day came, I had been at Teachers College and in New York for all of two weeks, this after living and working in Chicago for many years. One of my reactions to the events of that day – doubtless an echo of what many felt – was an acutely strange, uncanny, sad, and vertigo-like sense that everything I value about the educational enterprise had been violently struck and knocked off the moral rail. I felt as if I had been hit physically and morally, just as our city had been. Classes were canceled that Tuesday the 11th and also the next day. They resumed Thursday, and that day I had on tap two activities I had been greatly looking forward to: the first 2-hour meeting of a year-long doctoral seminar I was going to teach, and the responsibility to make a research presentation at our program’s initial 2-hour colloquium of the year. In the two weeks I had been in New York, I had met some of the students who would be in the seminar and at the colloquium, but I looked forward to these two occasions to finally meet everyone, in formal circumstances, as the new director of the program they were in, Philosophy & Education.
The morning of the 11th I was in my apartment near Columbia working on my presentation for the colloquium, obviously wanting it to be as well-crafted as possible. I put that work away that day and the next, only turning back to it Thursday, at which time I also had to make preparations for the doctoral seminar I was scheduled to teach. All the while, there was this persistent, gripping mood of strangeness, sadness, uncanniness, moral derailment, moral vertigo. It was very hard to picture in my mind’s eye how things would unfold that day at the seminar and at the colloquium.
DOCTORAL SEMINAR AND COLLOQUIUM
I walked into the seminar shortly before its scheduled starting time of 5:00pm. My students’ faces seemed to me to be incredibly expressive – looks of uncertainty, bewilderment, shock, pain, yet also glances and gestures of relief and comfort in being together – in short, a tapestry of emotions. All of this seemed visible in an almost dazzling way. I asked students at the start, after we had made introductions and I had made a point of welcoming them to Teachers College and to our program in Philosophy and Education, if anyone wanted to say anything. I mentioned that all of us would be together later that evening at the colloquium, where all our students in the program -- new and veteran alike -- would gather, and I suggested we could use the beginning of that event as well for people to share comments. For the moment, only a few had things to say. One student said that coming uptown to Teachers College and to the seminar was the first time she had left her neighborhood block since Tuesday morning, and as she spoke she was visibly shaking. Another student said that he really wanted to focus on the reading that had been assigned for the seminar, that he wanted to get back into why he was in our program in the first place. We went to work, and everyone seemed glad for it. For the subsequent two hours, I recollect trying to be as attuned to my students’ comments as I could possibly be, so that I could do all in my power to help generate a meaningful, substantive discussion of the assigned readings. I also recall the intensified yet unforced efforts of students to listen with care to one another, to go to the text to explore or illustrate their ideas, and to push various interpretations of the readings as far as they could.
After seminar was over and we had all moved on to the colloquium where I gave a lengthy formal presentation, similar thoughts and similar things happened. Quite a few students spoke up at the beginning when I invited them to comment – one student explaining tearfully, for example, how helpless she felt in not being able to do anything “important” since she lacked medical and counseling skills – to which several peers firmly but gently responded by saying her work as an educator matters – while another student said she was there that day in the colloquium not to hear me give my presentation (she said this politely), but because she sought the sense of community provided by being with her fellow students. We then turned to the presentation and to what became a lengthy discussion of various views of the theory and practice of teaching.
REMEMBERING EDUCATIONAL VALUES
One could say that, at a deep cultural level, our conduct in the seminar and colloquium that Thursday reflects ways in which people the world over have for centuries responded to the demonstrable but incomprehensible reality of human mortality. In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo, for example, Socrates conducts a conversation – this on the very eve of his execution for alleged impiety and corruption of youth -- centered around how we might orient ourselves as human beings toward the fact of mortality and to the uncertain prospect of the immortality of the soul (Plato, 1993). In the terms of the dialogue, one could say that what my students and I found ourselves doing that Thursday was, metaphorically speaking, singing to ourselves – a phrase that Socrates uses to describe his last conversation with his friends -- trying to enchant and hearten and comfort one another in the face of the vast, imponderable, overwhelming reality of our mortality, so starkly and so violently exposed on September 11.
I suppose something like this may well be true, and indeed may have been true for everyone in the country at the time. But I mentioned at the start that my theme here is remembrance, specifically the idea of remembering educational values. I think what my students and I ended up doing that day was in a fundamental sense remembering what we know, calling up and calling upon what we know, trusting in it in a kind of moral spirit that Ralph Waldo Emerson evokes in his powerfully social essay “Self-Reliance,” when he speaks of realizing that upon which we can rely (Emerson, 1983, p. 272). I think my students and I found that, in ways normally taken for granted, we had educational values upon which we could rely.
Without anyone orchestrating us, we found ourselves paying close attention to several readings – or, in familiar educational terms, to several curricular objects -- and we found that doing so was good. We articulated ideas, we pondered those ideas, we tried to question and develop them, and we found all of this to be good, too. In very general terms, we found ourselves seeking to broaden, not to narrow, our knowledge. We sought to deepen, not to render more shallow, our insight and understanding. We sought to enrich, not to impoverish, our outlooks and points of view. These educational values – these notions of broadening, deepening, enriching insight and understanding – have their counterparts, or cousins, at every level of education, from pre-school right on up, despite differences in context, age, subject matter, institutional setting, and the like. They also have their counterparts in non-formal settings -- that is to say, in the school of life. Broadening, deepening, and enriching insight and understanding: as John Dewey often claimed, we can think of living and learning as all one.
I mentioned a moment ago that before walking into the seminar and later the colloquium on that Thursday, that I could not picture what was going to happen. I do have a picture now of what did happen, even if its colors and shapes continue to evolve. I perceive in our response to September 11, as we met together in that all-too-familiar setting called the classroom, that we were not resource-less, even though every one of us felt that way in some profound sense. We were not operating without a grounding. Rather, we were imbued with educational values which almost of their own accord stepped forward to guide us. These values “taught” us what to do that day when the chips were down, when the moments were most intense, fragile, precarious, uncertain. As distraught and as morally thrown as we were, we did not have to “decide” what to do in the seminar and colloquium. Our educational values came to the surface to lead the way.
It would take a much longer account than I have time for to convey where those educational values came from. In my mind’s eye, I see in my own actions that Thursday the imprint of teachers and professors I’ve had or who I’ve worked with over the years, teachers who, as a matter of habit and disposition, enact a belief in educational values of broadening, deepening, and enriching insight, knowledge, and understanding. When I think of my students’ conduct that Thursday, I can almost see the faces and hear the voices of teachers and professors they have had over the years who worked in a comparable spirit. Albert Camus (1948) evokes that spirit, in its most existential terms, in his novel The Plague, when he writes that
There always comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that 2 + 2 equals 4 is punished with death. And the issue is not what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not 2 + 2 equals 4” (quoted in Sauvage, 1988).
For all these serious-minded teachers my students and I have had, who have to go nameless at the moment, it seems to me 2 + 2 is 4, not as an assertion, not as a hegemonic act, but as a gift. Thus, one might call what I am describing here an inheritance, something our teachers had bequeathed to us, unaware on our part and perhaps on their part as well. But it came to the fore on that Thursday.
* * * * * * *
Nearly seven months have passed since September 11. My students and I no longer are as acutely sensitive to one another, no longer as acutely in need of our educational values to surface and guide us through desperately sad and vertigo-like times. To recall the quote from Wittgenstein with which I began, the aspects of things that are most important for us have become hidden again, because of their simplicity and familiarity. I’m not disconcerted by that fact, because the point of these remarks is not that we should keep our awareness of our educational values at high pitch, as much as that might appeal to certain aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, the idea of remembrance, of remembering those values, reminds us that as educators our habits and our dispositions remain important for whatever positive influence we might have on students or on the world itself. This recollection suggests that one of the best things educators can do to ready themselves for the next blow, which will surely come, is to take good care of business when things seem most peaceful, routine, and ordinary. In other words, the notion of remembering educational values implies thinking about our everyday practices as educators and what kinds of habits and dispositions those practices are generating. Those are the habits and dispositions that will lead the way, for better or for worse, when the chips are down. They play a decisive role, it seems to me, in whether education will continue to embody the values of broadening, deepening, and enriching human insight, knowledge, and understanding.
Camus, Albert. (1948). The Plague (trans. Stuart Gilbert). New York: Modern Library.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1983). Emerson: Essays and Lectures New York: Library of America.
Plato. (1993). Phaedo (trans. Hugh Tredennick & Harold Tarrant). New York: Penguin.
Sauvage, P. (1988). Weapons of the spirit. Film produced by Pierre Sauvage Productions and the Friends of Le Chambon.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1953). Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe). New York: Macmillan.