The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Friday, January 15, 2016

My Educational Philosophy

The 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper once complained about how much of education is getting unwanted answers to unasked questions. This is true! In general, it is always key to value questions students have, which connects them not only with the questions the teacher asks them, but also to some of the great questions that re-occur throughout history.

But of course, we are sometimes more or less curious, and in any case teachers do need to “push their content” to some degree. My educational philosophy can be described in a few words: always be pragmatic but recognize that life is about more than “what works” – something that is often missed today.   

We live in an age in which many take for granted that power – particularly intellectual and social power – is that which creates influence and change. Further, most all would recognize the truth behind the popular statement “knowledge is power”. Librarian Troy A. Swanson even notes that “some would say all…of the information in our society flows from the points of power, economic and political.” (“Applying a Critical Pedagogical Perspective to Information Literacy Standards”, in Community & Junior College Libraries, 2004)

While I, with Swanson, would agree that information should be understood “in a humanistic sense, as an extension of a person”, I firmly reject the notion that knowledge and information are only about power and our ability to shape our world by breaking this or that limit or barrier. There are also beautiful things of great influence that we can encounter and know: songs, devotion, family, poetry, worship, trust, and love.

It is crucial to recognize that knowledge and power – which can be used for good and evil – are intimately related. It does us all well to understand this reality, and for students to learn to be able to effectively navigate the “information ecosystem”, as we might say today. On the other hand, it is also important to think critically about the assertion that everything is ultimately about power.

Are our words, for example, primarily “power tools” we use to manipulate our environment or others – or are they something far more deeply significant? My view is that words – and with them truth and knowledge – are about far more than power, as great philosophers, religious leaders, and some artists have always been eager to show. As human beings, there is so much that we have in common. There is a world that we share that can shape our attention, pull us out of ourselves, and inspire our curiosity and even devotion. Even as we are gloriously diverse, we also have so much in common.

Some say that “we” only makes sense relative to a particular community. That said, we recognize other human beings, among all the creatures in our world, as those to whom we can relate to and communicate meaning with (giving and receiving reasons), precisely because we share a common humanity. In our scientific age, we might point out that the classical philosopher Aristotle may have gotten much wrong – but not this “rational animal” thing.

Why is this? To update Aristotle for today, I would suggest that it is because there is indeed a human community of practice. Much of what this community does – the “game” it plays – is trans-cultural and trans-historical. Or at the very least it is potentially trans-cultural and trans-historical. After all, it seems clear that many of the things in the world – making their presence known with their more or less intractable ways – have been structuring our attention from humanity’s first breath.

We don’t all speak the same oral language, but there certainly is a common human language we speak. When I talk about things like “information literacy” all of this kind of thinking is in the background. And I seek to meet the students where they are at in a practical way. When I begin, I always ask them how, in their lives, they know that they have a reliable information source or resource. And not just in an academic sense, but when they think about things like their big purchases, their health, their finances, their news sources, or even their romantic interests.

This always gets them talking: Education. Competence. Character. Etc. And we go on from there, into the critical tools and skills to be sure, but also with a view to helping them think about the wider context in which they learn these things.

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