Saturday, July 21, 2007

Err on the Side of Hope

As a teacher, I often reflect on a long-running debate about human nature between another teacher, Plato, and his student, Aristotle. At the risk of oversimplifying that debate, as an idealist, Plato, in the guise of Socrates, argued that people are inherently good. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that while people could be taught to be good, they are generally more self-interested, hence his claim in The Politics that “man is by nature a political animal.”

As educators, we stand somewhere in the middle of this debate, albeit leaning more towards Plato. We don’t quite claim that people are inherently good, but we do believe that they can and should be taught to be good. In this sense, our dilemma is better contextualized by the contrasting ideas of Plato and Aristotle about art. Whereas Plato argued that art should portray an abstract ideal, Aristotle argued that art should reflect concrete reality, with all its imperfections. Aristotle summed up this contrast in his distinction between the potential, or the ideal, and the actual, or reality as we see it.

As educators, we tend to idealistically believe in the potential of our students. Other professionals, however, are much more Aristotelian in their practical inclination towards baser aspects of human nature, namely self-interest. Lawyers work within an adversarial framework that pits parties against each other, each struggling for its respective self interest. Businesspeople play off of people’s self-interests in a competitive market driven by commercial consumerism. The medical profession has profited off of people’s insecurities with products such as Botox, Viagra, and plastic surgery, rather than encouraging everyone to live healthier, balanced lives. Politicians and the entire American system of federalism rely on conflicting interest groups, under the fatalistic and paralyzing expectation that these interest groups will cancel each other out. Journalists thrive on bad news about people who do bad things. Police officers spend most of their time hunting bad people, all the while trying not to become bad themselves. Even accountants operate under the assumption that someone somewhere at sometime will steal something.

In short, most professions are premised on the reality of self-interest. However, for us teachers, our profession is premised on the ideal of potential, that is, the ideal potential of our students. Maybe that’s why we have such a hard time communicating with politicians, business leaders, and other professionals in the great education debate. Maybe their pressure for accountability stems from an Aristotelian perspective of education, a deficit perspective that sees children as incomplete and broken machines that need to be fixed, not as “living systems [that] grow and evolve of their own accord” (Senge, 2000, p. 37), which is how most of us teachers see our students.

Yet the Aristotelian perspective is validated by our shared history, where violence and bloodshed eclipse our few, ephemeral moments of kindness and charity. Indeed, if the usual outcomes in human history are any measure, I can’t blame the realists for wanting to err on the side of caution and assume the worst of humanity.

In this light (or darkness?), ours is not so much the noble profession as it is the idealistic profession that requires quantum leaps of faith. And as one such professional, I confess that I profess that faith.

And at times, my faith is validated by a few but proud outcomes; like when Marvin, whom everyone had dismissed as lazy and stupid, one day understood and related to the children of Polonius in “Hamlet”; or when Nicolette, an overachiever obsessed with building her resume, humbly learned the value of service when tutoring a child at a battered women’s shelter as part of a National Honor Society service project; or when Rabban, a troubled kid who once came close to being arrested, found the drive to do better in school in order to land a disc jockey job we had arranged for him at a local radio station; or when Marie, after her father had passed away, found solace and meaning in my own story of my father’s passing. There are many moments such as these, moments that give me reason to hope.

Thus, while the Aristotelians choose to err on the side of caution, I’d rather err on the side of hope.


Peter Bae said...

Hey Mr. G, I was just stopping by to read your galvinizing thoughts, perhaps to get a little enlightened. Yes, we, accountants, especially auditors, must apply the principle of conservativism, err on the side of cautiousness and fulfill our due diligence in all work performed. :)

Greg said...

Hey Galvin -

I just finished reading your entry "Err on the Side of Hope" - beautiful reflections, they are. Thanks for sharing them. I share your hopefulness as a fundamental position from which I view students - teachers and staff, too, for that matter. One of the things I have felt for a long time as an educator is that people are fundamentally blessed - created in the image and likeness of God - and all of life is "coming home" to that reality. We are born with that "original grace" of God's creative love, and because it is part of who we are, we can never lose it. We can forget about it, neglect it, deny it, cover it up, push it off to the side - but it is still there, waiting to be rediscovered.

Educators (including not only classroom teachers but also staff members and administrators)are in a uniquely privileged position to help young people rediscover their original grace. In fact, I believe that one of our fundamental tasks as educators is to help young people reconnect with their "original grace" - to rediscover their boundless goodness and potential - and to embrace the reality that all humanity is so graced. Humanity is also flawed and imperfect, and we need to recognize that and challenge each other and ourselves to grow and change. But, beneath the flaws and imperfections is still that original grace - and that is what we need to keep looking for and connecting with as we deal with young people in schools - especially those young people who we find the most difficult, for whatever reason. We cannot deal with them as a "problem" - rather, we deal with the problem by reaching to the deeper goodness and operating from there.

I guess the call to recognize God's presence in each other and in ourselves and to relate with the world and with one another out of that presence is something all humanity is called to. For us, education is the "mode" of our relating with young people in ways that transform their lives - it is the specific forum in which we interact with others. It is our specific opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of others. We do the best we can to offer an education that provides opportunities - opportunities for employment and ongoing education and responsible citizenship, yes, but also opportunities for loving relationships, for supporting those most in need, for compassionate responses to those in trouble, for acts of generosity and goodness, and for an optimism that says that original grace always trumps original sin - if we choose to live from that goodness and trust its power.

That's a lofty calling - and that's why we don't go about it alone. We do so in community with one another and in communion with God, so that we provide the conduit for God to work through us to touch the hearts of the young people entrusted to our care.

Thanks for inspiring these reflections!

Galvin Deleon Guerrero said...

Greg, thank you so much for your comments. After I posted my blog, I realized that my analysis excluded the Catholic and spiritual dimension. I see a similar debate running through the history of Christian theology, for which you articulated the affirmative side. In that theological debate, the affirmative argues that man is fundamentally good while the negative argues that man is inherently sinful and can only be saved by redemption in Christ. I appreciated your perspective that we are “call[ed] to recognize God’s presence in each other.” As you put it, “We are born with that ‘original grace’ of God's creative love, and because it is part of who we are, we can never lose it.”

While we cannot deny the fall of (hu)man(ity) into sin, neither can we deny Christ’s admonition, “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers, you do to me.”

Thank you not only for sharing your comments, but also for sharing our idealistic, hopeful vision of our ministry.