A Philosophy of Life

How do these abstract arguments translate to the person-centered classroom?  Aside from the selection of texts, why should these debates matter and how do they impact the educator’s understanding of what a child needs to know?  The answer, for me, lies in the understanding that there are common existential realities that mark the existence of all human beings, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic background.  An educator who has faced these universal aspects of his existence has the capacity for empathy, and this will have an effect on the quality of his relationships with others, including his students.  In his book, When Teachers Face Themselves, Arthur T. Jersild (1955) describes this process:

“A teacher’s understanding of others can be only as deep as the wisdom he possesses when he looks inward upon himself. The more genuinely he seeks to face the problems of his own life, the more he will be able to realize his kinship with others, whether they are younger or older, like him or unlike him in education, wealth, religion,  or professional rank. (Jersild, 1955 p. 83)

In realizing our kinship with others, especially our students, we have developed our capacity for empathy.  Empathy emerges only from self-understanding and the courage to face ourselves and naturally leads to curiosity about others.  Thus, empathy serves the person-centered educator more than any other quality in attending to the child’s emotional and intellectual needs.  This will have an impact on the child’s understanding of herself throughout the various developmental stages of her life journey.  It is up to the educator to get her started.

Children are born.  They eventually begin to walk, to talk, and to ask questions about the reality they encounter.  Ultimately –absent the unfortunate event of an early death– they will traverse the various Ericksonian stages of human life from the adolescent joys and despairs surrounding the question of identity to the early adult preoccupations with the problem of intimacy, to the more mature concerns surrounding the emergence of the ego strength of generativity, the genuine commitment to guiding the younger generation towards the fulfillment of its potential (Crain, 2000 pp. 281-285).

As the individual continues to cycle through the various micro-journeys of the adult years, she is eventually confronted with the questions of meaning and death.  She faces a changed world where friends, relatives, and numerous loved ones have come and gone, a world where her youth, usefulness and financial prospects have likely faded significantly. Whether she avoids the task of facing these realities or courageously chooses to meets them depends on the level of maturity she has developed and the level of her commitment to investigate reality with an open and curious mind.  If she has been educated with what Paulo Freire (1975) has called the “banking method” (p. 59), she will be less likely to resolve these existential issues without a significant crisis.  If, however, she has had the fortune of being educated in a context that respected her personhood and fostered inquisitiveness and critical thinking, she will more than likely develop the ego strength of wisdom along her life journey (Crain, 2000).

I do not consider wisdom to be the domain of any one culture, religion, or group.  I consider it an essential quality of a human being who has led a life of questioning and thoughtfulness.  It is a universal quality –one which leads me to have a sense of hope in my daily encounter with my students.  I cannot control who they will become, and I cannot stop the inevitable challenges they will face (some of them might even be unbearable), but I can ask them to look deeply into their world in the hope that they will learn how to discover for themselves not only what is true, but also what they might be able to do in their life circumstances.  I want my students to learn how to read and write and how to ask good questions, but I realize that these abilities take place within their natural life context.  Thus, I am compelled to develop a teaching philosophy that is comprehensive and which includes the “big questions.”

According to Tyler (1949), our philosophy of education needs to be comprehensive if we hope to deliver a curriculum that serves a child’s needs for full integration.  In a nod to Prescott (p. 71), he defines a person’s integrative needs as “the need to relate oneself to something larger and beyond oneself, that is, the need for a philosophy of life” (Tyler, 1949, p 71).  A philosophy of life necessarily leads a human being to contemplate his sense of ethics, his commitment to fair play, his need for efficacy, and his search for the eventual place he will take at society’s table.  It also leads to his valuation of the ideals held by that society.  As the human being continues to survey these various aspects of his life philosophy, he continues to engage himself “in the process of pursuing the great human project of integrating the self in social context” (Howard, 1996, p 173).   Schooling, above all, needs to facilitate this process.

An educator who understands the need for a philosophy of life will never seek to implant his own into the child’s mind.  Rather, he will seek to provide rich and varied schooling experiences which will afford the child opportunities to develop her own.  In the end, the best preparation for an educator in providing these experiences is the ceaseless examination of his own philosophy of life.  This examination will not be complete without considering the question of “the good life” and the possibility of a building a just and benevolent society.  It will also be found lacking if it does not include the recognition of the basic universality of the human journey from birth to death and the relationship between that recognition and the likelihood of realizing that kind of society.

People are born and eventually take their full place among us.  Our interest as educators ought to be concerned with the nature of the place they will take among us.  Will they be ignorant?  Will they be prone to violence, hatred, and prejudice –a condition borne from the combination of an upbringing and a schooling that did not value their personhood?  Will they be agentive, active participants in our democratic society?  Will they be happy and fulfilled?  And, to the degree that they are unfulfilled, what kind of impact might that spiritual condition have on the quality of their individual lives?  How might that spiritual condition affect the collective health of our society?  Finally, what kind of impact will a society of unfulfilled, unreflective citizens have on our communities in the areas of social/economic justice?  What kind of impact might this have on the quality of our discourse as a society?

These questions are paramount.  They are human questions and constitute the very foundation of what I believe responsible educators need to care about most: the emergence of a benevolent society comprised of individuals who are themselves guided by an ethos of good will and a commitment to truth.  Considering the challenging life circumstances we inevitably encounter as human beings, including our mortality, we cannot afford to ignore the potential salve of living in a society which values knowledge, mutual understanding, and empathy.

A teacher who centers the curriculum and who builds a learning community around the humanity of the individual child takes these broad questions into consideration.  That consideration carries with it the responsibility to provide experiences in which the spirit of questioning is invoked, practiced, appreciated, and thoroughly internalized.

However, we cannot expect any substantial fruition of the spirit of inquiry in our students if we do not include the implications of the dialogical context of the school, the community and the society in which the classroom is placed.

  Dialogue Matters