The Practice of Dignified Debate

The days after September 11th were both deeply lonely and full of human contact. As I walked uptown in Manhattan, with thousands of people escaping the site of the explosions, I witnessed many acts of human caring between people looking dazed and frightened. Fleeing from a danger-filled sky was not new in my life. I experienced the terror of bombardment without a chance of escape, during World War II. Thus I was thinking, what have I learned from the past to help me with the present? What can I teach to others? What can we collectively contribute to our theory of learning?

And thus, I welcome this "collaborative reflection." First, I concur with many of the contributors who see learning as a holistic process rather than the accumulation of increasingly standardized information. I see learning first and foremost as sustained engagement in the worlds of knowledge, passion, tradition, and innovation. It is that engagement that makes it possible to survive horror, it is that engagement that combines skill, expertise, and compassion so beautifully demonstrated by the many volunteers at Ground Zero. While their commitment has been honored by the citizens of a traumatized city, officially, and in many local and personal ways, this compassion is accompanied by a more far-reaching national response of revenge. Aren't these conflicting models for our children who are exposed primarily to skill acquisition rather than to learning to make thoughtful appropriate responses to unexpected terrifying events?

Thus my first objective concerns teaching/learning as the acquisition of the practice of dignified debate. It is with helping learners of all ages to think constructively, and to bring multiple perspectives to emotionally explosive issues in the midst of unique and overwhelming events. Gavriel Salomon writes in this issue, " We have created a most sophisticated and complex culture and a technology that far exceeds in its demands of us our built-in capacities. Our brain is still mainly that of a reptile (or, if we are to be more generous - that of a horse) with a very thin layer that makes us human." I agree, and would like to suggest that through recent research in neuroscience, we have increasingly stressed how deeply interwoven cognition and emotion are. That is what makes us human. But a barrier is frequently created between feeling and thought because of the way we teach children. That barrier is also constructed by our focus on individual competition rather than a creative co-construction. It requires the delicate movements of initiative, listening, dialogue, the building of trust, the discovery of the self through the eyes of the other, and the joys of shared achievement. To me, learning how to think and work collaboratively brings the classroom closer to the increasingly bewildering challenges of the future. It contributes to an early training for dignified interdependence, among learners, teachers, and community members, so necessary in the face of fanatic conviction.

I have been listening with a particular keenness to the words and thoughts of my students. They have all experienced September 11th in New York, and they are all rebuilding their sense of purpose and their quest for hope. Perhaps the most urgent task for those of us committed to the exploration of learning is to renew our own hope in the transformative possibilities of felt knowledge.

Professor of Education and Linguistics
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
Sussman Visiting Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, NY

December 14, 2001

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

Accueil bulletins sommaire précédent suivant 

Centre International de Recherches et études Transdisciplinaires - Dernière mise à jour : Samedi, 20 octobre 2012 15:12:14