Touching the Eternal

Is a class in argumentation—where we analyze complex issues like immigration, police policies and food stamps—necessarily a good educational experience? Yes, it seems in today’s world we need to be able to function with this capability—to take a stand, see the other side and be able to draw reasonable conclusions using evidence to support our judgments..

End of story?

No, not so fast. There’s more to this kind of analytic experience when presented during a several weeks’ course.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Snyder’s course at Harvest/Collegiate School here in New York City. Harvest/Collegiate is part of the the New York Performance Standards Consortium, where teachers create their own benchmark assessments—rigorous, authentic challenges—that can be used to monitor students’ intellectual growth over time.

At the end of the semester I asked Justin what he got out of the course. What was most important to him?

Justin reflected, “This class gave me the ability to consider things from the other side of the glass. . . caused me to care and understand others’ point of view. . . [It gave me] a new sense of empathy. . . Good not to take anything for granted, to understand how others felt.” (Barell, 2016)

He went on to tell me about living with his uncle who had very different ideas, for example, about who deserved to receive food stamps— “We shouldn’t give something for nothing.” Justin concluded with his own feelings of having to go to bed hungry on occasion, without sufficient nutrition.

Why are these reflective questions important?

I suggest that this reflective experience is one we often overlook. Students take the test, we enter grades and, often, press on to the next topic without pausing to ask what our students found important, what they learned from our instruction, what was most significant. These student reflections just might differ from our planned expectations.

Justin’s observations provide us with his own personal meanings and understandings about the importance of argumentation. “The goal of high school is not success,” Andy told me after our visits. “It should be about gaining deeper understanding of an issue, being able to ask good questions to refine or clarify [the complex situation]. What we need is an openness to inquiry throughout. That’s how we gain wisdom.”

What strikes me now about Justin’s comment is how he transcended making an argument. He has touched upon fundamental characteristics of the human condition, what it means to be a person living in our world. Part of the human experience for all of us is to encounter differences such as what Justin observed, but to be able to empathize with another person and his experience.

Such empathy provides us with a Mazlovian sense of Belonging to the human family, to that which is greater than ourselves.

This, I think, is what is implied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s claim about the nature of human beings:

“Each individual faces the eternal at every moment and in every action of his life.”

What is “the eternal”? Well, it will have different meanings for each of us. But, for me, “the eternal” here represents what it means to be an individual living in communities of others who have very different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations all across the planet.

“The eternal” also refers to those fundamental principles, laws and universal truths about living within nature—on this planet, within our solar system, galaxy and entire cosmos.

Justin is here transcending argumentation to gain a sense of belonging to the nature of all humans across the planet, living within nature described by the laws of science.

When we teach, we have opportunities to extend students’ search for meaningfulness, as well as our own, by challenging them before, during and after instruction, to consider these extended meanings. We do so with such questions as:

“What is important to you here?
How does this apply to you? To all of us?
How does this relate to other subjects, to your experiences beyond school?
What are the general truths we are discovering about being human living in nature?”

In an exhibition for high school graduation I asked a physics student these questions about her research into the aerodynamics of lift-off runway lengths at LaGuardia airport for a 767.

“It tells me how the world works.” For example? “Well, how the subways I take everyday rely on the same basic principles of physics.”

There you have it. She has begun to see how physics helps explain everything around us. Helps her use these laws of physics for the betterment of all.

Why are these students’ understandings important?

They help them feel connected to the larger community of people who have similar experiences. We are not alone. We belong to the human race.

And we humans inhabit a physical world that we can know, understand and learn to explore for our own purposes, thereby achieving what one planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco (in charge of Saturn’s Cassini project) called

“. . .a deep spiritual quest—to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.”

“To have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole” may bring to some of us the comfort of expanding our humanity, of knowing that we, like all our kin, are searching for meaning and understanding.

With such relationships to “the greater whole” also comes the ability to control nature to some degree.  Hence, we have landed three rovers on Mars, explore Saturn’s rings and mount ever more powerful telescopes to search the origins of our universe.

Education is a search for meaning for all of us, from infancy to more maturity, one that brings us into ever closer and closer union with the eternals of nature and our human condition.
Barell, J. 2016 Moving from WHAT to What if? Teaching Critical Thinking with Authentic Inquiry and Assessments. NY: Routledge.

About johnbarell

Currently pursuing the answer to this question: How Do We Know They're Getting Better at 21st Century Skills? K-8 is published; now working on 9-12. www.morecuriousminds.com
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