On Education as a Human Act: a report from the trenches

The process of learning is call and response. It's back and forth. It is flow and rhythm. It's a method of measuring -- how much can I take in without being overwhelmed. You can't gulp the glass; you have to drink deeply but breathe while you are doing it. You have to digest.

In short the process of learning is a process of relating. In learning we establish relationships with each other and with the object of study.

Much of the contemporary discourse around education forgets this basic fact. When we think of students, we think of individuals with clear boundaries, as disconnected wholes, and our educational system tends to consider itself as the accretion of many isolated data points. Each individual accrues a transcript, which marks the ascension of a single atom through a clearly defined path. When we speak of whether our educational system is working or what it is doing, we understand the whole "system" (we are in a mechanistic metaphysics) as an accretion of thousands of isolated data points. We take the data as primary and try to derive relationships from the data.

This way of thinking is literally backwards. Every educator knows that individuality is constructed out of relationality -- not the other way around. An atomistic way of thinking about students forgets what teachers know: learning is about making boundaries of the self open and permeable and could never be measured by any test whose function is to close off a self so that it can be determined.  Tests make static a process that is dynamic. They attempt to define a river by casting a line into it. Learning is fluid -- it demands breaking open the self and interacting with the world and with other people. The isolated atom cannot learn. It can only be sent mechanically from one point to another along a line that is already clearly laid out and determined.

These are things I have learned in my educational work: good teaching begins and ends with good relationships. Those relationships are founded in trust, and trust is a binding agent that functions between individuals. A school is not a system of transcript assembly. A school is a place, which exists in a world, and it is made out of people.

The social function of a school is to be a place where human relationship can be maintained and protected, where habits of human relationship can be built while they are still open and in-process. A school protects young people from the repetition and deadening that undermines relationality and de-sensitizes the human animal. These relationships -- of friendship, of respect, of joy, of concern, of self, of inquiry -- are the material of education.

A school is, therefore, a type of utopian space, where people come together to attempt to preserve the best in each other against the social forces that would undo and mechanize the human element. Schools succeed when they protect our ability to be vulnerable, to be exposed to each other, to encounter the world, to think and to feel. Openness, exposure, and vulnerability are the conditions of possibility of relationships and indeed of sensitive inquiry itself. Without these qualities there is no inquiry, there is only violence.

All educators must resist the factory model of education. The factory model, with its atomistic and divided conception of the child and the educator, its linear conception of curriculum, and its hierarchical characterization of social structures strips the school of its essential function, which is to maintain our humanity and to construct a vision of the human that is worth pursuing. It makes the school a machine instead of a place; it gives it functionality but not relationality. It deadens and makes mechanical a process that is organic and living and can only function in organic conditions.

For these reasons, the basic function of a teacher is to simply be humane -- all educational practice stems from the humanity of the teacher. The teacher's ability to relate to the world, to the material, to herself, to her colleagues, and to her students is the sine qua non of educational practice. All pedagogy is variation on this theme, and no pedagogy can substitute for it.

So, yes, let us measure our educational practice. Let us test and revise and innovate. But when we do, let us be sure we are testing the actual material of education. Such tests are not impossible to construct or carry out -- but their implementation demands qualities that cannot be factory-produced: empathy, respect, care, concern, attention. The testing and the analysis of education can only happen at the level of life itself, and those who know how to inquire at that level remain in short supply and appear not to have their hands on the levers of the educational system.

Until we have a society capable of taking the measure of a life in a full way, we will never have an educational testing system that leads us out of the factory model of education. We will have to rely on the human element in the factory and their counter-practices within and against the machine to keep the human spark alive. Green grass breaks through the cracks in the hardest concrete, and so still in the margins and through great effort does learning and genuine education happen.


  1. Great stuff Jeff. I just started my first position at a small liberal arts school and this is exactly the type of education that we try to encourage. Its good to see others thinking similarly and also to be reminded of what an educator is.


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