Sunday, June 28, 2009

Teaching for autonomy: "success" and beyond

Effective teachers and effective schools educate their students to succeed in society and, at the same time, to understand that their personal "success" is not the end of the story.

On one hand, students’ future happiness will be closely related to their ability to succeed economically and socially. One would do students no favors by turning them wholly away from the society in which they are embedded; that is not education for liberation, but education for helplessness and resentment. There is much to be said for preparing students for societal success. The successful adult is more autonomous than the unsuccessful adult; he or she is more likely to have access to desirable societal goods (higher education, the arts, political participation, gainful employment, etc.) and less likely to find him or herself trapped in a demeaning job or family situation, hopeless social or economic straits, and so on.

On the other hand, the autonomy that is born of societal success and its prerequisites is a limited autonomy. True autonomy requires being able to look with clear and critical eyes at one’s own society, understanding its flaws as well as its benefits. Ancient and modern traditions in literature, art, and religion stand ready to correct us if we, standing at the height of privilege in our society, look at our own success and comfort and nothing else – and then decide, with Candide, that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” True autonomy also means seeing through what is superficial in our own success; it means catching ourselves by the scruffs of our own necks when we feel tempted to accept the convenient untruth that our success is wholly or primarily the result of our own effort, and that others’ failure is the just result of their not exercising an equal effort.

The task of the education system, then – and therefore the task of each teacher – is to prepare students to succeed in society while helping them develop the ability to question their own success, their relationship with those considered less-successful, and the society in which these social, political, and economic power relationships exist. The fully-educated person has both the tools and knowledge necessary to succeed in society, and the imagination, empathy, political awareness, and critical literacy necessary to understand the limited character of that success and to criticize and strive to change the very society in which he or she enjoys it.