Education, society, and trauma

Jean-Claude Morand wrote, in response to my post on the Politics of Experience: “Schooling can certainly be traumatic…but any other education model will also be traumatic. I followed 2 seminars with Marshall Rosenberg few year ago… and when you master non-violent communication it can also be traumatic. But all schooling systems around the Planet are adjusting themselves to their social environment and, don’t forget, are the fruits our ourselves. So I suggest that it’s the consequence of our acts not the reverse.”

An assumption I’m working under here is that, yes, we have the power to create the culture in which we live, and to some extent culture reflections of us, but at the same time, the culture in which we live has the power to create us. If our systems of education were not to some extent the results of our actions, there would be no point in my criticism, because I would be admitting that my actions are merely the results of my education, and that I have no creative capacity. However, at the same time, it’s clear that the education we receive does have an effect on our personalities (we are shaped by ALL our experiences in the world), and thus, our education shapes the way we act in the world. Thus I think positing that either culture affects people, or that people affect culture (“our social environment is the fruit of ourselves”), is a simplistic approach to understanding these dynamics. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. I find these dynamics both extremely interesting and extremely complicated, and it’s a question philosophers (Hegel, et al) have struggled with for centuries: to what extent does culture create us, and to what extent do we create culture? This is by no means a question to be taken lightly.

Another assumption I’m working under is that, since our experiences help shape us, children will to some extent grow up to become different adults according to the experiences they have in the world (and thus, according to their educational experience.) The same child, given the opportunity to grow up in Canada, or the opportunity to grow up in Korea, will to some extent become a different person depending on their circumstances. So it doesn’t make sense to me that our educational systems are simply the “fruits of ourselves.” We are also the fruits of it. The same could be said about any social institution: Nazi Germany being the “fruits of the German people,” for example. German citizens were clearly affected by what happened in the Nazi era — they were created by it as much as they created it — and later generations continue to be affected today. These younger Germans did not create the circumstances in which they live, and neither did most of the Germans who lived during the Nazi era. If one speaks of the social environment as the “fruits of ourselves” in this sense then I don’t see how this can be anything but a tautology: yes, humans create culture, and in some ways it reflects us; but so what? Sometimes we create healthy culture, sometimes we don’t. How to create healthy culture is to me a more important question.

A third assumption is that we do not all create culture equally; some are given more power to do so than others. Thus culture is the fruit of some of us moreso than it’s the fruit of others of us (and here I’m referring more to social/cultural institutions than culture in a broader sense). It is the result of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation moreso than it’s the result of my own. It’s the result of mainstream groups moreso than it’s the result of marginalised groups. It is, and I understand that some may disagree, the result of corporate and elite government power more-so than it’s the result of ordinary people. Though most people do not know this, the American public education system (the “common schools” as they were called) were very unpopular with the people, and ultimately had to be forced upon some of us via military force. Of course, times have changed; now that we’re used to it, now that we’ve had time to become shaped by it, public education is much more popular, but initially, it was no democratic movement. Early in its history it was used as a tool to subdue Catholic immigrants who were seen as a threat to the American way of life. Was the education system at this time the “fruit” of these immigrants who were subjected to it, or rather, the fruit of someone else, and imposed? My sense is that a critical approach to power is essential and is not present when we simply accept that these institutions are the fruits of ourselves.

Now, it’s clear to me that any educational model can be traumatic, and it’s clear to me that learning Non-Violent Communication, or even reading a good book, can be traumatic. Some of my most valuable learning experiences were traumatic because they threw my conception of the world upside down and forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew. However, what I am most concerned about here is coercion, people being forced against their will, against their inclination, against their passion, to relegate their learning to external authorities who tell them when to learn, when to learn, and how to learn it, and as I’ve said, deny their experience. I believe this denial of experience is a deeper and more insidious trauma than that which results in freely choosing one’s experience. Trauma like that which I described in reading a good book, and likely that you experienced in learning Non-Violent Communication, were entered into of our own volition, and thus while trauma may be present, it is not accompanied by this giving up of personal power, this relegating of oneself to another who’s supposed to “know better.” Trauma accompanied by powerlessness is not the same as trauma in which we retain a degree of agency over our situation. A situation over which we have more power, and in which our experience is valued, will likely be less traumatic than one in which we have no power at all.

You say that “all schooling systems around the Planet are adjusting themselves to their social environment.” I think this is true to a degree but I find these systems to be remarkably resistant to change. They adjust themselves, certainly, but how long does it take? Furthermore, a more important question to me, do they adjust themselves to diversity? Do they adjust themselves to the different styles of thinking and learning and being that individuals have? Do they adjust themselves to people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Ron Miller’s take is that education has been about preserving the status quo. Public schools in America have been exposed to strong cultural influences but have been very unresponsive to these influences. John Dewey’s ideas were very influential but the public schools co-opted them and watered them down to the point where the public schools hardly embody Dewey’s philosophy at all. And, argues Miller, despite lip service to individuality, American culture is actually supportive of a notion of individuality which is “almost exclusively economic, competitive, and superficial,” and is unaccepting of broader understandings of human experience and potential. This, I believe, is what we need. There is no point in an educational system adjusting the social environment if it merely compromises to an “ideal status quo” that suits no one rather than also adjusting itself to accommodate to diverse ways of being.

Thanks for your comments and thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify my ideas.

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~ by dewiniaeth on June 20, 2007.

3 Responses to “Education, society, and trauma”

  1. It was a pleasure to reply. 🙂

  2. I try to respond personally to as many comments as possible (giving them their own posts as often as I can!). I think blogs are a great opportunity for dialogue, though I don’t see dialogue happening nearly as much as it could, so I’m glad you entered the conversation! I am curious how you would respond to this, or what the assumptions are that you’re working under, so I could understand your perspective better. Feel free to respond if you like. 🙂

  3. Oh, also, I was curious: what was traumatic about non-violent communication?

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