Are arguments on behalf of a broader, deeper vision of education soft and feminine when what we need today is schooling that is tough and masculine? This appears to be the perspective of many who advocate for more grit, fortitude and determination among our educators and our young people. Pull up your socks! Batten down the hatches! Hit the books! Bite the bullet! Don’t mope–cope!
Such exhortations have their place. When you see the long hours that some youngsters put into not only schooling by day, but their evening cram schools as well, you can’t help but wonder if other students will be disadvantaged when they develop interests including sports, music, and leisure reading. If you made your way through the global financial crisis by the skin of your teeth, you’ve received a painful education in just how unpredictable the world can be. If you once had a unionized job that paid good benefits with a generous retirement package, and now find yourself doing part-time work at minimum wage, you can be forgiven for wanting to make sure that every cent spent on education delivers a good economic return.
Such reasoning has led governments to invest billions of dollars in improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, while leaving educators teaching the arts, literature, and history to cope as best they can with whatever is left over. The message is clear: Become a chemist, physicist, computer engineer, or a statistician. These are the fields in which knowledge workers of the future will prosper.
If only the challenges we face were so simple! It is as if the advocates of such perspectives never met a student whose parents are going through a messy divorce, never heard of a child struggling to make her way through life with a kidney transplant, or never met a family of refugees. It is as if they never heard of racial or gender discrimination, and as if they never imagined that schools might play a role in addressing such injustices. Human existence is reduced to the cash nexus. It is the apparent job of the educator to follow suit.
We should resist such degradations of the human spirit. An anachronistic instrumental imperative that hammers away on students as economic investments has left our students with an impoverished sense of who they are and who they can become. Education is much more than job training. Life throws up all kinds of challenges. Perhaps for a privileged few it is effortless, but these are exceptions.
How can we fortify our students to prepare for the real tests of their character? One way is to study the lives of those who have faced adversity. I am leaving this evening for Rome, Italy, to speak at a conference on “Protecting and Promoting Education as a Public Good” organized by Education International. At such a time I find myself thinking about Primo Levi, one of my favorite writers. Levi studied at school to become a chemist, but the fact that he was rich in human capital did not spare him from being arrested as a Jew and then transported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1944. In his memoir, If This is a Man (1), Levi wrote of the brutal struggles of the “drowned” camp inmates, who did not know how to endure, and the “saved,” who managed to navigate the sadistic punishments of their prison guards from one day to the next. Only on rare occasions could a glimpse of human dignity shine through.
One of those occasions presented itself to Levi when a friendly Alsatian prisoner, Jean, expressed interest in learning Italian, while en route to pick up soup at a food station. It was an auspicious moment for Levi because the small Italian contingent of prisoners were dying in droves. As he struggled to communicate in the two more prevalent languages in the camp—German and Polish—he felt his identity slipping away. He seized this unexpected chance to recite a passage from Chapter XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, the “Canto of Ulysses.” “Who knows how or why it comes to my mind,” Levi wrote, “But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour.” (2) He chose a passage in which Homer’s Ulysses landed in hell—an uncanny parallel to his own situation in the concentration camp.
What follows is then Levi’s account of his tormented effort to recall the poetry of the Canto. “Nothing. A hole in my memory,” he struggled. “Another hole. A fragment floats in my mind, not relevant.” (3) He was able to remember that Ulysses was on the open sea, which means “throwing oneself on the other side of a barrier, we know the impulse well.” The recollection brought up waves of associations: “it is when the horizon closes in on itself, free, straight ahead, and simple, and there is nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away.” (4)
At this point Levi and Jean approached the food station and time was beginning to run out. “I am in a hurry, a terrible hurry,” he later wrote, to recall the poetry he had been searching for. And then it came! Levi begged of Jean, “open your ears and your mind, you have to understand for my sake.”
He quoted from memory from Dante:
Consider from what noble seed you spring:
You were created not to live like beasts,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge! (5)
Levi had remembered the verse. When it came back to him, it was “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast from a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” (6)
Levi had studied Dante’s Inferno in school. His teachers had given him poetry that prepared him not just for the light and happy moments in life, nor just to compete in markets, but also to remind him of his full humanity in times of need. For a brief interlude—just a precious few seconds—he forgot his degradation as a camp inmate. He knew—if ever so fleetingly—that however far he had fallen, he still possessed within him the dignity of one created for the “pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.”
What lesson might we learn from this? The dignity of the human condition does not reside in prevailing, but in struggling. Levi was one of just a handful of Italian inmates who survived Auschwitz, but he was plagued by survivor’s guilt for decades until his suicide in 1987. We remember him today not just because of the deeply moving, deceptively simple nature of his writing, but also because of his quiet, dogged quest in the decades after World War II to uplift the human condition.
Educators have essential roles to play in preparing students for their lives after school, but we only can do so if we engage with them in their full humanity. To do so we need to stop simplifying our vocation. Human capital matters but it isn’t everything. A dehumanizing instrumental imperative focused on students’ future earning power needs to be replaced with a more profound existential imperative. This should enable students to develop their interior lives in shared communities of learning with one another.
It is time to recover education’s plenitude for the sake of our students. The purpose of education is to enable students, as best they can within their given circumstances, to explore their full humanity in order to contribute to a better world. This means giving them tools to prosper economically, but it goes far beyond this. Educators have the potential to teach their students that they were born for virtue and for knowledge. If we can recover this understanding of our profession, we can attain the true grandeur of education.
The ideas contained in this blog are explored more fully in my forthcoming book entitled The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity (New York: Routledge, 2016). If you would like an email notifying you when this book is available, please sign up on my website at www.dennisshirley.com.
- The original Italian title is Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Eiundi, 1958). It was changed in the English translation to Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Collier, 1958).
- Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 102.
- Ibid., p. 102.
- Ibid., p. 103.
- I prefer the translation of Lawrence Grant White in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (New York: Pantheon, 1948), p. 46, and have used that here. The original Italian reads “Considerate la vostra’ semenza/Fatti non foste a vivir come bruti/Ma per siguir virtute e canoscenza”. See Dante Alighieri, The Inferno of Dante, (New York: Noonday Press, 1994), p. 276.
- Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 103.
- Ibid., p. 104.
- Ibid., p. 106.