Do You Teach Persons or Individuals?

persons and individuals

After I wrote Resetting the Case Against Standardized Testing, my Twitter sparring partner, Chris Long, asked just what I meant by the distinction between persons and individuals. So here goes: Above is an old sketch (using Adobe Ideas, I think) from 2011 maybe, illustrating an idea we largely ignore but is nevertheless a fundamental to understanding some of the problems we face in education: we are in fact two creatures in one. Each of us is–first of all–a unique person. There is no one like Chris, and never has been, and never will be. That’s quite a remarkable thing, really: the world has never seen anything quite like him before and never will again. (A bittersweet thing, to be sure.) At the same time, he is an individual in society. With the exception of hermits, we live out our lives in each other’s company. Chris is a pretty humble guy so I think he is likely OK with the idea that there are lots and lots of other individuals a lot like him. We might slot Chris into a race, creed, or some socio-economic strata–but there is nothing particularly unique about Chris as a member of society. Chris’s job–as an individual in society–is to contribute to that society so that it becomes better. Chris is actually pretty good at that. But he does it, not for society’s sake, but for his own. He wants to goods of society–security, health care, culture and so on–to flow back onto him allowing him to become a larger, better version of himself, able to contribute yet more to society so that even more good flow back on him and so on. It’s a positive feedback loop of sorts. Liberal education understood this relationship, promoted the growth of the person while preparing him or her for public service. Modern public education, in contrast, focuses on the public good, developing skilled individuals, yes, but often at the expense of the person. If you doubt this, note that with the exception of a few gifted or learning challenged children, we consider all students–and teachers, for that matter–to be interchangeable; they can be assigned to each other almost at random. Problems arise, I think, because teachers are more often talking about the development of the persons in the classroom with them, while districts and states and so on are talking about the development of individuals. I am not sure I can yet say how, but I have a strong hunch that social media will allow us to bridge that gap and solve one of the great problems of the social sciences.     (Incidentally, it helps explain the problem with totalitarianism and communism, namely both subsume the person under the state, and conversely, with capitalism which exalts the individual over the society.)     Now, in order to do my job–become more you–you make contributions to society. Yes, so that society is improved, but ultimately so that the goods of that society flow back on you, making you


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    […] you teach persons or individuals?” Brad Ovenell-Carter asks in this excellent post that “just happened to show up in my Google+ stream this morning.  Persons, as he defines […]

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    […] forget, too, that there is a difference between what teachers do and what schools do. Teachers teach persons and schools teach individuals. The gap between those is very difficult to cross and is an example of a well-known problem in […]

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