Skip to Content
Search Icon


Another Sort of Learning

On education.


At the end of Black Boy, Richard Wright prepares to board a northbound train to Chicago and asks himself what made it possible for him to escape poverty and the segregated South. It is, he speculates, the “vague glimpses of life’s possibilities” that he found in literature. The emotional impact of stories cast an “unseen light” which he groped for without knowing what he would find. He writes of his days asking for forbidden library books under a white man’s name: “I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the world different.”

Wright’s experience of literature fits into what George Steiner, using a phrase of Matthew Arnold, called “the criticism of life.” Literature shows us that things could be otherwise. Even the most luxurious daily routine, one of comfort, security, and implicit power, can be its own kind of prison. Yet any reader can inhabit any mind, and any world as that mind sees it. Our imagination provides not only distraction, fruitless occupation, but concrete possibilities, ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Why, after all, does our imagination coalesce around characters? Our fantasies uncover real possibilities and so become aspirations, negative and positive. As the engine of aspiration, imagination is the soil from which we grow, develop, and flourish. We grow, develop, and flourish as members of a human community, a community outside of conventional space and time, built on words.

A reader can inhabit any mind, anyone’s five senses: anybody at any past or future time or any place imaginable. Yet the identification with others is not a loss of oneself—rather it makes possible finding and developing hidden and unknown aspects of oneself. It can be seen as a mode of belonging, kinship to the whole human race. If human bonds are originally exclusive and protective, family and village, the bonds of literature are different. They are expansive, indefinite. An education of this kind in literature reveals ways of thought and feeling, modes of life and action, well beyond what each day unfolds for a person in a particular time and a particular place.

Inhabiting another mind sometimes can be disturbing. I learned this when my U.S. History teacher in high school gave us a reading from the antebellum pro-slavery author George Fitzhugh. It was easy to step into Fitzhugh’s mind because his thinking was lucid and clear. He argued, without shame or defensiveness, that compared to the wage-slaves of the North, abandoned when their usefulness ran out, the enslaved in the South had it good. I suffered a life-changing shock. I understood then that my own sense of what was right and what was wrong, what was worth living and worth dying for, was completely contingent. Another time, another place, another social class—all turned on its head. The shock became a question: what standard is there for truth in morality? Eventually I learned that some minds one inhabits temporarily, to provoke questions, to see consequences; others we ingest, take into ourselves. Moving in this space of risk requires an educational environment that is reverent, serious, and scrupulously respectful. In environments that are casual, competitive, cruel, or diminishing, we either withdraw, refusing to travel into the minds of others, or we fearfully abandon ourselves, parroting whatever words we think might protect us and keep us safe, like a magic charm.

It doesn’t take much to infuse an environment with cruelty. A workplace focused on outputs, a classroom focused on grades and exams, a supervisor whose primary motivation is self-protection—these are cruelty’s indicators and engines. These environments are virtually everywhere. They are our default institutions, schools, universities, and workplaces. To build alternatives takes careful thinking, prudent and wise planning, years of work in the details. To find a humane environment takes discernment, crowned by blessed chance.

Learning under a spirit of competition, self-protection, self-advancement, and fear involves a different form of human speech than the one we see in imaginative identification. Consider Saint Augustine’s account of his acquisition of language in early childhood: “by groans and various sounds and various movements of the parts of my body I would endeavor to express the intentions of my heart to persuade people to bow to my will.” You may begin life a hungry infant, but at some point you see that sounds are levers that move others and can change their direction and focus. The desire to affect the behavior of others, to dominate them, whether for fear, desire, or entertainment, is basic to our use of language. And yet, despite its basis in the intentions of one’s own heart and the private will, Augustine notes that the power of speech is learned from others, by imitation. Our recognition of likeness shapes both ends and means. The sounds others make are connected with objects and actions. Even the most basic form of human talk is rooted in common ground: we recognize other human beings, with needs and desires, each like the other and like ourselves. Even if, as Augustine suggests, our first instinct is to dominate the others, to use them for our own resources, in doing so we join a community of sounds, actions, and effects.

We can use words as sounds, and sounds as words, but what is the difference? Animals make sounds without words; humans speak. Animals certainly communicate: they warn of danger, beg for small satisfactions, and whimper in pain. We understand them through our similar needs: safety, food, freedom, health. An animal too can tyrannize a human, as shown by any disordered pet owner. So too it can offer reciprocal aid, the gift of a mouse, protection against enemies. Animals may even offer a sort of “criticism of life.” If I see a dozen bear cubs rolling joyously in piles of fermenting apples, I experience a moment of unguarded pleasure: should I join them? But the limitations of animals to the actual, to what they do in fact, limit the scope of their criticism. Only human beings can offer one another the fullest, richest forms of “criticism of life,” kinship in needs one never knew one had, the ability to step in and out of identities and ideals, the cultivation of desires which may be elevated or debased but which have nothing basic or animal about them.

In the Confessions, Augustine describes conventional education as a development of the infantile domination for which we first acquire language. We learn one mode of speech to fill our bellies, to modify our bedtime, or, even more simply, to make another human being act differently. We develop our language to win honors, prizes, gold stars, praise, and influence. As we seek to move up in the social world, or to establish and retain the privileged position given to us, we learn new languages, accents, tones, and gestures. The whole of human striving, indeed, can look this way: the acquisition of sounds, symbols, and signs that open doors to ever more lavish satisfactions, ever more elaborate forms of superiority. Education in this sense is Pygmalion-style training, where one’s home dialect is eradicated for the sake of a language of belonging, where education consists of acquiring a wardrobe stuffed with the trappings of success. Augustine diagnoses his own desire for domination, sought by imitating success-words in order to make one’s way into imitated roles, roles which hold more power, more sway, more influence than those below. As real as his diagnosis is, it is not the end of the story of human speech and its uses.

In his dialogue called The Teacher, Augustine asks why we bother to speak to each other at all and comes up with a different, broader answer: to teach and to learn. The cry of a young child can be seen in this light: we seek to remind others what we need and want, and this too is a trivial form of teaching. As we saw, such teaching relies on affinity, on mutual recognition, on a shared nature. But it is trapped in one’s acquisitive self and in the realm of competition over goods and attention. Teaching shares something common to the speaker and the hearer, something that can be shared without loss. We can imagine simple imitation of word and object of desire and their more complex versions, paragraph and social position, a desired mode of being. But a great deal of teaching, like reading, is through words alone. How does teaching through words alone work? If teaching transmitted knowledge from one person to another, if it presented something genuinely new, we would be unable to recognize it. Consider the common experience of hearing someone drone on and on, repeating phrases, slogans, proverbs. The drone can continue for hours, weeks, years before it yields the flash of insight: this is what they mean. What happens in the flash can hardly be the work of the droner. It must happen within the listener. I can read and re-read the proof for the Pythagorean theorem; it may remain gobbledygook for a long time. What changes, once I see how it works, once I understand why the theorem is true? Communication works because we have something in ourselves shared between speaker and listener. So Augustine concludes, like his philosophical ancestor Plato, that teaching and learning involve a kind of recollection.

Augustine’s Platonic insight goes against our intuitions. We usually think of knowledge acquisition and transfer as nine-year-olds do. We read something about the origins of hurricanes, or the species of penguin, and we rattle it off to unsuspecting and sometimes unwilling victims. Yet we forget that the nine-year-old does not actually know the truth of what he reads. The nine-year-old understands something about what a fact is, what it means to describe things as they are, to uncover the hidden under the obvious, but she or he has not grasped a subject matter, does not understand why these or any things are true. The grasp of a subject-matter involves the training of perception and observation so that a truth can be recognized: recognized, that is, by its affinity to something else, its place in a network, a web of understanding. That web belongs to individuals, one by one, and yet there is nothing private about it. What can be articulated and understood is essentially shared, held in common. The practice of writing itself, that is, writing directed at a specific reader or readers, also relies on the hoped-for prospect of common ground. Authors aspire to shared experience. The reader, picking up one book or another, decides the matter. The degree to which the author succeeds in sharing an experience partially determines the book’s momentary success, the breadth of its appeal, and its endurance through generations. These are degrees of common ground, approaching universality.

As we imitate what others say, in our efforts to stuff our bellies and watch others dance to our will, we also imitate what others want. We learn to want, as well as to speak, by watching others. We may imagine that our desires are basic and that rivalry arises in scarce resources. René Girard’s insight is that we desire what the rival desires because he or she desires it. Such imitation leaves us trapped at the surfaces of things with others, without any depth to ourselves. As we grow in the power to rationalize our impulses, we can hide from our own superficiality. But when the gap between our origins and our aspirations gapes widely, the surface we seek and the depths we ignore come into view. James Baldwin describes how initially he hated Shakespeare, like all literary English, since it reflected none of his experience. Literary language can be parroted for social goals; it can be shared like a password among those in the know. Understood this way, it does not reveal kinship, but fosters alienation.

Yet imitation is only one approach to language. Baldwin writes that he realized that his quarrel with the English may be in part English’s fault, but it was also his own: “Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it.” To use language, Baldwin found, is to carve out the human from it, the universal, the shared. It is the finding of the “living heart,” the truth of something. Imitation seeks acceptance and advancement; use seeks communion. Elsewhere, Baldwin describes his purpose in moving to Europe in 1948 as a way to discover how the uniqueness of his experience as a black American might “connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” As Baldwin finds a human connection with Shakespeare’s characters, he sees the purpose of poetry as a loving acknowledgement of the universality of experience. Anything can happen to anyone, our stories show. In that way, as authors, poets, and readers, everything happens to each of us. He writes that “the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love—by knowing, which is not the same as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.”

Have we sufficiently reflected on this astonishing fact—and it is a fact—that whatever happens to anyone happens to me, should I choose to see and accept it? We contain the possibility for every human experience, not all in a single lifetime, not all to the same depth, but in principle.

The potential universality of all human experience has an analogue in the potential intelligibility of all languages. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu points out that while not every phrase in a language can be translated into any other, every human language can in principle be learned. Translations fail and fail inevitably. Here Wiredu sees a deep homage to the universality of language. When we see translation fail, it is because we have reached a deeper level of understanding how a particular language communicates. It does not show that the other language is unintelligible, but exactly the opposite. The fact that we cannot translate suggests we have moved from the levers and switches of imitation into shared understanding. Universality lies not in words themselves, but in the universal possibilities imagined by the human subject who uses them. There are limits on which human experiences one can have in fact, just as there are limits on how many languages one can learn. But the limit is not principled; it is arbitrary. We swim in universals: it is time and space and aging and death that limit us. It is the role of the poet, as Baldwin sees it—the writer, the artist, the thinker—first to absorb the universal into oneself, then to put it into words.

The human universal, of course, is in bad odor these days. Mark Greif, in his account of the rise of anti-humanism in the 1960s, points plausibly to its sources in Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist of difference, and in Michel Foucault, the scientist of power structure. Levi-Strauss writes in The Savage Mind: “I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man.” Foucault imagines, at the close of The Order of Things, that with the crumbling of certain recent ideas, “man would be erased, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea.” By “man,” of course, they mean humanity. Maria Kronfeldner, following fifty years of anti-humanist thinking, proposed recently that the term “human nature” be eliminated from use, as inextricable from its abuses.

Earlier theorists of difference noticed that images of humanity and universality can flatten and homogenize, and so serve the injustice of the powerful. Simone de Beauvoir complains in the Second Sex that the universal “human being” refers to Man, leaving out half the human race. Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks of the identification of the universal with the white ruling class, leaving the black underclass with a choice between humanity and the loss of one’s dignity or authenticity at the cost of humanity. Yet both Fanon and Beauvoir dreamt of an aspirational authentic humanity, one that could be found and achieved through a struggle for recognition, a humanity that would unite rather than divide, transforming both rulers and ruled.

Baldwin’s distinction between the imitation of language and its use helps us to clarify the right way to recover universality from its critics. It is true that the language of the general, the universal, and the human can be appropriated by the dominant social class, race, or gender, as a mere means of domination. But the danger here is not the universal but the approach to language by mere imitation, as an effort to replace others with oneself on the playing field of social competition. In Kronfeldner’s argument against the term “human nature” (which I take to be synonymous with “humanity”), she appeals to mountains of data on the appearance of these terms in contexts she calls “dehumanizing.” For her, the human only has meaning against a dehumanized other. Yet it should hardly be surprising that language that imitates words and uncritically adopts conventional desires should be shot through with cruelties. Augustine taught us as much. But as he also taught, no effort to manage our vocabulary will change the cruel hearts of human beings.

The anti-humanists are caught in the mode of education for social dominance. For them, to learn how to be “human” is simply to learn the trappings of rule over others. But that is to be trapped at the level of imitation, rather than to use language. Language makes real human connection possible, even if it cannot guarantee it. To deny the possibility of human connection is to toss in the rubbish heap any means by which cruelty might be replaced by love. Baldwin’s example of the use of language, as opposed to its imitation, is the music, the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz of the enslaved peoples of the United States and their descendants. Such music is also the central example of W.E.B. Du Bois’s masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk. Black music communicates a particular experience of a particular people in universal terms. It does so with ingenuity, creativity, defiance, and a relentless pursuit of the human universal. The Bible is the canon of canons, introduced on the plantation to teach the enslaved their proper place. Instead, to its hearers and readers, it revealed the oppressed as a chosen people, meant for liberation and communion.

Wiredu has a beautifully simple defense of the universal against its critics:

Suppose there were no cultural universals. Then intercultural communication would be impossible. But there is intercultural communication. Therefore, there are cultural universals.

Wiredu explains cultural universals in terms of human biology. I find this explanation unsatisfactory. All the biology in the world could not teach us what a human being is. As George Steiner argues, even if human language were systematic, the difficulty in translating from its biological terms to its ordinary use would be insurmountable. If it is communication that proves human universals, it is communication alone that can unearth them. The human core that resonates with words, stories, and arguments, the common ground that makes teaching possible, is not knowable in any way apart from teaching and learning.

I have gestured at a distinction between education for advancement and training, imitative education, and an education that opens up universal humanity. But a mystery remains: how is this universal opened up? How is it that the universal does not crush an individual perspective—not only the perspective of one inhabiting a race, a gender, or a social class—but the perspective of one traveling a totally unique trajectory in space, time, and experience? How does our metaphysical loneliness not challenge or undermine the web of kinship between all human beings?

On the one hand, I want to say that each active grasp of a universal truth—each moment in which a young person understands the Pythagorean Theorem for the first time, each time someone feels like a motherless child a long way from home, as the words of the old song resound like a bell—each of these moments is precious, adds something to the world of immeasurable value. We treasure our development, our expansion into new modes of thought and feeling, in grasping new-to-us features of reality. Knowledge is pointless, after all, if no one knows it; the largest database on Earth means nothing until that data is used in some act of understanding. We imagine knowledge as a database, when it is really more like a garden. A plant continues on, is passed down through generations, because an individual seed takes root and blossoms.

On the other hand, the realm of universal truth is never fully accessible. It unfolds only in the times and spaces of our individual lives. Universality is suggested, rather than fully experienced; it is the object of our desire, visible in the “unseen light” that Wright felt and groped toward. The grand human community, each sharing the sight of the other, would be only a dream, a fantasy, if there were not growth in it, if there were no such thing as human development. Our growth and development suggests completion, but completion is not something we can experience, not at any rate in the realms of time and space. The complete, the timeless, as it is put in Ecclesiastes, lies in our hearts. The community of human beings, living, dead, and unborn, is not accessible, yet we approach it in a humble way when we gather to learn in conversation with one another. Whatever the limitations of the seminar table, it multiplies indefinitely a single point of view and suggests a community beyond itself.

Baldwin suggests that Shakespeare “understood, which is not the same as knowing, that everything that was happening to anybody was happening to him” and characterizes that understanding as love. In doing so, he echoes Augustine. For Augustine, we know one another, just as we know God, now by faith, and only later face-to-face. Our love of neighbor rests in faith, in what we have heard, not what we have seen or known. Our common humanity is not a graspable object, a subject of definitions, but rather the object of aspiration and love, something that we long for once we hear the rustle of its garments, that reveals itself slowly, human being by human being, weaving us together by a thousand invisible threads, but hiding always the whole from us. Otherwise, we would not wait with bated breath for the birth of the newborn, would not gasp in awe at the newly heard voice. It is the work of a lifetime to know and to love one another. We cannot begin such work until we are changed from modes of imitation and domination to modes of activity, creativity, and true openness. That change is what we know and recognize as the core of education, at whatever stage of life it takes place.

Zena Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College and author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?