Turning Inward in Bleak Times | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation
News & Events Header

Teachers College Newsroom

Skip to content Skip to content

Turning Inward in Bleak Times: A call for a return to education as a means of self-formation

By Robbie McClintock

Robbie McClintock, Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education
Robbie McClintock, Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education
While the presidential election was taking place, I was preparing to send an essay I have written, titled “Formative Justice: The Regulative Principle of Education,” to friends and colleagues. The electoral results, so unexpected and perverse, abruptly dispirited me. Why bother with what would seem to be an empty gesture? But then the shock abated and my determination has returned. The point of formative justice – that education, and all that rests on educational foundations, good or bad, stems from each person’s inwardly directed efforts at self-formation – speaks fundamentally to the present juncture. In dark times, even more than in bright ones, we achieve the capacity for clear judgment and effective action by reflectively engaging in our personal self-formation.

Plato achieved the first great examination of formative justice, speaking of it in the Republic simply as the imperative of living life justly, asking whether living justly would bring fulfillment better than living unjustly.

 [ Post-Election America: Read more commentary on the election from Teachers College ]

Aristotle followed, and in his Politics he held that the polis, or city state, existed so that people could together pursue the good life. Through the polity, people defined their common purposes, the good life as they saw it, and they developed their capacities for pursuing their purposes together.

"We have forgotten that the pupil is not plastic; mere stuff squeezed into this or that mold; that pedagogic influence must start from full, reciprocal recognition between instructor and student — a recognition through which the recipient of influence assents to it, transforms it, makes it her own as part of her ongoing self-formation."

Given the greater scale of modern polities, the idea of politics as the shared pursuit of the good life became harder to fathom. More precisely, people spontaneously defined material abundance as the good life and began to compete over how to share the common product. They brought interest group politics to the fore, redefining politics. Aristotle gave way to Smith and Marx as politics came to be understood not as a shared pursuit of the good life, but as a competition over “who gets what, when, how,” as Harold Lasswell put it in an influential formulation.

In the face of that change, education took up the cause of formative justice. John Adams famously wrote to his wife: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Thomas Jefferson, for many years Adams’ bitter foe, agreed, writing that “by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness....Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [“ignorance, superstition, poverty and oppression of body and mind in every form”], and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

"We need to cultivate our inner lives and to assert ourselves, one by one, as persons, as intentional actors."

Modern states instituted compulsory schooling for formative, not distributive reasons. Even special programs such as Head Start exist primarily to provide impoverished children with early educative opportunities aimed to enable them to benefit more fully from their later schooling. It is less an entitlement of a special group and more an effort to develop capacities of value to the whole society that will otherwise be underdeveloped. Education is not simply a public good to be distributed as a matter of equity. It is a formative opportunity and responsibility of the polity undertaken by the polity for the good of the polity.

Yet somehow the very practical, formative mission of education for all has become obscure. Now we increasingly allocate access to instruction on distributive grounds and deliberate about the equity of different distributions, a deep confusion of controlling principles. We have forgotten that the pupil is not plastic; mere stuff squeezed into this or that mold; that pedagogic influence must start from full, reciprocal recognition between instructor and student -- a recognition through which the recipient of influence assents to it, transforms it, makes it her own as part of her ongoing self-formation.  

Far too deeply, especially for the least advantaged among us, we find ourselves acculturated through education and public life to think of ourselves as behaving objects, directed externally by the play of forces impinging on us. The long electoral campaign we have just endured mobilized pressing efforts, not to inform our reflection and deliberation, but to get each of us to act in one of two designated ways: to rouse ourselves by November 8th to mark the ballot for this party or that one. The voter’s behavior counts, not the voter’s reasoning. Too much of life lacks meaning in that way, going to the store to pick the well-puffed product, logging on to confess our heart-felt affinities with a click, sitting in school to learn the lesson and prove it with the test. With each hoop, the behavior, not its meaning, counts.   

Our predicament—left and right, globalist and little islander—has arisen from having trained ourselves to conform as abstract ciphers, turning ourselves into identifiable objects, Barbie dolls all, each of us outfitted in an ensemble of extrinsic characteristics that predict our behavior. Thus, throughout much of our lives, we become signs of so many dead demographics, devoid of inner agency, ever-receptive to one manipulation or to another. Without borders, across generations, we have constructed a world of boundless signifiers, which direct our observable behavior, unmediated by our inward experience of significance.

Through our inner lives, through our subjective intentionality, we mediate our responses to stimuli and thereby we become active agents. We need to cultivate our inner lives and to assert ourselves, one by one, as persons, as intentional actors, to struggle from the inside with circumstances, as best we can, a unique attempt to lead the particular life that each of us deems most fit to lead. Neither deft manipulation nor crude demagoguery will prevail where each person fully engages in her autonomous self-formation.

Formative justice concerns the self-formation of persons, each unique, mortal, and imperfect. Mutual nurture, by which we help each other make autonomous persons of ourselves, offers no panacea in the current juncture, but it does constitute the path for reasserting meaningful agency in our lives, no matter how bleak and destructive the ambit of public action may prove to be.

Robbie McClintock is Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education

Published Thursday, Nov 17, 2016

By Robbie McClintock

Robbie McClintock, Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education
Robbie McClintock, Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education
While the presidential election was taking place, I was preparing to send an essay I have written, titled “Formative Justice: The Regulative Principle of Education,” to friends and colleagues. The electoral results, so unexpected and perverse, abruptly dispirited me. Why bother with what would seem to be an empty gesture? But then the shock abated and my determination has returned. The point of formative justice – that education, and all that rests on educational foundations, good or bad, stems from each person’s inwardly directed efforts at self-formation – speaks fundamentally to the present juncture. In dark times, even more than in bright ones, we achieve the capacity for clear judgment and effective action by reflectively engaging in our personal self-formation.

Plato achieved the first great examination of formative justice, speaking of it in the Republic simply as the imperative of living life justly, asking whether living justly would bring fulfillment better than living unjustly.

 [ Post-Election America: Read more commentary on the election from Teachers College ]

Aristotle followed, and in his Politics he held that the polis, or city state, existed so that people could together pursue the good life. Through the polity, people defined their common purposes, the good life as they saw it, and they developed their capacities for pursuing their purposes together.

"We have forgotten that the pupil is not plastic; mere stuff squeezed into this or that mold; that pedagogic influence must start from full, reciprocal recognition between instructor and student — a recognition through which the recipient of influence assents to it, transforms it, makes it her own as part of her ongoing self-formation."

Given the greater scale of modern polities, the idea of politics as the shared pursuit of the good life became harder to fathom. More precisely, people spontaneously defined material abundance as the good life and began to compete over how to share the common product. They brought interest group politics to the fore, redefining politics. Aristotle gave way to Smith and Marx as politics came to be understood not as a shared pursuit of the good life, but as a competition over “who gets what, when, how,” as Harold Lasswell put it in an influential formulation.

In the face of that change, education took up the cause of formative justice. John Adams famously wrote to his wife: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Thomas Jefferson, for many years Adams’ bitter foe, agreed, writing that “by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness....Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [“ignorance, superstition, poverty and oppression of body and mind in every form”], and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

"We need to cultivate our inner lives and to assert ourselves, one by one, as persons, as intentional actors."

Modern states instituted compulsory schooling for formative, not distributive reasons. Even special programs such as Head Start exist primarily to provide impoverished children with early educative opportunities aimed to enable them to benefit more fully from their later schooling. It is less an entitlement of a special group and more an effort to develop capacities of value to the whole society that will otherwise be underdeveloped. Education is not simply a public good to be distributed as a matter of equity. It is a formative opportunity and responsibility of the polity undertaken by the polity for the good of the polity.

Yet somehow the very practical, formative mission of education for all has become obscure. Now we increasingly allocate access to instruction on distributive grounds and deliberate about the equity of different distributions, a deep confusion of controlling principles. We have forgotten that the pupil is not plastic; mere stuff squeezed into this or that mold; that pedagogic influence must start from full, reciprocal recognition between instructor and student -- a recognition through which the recipient of influence assents to it, transforms it, makes it her own as part of her ongoing self-formation.  

Far too deeply, especially for the least advantaged among us, we find ourselves acculturated through education and public life to think of ourselves as behaving objects, directed externally by the play of forces impinging on us. The long electoral campaign we have just endured mobilized pressing efforts, not to inform our reflection and deliberation, but to get each of us to act in one of two designated ways: to rouse ourselves by November 8th to mark the ballot for this party or that one. The voter’s behavior counts, not the voter’s reasoning. Too much of life lacks meaning in that way, going to the store to pick the well-puffed product, logging on to confess our heart-felt affinities with a click, sitting in school to learn the lesson and prove it with the test. With each hoop, the behavior, not its meaning, counts.   

Our predicament—left and right, globalist and little islander—has arisen from having trained ourselves to conform as abstract ciphers, turning ourselves into identifiable objects, Barbie dolls all, each of us outfitted in an ensemble of extrinsic characteristics that predict our behavior. Thus, throughout much of our lives, we become signs of so many dead demographics, devoid of inner agency, ever-receptive to one manipulation or to another. Without borders, across generations, we have constructed a world of boundless signifiers, which direct our observable behavior, unmediated by our inward experience of significance.

Through our inner lives, through our subjective intentionality, we mediate our responses to stimuli and thereby we become active agents. We need to cultivate our inner lives and to assert ourselves, one by one, as persons, as intentional actors, to struggle from the inside with circumstances, as best we can, a unique attempt to lead the particular life that each of us deems most fit to lead. Neither deft manipulation nor crude demagoguery will prevail where each person fully engages in her autonomous self-formation.

Formative justice concerns the self-formation of persons, each unique, mortal, and imperfect. Mutual nurture, by which we help each other make autonomous persons of ourselves, offers no panacea in the current juncture, but it does constitute the path for reasserting meaningful agency in our lives, no matter how bleak and destructive the ambit of public action may prove to be.

Robbie McClintock is Professor Emeritus in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education

How This Gift Connects The Dots
 
Scholarships & Fellowships
 
Faculty & Programs
 
Campus & Technology
 
Financial Flexibility
 
Engage TC Alumni & Friends