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Vive Le Difference?

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Ethical Visions of Education

Dr. David Hansen

How shall we regard and treat others, especially those who are different?

A recent discussion at Teachers College explored that oft-asked question through the lens of the educator, ultimately considering the implications of adopting a "cosmopolitan" (global) philosophy of education. The talk centered around a new book, Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice, edited by Teachers College faculty member David Hansen, of essays by historic and contemporary authors on what it means to be a world citizen.

Three respondents, Professor of Art Education John Baldacchino, Professor of Social Studies and Education William Gaudelli and Professor of Philosophy and Education Megan Laverty debated Hansen's proposal and its implications.

Hansen called for teachers everywhere to actively discuss histories and information about foreign cultures, particularly with younger students. "A philosophy of cosmopolitan education helps the teacher perceive and act upon opportunities for connecting a student's idea to the past, present, and future, as well as for connecting it with the ideas of people in places both near and far-removed from their classroom," Hansen said. Through this greater understanding, a "communicative solidarity" could create social change, he said, minimizing the negativity associated with difference and creating a more harmonious global citizenry.

A cosmopolitan philosophy acknowledges that life is and will always be constantly changing, Hansen said, and that, perhaps because of this, life is unfathomable and will always encompass varieties and meanings never before imagined.

This recognition allows for a "sense of stability" because it impels people to confront the forces triggering change "rather than merely recoil when faced with differences from the norm," Hansen said. And that's natural, he said, because "humanity everywhere, at all times, often seems driven as much by curiosity and interest in the new as it is by the need for a stable way of life."

Laverty praised Hansen for focusing on the universality of the human condition. The alternative, she said, "is an exercise in forgetting that our sense of ourselves and our world is cultivated amidst a background of constant impermanency and incomprehensibility." Still, she suggested that his ideas assumed an unrealistic degree of harmony between people and cultures. "The cosmopolitan idea is premised on the recognition that human beings exist in dialogical relationship with one another," she said. "That humans come together, not as representatives of their species, race, class or culture, but as people who become realized, as individuals, in and through their relationships with others."

In actual fact, she said, the act of bridging the transitional space from individual to community must "be informed by the acknowledgement that it derives from a -'you' and is spoken to a -'me', and that it is that from which an -'us' emerges."

Gaudelli similarly contended that cosmopolitanism overlooks the power relationships that exist between people and cultures. "International travel becomes dichotomized into those who are permeating and those being permeated, bound in systemic power relations that positions one the visitor and the other the visited," he said. "More importantly, the rate of exchange is not even. Permeability is positioned within historically rooted systems of oppression, and no amount of sincere hopefulness or effusive good will to make a new global society, cosmopolitan or otherwise, can easily wipe that slate clean.

Baldacchino, for his part, took the opposite stance, arguing that individual and cultural differences rooted in a sense of place are, in fact, the basis for the cosmopolitan ideal articulated by Hansen.

"The plurality of human experience is the ground for the notion of knowledge as being. This knowledge of being, this knowledge as being, opens up what we recognize in the notion of possibility as a path towards opening to the imaginary rather than simply an act of imagination," Baldacchino said. "I see this as an opening to a concept of education that has always been central to art."

Imagination, in turn, allows us to "reclaim learning from education," Baldacchino said, "by which we in turn reclaim education from the school."

In closing, Hansen reminded listeners that "the bedrock values in a philosophy of cosmopolitan education can he heard in some highly provocative words from John Dewey and from the Roman playwright and poet Terence."
Dewey's words on the subject: "Interest in learning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest."
And from Terence: "Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto" or "I am a human being, therefore nothing that is human is foreign to me."
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