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Practicing education is like practicing democracy

When parochialism is encouraged under the guise of solidarity, it’s more important than ever for schools, colleges, and universities to promote citizenship by helping students to think critically.

Globe staff/deagreez/Adobe

As the school year draws to a close, it’s easy to see that teaching and learning are no simple matters these days. Questions around education have become more urgent in the face of the powerful forces of discrimination and censorship at work in our country.

Of course teaching has always faced obstacles. Throughout the modern period, theories of education have been hotly debated, and as secular governments assumed responsibility for schooling, educators focused on preparing independent thinkers who could also be free citizens. But it’s always been a paradox that one can really learn independence from another.

Today many are asking whether schools are truly helping students think for themselves or only indoctrinating them into the latest campus orthodoxies. Others have noted that while higher education can lead to inventions that benefit society as a whole, it can also create self-serving justifications for the inequalities associated with economic development. Educational thinkers in America have been responding to such questions for a long time. Real students, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, are provoked away from conformity; they think aversively. Freedom is tied to learning and neither is just an intellectual matter. They are bound together by living with an intensity opposed to convention.

W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t need Emerson to tell him that a real education involved an intense opposition to convention. As a Black intellectual, Du Bois pursued learning with a steeliness forged by the racist opposition to his talents and ambitions. As a student, he aimed for freedom through empowerment. Then, as he made his way in the world, he in turn used his education to empower others who knew they must change the world around them to have any chance at real opportunity and freedom. His contemporary, Jane Addams, who worked with poor immigrants in Chicago, also recognized that a profound education should be put in the service of the most vulnerable. She rejected facile and performative critical thinking in favor of what she called the sympathetic imagination — a faculty that led to understanding perspectives and experiences very different from one’s own. This was at the core of her rethinking of what it meant to be a student or a teacher.


Emerson, Du Bois, and Addams remind us that the most effective teachers are the ones preparing students for more than replicating the world as it is. They are empowering people to intervene to protect those who are treated unjustly and to choose with discernment those who would govern. In other words, teachers are contributing to civic life.


Strong students make better teachers, and both help create better citizens. I have had the good fortune of working with students whose seriousness and joy, playfulness and purpose have illuminated for me the very subjects I was trained to teach. Working with students has also made me more attentive to the concerns of others. By exploring the complexities of the world, students and teachers practice making connections that are intellectual and affective. And today, when parochialism is encouraged under the guise of solidarity, it’s more important than ever for schools, colleges, and universities to promote citizenship by helping students increase their powers of aversive thinking, critical feeling, and of the sympathetic imagination.

Strong teachers often provoke powerful emotions, and the best teach in ways that eliminate the need for their teaching: “Your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators,” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche underscored in 1874. To be a good art teacher, said John Baldessari about a century later, means knowing when to get out of the way. The goal of the teacher is to help the student be more than a spectator, more than a consumer of lessons.


Teachers can help students get to a place where it is more likely that they’ll find modes of feeling and thinking with which they are at home and which they can share with others. Part of being free, part of political participation and of leaving one’s childish immaturity behind, is finding that new home. Long after official graduations, many students remain enormously grateful to the gifted educators who opened up possibilities of inquiry and appreciation that might otherwise have never been discovered — teachers who also recognized the right time to get out of the way. It’s not just that teachers know subjects that the student aspires to understand; it’s also that through their own advanced studies they have developed habits of paying attention, analysis, and openness that students want for themselves.

Teachers point students toward experiences and discoveries that become available through collaborative exploration. We must be on our guard against those who are afraid of that exploration; we must stand up against those who fear fluidity, who ban books, and who are frightened by free expression and creative transformation. Practicing education is like practicing democracy — both are collaborative, experimental paths of improvement.


I’ve been teaching for over 40 years, and I’d like to think I’ve remained a student throughout this time. In the courageous company of my fellow learners, I’m encouraged to believe that society may be able to reject the cynical status quo that mobilizes rage, that we may be able to build a politics and a culture of compassionate solidarity rather than one of fear and divisiveness. Our education, the ability to productively learn from others, should help people shape the future lest it be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are too threatening.

When we work with others, when we are open to learn from them across our differences, we will feel the power and promise of our education as it helps us tackle the enormous challenges ahead while finding joy in creating new possibilities.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, “The Student: A Short History,” will be published in September.