The Most Human and Humanizing Thing That We Do

April, 2019

Last autumn, the novelist and essayist Stephen Marche joined the chorus lamenting the effects of social media and Internet technology on our body politic.  In a piece entitled, “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity,” he observes that while users would share profoundly private stories and opinions (“Conversations on social media are almost entirely personal in nature”) and even intimate details on the Internet, such interaction was not complemented by an increase in empathy; if anything, the opposite was true, as participants hew to their own truths and refuse to entertain the meaning of another’s experience.  As Marche dolefully concludes:

The incipient political catastrophe in the United States can be summed up in a phrase: nobody believes the other’s pain is real. Nobody believes the other’s pain is meaningful; nobody recognizes anybody else’s pain. It is the central problem of Internet-provoked outrage and loathing, the hyper-partisanship that turns on so many hinges. Nobody is willing to accept the other’s description of their feelings.

Now, there is nothing terribly original in noting that social media can encourage dogmatic adherence to our own presuppositions or those of our social circle; moreover, if we are in fact facing an “incipient political catastrophe,” I am not sure it is any more daunting than other significant national moments over the past 50 years—and I suspect that those who have navigated the ongoing struggle for civil rights, the divisiveness of Vietnam, the Watergate crisis, and the post-9/11 fear and uncertainty might agree.  But even if I find the essentials of Marche’s argument both familiar and perhaps slightly overstated, there is much in them that I find persuasive, and which thus give me pause as someone who cares about schools and those who attend them. 

No matter what its governing educational philosophy, if a school is healthy in its mission, it will express a certain idealism, an insistent romantic belief in its own transformational capacity.  This is neither naïve optimism nor obnoxious self-regard, but rather an abiding and needed faith that good things happen when children and adults engage in an ongoing conversation about what’s worth understanding, valuing and acting upon in the world. Such conversation can and should involve developmentally appropriate skepticism—at Browning, we want boys to use their own discernment, to ask hard and respectful questions, and to draw individual conclusions—but it also makes important and necessary emotional demands on its participants.  Authentic, ongoing conversation requires meeting one’s partner in conversation with what the philosopher Nel Noddings terms “engrossment”—a type of care characterized by “open, non-selective receptivity” to the other and their point of view.  Such conversation entails recognizing someone else’s pain, yes, but also their hopes, their ideas, their joys and their questions.  Such conversation proceeds only in a learning community, and this community exists only when students and teachers alike are committed to hearing, acknowledging and appreciating each other’s narratives.  Such conversation, in other words, necessitates the very empathy that Marche and others find in short supply in our online and digital media spaces.

My point here is not to fire off a superfluous anti-technology screed or frame all social media in apocalyptic terms; these are complicated phenomena that deserve nuanced exploration in other venues. But I do mean to assert that schools—if they are going to be communities of real significance for their participants—simply cannot afford the kind of cynicism that we can see in some of our societal discourse.  Perhaps the deficits of empathy and interpersonal regard are limited to comments sections and Twitter wars, but when (according to the Pew Research Center) only 19% of millennial adults believe that others can be trusted, I think we need to recognize the degree to which our students, particularly older students, are subject to a pervasive media culture which increasingly presumes unkindness, encourages unhelpful suspicion (rather than useful skepticism), and actually alienates participants from the emotional vulnerability of others.  

This kind of culture of cynicism is, of course, antithetical to both the romantic spirit of hopeful schooling and the community of ongoing conversation that would support it.  One cannot imagine that the signature queries of real community—“What makes you say that?” “Would you tell me your story?” “How long have you felt this way?” “Can you help me to understand?”—would be long-lived in cynical precincts.  When cynicism reigns, good-faith questions are replaced by rhetorical posturing, dialogical partnership by zero-sum debate, and compassion for fellow learners by ad hominem attacks.  Cynical schools cannot hope to summon their latent transformational power to serve as places of deep purpose and inspiration for students and teachers alike; at best, they pass as way stations marked by transactional relationships, misunderstood pursuits and shallow interest. 

“Conversation,” observes MIT professor Sherry Turkle, “is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”  The very human qualities that constitute authentic, ongoing conversation—curiosity, honesty, empathy, good-willed skepticism, openness to persuasion, engagement with essential questions and enduring understandings—are those which inhabit robust and purposeful communities as well.  In this sense, there is no conversation without community, no community without conversation, and no significant learning without both.  When we believe in each other’s pain—and in each other’s hopes, ideas, joys and questions—we not only resist cynicism; we create the conditions of education by which our young people can both transform and be transformed, and ultimately (as Browning’s mission urges) “contribute meaningfully to our world.”