You are on page 1of 17

DAVID KENNEDY

SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION,


AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN

In Eva Marsal, Takara Dobashi, Barbara Weber, & Felix G. Lund (Eds.),
Ethis che Reflexionskompetenz im Grundschulalter. Konzepte des
Philosophierens mit Kindern. Hodos: Peter-Lang Verlag, 2007.

Two Contrastive Pairs


The deep-structural assumption of this paper is that there are two closely
related broad universal normative criteria of ethical development that can be
applied across both culture and history, each of them expressed in the form of a
binary or contrastive pair, which implies a dialectical aspect to their relation. The
first has to do with the balance between two categories of experience--the
heteronomous and the autonomous—and how they interplay in the ongoing
construction, not just of a single human life, but of a culture. The second binary
pair is the relation between the individual and the collective in the construction of
an implicit ethical theory or system and a moral code.
The terms of both binaries are limit conditions. The notion of complete
autonomy is as counterintuitive as the notion of complete heteronomy, and the
same goes for individual and collective. If we accept the principle that self or
subjectivity is actually the internalization of an other—whether the superego, the
mirror image, or simply the “point of view of the other”—one term swallows the
other; autonomy is a subclass of a fundamental heteronomy. And if the individual
is only an individual in relation to a collective, then the collective is the primary
phenomenon, its ground or field.
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 2

But we do find differences in contemporary culture and, if we believe certain


scholars (Norbert Elias, for example, or Phillipe Aries, or Johan Huizinga1),
historical differences between what are sometimes called “field dependent” and
“field independent” personalities and cultures. Fundamental approaches to the
issue of human autonomy can vary widely according, not just to the broad
cosmological views that are disseminated and reproduced in religious doctrines,
but in social and economic structures and systems. And there are myriad hybrids.
A religious doctrine might proclaim the “priesthood of the believer”—the notion
that each person is autonomous before God, for example, and must work out his or
her salvation through an act of pure individual will—in fact this Protestant notion
was influential in the historical construction of the modal secular individualist of
the modern West—but unless that “salvation” is formulated and performed
according to a narrow set of collectively approved criteria, it will be considered
heretical. Similarly, the individualism of the capitalist modal personality is
assumed, as is the collectivism of the socialist, but an economic individualist can
be a social collectivist, and an economic collectivist a social individualist. It would
seem that there is virtually an infinite number of combinations of the four terms, so
what good are they?
Not much good, especially if we take a broad survey of our species’ ethical
situation. As it currently stands, I am not aware of any large social group that has
an ethical profile which is widely different from any other. There may be
differences in legal structure—the way in which ethical norms are encoded in laws
and statutes. The rule of law, for example, may be much more firmly established
in one social group than another. But in any reasonably large social group,
whether we characterize it as a heteronomy or an autonomy culture or individualist
or collective, there is dishonesty small and large, there is more often than not
widely accepted social or economic oppression of one sort or another, there is base
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 3

disregard for the other, there is criminality, corruption, and cheating both on a
small and a large scale, there are various endemic forms of fascism and
hoodlumism, both on the cultural and on the institutional level; and there are
myriad forms of heroism, loyalty, altruism, honest-dealing, and fundamental good
will toward the other. Looked at from this angle, the distinctions the two sets of
criteria represent don’t seem to do much good either.
Not much good unless one is thinking in terms of any given ethical system
and its relation to education. By the former I mean a normative system—a set of
ideals for both behavior and for personal dispositions (and thereby by implication a
form of subjectivity, or a characteristic way of living with the superego), which
mark out the limits and the possibilities for both individual and collective life. And
by the latter I mean, not necessarily formal education, but ethoi--practices or
customs of adults relating to children, and different adult-constructed and
maintained environments in which children find themselves, which are the basic
cultural forms that ground formal educational structures like schools.
Schooling, Neoteny, and Modal Subjectivity
The two main environments we associate with children are the home and the
school. Unlike the home, the school is the place where the forms of life of a
culture—including the ethical—are open to collaborative reconstruction. The
school, we might say, is at least potentially a collective laboratory for cultural
evolution. The human is the species marked by cultural evolution because of its
big brain and, concomitantly, because of neoteny, which means, not just the long
period of dependency (neo-tenein, extended youth) that is necessary for the big
brain to mature, but the permanent characteristics of childhood (“paedomorphism”)
that mark the species, most importantly, the brain’s lifelong capacity for growth
and change—that is, the ability to learn and reconstruct throughout the life cycle.
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 4

The primary form of childhood education of a culture—in our case the


school—will determine the extent to which that culture takes advantage of neoteny
in order to search for a normative balance between autonomy and heteronomy and
individualism and collectivism that makes for a form of human subjectivity more
capable of approximating an ethical ideal in daily life. The outcome of a
normative balance between the four terms is expressed well enough in Kant’s three
forms of the categorical imperative—the first two having to do with both sets of
terms, and the third with the first.2 But the capacity to search for, find, practice and
develop the balance is grounded in the lifeworld. Piaget offers a Kantian version
of this process in his genetic epistemology, which traces the growing capacity of
the child to move beyond an epistemological “egocentrism” and take multiple
points of view. While it is true that the capacity to take the point of view of the
other is the necessary and sufficient condition for ethical and moral practice,
Piaget’s whole formulation suffers from the same narrow rationalism as Kant’s—a
rationalism that depotentiates the lived experience of alterity that is in fact the only
sure basis for the autonomy that Kant calls for.
In order to be able to imagine the sort of qualitative advance or leap that
neoteny promises, we must turn to something much more radical than cognitive
decentering. The possibility of ethical evolution hinges on a new experience of
alterity within the self—the “rupture of the egoist-I”3 that Levinas represents as the
onset of a new form of knowledge, a knowledge no longer dominated by what he
calls “the same”—which is to say the ego’s projection. The onset of this radical
alterity amounts to a sort of deconstruction of self, and the emergence of a
vulnerability, an instability of self, a self-doubt that signifies that one has become a
dialogical other to oneself, a self-interlocutor. The dialogical self is engaged in the
ongoing deconstruction of everyday psychological and intersubjective space—
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 5

which is reified in the psychological space of the “normal” scientific paradigm—


and its reconstruction as a space of possibility and transformation.
The emergent psychological space of the dialogical self is transitional. It is
an intrasubjective and an intersubjective self, where projection and introjection are
recognized as never overcome. It is where the distinctions between subjective,
objective, and intersubjective break down. It is a chiasmic self: it no longer knows
exactly where the boundaries of self and other begin and leave off. It is a post-
Cartesian, a post-rational self; it is a self that has come apart, and has taken on the
project of facing its own contradictions. The life-work, and by implication—
because it has to do with the other—the ethical work of the dialogical self is one of
emergent reorganization for the purpose of the integration of those contradictions
in an emergent synthesis. The synthesis is always just beyond it because of the
nature of temporality, and thus the dialogical self is an immanent, not a
transcendent self, except in the sense that it is governed by an emergent whole, one
transrational system in ongoing reconstruction. Above all, it is a system in which
the ego—the seat of rationality—occupies a different position than in a non-
dialogical self. It is a system in which greater autonomy and more poignant
individuality result in greater sensitivity to the collective, and in which a more
poignant awareness of our fundamental heteronomy encourages rather than numbs
our felt sense of responsibility toward the other.
Having imagined a style or a form of subjectivity that is more capable of
approximating a normative balance between our four terms of ethics, one must ask,
can it be taught in school? Obviously not. Modal subjectivity—the subjective (and
therefore intersubjective) style of a collective—is indeed “produced,” but the
elements and dynamics of that production are too contingent and too large-scaled
and multiple and complex—in short, too chaotic—to be available for manipulation.
On the contrary, it is the historical episteme and its discourses that manipulate us,
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 6

not we them. Even those who think they are manipulating them are simply
fulfilling their own inherent goals.
The powerlessness—indeed, the abjectness—of the traditional school as a
site for the reconstruction of modal subjectivity is dramatically borne out by the
history of universal compulsory education. The national system of Napoleonic
France in the first years of the 19th century set an enduring example of schooling in
the interests of the nation-state which, although it may seem extreme to us today,
in fact lays down principles that still underlie, if not always the institutional
mechanics, then the culture of public compulsory schooling. Schooling in the
modern Western nation state is inherently dedicated to the reproduction of class, of
relations of power between classes, of economic systems, of social relations, and of
cosmology or world view. Simply put, the school is a machine run by the state for
the reproduction of the docile consumer, worker, and “citizen,” in that order.
This is not to say that there is no counter-tradition, or that there are not
countless schools—public compulsory ones included—and countless teachers and
administrators who feel the impulse to imagine the school differently, to
understand it as “collective laboratory for cultural evolution,” a site for the
reconstruction of subjectivity, for fulfilling the promise of neoteny. And the origins
of all these impulses can be found, not so much in an interest in “betterment,” or
“progress,” or “efficiency,” or even “humanization,” but in the human possibilities
that a transformed adult-child relation offers.
The Adult-Child Relation and the Dialogical Self
The transformed adult-child relation has its origins in a new adult
construction of childhood, and therefore of any particular child, which in turn is
based on a reconstructed notion of adulthood, of subjectivity as an ongoing project.
Most specifically, it has its origins in the understanding of the child as interlocutor
rather than wild body to tamed, creature to be domesticated, or even client to be
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 7

“served.” As a form of adult dispositional behavior, it has most primarily to do


with listening, and thus is a hermeneutical relation through and through, and being
in a hermeneutical relationship with children has to do with facing and working on
the contradictions in oneself—which is to say listening to oneself. Working with
children is every bit as much self-work as it is work with another. This is because
each child represents my own potential for reorganization. In fact I still carry my
own childhood—I still am the child I was. I am still working with the experiences
that child had, and I am still the possibilities that child embodied. I still work with
the relationship between desire and reason, body and mind, id and superego,
unconscious and conscious, impulse and habit that I grew up with, and that my
parents’ form of life socialized me into. Nor is it through suppression of one or the
other of these terms that I continue to grow—that is to say, reorganize—but
through their interlocution. It is not through suppressing contradiction, but rather
through recognizing, acknowledging, confronting, enduring, suffering,
contemplating, struggling with, and (sometimes) glorying in contradiction—that is,
allowing the dialectical path of contradiction—that I develop, that I become
myself, a becoming that is never finished. And the same imperative for
interlocution applies to my relation with the children I have been given, whether in
the home or in the classroom; even more so, because childhood is the site of the
original bargain between desire and reason, and the site for the possibility of a new
kind of bargain. As Dewey argued, it is the very “impulses” of the young that are
capable, not just of transforming outworn and destructive “habits” (including some
“good” ones), but of reconstructing habit itself—that is, of fulfilling our potential
for being habituated differently—for having (or Dewey might suggest, being)
habits that are more flexible, more reconstructable, more intelligent in every sense
of that term.4 Every child is a potential evolutionary experiment, and in nurturing
the child’s experiment I clarify and nurture my own, which, because of neoteny, is
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 8

ongoing. And the school is the natural site—even, we may say, more natural than
the home, since here “blood” is not involved, and therefore my relationship with
the child is more emblematic of the culture and the species as a whole—for this
double interlocution.
Community of Philosophical Inquiry and Ethical Reconstruction
The nation-state and the culture it represents have, in general, made an
everyday dystopia of school—where, as Rilke’s autobiographical child testified,
“Time . . . drags along with so much worry,/and waiting, things so dumb and
stupid./ Oh loneliness, oh heavy lumpish time.”5 Nevertheless, a school in which
the neotenic relation between habit and impulse is the fulcrum of practice, in which
adults are existentially engaged with children, with themselves and with each other
—what Dewey called an “embryonic society”—may be the only systematic
promise of the large-scale social and ethical reconstruction that at this particular
moment in the history of the species and the planet appears to have become a
matter of survival. And if one could think of a centerpiece of pedagogy and
curriculum for such an adult-child collective—a fundamental ur-discourse—it
would be one in which children and adults are provided a means for ongoing
collaborative reflection on the deep assumptions that ground their own knowledge.
In the realm of the ethical, these assumptions gather in a
conceptual/affective/narrative matrix, some of whose themes are fairness, equality,
right and wrong, good and bad, evil, justice, forgiveness, responsibility, self and
other. In fact it tends to be the case generally that collaborative reflection on any
philosophical concept, if pursued far enough, takes an ethical turn, for the question
“how then shall we live?” inevitably presents itself. Nor can any authentic ethical
reflection in the classroom avoid finding its way into the everyday life of the
classroom, which is a realm of ethical action just like any other dyad or group.
Inherent in the idea of dialogical ethical inquiry is the interhuman reconstruction of
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN 9

relationships of power and responsibility, and thus any school that undertakes such
inquiry is implicitly committed to the ongoing reconstruction of authentic
democratic practices. The child-adult collective imagined here is also, then, an
experiment in “real” democracy—which means, not some form already arrived at
and institutionalized, but democracy as we wish, or hope, or believe it possible to
be; for democracy as an emergent political form.
This ur-discourse—which I will call “community of philosophical inquiry,”
represents, not only the liberation of a space for children’s voice, but what follows
from the opening of a marginalized voice in general: the emergence of the
“privileged stranger.”6 The voice of the privileged stranger in any culture—
whether woman, racial other, cultural other (e.g. “Arab” or “aboriginal”) or queer,
is the voice that through its very speaking names something about the “native”
culture that natives do not see because of their level of vested interest in it. I
would go even further and suggest that it represents—particularly in the case of
woman, child and queer—an element of subjectivity that is repressed in the native
—that has been silenced. The native has not heard the voice, but it is within him.
When the stranger is privileged—i.e. listened to, taken seriously in spite of the fact
that she speaks differently—it suggests what in psychoanalytic parlance is referred
to as the “withdrawal of the projection.” That is, the adult struggles to no longer
use the other as a screen on which to see the material that is in fact within himself.
The adult comes to “own” his material, and is individuated thereby, but through
alterity. It represents the “rupture of the egoist-I,” the decentering or “dethroning”
of the ego, and the recognition, critical for ethics, that, as Levinas has taught us,
the other is there even before oneself.
“Community of inquiry” as a term of use applies, not just to an ethical
community of inquiry, but rather to any community dedicated to a particular
inquiry. The academic disciplines of the school—language and literature, music
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
10

and the arts, history, economics, sociology, anthropology, archeology, science,


mathematics, and so on—are in fact all products of ongoing communities of
inquiry. They represent, as Dewey argued in The Child and the Curriculum,7 the
current end-states of inquiry in any particular subject matter. A mathematics
textbook, for example, may be considered as a summary of centuries of ongoing,
collaborative inquiry in that particular field. The child’s experience in the world
represents the starting point of those inquiries. The young child’s interest in
mathematics as expressed in arranging and rearranging a handful of pebbles in the
dirt is thus on an epistemological continuum with the most advanced knowledge in
set theory. The task of the school is to identify the contours of this continuum—to
map it, to locate the experience of each student on the path that it represents, and to
find ways in which the end point (the curriculum and the teacher) can contribute to
the development of the child at whatever point she is in her own inquiry.
One particular crippling aspect of the traditional school is that it takes the
curriculum—the finished product—as something that is expected to replace the
child’s inquiry rather than contribute to it. This reflects traditional education’s
epistemology and its learning theory. On the other hand, a school that takes it as
its form of practice to connect the two is by definition devoted to the child’s
inquiry every bit as much as to the child’s internalization of the end-point of the
inquiry so far. It is also at least potentially implicit in this understanding that, just
as the child’s construction of the discipline is emergent and open-ended, so is the
discipline itself, and its “finished” state as represented by the curriculum reflects
no more than the current state of the inquiry in any given field. Furthermore, the
degree to which any given inquiry advances beyond its current state is dependent
upon inquirers who act, so to speak, like children—who are seized by inquiry
rather than use it in the service of other goals, like career—and for whom it
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
11

represents an experience of transitional space, where the boundaries between the


“real” and the “possible” enter into extraordinary relations.
Each discipline is grounded in a set of fundamental assumptions that are
philosophical—a set of working beliefs about what, for example, constitutes a
historical or scientific fact, what makes a work of art beautiful, the relation
between mathematics and the structure of nature, etc. It is these assumptions
which, since they are inherently contestable, provide the element of uncertainty
upon which inquiry is based, and that make of it by definition never-ending.
Traditional educational epistemology, on the other hand, considers these
philosophical assumptions to be “settled.” As a result, the philosophical inquiry
that should be a key aspect of every discipline in the curriculum is suppressed.
Even when traditional pedagogues do recognize the emergent and socially
constructed character of knowledge, they protest that children should not know
about it. They argue this on both instructional and moral grounds. Instructionally,
they tend to believe that children must start with known and established “facts,” a
sort of data base of uncontested information, delivered by teachers and books;
critical thinking, they claim, can only come after there is something to think
critically about, and that something must be acquired non-critically. This naïve
epistemology has its analogue in the argument that children need early inculcation
in a clear and secure moral picture of the world—they “need to be taught right
from wrong”—if they are not to begin “questioning everything.”
These arguments reflect the traditional, commonsense view of childhood and
of children as inadequate, dependent, vulnerable and implicitly amoral creatures
who need to be isolated from the “real world” until they are no longer children—
that is, as voiceless ones (Lat. infans, or qui fari non potest, “who cannot speak”).
Both views are implicitly impositional, and act effectively to close off
philosophical inquiry from the curriculum—not, as it is usually suggested, because
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
12

it is not “useful,” but because it is dangerous. But in fact it is just at the


philosophical level that the disciplines become meaningful, because it is just there
that the dimension of wonder (Plato and Aristotle’s thaumazein, Adorno and
Benjamin’s “philosophical shock,” and Heidegger’s “astonishment”) associated
with philosophical inquiry is accessed. When its philosophical dimension is under
erasure, the curriculum is value-neutralized, and loses meaning.
The School as a Realm of Ethical Reflection and Action
In a school modeled on the ur-discourse of community of inquiry, each
discipline includes a philosophical dimension in its curriculum, which is to say, a
set of inherently contestable questions. These are the questions that come before
the philosophemes—the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological
propositions—these are the questions to which the philosophemes in each
disciplinary branch of philosophy are answers. The science curriculum, for
example, devotes one or more sessions a week to fundamental questions in the
philosophy of science; the social studies curriculum to a session in philosophy of
history, or social and political philosophy, and so on.
The philosophical inquiry that is practiced in these sessions is communal,
dialogical, and “facilitated” rather than “taught.” The teacher brings a non-
expository stimulus—that is, a narrative of some kind—which, normatively,
mentions no philosopher’s name or philosophical tradition, nor does it use
philosophical jargon. Its purpose is to trigger philosophical wonder, and optimally
to offer some sort of model, whether in dialogical or introspective form, of people
actually philosophizing together, which is to say, problematizing, in their own
everyday language, philosophical concepts that underlie the construction of the
discipline. The students share the text together—preferably by reading it aloud so
that it is in fact communally voiced. Then they develop questions that explore or
further problematize concepts that have struck them in the reading, and the teacher
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
13

facilitates a discussion of one or more of the questions, modeling critical and


dialogical interventions or “moves”—restating or asking for restatements, referring
interlocutors to each other’s points, identifying contradictions, calling for
definitions, identifying criteria, probing assumptions, and so on. Her goal is that
over time, these moves will be distributed throughout the group, and she will
become less and less a leader and more a convener and a participant.
The centerpoint of this emergent philosophical curriculum that is practiced
in every subject matter will be the community of ethical inquiry, because the
ethical is the realm of philosophical discourse where the question “what shall we
then do?” or “how then shall we live?” manifests, and where the clarification and
reconstruction of concepts meets the imperative of action and emerges as praxis.
Any program of ethical reflection that does not assume this natural turn from
reflection to action, which is content to leave things as they are, will only teach
children the futility of ethics. The first realm of action is the school itself—the
community in which the inquirers are placed. Like any community, it is one in
which multiple ethical issues, of varying scale and salience, are always present.
There are ethical issues within the school between children, between children and
adults, and between adults. There are ethical issues between school and the outside
environment, from home to community to region and so on, all the way to the
global level. Some of these issues—bullying, for example, or other forms of the
use or misuse of personal power—are ongoing interpersonal dimensions of the
human situation. Others are structural, and have to do with customs, traditions,
practices or attitudes—social habits—the normalizing practice of grading students
on a curve, for example—which either directly oppress others, or are so
maladapted to present social circumstances that they impede the formation of an
optimal balance between the four terms of ethics identified above. They tend
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
14

either to flout individual liberties, neglect collective responsibilities, or some


combination of the two.
The practical implications of, first, instituting collaborative ethical reflection
in a community and second, responding to the imperative for action that follows
from it, can be profound for issues of power and control, reaching all the way from
the reconstruction of the classroom to the reconstruction of the governance of the
school—that is, institutional reconstruction—including the reconstruction of the
subject matter of studies, or the curriculum. Nor should it stop there. In an age in
which transparency has reached a planetary level—that is, in which each individual
is made privy to and even connected personally to ethical issues that reach beyond
his or her everyday sphere of action—the distance between the personal and the
global has shrunk or collapsed, yet current social habits retain what seems to be an
insurmountable distance between the private and the public. The “good citizen” of
the state is expected implicitly to limit his or her own ethical reconstruction to the
personal level, to live within the law, and to leave ethical work on the larger
structures to those institutions that the state has constructed for dealing with them
—institutions which in the majority of cases prove hopelessly vulnerable to the
private interests of the ruling elites. I live in a world in which I am fully aware that
sweat shops in Asia produce my relatively inexpensive clothes; that my affluence
depends to a large extent on energy wars fought on foreign soil under the code
word “democracy”; that the cornucopia of consumer products available to me is
made possible in part through the increasingly irreversible savaging of the earth’s
ecosystem, and the impoverishment of millions. It is not that this level of excess
hasn’t always been present in the species, but technology is accelerating its effects
dramatically, and now there are many more of us on the planet—and what is
crucial for our new ethical situation, now I know about it.
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
15

In such a situation, is a personal ethics--an ethical comportment within a


limited circle—an ethics in any but the most nominal sense of the term? What if I
deal sincerely with the fellow humans in my sphere of activity with all the
traditional character virtues, deeply felt, but the larger system in the context of
which I am virtuous is not virtuous? What if, for example, I am a “good
American" in an “America” which not only is not particularly good, but in which
the self-serving power elites use my very “American” goodness as rhetorical
justifications for their unethical behaviors? Can I really call myself ethical unless I
act ethically—which in this case would appear necessarily to mean oppositionally
—toward those elites?
The sphere of ethics and moral education for children has traditionally, since
the beginning of universal literacy and the public school, been constructed in three
dimensions: personal morality (“purity” or “character”), faith in some higher
power that I should allow to direct my way, and patriotism, which is to say loyalty
to the interests of my own national collective and to the elites who dominate and
control it. At this moment in the history of the species, this construction is a recipe
for profound ethical disempowerment and consequent nihilism, and for bipolar
relations between the two binary pairs of ethical determiners. It threatens the deep
alienation of a radical individualism without autonomy, and a heteronomy become
pathological—mirror conditions that are maintained and exacerbated by the
growing economic inequalities presided over by the elites. And according to the
old recipe, the members of these elites are “good,” “honest,” “virtuous,” “well-
meaning” men in their private lives.
The state-run school has been the primary locus for reproduction of the
modal personality that, however virtuous in his private life, is passive before the
elites—before structural oppression, repression, cultural seduction, and the subtle
hypocrisies of the control-mechanisms of power. Through the school, the state in
SCHOOLING, SUBJECTIVITY, ETHICAL RECONSTRUCTION, AND COMMUNAL PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY WITH CHILDREN
16

fact controls and limits the possibilities of neoteny—in order, in the larger picture,
to protect and maintain the elites that control it. Cultural evolution is not
immediately profitable or convenient for the elites. The primary condition for
suppressing and containing the possibilities of neoteny in the schools is the
suppression and containment of the very person for whom the school should be
designed—the child. Until the child becomes more active in her own education,
until she is understood to have something interesting to say, until the adult
recognizes the voice of the child, until the adult privileges the voice of the child,
we cannot expect a program in ethics to do anything but reproduce the same sort of
dysfunctional or undeveloped relations between the two binary pairs that the
private-public divide produces in the larger world. Until the adult finds the child’s
relation between impulse and habit interesting in terms of its possibilities for the
dialectical emergence of a reconstructed form of modal subjectivity—that is, until
the adult sees its neotenic possibilities—the school will remain a cultural dead
weight.
But in fact there is no more appropriate institution for the reconstruction of
relations between the binaries than the adult-child collective called “school.” Its
inherent identity as an intentional community or “embryonic society”; its
intrinsically neotenic character, and thereby its suffusion with Arendtian natality;
its location as the site of intergenerational dialogue and the transmission and
reconstruction of cultural tradition: these characteristics mark it as an evolutionary
crossroads. And that which expresses it quintessentially, and acts as the meeting
place for all its reconstructive tendencies, is systematic communal ethical inquiry.
ENDNOTES
1
Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process and State Formation and Civilization, trans.
Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994 [1939]); Phillipe Aries, Centuries of
Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Knopf,
1962); and Johann Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of
Life, Thought, and Art in France and the Netherlands in the 14th & 15th Centuries
(New York: Anchor Books, 1969).
22
The first: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it
would become a universal law.” The second: “So act to treat humanity, whether in your
own person or in that of an other, in every case as an end and never merely a means
only.” The third: “The will is . . . subject to the law in such a way that it must be
regarded also as legislating for itself and only on this account as being subject to the law
(of which it can regard itself as author).” From Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the
Metaphysics of Morals (1785), selected in L.P. Pojman, ed., Moral Philosophy: A
Reader, 3rd Edition, pp. 194-213 passim (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003)
3
3. The term is Emmanuel Levinas’ translator’s, Richard A. Cohen, from his
“Introduction” to Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen, p. 17 (Pittsburgh:
Duquesne University Press, 1987).
4
See John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1988 [1922]).
5
“Childhood,” from Rainier Maria Rilke, Selected Poems, trans. Robert Bly (Harper
and Row, 1981).
6
The formulation is Sandra G. Harding’s, in her Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?
Thinking from Women’s Lives (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
7
See John Dewey, “The Child and the Curriculum,” in M.S. Dworkin, ed., Dewey on
Education: Selections (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959 [1902]).