The Quest for Personhood:
A Conversation with David Hansen
David Hansen is Professor and Director of the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Ever since his decade of service as director for a secondary teacher education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Hansen has been particularly interested in the moral dimensions of teaching and teacher education. This interest is part of a larger project to re-imagine the humanistic roots of education in an era that, all too often, reduces education into a mere means to an end. Hansen’s books include The Call to Teach (1995) and Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching: Toward a Teacher’s Creed (2001). He is the editor of the Center’s recent book, Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice (Teachers College Press, 2007) and of John Dewey and our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education (SUNY Press, 2006). He was interviewed by the Center's Patti Marxsen.
Read an in-depth summary of David Hansen's 2007 lecture at the Center, "Re-imagining the Purposes of Education in Our Time"
PM: How did you come to be a philosopher of education?
DH: The education side began, for me, with being a teacher and working with children and youth. I was fascinated with education and I started teaching when I was in high school — coaching and tutoring — and I’ve been teaching ever since. The philosophy side came from wanting to understand my experience as a teacher. That’s part of the reason I went to graduate school and wound up studying things that had to do with philosophy and education. This gave me a chance to understand what had been happening in my life as a teacher and, indeed, as a student.
Woven into this was also a long-standing affection for books and reading and ideas and thinking. My mother played a very important role there because she was always very keen on reading. There were lots of books all over the place in our house. And later, after I’d grown up, my mother and I had amazing conversations about books.
PM: Did you ever have the desire to drop the “education” part and become that most mysterious thing: “a philosopher”?
DH: Oh yes, probably a 1,000 times! Every time I read one of Plato’s Dialogues or something by Emerson or Dewey I find such tremendous intellectual wonder and curiosity. Texts like these contain so much of the joy of thinking right on the page.
PM: Is educational philosophy more practical, somehow, than the big questions that people like you’ve just mentioned address in their work?
DH: Here at Teachers College, our program is called Philosophy and Education, not Philosophy of Education. I like that “and” and I like what it stands for, which is a love of ideas and a love of texts as well as a love of education and a love of making a difference in the world.
PM: Do you have favorite memories of any of your teachers?
DH: I had a lot of fascinating teachers, including a man named Philip Jackson from the University of Chicago. Several colleagues and I are editing a volume on his work entitled To Watch the Water Clear: Philip W. Jackson and the Practice of Education. He was my mentor for my doctoral dissertation and he was really quite a Socratic presence, a real philosopher. But then there was also Mrs. Yondorf, my 12th grade English teacher who was extraordinary, even though she was low-key, an undramatic person with a soft voice. She had a relentless passion for the novels we were reading and modeled how to read literature carefully. She was just terrific.
PM: In your book entitled Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching: Toward a Teacher’s Creed (Teachers College Press, 2001) you state that “a teacher’s moral and intellectual attentiveness to students is not a means to an end.” Rather, you argue that a teacher needs to be engaged in a moral and intellectual relationship with each student “because this is what it means to be a teacher.” How does this distinction alter what happens in the classroom?
DH: One way to answer that is that it alters the teacher’s sense of presence in the classroom. In other words I think it transforms him or her from being a “paid functionary” into a purposive human being, a person who can make a difference in the humanity of students as well as in their knowledge. When a teacher is engaged like that, as Mrs. Yondorf was, the person really comes to occupy the role of teacher.
PM: Can this kind of teaching be taught?
DH: Not directly. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you can literally pass over to another person. But what we can do in teacher education programs is create a set of experiences for would-be teachers so that over the course of time, they come into a deep connection with this vision of teaching.
PM: Does this approach to education — and teacher education — relate to Dewey’s idea of experience as being the true source of knowledge and meaning in our lives?
DH: Yes, and in The Moral Heart of Teaching I spend some time exploring Dewey’s idea of setting up the right kind of environment for students on the principle that teachers don’t “give” knowledge to students but create opportunities. This is in opposition to the idea of the teacher as a “miracle worker,” as if education comes only from teachers. Teachers are not “miracle workers” and education comes from the curriculum you set up, the methods you use, the physical structure of the classroom itself, and so forth. It’s a whole array of things that makes learning possible.
PM: Among those many determinants of how students learn, you emphasize a particular attitude of responsibility that teachers must have when you write in The Moral Heart of Teaching about the responsibility teachers have to present themselves as fully engaged persons in the classroom. If I may quote you: “To understand what it means to really know and believe something constitutes yet another striking image of an educated and growing human being.” How does the prevailing approach to scheduling and managing teachers in the United States undermine this sense of moral responsibility?
DH: It’s a difficult time for teachers at all levels of the system and, I think, it always has been. Our American “can-do” culture exists in tension with the life of the mind, and the life of the heart. It’s also a culture that treats many things, even education, as a means-to-an-end. All of this threatens to drive out the richer sense of what it means to become educated and what it means to teach as well. But the knowledge of the teacher is still central.
PM: What is the link between knowledge and imagination and how can we nurture both in young people?
DH: First of all, we have to reflect on the meaning of knowledge and realize that there is a distinction between knowledge and information. Oftentimes, there’s a presumption that education means the acquisition of information. Knowledge is larger than that. And the verb to know points to something much deeper and richer than facts and information.
PM: The French have two different verbs: savoir, for the knowledge of facts, and connaître for the deeper sense of being truly familiar with someone or something.
DH: That’s right, and it’s a nice way to build that distinction into a culture. And good teachers have both and want their students to acquire the richer sense of “knowing their way about” art or math or literature or biology. And this includes a rich notion of imagination because “becoming familiar” calls on our powers of imagination.
PM: In your Introduction to the Center’s forthcoming book that you edited, Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice, you take some time to define the meaning of another word: idea. Noting that ideas “are essential for intelligent and humane action,” you also take care to distinguish ideas from facts and information. But the statement that struck me is that “ideas remain ‘ideas’ only if they are dynamic and subject to change.” That may work for science, but how can we base the practice of education on something as dynamic and changeable as ideas?
DH: For an idea to be dynamic or in movement does not imply it lacks substance or power. But if we harden ideas we literally cement thinking in place, which is anti-educational and anti-humane. Living ideas evolve and grow, just as do human beings. An idea like “democratic education,” for example, should be open to inquiry. We shouldn’t limit a person’s right to question that idea, for that would be undemocratic. In a genuinely democratic society the very meaning of the concept will undergo transformation. An idea is not a fact; it needs to be alive and open to question.
PM: And yet in so many areas of education, like in the area we discussed earlier of how best to prepare the classroom environment, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of thought. One might even say that there doesn’t seem to be reliable knowledge in spite of a century of study and research and day-to-day practice. Are educational ideas particularly open to question for some reason?
DH: I think all human practices — like teaching and nursing, for example — are open to this criticism. But because they’re so human and so intimately connected to the direction of our lives, they cannot be blueprinted. And so there is a necessary space for dialogue and conversation where multiple points of view are expressed. One of the illnesses of our culture is that we don’t really engage in conversation about these things. We just express our position and go home. One of the best things about Ethical Visions of Education is that, in many ways, it represents a commitment to keep intelligent conversation going.
PM: It also offers an international perspective. In fact, it offers ten perspectives from people who struggled in difficult societies, in times of war, in poverty, against the odds. Why is it important for educators in the United States to explore such multiple perspectives on teaching and learning?
DH: There are many reasons. The United States is an immensely powerful nation and a book like ours, in its own modest way, can help us think about using power wisely and humanely and for good ends. It can have this effect because it can show American students that we have a lot of solidarity with the rest of the world, so much more than we’re aware of. Our tradition of American exceptionalism as a special place or a promised land can separate us from others, especially in the area of U.S. foreign policy where we see the dark side of this ideology of exceptionalism leading to violence and mayhem. A book like ours works against that and, instead, supports the other side of American culture that asks the question, “What IS special and different about the United States?”
PM: How would you answer that question?
DH: I think this has to do with the openness of America, with the absence of a fixed and final identity. This is a nation of immigrants and that suggests a certain kind of philosophy of life that can be enacted anywhere, not just in the United States. I think there is so much potential in this country to be a force for good in the world, and I think this book can make a contribution to that by helping readers see their own solidarity with humanity everywhere. We really do need to stop thinking of ourselves as “exceptional” and think more about what it means to be human, period. This country has some things to say about that question precisely because it brings together people from every corner of the globe.
PM: Among the chapters in Ethical Visions of Education, two are devoted to Asian philosophers: Tao Xingzhi of China, who studied with Dewey and dedicated his life to public education in China, and Tsunesaburo Makiguichi, whose philosophy of Value Creation is reflected today in the expansive system of Soka Education. Since you had the opportunity to travel to Japan and observe Soka schools firsthand last year, can you comment on what education in the West has to learn from Makiguchi in particular?
DH: When I was in Japan, I found myself pondering my own reading of Makiguchi quite a lot. One thing that really stands out is the terrific focus in Soka schools on teachers and students, on the relationship between the two, but also on caring for teachers so that they can care for students. It’s appalling how little care American culture has for the teachers of its children today; I’m just stunned sometimes by the lack of respect and the lack of appreciation, both of which often translate into difficult working conditions and low salaries. Makiguchi is very consistent on the need to care for teachers so that they can care for students. There’s also the trajectory of Buddhism involved in Soka education with its resistance to materialism. In the world today, there’s a lot of pressure to commercialize almost every aspect of human life, including education when it’s viewed as job preparation and not human formation.
PM: In addition to editing Ethical Visions of Education, you’ve also recently edited a volume entitled John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education (SUNY Press). What did you learn from that project about the link between education and liberal democracy?
DH: That enjoyable book project sprang from my presidency of the John Dewey Society. One of the duties of that role is to organize the annual symposium of the Dewey Society. As I had been teaching Democracy and Education for several years — and also, knowing that no book had ever been published on Democracy and Education — the idea was born that I would invite a series of speakers from different fields of education to, collectively, share their insights on that remarkable text. I’m delighted with the book. Like Ethical Visions of Education, it has many different voices including philosophers and curriculum specialists and others, and each person seems to identify a different “center of the book” to write about.
PM: What do you think Dewey would say to that?
DH: I think he would draw the conclusion that there are many worthy points of view.
PM: Your work is both philosophical and fully engaged in the day-to-day discourse of education. Do you think parents, teachers, and administrators generally understand how “practical” philosophy can be?
DH: Some do, and I’ve learned from those people all my life even if they didn’t use the word “philosophy.” People can be philosophically-minded, even if they’re not philosophers. They can ask deep and difficult questions about the meaning and purpose of life and they can see doing so as essential to the practice of being a human being. At the same time, there are certainly a lot of people who think of philosophy as a rarified, highly theoretical, disembodied study that belongs in the university. But that’s not the only place for philosophy.
PM: Why don’t academic philosophers write more clearly so that more of us might read that “rarified” material?
DH: Well, if it’s any good, it’s going to be challenging. Think of Emerson, who is usually not taught as a philosopher but who is a wonderful philosopher. He’s very challenging to read and it’s not because he’s a bad writer. He challenges us to think.
PM: It seems that 2007 is a year of many projects coming to fruition for you… and you have a sabbatical year coming up. Can you give a sense of what’s next for you?
DH: Well, one of the projects is very much related to this idea of making philosophy more accessible or understanding it as a more practical matter. It has to do with the “Art of Living,” or a “Way of Life.” This is a tradition of philosophy not as an academic discipline but truly as a guide to living. It holds that people can be philosophical about their lives, that they actually can determine the course of their lives, the kind of meaning they want to build into their lives. I’ll be teaching about that and plan to do some writing about it, too.
PM: It sounds particularly germane to education.
DH: Indeed it is, because educational philosophy has two sides to it: one is the valuable theoretical discipline that we find at the university, and the other is a very organic, lived aspect. The question at the heart of this for me is, “What would it mean if we transformed our educational system so that children, youth, and adults were empowered to find guides to crafting meaningful lives, to know how to talk with other people, to know how to engage art and literature and science?”
PM: Your question presupposes that we’re not doing this.
DH: That’s right. We’re not doing this and part of the reason has to do with the materialism of our culture. As we educate children, we always have to ask, “To what end?”
PM: And this comes back to the over-arching question you’ve been exploring for some time, “What does it mean to be a person?” In some sense, all of your work seems to come back to this.
DH: That’s an endlessly amazing and beautiful question to me.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue