Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Autonomy: Learning to Think for Ourselves

Having lived in two countries where the goal of public education was to teach children to "think for themselves" you might think that I have a pretty good understanding of what that means.

Actually, I don't.  In fact I'd say that this is a proposition that I question even more because I've experienced more than one system that purports to do just that:  create independant thinkers, adults with the capacity to challenge and change their views.

What I have experienced in the two public education systems I know, has caused me to question their commitment to this.   For one, both attempt to create citizens, and not just generic citizens but ones that conform to a particular political environment.  A French citizen is not created in the same way as an American - the end product is simply not the same. It not just the values that are different but the method as well.  There are even attempts in there to go beyond the political and into the molding of people's personalities and characters.  Culture plays a big role here too.  Though cultures contain very broad spectrums of behaviors and beliefs there are boundaries which must exist for the culture to be a culture, a distinct way of life.  The school system which is embedded in the larger society will reflect the cultural ocean in which the citizen fish swim.

So how can we say that either system is producing truly autonomous independant thinkers? That's the question I've grappling with for years.  I recently found one answer to that question in a very good book I'm reading called The Demands of a Liberal Education by Meira Levinson.  Where she caught me is her attempt to define what both systems say they value:  autonomy.  Or, in other words, what do we mean when we say we want to teach children so that they become adults who can "think for themselves?"  And do we really mean it?  Are we prepared for a free-thinker who grows up and says, "I think this Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité thing is bunk"  or "The U.S. Constitution is a piece of paper written by a bunch of white 18th century males and should be thrown out in favor of something a little more 21st century."   This could happen regardless of the formal system that the child is educated under but surely we don't expect the French or American school systems to encourage these lines of thought.

So  much hinges on what we mean by autonomy and Levinson begins her discussion with a very formal definition of the term by Gerald Dworkin.  For him autonomy is "the capacity to raise the question of whether I will identify with or reject the reasons for which I now act."  It is the ability to question one's beliefs and alter them (or not) given more evidence or a persuasive argument.

This definition is so thin, it's hard to imagine anyone in a liberal democratic society arguing with against it.  Furthermore, Dworkin's definition is pretty value-neutral - the belief that is changed or affirmed is  irrelevant,  it's the process of reasoning that makes a person autonomous.

Levinson does not agree.  She argues that there are serious problems with this definition.  There really are people who aren't autonomous (heteronomous). She uses Harry and Abner as examples.  The first says, "I will do whatever my mother tells me to do, regardless of the consequences."  The second says, " I will do whatever my mother tells me to do because she is wiser than I and will help me achieve my goal of X."  If both men reflected deeply before making their decision, then both are autonomous, right?  Not necessarily, says Levinson because Harry is abdicating control over his life to his mother no matter what happens while Abner gives reasons and does not close the door to rethinking that decision later on.  Has not an individual who becomes a slave to another person or thing simply given up any pretense of autonomy, she asks?

That argument has a huge flaw which Levinson recognizes.  What about people who throw themselves into causes?  People who form passionate attachments to other people or ways of life?  Those who take on beliefs that ask them to submit completely to something or someone?  There are commitments we make which limit us in important ways but these things do not make us slaves. We do not lose our autononomy because we choose to follow them.  Religious belief is one example, patriotism is another.  Why is that?

The radically autonomous person who makes no such commitments and spends his or her life constantly re-evaluating his core beliefs with an eye toward adjusting them is simply not much of a human being.  People are not formed out of nothing - they are born into a context, a way of life, a culture to which they will have real attachment and "we must recognize that these commitments are simply necessary for the constructions and maintenance of the self..."   As Geertz put it:  "We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete and finish ourselves through culture - and not through culture in general but through highly particular forms of it: Dobuan and Javanese, Hopi and Italian...Man's great capacity for learning, his plasticity, has often been remarked, but what is even more critical is his extreme dependence upon a certain sort of learning:  the attainment of concepts, the apprehension and application of specific systems of symbolic meaning."

So what Levinson concludes is that autonomy is much broader than just being about choosing what one believes and is willing to commit to.  Yes, self-awareness, critical thinking and so on are part of it but in order for us to be able to use these things we must first become people - human beings grounded in a culture.  From that point we can go out into the world (or even in our home country) and evaluate what we find there and then if we wish, we can change.

It's a rather nice argument and is, for me, a satisfactory answer to why two different school systems very invested in raising children to be thoughtful, open-minded adults start the formation from very different places, using dissimilar methods.  It could not be otherwise since the two cultures are very different.  But I would argue that they do converge at the end - different paths to the same result.

Vive la diversité culturelle!


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is great and very thought provoking.
What about the influence of parents and family?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi anonymous, It's a pretty thought provoking book. She talks about other influences as well like family or even the Internet. Given the access every child has to more and more diverse sources of information, the school has probably lost some ground just as cultures have. It's the existence of alternatives (whether we choose them or not) that weakens traditional institutions and cultures. They can no longer be the sole (or one of a select few) influence in a child's life.

A question I have and want to explore today is how bi-cultural children fit in these schemes to promote cultural coherence.

Julia Gandrud (aka JuliaLikesFrogs) said...

Great discussion!

I personally think there is great value in radical autonomy. The great buddhists, including Buddha himself, practice/d it, and they came to see a very beautiful nature of reality. Belief seems to me to be the opposite of questioning, and I prefer questioning.

Yes, constant, radical questioning, if I understand the term. Byron Katie would be an example of a living woman who has achieved this. She is fascinating.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Julia! How are you feeling?

I'm with you and may I recommend a really good book: Two Cheers for Anarchy by J.C. Scott. This is not only about autonomy but about how to flex one's critical thinking skills for the day when it is really REALLY important to stand up and take on the powers-that-be.