Running, Writing & Living: to Make the Means the Ends

Throwback Friday

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

As it is with running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life, where the joy to be found in each arises from the practice of the thing itself, rather than from whatever the activities are meant to produce. As ink collects on a page, and aerobic breathing and footsteps echo in the local woods, so too have I come to learn that love and joy accumulate in the daily living of life more than in the pursuit of them as external ends. So long as they are not being done to serve some other purpose, outside of themselves, I generally enjoy and in so doing can succeed in these efforts indefinitely. So it is with running, so with writing, and so it is with life.This approach need not, however, ignore the will to strive, to progress, or advance: to grow. It is merely that once these external motivations become the sole and primary objective of these practices – as opposed to merely a by-product of the experiences – it can become all too easy to lose sight of the joy at the heart of the act (however uncomfortable an encounter with a steep hill or blank page may be) that is essential if we are to continue to progress. By realizing this truth of succeeding in the struggles of running and writing throughout my youth and formative education, I have begun to glimpse how best to meet that other intensely personal, often uncomfortable, and naturally rewarding act of living (and learning) itself.

When it is the most fun, after all, I am running not so that I might gratify some purpose not in and of the run itself; I am running for the enjoyment of that time spent running, and so that I might be able to continue to run: so that the most freeing of natural joys in life is available to me, in body as well as mind. When I am enjoying it the most, I am writing not to reap the eventual fruits of the intellectual or emotional labours of reasoning and introspection; I am writing because it is the process itself which brings me into touch with my thinking about myself and my place in the world. Just as in the physical sense with running, writing is an encounter between the self and the world that cannot be predetermined or coerced into existence in advance. Rather, it is the experience that allows my boundary with the world to be defined. Only once it has been so defined does the possibility that this boundary can be transcended come into being.While setting goals or deadlines to motivate myself from week to week or year to year can be helpful in working toward self-improvement, it is this ongoing encounter with the unknown that can most consistently be trusted to lead the way to continued transformation and ongoing personal growth. The outcome, or end, being pursued, in other words, becomes the continuous realization of the means itself: to be able to interpret emerging contexts and plot new courses of action. In striving to achieve this congruence between ends and means, I am reminded of Foucault’s notion of Enlightenment, which should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

As it is in running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life. And so with life, with learning. In each of these capacities, I have challenged myself to make the means of these pursuits their ends:

  • By running merely to run, asking nothing more of what amounts to tiring, challenging work, I am rewarded with better health and fitness, as well as the ability to continue to test my physical limits into the future.
  • By writing only to write, and letting the words and insights arise (or not) where they may, I retain and hone the craft and habit of exploring and expressing my thoughts and reflections clearly.
  • And by living and learning for its own sake, I continue to seek knowledge and experiences that become wisdom and points for further departures of curiosity into the future.

This realization and focus of my graduate education in curriculum studies has emerged from almost 10 years as an educator, but is grounded in life experience and formative passions of both running and writing that have long-provided me with motivation and means to succeed and progress. Before I was a graduate student immersed in the philosophy of education and learning, I devoted a good deal of time and education to expressing my thoughts in words, earning an honours degree in creative writing and working for my university’s newspaper while I drafted stories and poems and novels in my spare time. I had a poster of Jack Kerouac on my university-bedroom wall, and had become at the age of 20 convinced of the transformative power of the creative arts. Whether in beholding the transcendent enthusiasm of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Allen Ginsberg, or William Wordsworth, my undergraduate education nurtured a profound faith that such creative expressions could fundamentally transform not only people’s individual identities, but society itself. It is this faith that has inspired me to help students develop this type of critical awareness and ability to communicate: to become the sort of person Apple founder Steve Jobs said could “put a dent in the universe” (Jobs & Sheff, 1985).

Even before I changed my major (from Biology to English), I was a scholarship athlete on my university’s track and field team, competing across the southern and midwestern states against the best middle distance runners in the NCAA. I waged a 10-year battle against the 800m, sweating and grinding tenths of a second from my best times every year from the ages of 14 to 22, and lived to test the boundary of not only my body, but my will. Every race stood as a new opportunity to create a greater effort than that I had previously achieved, where I might defeat an unbeatable rival, or set a lifetime best. Or not. Even when my efforts were unsuccessful, I was discovering The Line, my boundaries, or the limits that I would be trying to surpass the next time out. Having taken the better part of my twenties away from the sport of running, recent years have found me venturing for further and further runs and races in the localwatershed, and I am again developing the taste for exploration at the edge of my physical limitations. In doing so, I have reaffirmed for myself the faith in a process that I think ought be authentically modeled for students we are encouraging to practice the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us” and to engage in “an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

References

Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment

Untitled

As part of my personal learning project in #TieGrad’s studies I’ve been guided in my efforts to frame my learning – as well as the intentionality of creating my classroom spaces – by  delving into educational research surrounding topics of interest this semester. Aligning neatly with my opportunity this term to be teaching Philosophy 12 as an open course, my research concerns have been epistemological, ethical, and social-political; through many of my readings, the theme of student ownership and empowerment offered through a variety of learning opportunities constitutes a democratic necessity.

The act of learning itself is presented as a requisite component in bringing about greater human freedom.

There are two foundational texts I’ve taken on this semester, both of which create the progressive framework of many faculties of education in North America:

While Dewey’s tome may be seen to fall short for reasons critics have long-outlined as failings of his work, the necessity of public education as a means of cultural survival is an idea that resonates with me for many of the reasons he outlines. For Dewey, education seeks to achieve balance between the contradiction of its dual purpose:

  • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
  • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

Freire, while not offering a perfect system by any means, offers a similarly passionate characterization of education as an ongoing emancipatory process through which teachers and students engage in learning that resolves the power dynamic between them. His vision of education is rooted in similar sentiments, that:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

Each’s vision of education is one of necessity, and one which holds the potential to increase the freedom and equality of opportunity for all as its ideal. Education’s role in delivering on democracy’s promise is rooted in the critical thought Michel Foucault uses to define the Enlightenment, which he says should:

“…be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

This semester I have come to believe more and more that all education is citizenship education. All education should be concerned with the Project of Enlightenment and the search for greater justice that it entails.

And I do admit that it is encouraging to note here that we spend a great deal of time incorporating ideas of “social responsibility” and “justice” and “democracy” into learning outcomes, core competencies and school codes of conduct. Ensuring that the education system’s explicit messaging system – The Curriculum™ – reinforces these ideas is an excellent place to start.

But if we are serious about cultivating “lifelong learners” capable of delivering on the promises of the Enlightenment, and to guard against our own democracies falling prey to those who would subvert their intent for private or minority gain and exclusion (I’ll let you decide who you imagine in that role), we must have the courage to address the observation that many of modern schooling’s implicit messages communicate to young people (and teachers alike) messages about power, agency, and citizenship that can be seen as contradictory to the basic values of learning and progress.

In his popular essay, Immanuel Kant begins his response to the question, What is Enlightenment? by stating that:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

It is within this notion of the intellectual tradition that I strive to frame my own notions of pedagogy and schooling, and with much time spent documenting my range of practice in carrying out what I’ve defined as my own efforts in citizenship education, I have collected here a variety of papers that have shaped the development of my underlying theory these last few months.

Epistemology and Theories of Knowledge

The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation | Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Information, Knowledge & Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology & Education in a Digital Age | Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters and Michelle Knoble

“In an age which fetishizes information, knowledge may seem either to be passe, or in need of a serious reframing. What follows is an attempt to identify some areas and concerns we believe need close attention in the context of burgeoning use of new communications and information technology, including their rapid incorporation into school-based teaching and learning.”

 Kant and the Project of Enlightenment  | Curtis Bowman

“…the development of a system of human freedom, both in theoretical and practical matters. Thus we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason; custom and authority are no court of appeal for theoretical matters. And we are to lead lives in pursuit of autonomy in which the chief goal of human action is the realization and maximization of human freedom (understood as self-imposed lawful behaviour). In other words, we are to be our own masters in both theory and practice.”

Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference? | Edith Ackermann

Psychologists and pedagogues like Piaget, Papert but also dewey, Freynet, Freire and others from the open school movement can give us insights into:

      1. How to rethink education
      2. Imagine new environments, and
      3. Put new tools, media, and technologies at the service of the growing child.

They remind us that learning, especially today, is much less about acquiring information or submitting to other people’s ideas or values, than it is about putting one’s own words to the world, or finding one’s own voice, and exchanging our ideas with others.

False Dichotomies: Truth, Reason and Morality in Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Contemporary Social Sciences | Paul R. Brass

Even more distressing in the latter discipline is the celebratory character of so much work that takes for granted the existence of democracy and freedom in our world, and hails their extension to the rest of the world in processes of so-called democratization. It never recognizes the need for anything but reform without displacement, even if it ever makes any policy suggestions. It never offers a thoroughgoing critique. Before revolutionary action can be proposed, revolutionary thought is required.

Citizenship Learning & the Public Sphere

Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions | Gert Biesta

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics | Daniel Schugurensky

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

Education in a global space: the framing of ‘education for citizenship’ | Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta, Greg Mannion & Hamish Ross

“…a form of citizenship which is predicated on critical political activism, rather than upon social compliance. If we think of citizenship as something that constantly needs to be achieved (and this can never be guaranteed), then we need to emphasize the process character of citizenship.

Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education | Hugo Monteiro, Pedro Daniel Ferreira

Like social and cultural elements, schools have special responsibilities towards diversity. To affirm the richness of this diversity transcendent to the apparent unity of the whole becomes a particular task in public schools. There the “right to education” established in the Declaration of Human Rights becomes a particular challenge in the response to each singularity that actually composes universality. This is one of the political/educative roles of an education that does not deny or avoid conflict but actually underlines its presence as a particular and manageable value.

Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning | Gert Biesta

it is no longer so that we need to learn – need to discover some truth about ourselves and our condition – in order to become emancipated. If there is something to learn in relation to emancipation, so we might conclude, it is about what we can learn from engagement in the always open and always uncertain experiments of transgression and dissensus.