Paideia is an old Greek term that designates the values of education
Those others that are ritually invoked as a result of the child`s whim, the adolescent`s caprice, and the adult`s rapacity, can belong to the family order, the school community, or the country in general. Always counter to personal desire, “the others” are represented as possessors of the same rights to enjoyment and acquisition, or exemption from responsibilities to which the individual aspires.
Here the paideia of generosity, selflessness, solidarity and camaraderie is taught from early childhood, and translated into appropriate slogans. Supposedly, it justifies subsidized sport and team play. ”We are all one big family,” is the claim for help Puerto Ricans abroad. ”We Are All Brothers,” is the base of family codes, religious exhortations and civic invocations.
In short, the common good is the constitutional base of our society: ”We, the People of Puerto Rico, in order to organize politically upon a democratic base, to promote the general well-being and to assure the full enjoyment of human rights for ourselves and for posterity…” (Preamble to the Puerto Rican Constitution). Public education and our country`s entire system of goods and services are supposedly directed towards that common good. We honor it in word but we subvert it in practice.
We do not celebrate the generous person, but the clever one, the opportunist, the one that takes credit for the victory of the team, the success of the company, and the electoral victory of the party. On one hand it is seen as a victory for all, on the other it is considered a symbol of personal achievement. A narrative that extorts personal ambition is constructed. The event is commemorated, not the process.
We live the contradiction between a paideia of solidarity and an individualistic practice. “He is an extraordinary person who in ten years nobody will remember” could be the epitaph of the people on the news, and of those repeated death notices that celebrate achievements that will soon disappear from the collective memory.
But that is just one side of the situation. There is the other extreme, that of the person who wants to work as a team but does not find collaborators; the one who begins to excel, but whose peers do everything possible to discredit his or her merits; the one who dares to place goals in perspective, but finds before him a net of trivial attitudes that hinder effective change and hamper efforts.
For projects of great magnitude, of long term structural changes, both things are needed: the paideia of collaboration and solidarity, and the individual minds that illuminate purposes and bring people together. Few times in the history of Puerto Rico has this combination been achieved.
The myth of “one great Puerto Rican family” is not just one of our most durable world views, but also one of the most effective. “Family,” “brother,” “cousin,” and “brother-in-law” are used on a daily basis in the mutual interpellation of people that make transactions of all kinds without ever learning the partner`s name. Both civic rhetoric and politics share a common referent in the notion that Puerto Ricans are part of one great family, and that ultimately our differences are not that deep. From 1904 to 1924, the Union Party of Puerto Rico mobilized the metaphor of the Puerto Rican family. The Popular Democratic Party inherited that fraternal slogan in 1939. Under the sacred mantle of family union they conceal racial differences, conflicts of interests, ideological fissures and personal religious orientations. It is not surprising, therefore, that the idea that we Puerto Ricans are a great family is taught from an early age.
The concept of the great family works well when it is used to include people. When the term is manipulated to exclude others, its stitches burst open. Who decides the membership to the great family? Which are the decisive criteria? Is it enough to have been born in Puerto Rico? Is membership transferable to generations that have been born and raised outside of Puerto Rico?
In a more hybrid world it is natural for the multiplicity of claims to proliferate. A girl born in California from an Italian father and a Puerto Rican mother and married to a Korean searches for her ancestors in Yauco or Guayanilla. She does not speak Spanish, has become a Buddhist, is a vegetarian, and detests cockfights. She arrives at the airport wearing a T-shirt allusive to Puerto Rico and goes with her family to the south coast looking for her elusive ancestors. A Vietnamese, brought up in the 1970`s by a couple on the northwest of the island is educated in public schools, marries a descendant of “cocolos” who arrived in 1900, and establishes an orthopedic clinic in Bayamón. Which of both, the Californian or the Vietnamese has a better claim to register as a member of the great Puerto Rican family? And what purpose is served by excluding one or the other?
For the generation of the 1930s there were distinctive features of common identity. The song that had as refrain, “Esos sí, esos sí son de aquí” summarized the conviction that it was possible to characterize as Puerto Rican those who ate mampostiales and said “ay bendito!” That serene faith in national taxonomies vanished a while ago, but it is still invoked when one wants to exclude someone else.
In the 1930s it was important to affirm a common identity that was perceived as vulnerable to the ravages of cultural conquests. At the beginning of the 21st century it is more and more necessary to remember that the unity of the people does not exclude the necessity to represent the features of its different components, and that to reiterate the defense of unchangeable structures is to risk making the metaphor of the great family irrelevant.
Educators today tend to contrast the attitude of children toward school with that of their grandparents sixty years ago. The attachment to school by the mid 20th century has its own historical reasons, but the rejection of school is a universal phenomenon of all times. It only takes reading St. Augustine`s Confessions on his days as a student in Tagaste, or quoting Shakespeare speaking of a boy walking as slowly as possible toward school, “creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.”
To provide schooling is not to educate, we all recognize it, but in practice we have ended up delegating to schools all the tasks that were performed before by parents, counselors, priests, ministers, civic leaders and even neighborhood leaders. Facing the complexity of his duties, the teacher combines discipline with manipulation. All effort distorts because of the educator`s and the student`s cynical acceptance that, in the end, school is a give and take game. I do not give you problems in the classroom, but what will be my reward? I do not make you learn English, but I will be absent from work whenever possible.
Theater of shadows and silhouettes, the Puerto Rican educational system has not met the expectations created three generations ago. Sometimes, however, we do not realize how school is interwoven in our system of life. Configures our calendar in more ways than the civil calendar that begins in January, or the old religious calendar that begins in Advent. The school calendar regulates family displacements, annual vacations, shopping cycles, the socialization patterns in children`s lives, the memoirs of generations. It marks the boundaries of the daily coming and going of families and establishes the range of the claimed prestige.
The composition of the family unit changes. New parents and half brothers are integrated or disappear from the horizon; the contours of the inherited landscape alter, and the political or religious loyalties modify. The old school remains, notwithstanding, as a fixed bait of the neighborhood, in the same way that its archetype remains in popular imagery. All this transforms into an obligation to speak well of school, to exhort children and adolescents to stay in it, to arouse loyalties that are not understood but are considered compulsory.
Can school be reformed in that context? Is experimentation allowed? Are there useful alternate models which are discarded when we turn school into an icon?
The incompatibility of science and religion lies in their respective languages, in their separate traditions. Religious hermeneutics are stagnant, incapable of expressing realities that become deeper and more complex. Scientific explanations have ignored the masses they are in too much of a hurry to be precise, and do not pay attention to the need of understanding, just of expressing. Because they are two languages created for different times, they do not intercommunicate well.
When a language expands, dictionaries and grammars are made. But here old religious language, forged by the heat of past efforts, is incrusted in dictionaries and grammars that explain their intimacies to other times, to other societies.
Professional academic language produces textbooks that are continually modified; such is the rhythm of change in physics, biology, and chemistry. The sciences, which separated in order to escape from metaphysics, now show more support for each other. Their borders transfer ideas; biology becomes chemistry, physics becomes chemistry.
Our university systems are unable to impart all knowledge to students. General education is a ritually invoked but rarely orchestrated myth. The young doctor does not distinguish between Descartes Metaphysics and a botany pamphlet. The Art teacher`s credulity in front of an explanation of the nervous system fusses with the laboratory assistant`s naiveté facing histories about Templars and Rosicrucians.
Because they do not know how to understand the language of others, the practitioners of exact sciences and liberal arts condemn each other. The minister and the priest warn the young students of their congregations against the danger of losing faith in the university. The pharmacist`s son arrives willing to disqualify the ”windbags” of the social sciences and the humanities. Each side shows an inability to communicate its world visions. The incompetence of each language fails to pay attention to the nuances of the other”s reality.
The mistrust toward university education is expressed in a crude utilitarian language. “Aristotle will not get me a job in the bank.” “No one in an advertising agency understands quantum mechanics.” The important thing is to recognize titles in order to pass exams. We graduate students that believe that Leviathan is a biblical comment and that the Neolithic man cohabited with the dinosaurs.
Is that why we have universities?
Priest and History professor
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
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