Journal of Educational Controversy


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Author Sam Chaltain Reflects on How Gandhi and Buber Would Respond to the Documentary, “The Lottery”

Our readers will remember the article, “Ways of Seeing (and of Being Seen): Visibility in Schools,” that Sam Chaltain wrote for our special issue on “Schooling as if Democracy Matters,” in our winter 2008 issue of the journal. Watch for a review of his latest book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, that will appear in the summer 2011 issue of our journal.

Sam has written an interesting piece recently in the Washington Post and has given us permission to post it to our blog.

What Gandhi would think about “The Lottery”

by Sam Chaltain

I just saw "The Lottery" – a documentary film about public education in general, and the charter school movement in particular – and I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

The film is beautiful, and deeply moving, It is impossible not to fall in love with the four children (and their families) whose bittersweet paths we follow in the lead-up to the lottery that decides who is admitted to Harlem Success Academy, a successful new charter school, and whose dream is (randomly) denied.

I’m equally struck by the way the film further entrenches the “us v. them” mentality that is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges to our establishing a new system of public education that can truly serve the interests of the families in the film.

It is, in short, a film about heroes (the families and pro-charter school advocates) and villains (teachers’ unions and anti-charter advocates). And it’s asking you to pick sides.

Watching it, I found myself thinking of two great philosophers – Martin Buber and Mohandas K. Gandhi – and wondering what they would say about the tenor of our national movement, and what that tenor augurs for our children over the long-term.

It was Buber, for example, whose 1923 book "I and Thou" first suggested that all human beings interact with the world – and each other – in one of two ways:

*By seeing others in two-dimensional terms – as "I/It" – and by moving into a limited subject/object relationship; or

*By seeing others in three-dimensional terms – as ’I/Thou” – and by moving into existence in a relationship without bounds.

Buber’s central message was that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. And it is only when we paint each other in human terms (“I/Thou”) that we create the conditions to support both personal and group transformation.

Similarly – and much more familiarly – Gandhi’s success as a leader stemmed from his faith in the principle of Satyagraha, a synthesis of the Sanskrit words Satya, or "truth," and Agraha, or "holding firmly to."

As Gandhi explained it:

“Satya implies love, and Agraha engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha . . . . I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

Both Buber and Gandhi clearly understood what the producers of "The Lottery" do not – that to bring about a true revolution (as Gandhi did), we must lead with a fundamental respect for our opponents. We must, as Lincoln said, appeal to the “better angels of our natures.” And we must resist the ideological short cut of painting each other in two-dimensional terms. It’s not that simple, and neither is the work we have before us.

Unfortunately, what I see taking shape nationally is a more traditional conflict, in which both sides (e.g., pro- or anti-union, pro- or anti-charter, etc.) seek to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives. By contrast, Gandhi’s goal was “to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.”

What if we heeded Gandhi’s advice and flipped the script? What if both sides started defining success as cooperating with our opponent to meet a just end – best personified by the families in "The Lottery" and their hopes for their children? And what if we did so by proactively interacting with each other through an “I/Thou” frame?

I’m not suggesting that by doing so, all of our problems would magically go away. To be sure, there are some real differences, and real obstacles, to reform.

I am suggesting, however, that it may serve us all better if we start fighting fire with water by refusing to engage in the most off-base accusations that suck up the oxygen in our public discussions (from Arne Duncan conspiracy theories to the notion that any union supporter unions can’t really want what’s good for kids).

We’re all educators, after all, committed to careers in the service of children. So let’s all start acting like it.

Go to:

Sam Chaltain is an organizational change consultant, who works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. Chaltain is the former director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities.

1 comment:

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