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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Me and/or We: What Will It Be?

One of the biggest problems we have in communicating with each other is that each person accepts his/her perception of things as reality or truth.  We all often forget that everything we see or hear is only our construction of the reality.  We make sense out of the world through our pre-existing understanding and interpretation of it.  This is why how something is “framed” influences how we perceive it and understand it.  If we can’t see something it doesn’t exist.  (How many people see the arrow that is in the FEDEX logo?)  Daniel Kahneman call this the “what you see is all there is” phenomenon.  He says “The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depend mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”

We need to look no farther than our politics to see this phenomena happening every day over almost every issue.  In the past election, President Obama talked the government being a way for people to work together to solve problems.  The Republicans see government as something operating apart from the collective will of the people.  It is its own entity that threatens to rob people of their individual rights.  Because we get locked into our view of the world, we forget that is only our “view” and believe it is the objective world.  Once we can step back and admit that there might be more to the story than only what we see, we can begin to talk to each other.  It should be a choice we make to work together rather than stay divided convinced that one side is right and the other side is wrong.

Our schools are traditionally organized around the individual.  Ironically the goal however is not to promote individual differences but rather getting individuals to act the same way.  Students are rewarded or given consequences for individual behavior in the form of grades or behavioral incentives. Traditional school structure is designed for students to think more about themselves than the group of people around them.  What is in it for me?

Schools do not have to be that way.  The emphasis can be on the community and social responsibility.  An individual’s actions are constrained by the awareness and understanding of the other people in the group.  When someone does something responsible it is an outgrowth of empathy and a more conscious decision to act in a generous way.  Ironically although this emphasis is on community, individuality flourishes because differences are respected and membership in community is not based on conforming to a higher authority.

To make things a little simpler let’s call one approach to education the ME approach and the other the WE approach.  By putting a simple frame on these perspectives we can more easily move back and forth between them.  The best explanation of this difference is in a speech of Martin Luther King call the Drum Major Instinct.  I think this speech should be read by every teacher and taught to all students.  It is the best explanation of the ME/WE difference.  Here are some quotations of the speech that get at its main point:
‘And there is, deep down within all us, an instinct. It is a kind of drum major instinct-a desire to be out front, to lead the parade, a desire to be first… We all want to be important, to surpass others, to have distinction, to lead the parade.’ 
We like to do something good. We like to be praised for it…everybody likes it as a matter of fact.
‘…If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct.’
It is a good instinct if you use it right…don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need to be important…but I want you to be first in love.  I want you to be first in moral excellence.  I want you to be first in generosity…’
‘… It means everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.”
Yes, if you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness.”
What Martin Luther King was trying to do in this speech is connect the ME to the WE.  It is an moral evolution, a growth of conscience.  It doesn’t negate that fact that we are naturally concerned about ourselves first and foremost.   But he challenges us to harness it toward service and helping others.  Although it is often hard to put others first and serve others, it turns out that doing so is really the greatest source of fulfillment or happiness we can find.
This discussion of ME/WE differences should be happening between adults and kids.  Educators should be helping kids understand how these two natural tendencies either work together or split us apart.  Shouldn’t a key part of education be helping us all learn to live together, understand each other and help each other?  Shouldn’t we all be learning that bridging differences without eliminating them is better than proving oneself right and the other wrong?

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