Education and Self-Becoming

The following post was written by Omar Swartz. Omar is the director of the Master of Social Science program at the University of Colorado Denver. He has published extensively in the areas of rhetorical theory, democracy, and social justice. With his background in both rhetoric and law (he holds a JD and a PHD), he seeks to engage critically the limitations of constitutional and other normative standards that reify social inequality.

Altogether, I have studied or taught at ten different colleges or universities. These institutions have ranged from the large to the small. They include community colleges, mid-western land grant institutions and elite private universities.

My students and classmates have been from all walks of life—from the privileged to the marginalized.

I have seen students struggle against high odds to earn an associate’s degree, and I have seen the children of the rich glide effortlessly through their J.D. program. I taught a class in prison for a friend of mine, and I have studied under the people (the judges) who had this man imprisoned.

My teachers were Supreme Court clerks and many of my law school classmates are policy makers and government officials. This saddens me, as I know that many of them studied law only for selfish reasons. Many of them desire only to uphold the unequal and unjust laws that govern this country.

I have seen brilliant people earn their doctorates. Yet many of these people, motivated by altruism and the spirit of intellectual pursuit, allow the fruit of their labor to sour on the vine in their single-minded pursuit of academic purity. The various disciplines that support us often stifle us and pit scholar against scholar, episteme against episteme, so that nobody cooperates for the common good.

We do not have a university in its noblest sense where scholars coordinate knowledge for the public good. What we have instead are academic fiefdoms run by czars that frequently battle over turf.

As far back as Aristotle, our public personas were recognized as being intimately tied to our private selfhoods. This was called “ethos.” We gain influence over people through who we are as individuals. Aristotle recognized that this was more important than the emotions to which we appeal or to the reasoning that we use.

In other words, we are the message.

We are what we speak and write. For example, I am the persona of this post. In inventing this post, I invent myself. Writing—as much as reading—is a profoundly transformational experience. But the raw materials for this invention and re-invention come from outside of an author.

This material comes from experience and it comes from education. What we speak and write about is molded by our education. We are educational beings—our telos is our quest for knowledge or for knowing. It is not that “knowledge is power”; rather, knowledge is constitutive.

We become only to the extent that we know or believe. Knowledge makes us “real” and it gives us the confidence we need to keep on believing in who we are. The more we believe in ourselves, in our tasks, in our visions, the more real that these tasks and visions become, and the greater our strength in enlisting the support of others.

Eventually, if we are lucky, our visions become communal; with our lives we have created something larger than ourselves. To achieve this state is to have profoundly affected human beings with our will. This is to make history and to remake it. History is human and is the image of those who constructed it.

On the one hand, education is an immensely private activity. It involves a relationship that we have with ourselves. It involves a discipline and an attitude. It involves a way of being that is often atomistic and self-indulgent. It can even foster negativity and pessimism.

On the other hand, education has the potential to help us to see and to know things beyond our experience. It equips us with tools for living and helps to give purpose to our lives. Education serves to name our private dissatisfactions and to give voice to that part of ourselves that can feel the incongruity between our innate sense of life and the spoil, corruption, and alienation of our social word.

Education is thus a public activity in John Dewey’s sense—it creates citizens and forges the will for public influence. It teaches us to reject distractions and illusions. It physically takes us away from television and alcohol and forces us to confront our base needs—for stimulation, for reproduction, for amusement, and allows us to put them all into perspective.

Finally, education teaches us to live for something larger than ourselves.

It helps us join conversation with the most interesting and provocative people that have ever lived. I would not trade my years in school for anything in the world. For to do so would be to lose the self that I have been cultivating all this time.

Since high school, at least, my life has been guided by an essential vision. This is the vision of social change. Through the years of my education (12 years in all and nearly 25 years as a faculty member) my political sensibilities have taken shape. They were forged in the struggle with myself to overcome my frailties and weaknesses and to achieve a critical vision of the good.

Blogs such as this—“Creating the Good Life” by Eliza Allen, a former student of mine—are essential to this process. It reminds me of what I wrote, back in 1995, upon earning my doctorate, and is as applicable now as the day I wrote it:

What I want for my life is an office in which to work, health care that I can depend upon, and a modest salary to provide a decent upbringing for my family. In return for these benefits, I want to share what I know and what I feel with students, and to commit myself to their edification.

In being such a teacher, I desire the opportunity to write books that influence students and others to be their best. If I have the above, and if I do nothing more with my life than to have been a professor for fifty years and to have raised my family with dignity and respect for others, then I consider myself to be successful.

If my books and my teaching, ultimately, mean nothing, if I failed to inspire a single soul to better his or her life and to benefit society, I still will have tried.

And in so trying I lose the capacity to regret.

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