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Who can serve as an example? Who can benefit us, as educator? Why? Why not? and How?
I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example. . . . But this example must be supplied by his outward life and not merely in his books — in the way, that is, in which the philosophers of Greece taught, through their bearing, what they wore and ate, and their morals, rather than by what they said, let alone by what they wrote. (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator)
On the Concept of Exemplarity
Most efforts to reform education concern specific matters — changing the curriculum, adopting better instructional methods, improving classroom organization and school management. These matters of educational policy have enduring expedience, yet they carry implicit in them assumptions about what educates that require qualification. Life entails that each person must learn many skills and much knowledge and formal instruction en masse serves this purpose, more or less, and has done so for many, many generations. The system never settles into a fixed routine for the vicissitudes of collective experience keep changing, requiring a continuous flow of systemic adaptations and innovations.
A different critique perennially pervades the systemic work of formal education. It arises because the powers that be, implementing adult views about the systemic purposes and practices, have limited sway over educative experience. Much of education takes place through a negotiation between the future and the past, person by person, on occasion after occasion. This negotiation is the pedagogical engine of intergenerational change. On attending to what educates, critics see that education sums up a democracy, active in historical time, in which the demos, the young, exercise a continuous vote, experiencing aversion towards some life-models, simply ignoring many, while finding a few to be exemplary, worthy of active appropriation and emulation.
An ecological change takes place in the distribution of controlling values as the young change their judgments of exemplarity. Particular examples of human possibility attract, inspire, and excite a person, for whom these acquire an exemplary quality. When I experience exemplarity in someone, I am apt, attentive to her, disposed to emulate him; I aspire to share purposes, to excel in achievement, to merit recognition, respect, admiration, and love, as I hope an exemplary figure might accord it to me were he or she to witness fully my being and my deeds. Judgments of exemplarity greatly amplify the influence that a teacher or leader, a parent or friend, can exert. A lesson taught by an ordinary teacher may have little effect, whereas the same lesson, delivered by a teacher whom a student imbues with exemplarity, will be powerfully instructive. Different emotions may be the roots of different sorts of activity — for instance, sympathy at the root of philanthropic work, a sense of justice at the source of adherence to the law, love as the source of procreational commitments, honor as the force giving rise to martial struggle. In this sense, feelings of exemplarity are at the root of educational effort, and it situates much control with the learner.
Exemplarity is in the eye of the beholder. Consequently, educators have difficulty predicting their effects. Certainly, general patterns hold in the sorts of things people will experience over their life course to be exemplary — such patterns determine the stages of human development and underlie efforts to predict and channel human choices in the realm of economics, society, and the polity, that is, "to educate the public," as people say. But on both individual and collective levels, efforts to predict and channel judgments of exemplarity often err because these judgments express, not the appearances, but the whole person and the integral community, which are beyond any observer's ken. The teacher sees the cipher for the child and acts with an incomplete perception. So too, the public leader appeals for power on the basis of partial perceptions, sometimes sufficient, but often, but often skewed, disclosing a "fickle public," as if it were ever really in the leader's train. A person controls his own judgments of exemplarity, for a vast number of potential cues and the infinity of their possible combinations confound the most assiduous control of variables by others.
If educators cannot control how the play of exemplarity determines the outcome of their work, what can they do as responsible agents? They do a lot attempting to establish probabilities, finding that such and such an intervention is likely to have a greater or lesser increment of success, measured against a tangible standard, than alternative interventions. and here, perhaps, it might be fruitful were more attention paid to degrees of exemplarity, which probably run along a spectrum from highly positive to neutral to highly negative. Probabilities with respect to particular efforts to anticipate and control judgments of exemplarity are likely to distribute along this spectrum in normal, bell-curve patterns. Most educational research explores these probabilities, as best it can. Such explorations have considerable importance, but they may bring significant distortions as well.Exemplarity judgments affect the levels of motivation that a student will bring to bear on learning component of knowledge, skill, and value. Here trying to maximize the probability that a particular instructional strategy will have the desired effects does not exhaust what educators can do as responsible agents, for it addition to exploring probabilities, they can address educative possibilities.
Educators advise, as well as instruct. A student finds something exemplary in part through a spontaneous judgment, as surprising to himself as to his teachers. But a student also determines something to be exemplary through conscious choice and the exertion of will. Teachers, in turn, inform this conscious choice by a student, through their own unselfconscious examples, but also by their express explanations of how this or that will in fact educate a person who imbues it with exemplarity, taking in the full power of human formation that it may offer. This explanation may also, through some subtle combination of its style and substance, enter into the spontaneous judgments of exemplarity a student will make.
[continue showing how the explanation of possibility may lead to rejection as well, but both ways, it is an important form of educative action, one that has fallen somewhat into disuse. In asking What educates? about all the things in our world, we are trying to reinvigorate the educator's discourse of possibility.]