Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ These Principles

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 11, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 11, 2007.

Responding to Vicki Davis, Non Partisan Basics of Democracy.

I am in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in Friday's post and in this post.

As noted before, I don't equate these thoughts with 'citizenship' per se. We do not, for example, have 'civics' classes in Canada. These ideas are not bound by, or limited by, any idea of statehood or nation.

It is important to understand that the institutions we create - laws, governments, courts, borders - are structures intended to serve certain ends, and are not the ends in themselves.

The founders of the United States realized this, which is why their constitution and declaration of independence are prefaced with those objectives.

It was, among other things, the value of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that justified the structures they built. The structure served these values; there values were not merely 'allowed', but were foundational.

That said, I have written a great deal about this topic in the past, and have offered not only criticism but rather a wider discussion of life and society in general.

I have, if you will, in my previous work, defined a set of what might be called 'social virtues', as well as a set of what may be called 'personal virtues'.

It is foundational to my thought that these ought to be, and must be, separate; that the values of the state (or society at large) are not, need not, and cannot be, the values of the individual.

An individual may have faith, for example, but the state can not. An individual may reason, but the state can not. A collection or group of people does not have the properties of an individual person, and the presumption that the one is like the other is based on a fallacy.

I have described the social virtues in my work on groups and networks. These are the values a society needs to embody in order to function (as the U.S. founders said) as a 'more perfect union':

Autonomy - each person must be free to pursue his or her own good in his or her own way.

Diversity - the widest possible range of beliefs and opinions ought to be sought and encouraged.

Openness - each person ought to have the ability to contribute in his or her own way, and to be able to receive the contributions of the others.

Interactivity - ideas and expressions are communicated from one to the next, originating from many different sources, rather than from one to all, diffusing from a single source.


I have also described at length the personal virtues. It is these I think that Richard Dreyfus was discussing: "civility, reason, logic, clarity, dissent, and debate." See my paper, 'Things You Really Need to learn':

1. You will find in this elements of reason - how to predict consequences, for example, or how to distinguish truth from fiction.

2. You will also see elements of civility and communication - how to read, how to empathize, and how to communicate clearly.

3. And you will see elements of what may be called personal faith or personal autonomy, the things that give one self-value and meaning: how to be creative, how to stay healthy, how to value yourself, how to live meaningfully.

Now let me address the other aspect of Dreyfus's comments, specifically, that these values must be taught, or they will be lost.

I certainly agree with this, but I want to be most careful about what we mean when we say, they must be taught.

Merely standing in front of a class and uttering the words does not constitute 'teaching'.

I have argued in many places that 'to teach' is 'to model and to demonstrate'. We cannot merely mouth the values we wish to pass on. We must live them - that is, we must demonstrate in our personal conduct the virtues of reason, communication, and self-worthy; and we must align ourselves socially with the virtues of autonomy, diversity, openness, and interactivity.

To the extent that we fail to model and demonstrate these virtues in ourselves is the extent that we fail as teachers. And, so we should make no mistake, we are all teachers, not just those of us who stand in the classroom.

And as teachers, we must model and demonstrate the principle attributes of learning, so that our students can best see how to emulate and follow our example. To 'learn' is to 'practice and reflect', and we should, therefore, make a sincere effort to practice what we have been shown, and to reflect openly on that practice.

I do not embody this entire statement in everything I write, because although brief, a constant repetition of these basic principles would become tiresome.

But these principles, it should be understood, underlie everything I say, everything I do.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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