Megan Laverty delivered these remarks at the Center's 5th Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. Held September 20, 2008, the Forum was called “Living with Mortality: How Our Experiences with Death Change Us." Dr. Laverty is Professor, Education and Philosophy, Teachers College, Columbia University. She is author of Iris Murdoch’s Ethics: A Consideration of her Romantic Vision (2007). Her current research focuses on the philosophy and practice of dialogue in education.
It’s a real honor to be here to participate in this occasion; to be up here with my fellow panelists. I’m going to share with you a perspective from philosophy and education.
In general, philosophers have believed that death unites all of humanity in at least two ways. The first, as our first two panelists have so eloquently described, is that we’re all going to die; irrespective of our class, race, religion, political affiliation, or age – death awaits us all. Philosophers have focused on this because they believe that coming to terms with our mortality, the fact that we’re going to die helps us to live better lives. It helps us to live better lives because we work out what is really important, what is really valuable. And, as Pam Kircher said, this frequently isn’t considered a part of the economic security, professional success, and material possessions that we seek in our lives.
Another way in which death unifies humanity is that it reveals to us that we love one another from a position of radical powerlessness. We love one another even though we cannot assuage others’ suffering, ultimately, and we cannot hang on to them forever. We cannot prevent them from dying. So death reveals that humanity, or human beings, find community, or love, even though the character of human existence – that we suffer and die – puts us outside of all that we recognize as community: our affiliations, our activities, our histories.
According to this view, grief is a blessing. It reminds us of what we share; that we share love and impotency together. Today I want to talk about this second aspect of death: how it unifies humanity. My work with children – teaching them philosophy, or more properly speaking, engaging them in philosophical dialogue – has taught me that children are comfortable thinking about death, or inquiring into what death might be or represent.
A recent experience in a hospice setting taught me that children can be comfortable with a dying person. It’s almost as if the child trusts that even though that person is no longer physically able, is no longer speaking as they once did, he or she is still that person, irrespective of what might have changed in expression or appearance. So it was in light of my work with philosophy, and in the context of these recent experiences, that I began to wonder whether there wasn’t something more to children’s ease with death than simply what we might refer to as a lack of understanding.
Philosophers of childhood remind us that we tend to define childhood using adulthood as the norm. We think of what it is to be an adult, we identify that children are not like that, and so we think of them as deficient in certain respects. And we think of the process of maturation as bringing them to a position of adulthood. And if we don’t do that, then we tend to romanticize childhood as a period of innocence, play, spontaneity and creativity before the inevitable “Fall” of reason and puberty. Also today we tend to objectify childhood when we view it through the academic lens of sociology, psychology, history, politics, or education. Through all that research – and I speak from bitter experience – we rarely ask children what they think, what the experience is like for them.
This inspired me to go back to the work of John Dewey, with a particular focus.. And, if you will permit me, will read two quotations from one of the few philosophers in history to see childhood as a kind of power. He said that if childhood weren’t a power, then children would never grow into adulthood. He identifies two distinguishing features of the power of childhood. One is what he describes as dependence, which is not helplessness but more precisely working within one’s dependency.
And here is what he so eloquently says of this:
Children are themselves marvelously endowed with power to enlist the cooperative attention of others. But observation shows that children are gifted with an equipment of the first order for social intercourse. Few grown up persons retain all of the flexible and sensitive ability of children to vibrate sympathetically with the attitudes and doings of those about them. Inattention to physical things (going with incapacity to control them) is accompanied by a corresponding intensification of interest and attention as to the doings of people.
It was because Dewey saw childhood as a power that he argued that not only must children grow into adulthood but adults also need to grow into childlikeness. He explains:
Normal child and normal adult alike…are engaged in growing. The difference between them is not the difference between growth and no growth, but between modes of appropriate growth to different conditions. With respect to the development of powers devoted to coping with specific scientific and economic problems we may say the child should be growing into adulthood. But with respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing into childlikeness. One statement is as true as the other.
So what I hope, in relationship to thinking about children and death, is that as we continue to take responsibility for educating our children to become moral agents in the world, to become democratic citizens, and to become successful adults, we should also pause to consider what we can learn from them about how to be in community and together; how to love one another from a position of powerlessness.