Feature

A Tale of Three Chairs

While advocating for tolerance, educators must recognize the inherent dignity and integrity of each individual by JIM CARNES


It seemed a peculiarly American image in the national newspapers: A tin-roofed, 10-by-12foot plank cabin perched on the back of a flatbed truck. The alleged Unabomber's legal team had to have a road built to haul the tiny structure down from the Mountainside. Their aim was to allow jurors to sense for themselves the singularity of Ted Kaczynski. Some called it the "Thoreau defense." News reports even suggested that Kaczynski modeled his cabin after that of the philosopher of Walden Pond.

 

Admittedly, the two men share a fervent discontent toward their societies and a Spartan taste in architecture. But their responses to the dictates of conscience-civil disobedience in the one case and anonymous terrorism in the other-could hardly be more different. As I ponder questions about individual versus collective concerns, I keep going back to those cabins.

Community and Individual
The loss of community is our common lament. In recent years, whole fields of publishing and scholarship have emerged to diagnose the atomization of American society, drearily represented by a catch phrase in the title of one such study, "Bowling Alone."

The center, indeed, has not held. The village has disbanded. Crime, drugs, pornography and violence, according to many analysts, are the wages of going our separate ways. But in our quest for collective renewal, community may be only the second half of the answer. Perhaps one reason we have trouble finding community is that we've forgotten how to be individuals.

The project I direct-Teaching Tolerance-was founded to search out and celebrate efforts that promote unity in diversity. My job keeps me in contact with progressive, innovative teachers nationwide. Much of the most exciting work I see in education today-across grade levels, across the curriculum and across the country-is explicitly aimed at building community.

Kindergartners practice respect and trust in "sharing circles." Cooperative earning gives elementary students a common sense of purpose. Middle schoolers use peer mediation to keep the peace, while community service is an increasingly popular component of the high school curriculum.

In advocating for tolerance, however-and its counterparts fairness, cooperation and equity-we must remember that such outward-reaching, community-building practices are premised upon the inherent dignity and integrity of each individual.

The character education movement has made great strides in highlighting these essential values. The challenge is to avoid shrink-wrapping them as "self-esteem."

For the Common Good
Recognition of one's own unique worth is not a solipsistic end in itself but rather the common ground in which all positive affiliations are rooted. Thus, the best education for the common good entails both studying the big picture of community interdependence and recognizing what ingredients bind communities.

Henry David Thoreau notes that he had three chairs in his cabin: "One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." Indeed, a century and a half ago, Thoreau made a career of exploring the tension between public and private imperatives. The dilemma only appears more perplexing today.

In the marketplace of contemporary culture, self-indulgence routinely passes for self-reliance, alienation for individuality, impulsiveness for autonomy. At the other extreme, but with similar consequences, we have traded belonging for brand loyalty, curiosity for voyeurism and community for crowds.

Averse to being alone with a book, we seek interaction with a computer. The advent of the global village has brought the extinction of the corner grocery. Sheathed in corporate logos and wired into private noise, the inline skater is the postmodern Transcendentalist.

Valuing Each Child
As we seek to help our children do a better job than we've done at building strong, resilient, diverse communities, we must start with the conviction that every child is an equally worthwhile individual. For teachers, as for parents, the further responsibility is to particularize our respect, valuing each student not merely in principle as a person but in practice as that person. Here are the seeds of a just and caring society: Children treated in such a way can scarcely help but do the same.

Julie Olsen Edwards, a sage among teachers of young children, adds this thought: "The early childhood world has done a lot of glorifying of autonomy. I think autonomy without deep community is a disaster."

When we introduce new readers to Thoreau, let's help them grasp more than his pond and his humble dwelling and his night in jail. Let's be sure to sit and talk with them about his three chairs. I wonder how many there were in that other cabin.

Jim Carnes is director of Teaching Tolerance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Birmingham, Ala. 36104. E-mail: teachingtolerance@splcenter.org