Education and Spontaneous Learning

We give you examples of being receptive to the world around you and learning to see and hear as a form of education:

There is a show on PBS called Stories from the Stage. People come forward to a microphone on a stage and tell personal stories from their past, stories that they consider important, informative, educational (in the widest sense), and usable by the listener. One of the early “people at the mic” on stage is a teenage girl who says something, in a plaintive sorrowful voice, like: “I have been waiting far too long…to wait for someone…to see me.”

This perplexed girl is unwittingly raising the question of a deep human hunger: the hunger for “personhood.” At a young age, this primordial hunger expresses itself as somebody befriending me (i.e., the speaker needs a real friend) so that the befriended person comes into clearer focus to themselves, achieving personhood.

Very intelligent philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas of France have spent their entire lives trying to understand the connections between countenances (how a person “wears a face”), personhood, interactive life, etc.

In his book, The Face of the Other (the girl wants somebody to notice her and her face and like her and “smile upon her”) Levinas has a deep analysis of all these human yearnings and self-definitional journeys and quests:

“The Face of the Other” is an evocative phrase used by Emmanuel Levinas, an important twentieth-century philosopher.

  • “Other” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) usually translates the French word autrui, which means “the other person” or “someone else” (other than oneself). It is thus the personal other, the other person, whoever it is, that each of us encounters directly, or experiences the traces of, every day. Of course, we encounter a multiplicity of others, but Levinas more often uses the singular “other” to emphasize that we encounter others one at a time, face to face.
  • By “face,” Levinas means the human face (or in French, visage), but not thought of or experienced as a physical or aesthetic object. Rather, the first, usual, unreflective encounter with the face is the living presence of another person.

Thus, when we come “face to face” with another person, the experience is a social and ethical one (rather than intellectual, aesthetic, or merely physical). “Living presence,” for Levinas, would imply that the other person (as someone genuinely other than myself) is exposed to me—that is, is vulnerably present—and expresses him or herself simply by being there as an undeniable reality that I cannot reduce to images or ideas in my head.

This impossibility of capturing the other conceptually or otherwise reveals the other’s “infinity” (i.e., irreducibility to a finite [bounded] entity over which I can have power).

The other person is, of course, exposed and expressive in other ways than through the literal face (e.g., through speech, gesture, action, and bodily presence generally), but the face is the most exposed, most vulnerable, and most expressive aspect of the other’s presence.

Thus, a student could be channel surfing on TV, observe this young girl saying these things on Stories from the Stage, and expand one’s understanding of this entire set of hungers and self-identity efforts and go (say) from the moment of TV watching to reading Levinas.

This is a simple example from the current world of TV where a certain particular “cri de coeur” (French: “cry from the heart”) of a girl you don’t know at all could deepen and widen your understanding by following the thread to Levinas and other profound people. The girl’s plaint where she’s “waiting for someone to see me” becomes much deeper and can be understood on a larger canvas which is exactly what we want.

Many experiences from daily life, from walking around, from moments on TV, from tiny incidents, can be pathways to higher understanding and learning if you can see and hear “with the third eye and the third ear.” (Theodore Reik talks about “listening with the third ear.”)

Education is a kind of “applied awareness.”