Re-Learning to be Human

I’m returning from a two-week blogging hiatus – the first of several I will be taking over the summer months.

This break was prompted by the madness of finals week: when my blogging devolves into posting snippets of homework assignments, it feels appropriate to take some time off. And then  I decided to take the following week off as well. I was, I decided, in the most general sense of the term, on vacation.

I wasn’t lying on a beach somewhere or taking in the tourist sites, but rather I was staring at the wall, staring at my desk, catching up with people, completing miscellaneous errands, and fundamentally trying to remember how I normally live my life.

Most probably due my emersion in deliberative literature, the phrase that most came to mind this past week was Dewey’s expression, learning to be human.

“To learn to be human,” Dewey writes, “is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values.”

Like much of Dewey’s writing, the expression comes dangerously close to an impossibly lofty, grandiose vision.

On its face, it seems almost absurdly metaphorical – are humans not born human? In what sense, then, might a human learn to be human?

Dewey argues that what we call “human” is much more than a collection of biological traits. Rather, being human, in it’s most fundamental sense, is essentially a social construct: “everything which is distinctively human is learned.”

Yes, we must indeed “learn to be human.”

And if this sounds absurd, I recommend reflecting on the expression the next time you emerge from an intensely focused cocoon. When you can’t remember what time you normally get up or what you’re supposed to do when you feel hungry. When you have this vague sense that you used to have friends, but you haven’t actually spoken to any of them in weeks. When you’re trying to remember your priorities in life, or maybe just trying to remember how to determine your priorities. When you have no real sense of what’s going on around you, just the unmistakable sense that things have been going on.

When you realize you’ve cordoned yourself so far off from society that you actually need to reintegrate before you can meaningfully engage –

That’s when you’re learning – or relearning, perhaps – what it means to be human.

And as Dewey argues, this isn’t something we can do by ourselves; one does not learn to be human alone. Rather, learning to be human is a fundamentally social endeavor, an ongoing process through which we each learn how to act and interact. It is the every day work of learning and growing; of becoming who we are.

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