Learning to Be Human

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey writes:

To learn to be human 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. 

I love this phrase. To learn to be human.

It emphasizes that education isn’t just a process of obtaining facts and knowledge. It is a process of learning who we are, of becoming, fundamentally, human. Furthermore, the phrase implies the converse – being human is something we must learn.

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, Dewey argues.

This is a profound stance.

If we see ourselves as individuals, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as disconnected from others in our society, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as different, if we find ourselves filled with hate; those too are learned traits.

But being human isn’t simply a process through which we adopt the norms of whatever society happens to be around us. Human is an ideal. Being human means being an individually distinctive member of a community, it means contributing to human resources and values. 

To Dewey, learning to be human means learning to appreciate ourselves as intrinsically interconnected beings; learning that we are deeply interdependent on every thing around us; that we are shaped by our world and that we have a role in shaping our world.

Learning to be human means learning to love and appreciate the contributions every person makes; it means recognizing the other as inseparable from the self.

Importantly, Dewey notes, this translation is never finished.

We must constantly learn to be human, and, through the give-and-take of communication we must continually learn from each other and educate each other. In learning to be human we learn how to be our best selves while supporting the improvement of everyone around us and while working together to shape our common future.

Collaborating mutually in the endeavor of being human allows us achieve great things.

It is in learning to be human that we can ultimately transform our great society of remarkable technology and innovation into a Great Community, capable of so much more.


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