Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
What is the point of all this?
Some time ago, a young, black student of mine asked when we would study black history in our world history class. Since I was new to teaching, I quickly scanned my curricular guidelines to make sure I was on track with the scheduled units in order to ensure my student’s total preparedness for the standardised testing that was soon to follow. After seeing that I was on pace and teaching the correct material, the meaning of the student’s question suddenly dawned on me. The month was February, and the majority of my students are black. All year we had studied about Romans, Europeans, and even a tad bit of African history. But the student was not interested in facts and dates about ancient eras; she wanted to know about her history, the history of her community, the current community of black peoples in America. The question the student was asking was ‘What is the point of all this European history?’
Not long afterwards, this student disengaged from the class. She put her head down and slept or listened to music through her headphones, completely tuning me out. I realised that the issue was not my students. A problem was developing in my classroom.
I was educated in my field and was labelled qualified by the state. I knew the material. I had spent nine years in college accumulating multiple degrees and spent seven years in either corporate sales or corporate call centres. I knew history and I knew how to sell ideas to people. Why were my students not learning? Why were they not even engaged in the process?
This problem of student disengagement is springing up in many different educational environments; it is especially acute in urban school districts in the United States. Jonas Norgaard Mortensen’s book The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism saliently addresses this problem of disengagement. ‘Personalism,’ claims Mortensen, ‘is a philosophy of engagement’ (72). According to Mortensen, peering through a personalist lens to view our Western capitalist culture and world, highlights many of these problems of disengagement, not only in education, but in many different aspects of our lives. According to Mortensen, there are three core values of personalism that will help us overcome the problem of disengagement. These personalist perspectives help re-establish a more meaningful world, and move away from a world of depersonalization, which is the major root problem of disengagement. The three core principals of personalism are:
By weaving through many different personalist perspectives, Mortensen illustrates how many of our most intimate moments in history from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Desmond Tutu are born from personalist ideas. These three core values are paramount in each of the different personalist thinkers Mortensen introduces to the reader and orient the reader as new material is introduced.
Mortensen divides the book into three inter-connected parts: The Relational Human, The Engaged Human, The Dignified Human. These three sections extrapolate the core values of personalism from different perspectives, and demonstrate how many symptoms of a depersonalised society, such as student disengagement, can be cured.
1.The Relational Human
Personalism emphasises the importance of human relationships. Humans ‘are relationally connected,’ writes Mortensen (23). Demonstrating how humans are relationally connected can easily be illustrated by remembering the student who had asked the pertinent question about the studying of European history. This history was not connecting with her, because the community of European history did not connect with her smaller contemporary community. In light of Mortensen’s articulation of personalism’s core values, a student is a unique creative person immersed in small and large communities foremost and not a student to be downloaded with a standardised education. Simply put, I had to connect her person with other persons in European history that helped her understand her own community, and not simply teach dates, terms, and concepts.
Cramming information and data into my student’s head so that she can perform well on standardised testing is almost useless in connecting persons to one another in a personal world. She was in our program because she had trouble progressing through the normal education track, and of course, there were many social inequalities that she experienced earlier that set her apart from other students. She was from a family struggling to stay afloat in these economic times, not to mention, from what I could tell, dysfunctional issues between the persons in the home. Preparing this student for the university track should not be the educational goal for this student. She has more pressing problems.
From this perspective, Mortensen discusses Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig. Best known as a Danish priest, Grundtvig was also a very popular educator. According to Grundtvig, ‘fixed curricula and rigid [i.e. standardised] testing are impeding the spiritual growth of the person (57). Spiritual growth is nourished by knowledge that answers questions such as ‘What is the point of all this?’
My particular student had disengaged from the classroom because my directed priority was to teach toward the upcoming depersonalised standardised test, especially since my salary is subject to student’s test performance. The entire context of the curriculum was focused around performing well on standardised tests. Since there were many lessons to be taught, I did not have time to really engage in important side stories of historical issues that might have engaged my student. The stories behind the persons involved in history with all their concerns and worries or dreams were left out. Just the facts were introduced so that the information could be delivered. The scarcity of time meant little subjectivity. The personal stories of the individual persons in history, their dreams, goals, fears, loves were tossed aside in favour of ‘objective data.’ History was not personal. The lessons had become nothing but remembering information or data. Thus, I could not expend the effort to relate the person to her immediate community. The information being delivered was simply data with no immediate connection to her life, at least from what she could understand.
She yearned to understand her community before she learned about the impersonal large communities that had little relevance to her. She needed to know why so many blacks were poor compared to whites, or why so many young black men are treated like thugs and too frequently shot unjustly and killed by police officers. Similarly, other students wondered why some of the students in our classroom had low reading levels, or why many of our female students were already moms before graduation. I wondered why several black males aspired to be rappers and why too many would ultimately end up in jail. Indeed, many of the young black males I worked with anticipated time in prison before reaching their ultimate goals of drug dealing, rapping, or other more subversive activities. A prison sentence on their rap sheet legitimised their street credentials almost like a college diploma completes the resume of a young person from a more middle-class neighbourhood.
After spending some time with Mortensen’s book, I realised that in order to reach this particular student, I had to engage her. I had to develop a personalist education for her in order to help her see that she was an important member of both a small and large community, and in order to accomplish this goal, I had to treat her as a dignified person and not merely a student.
Standardised education is failing our students because students disengage from a depersonalised educational system. There is little emphasis on the development of persons. Instead, education simply becomes an institutional factory producing degrees on schedule.
In much of modern American education, students are being prepared for a university path without regard to individual circumstances or the specific creative potential of that particular person. If a superintendent can demonstrate improved productivity, in the sense of more high school diplomas and higher college admittance rates for her district, there is a greater likelihood she is deemed a success. The students become resources to promote, and instead of focusing on the common good, the students simply serve an educational ideology that depersonalises the individual.
In many ways, personalism addresses these educational problems. Grundtvig demonstrates how a person’s spirit is destroyed as a result of this assembly line format in education. In other words, the school district’s aim should not be to create a highly competitive environment to outperform other school districts. Instead, the emphasis should be placed on the growth of the individual person. Students should be treated as unique and should be taught how to develop their creative potential so that they can be responsible citizens in a truly pluralistic and democratic society.
An immediate concern of particular importance to my student, and others like her, was the educational environment. Every morning, we pledge allegiance to a flag that promises justice for all, but too often students in my classroom experience glaring forms of social injustice. The majority of my students are a long way behind in reading levels and other fundamental educational components.
In large measure, these weaknesses are due to a significant lack of community and family support. The most pressing concern is the home life of many of my students. A few of my students are homeless or bounce through foster care families. Many of these students have parents who are never home because they work multiple jobs just to pay for basic living necessities. How can these students be compared with students whose home life consists of professionally skilled parents, who help them develop their creative potential? My students feel more isolated, alone, and defensive. They do not feel as though they belong to a community. Creating a competitive environment only further alienates them from the educational process.
According to Mortensen, since human beings are relational, human beings have a primordial responsibility toward being-with-others. Human beings are not isolated atoms in space simply interacting with equally other self-interested atoms. Therefore, treating my students as isolated individuals, who are all competing to get into college, is not an appropriate motivational format. Without a different approach, these students will be left behind. And, surely, we can agree on the importance of education for the future of a democratic society? The best way to change this depersonalization in our schools is to develop a personalist vocabulary. Instead of looking at students as if they need to be manufactured into high school graduates, why not make the education process a world in which students are encouraged to develop in a pluralistic and democratic society? Adopting a personalist perspective on education requires introducing a personalist emphasis on human relationships. In order to develop the relationships between human beings, the personalist Martin Buber and his idea of the I-Thou is introduced by Mortensen.
Since one of the fundamental values of personalism is that humans are relational, the development of the I-Thou relationship is significant. Mortensen writes, ‘personalist believe so strongly in the value of relationships, in the encounter of one human being with another, that they give precedence to it over all other values’ (26).
The I-Thou relationship is distinguished, according to Buber, from the I-It relationship. The I-It relationship reduces persons to things, goals, or ends. When I label a student a ‘trouble-maker,’ a ‘good test-taker,’ a ‘potential graduate,’ I am reducing the uniqueness of the person to an It. I turn the person into a resource and much of his or her individuality is lost. The student easily becomes a data point or a statistic to be manipulated and used as a model of achievement to impress the city council or school board. But viewing a student as an It to be manipulated or used in a productive way fundamentally alters the relationship between human beings. Mortensen unequivocally claims that whenever we view a person as something else (client, customer, student, or competitor), we are transforming the person into a reified It, and it becomes easier and easier ‘to make decisions and choices that have negative consequences in the lives of those concerned’ (27).
By substituting the phrase I-Thou for the phrase I-It, so often used in corporate board rooms, personalism emphasises the importance of human relationships. I and Thou, according to Buber, are integrated into one another. The Thou is a unique person one encounters in life, and for whom there is respect of the inherent dignity of that person. The Thou is the personalised and formal You that transcends the control of the I; the Thou or You is a reflection of the I in someone else.
When the fundamental encounter between two persons is authentic, Buber reminds us, ‘the concept of “the inherent Thou” describes the longing, always present in a human person, for other humans. (25)’ If encountered authentically, young persons engaged in school are not merely students, but are persons engaging themselves fully in order to reach their creative potential. This development is measured by their interaction with other students: How are they contributing to the group? What unique voice are they contributing? Are they respecting the rights of other persons in the class? Has the student understood the three core values permeating a more personalised society?
In order to fully engage many young people, especially in more urban communities, there exists a need for alternative models of education to be created. Mortensen does inform the reader that alternative and creative ‘boarding schools’ influenced by Grundtvig are ‘in existence today’ (57). These schools develop the creative potential of young persons and help them realise their responsibilities in pluralistic and democratic societies. Mortensen clearly emphasises how not developing the creative potential of young persons is a critical concern for our democracy. Personalism provides a possible avenue by which to begin a rethinking of our depersonalised society, and Mortensen’s clear discussion of personalism helps articulate how our democratic concerns about education can be allayed.
In our globalised world, not only is education in crisis, but Mortensen fully describes another fundamental aspect of our civil society that is in dire straits. In our adult lives, our jobs mostly influence or dominate our mood or our feelings of self-worth. We often question the point of attending work every day without end for no other goal than to generate or produce profit. Fortunately, personalism provides a way out of this morass and unsatisfying world of work.
2.The Engaged Human
In these times of simmering anti-establishment feelings, either of left or right, an aspiring revolutionary can find no more inspiring a mentor than the Russian personalist Nikolai Berdyaev. Since one of the central claims of Mortensen’s book is the crisis caused by depersonalization or globalization, a discussion of Berdyaev is paramount.
Berdyaev is known as the ‘philosopher of freedom,’ and Mortensen does justice to this enigmatic person. Human beings have a capacity for freedom, and only a select few can illustrate a free spirit more concretely than Berdyaev. Not even an arrest for a conspiracy against a Bolshevist government and interrogation could damage this man’s spirit. After one such arrest, recounted by the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago (1973), Berdyaev ‘did not humiliate himself’ nor ‘he did not beg,’ before he gave accusations of abuse against the political establishment currently in power. Berdyaev would not be a slave to any ideology.
Human beings, according to Berdyaev, can become slaves to anything. As Mortensen explains, ‘[h]uman beings become slaves to utopias, to society, religions, technology,’ and ‘even to ourselves’ (88). We all know of friends or loved ones that are so enamoured by an idea or concept that they become possessed by it and are controlled by it. Examples of religious extremists from all varieties appear possessed by a fundamental creed by which the inherent dignity of other people is lost when those people do not share the same inflexible belief.
Although humans abhor slavery to such powers and crave freedom, human beings also fear freedom because of the responsibility that freedom entails. Since human beings are relational, Berdyaev believes the experience of freedom comes with certain responsibilities. These responsibilities constitute the fear in many. When an ideology becomes sacred to the degree that a person is willing to destroy another human being for it or to deny a person’s creative potential, then a person becomes enslaved to the ideology. This act of violence is diametrically opposed to the inherent dignity of all people, a core value clearly endorsed by Mortensen.
According to Berdyaev, this is what makes bureaucracies and centralization so dangerous to human freedom. The corporate world or a publicly-traded company exposes this concern by marginalizing the individual. The experience of work for many working people is defined by meaninglessness. These feelings are a result of the depersonalization of the person by the corporate system as well as other neoliberal versions of capitalism. In most large companies, there is no social cohesion or trust among employees. The only issue of importance is the bottom line of a balance sheet. A person’s value is linked to production. The capitalist system creates an I-It environment where relationships take a back seat. I-Thou relationships, encouraged by personalism, are almost unknown.
Ingrained in personalism, Mortensen writes, ‘is a critique of the system,’ and Berdyaev presents a personalist model to drive home this point. In Berdyaev’s The Destiny of Man (1935), he accuses systematic knowledge of destroying the uniqueness of man. Or in personalist terms, Berdyaev attacks systems, organizations, or theories that reduce persons to an I-It relationship as opposed to the I-Thou relationship. When a person becomes a good worker, an employee, a producer, a consumer, or anything other than a unique person, then the person has been reduced to an It. This tragedy is evident in many economies in the Western world. Large organizations, mostly the state according to Berdyaev (but we could think of other examples) need to be constantly trimmed and cut down. An American Tea-Party member might find affinity to this position of Berdyaev but must remember the orbit of personalism’s core values. Programs such as healthcare, free education, job opportunities, and a right to housing and food are not over-reaches by the government in a personalist perspective but are key points in the personalist constellation. Even though personalism holds a ‘principle of subsidiarity of proximity of political decisions to be made at the lowest local level’ (87), this is not a call to individualism.
As Mortensen makes clear, freedom in the West has ‘come to mean unbridled [individual] freedom’ (87). This type of freedom only considers the egoistic self-interested individual and is not a tributary of personalistic ideas. This understanding of freedom, however, saturates our culture today. Examples of this conception of freedom are plentiful, but the idea can be summed up by a modern phrase of ‘What’s in it for me?’ This emphasis on what’s best for the isolated ego is more akin to the thought of Ayn Rand and is not something that personalism would endorse. Mortensen describes how ‘human freedom does not consist in being free from others, but rather in freedom through others’ (29). In other words, ‘humans are set free in our obligation and service towards others’ (29). This obligation and service towards others is exactly what many fear in our understanding of freedom, and therefore, reduce the understanding of freedom to a childish notion of freedom-for-me.
Since human beings have inherent dignity that can never be relativized or diminished, we must constantly remind ourselves that seemingly innocuous decisions can affect persons millions of miles away. No person likes to be reduced to a number, a label, or anything else that robs them of their uniqueness. This aspect of a person’s life should be self-evident. The moral outrage when people witness others being stripped of their inherent dignity should be a given. For example, many in the United States experience horror and anger when we hear about women or children being subject to emotional, physical or sexual abuse, and we should. But what about the student who has been left behind by the community or the worker who works long hours for low wages? The inherent dignity of these people has been completely ignored in many cases.
Mortensen focuses our moral lens on other less familiar aspects of our society. When humans are reduced to employees, students, consumers, or anything else, a personalist believes one of the core values of humanity has been violated (Berdyaev 1935) notes that any system which reduces a person to something else is wrong, and personalists understand these types of perceptions as derived from a materialist worldview.
As a philosopher of freedom, Berdyaev states that the human spirit ‘has a right to total freedom and is the foundation of the human person’ (Freedom and The Spirit, 1927, 11). The human spirit has inherent dignity by virtue of its right to total creative freedom. The student in my class who asked about the point of it all had inherent dignity. The problem was that the standardization of education into ‘fixed curricula’ and ‘rigid test-taking’ had impeded the development of her spirit, the foundation of her person. This resulted in her disengagement from the classroom, and this depersonalization of education, which freezes out the warmth needed for many young spirits to grow, plagued not only her but the entire classroom.
The growth of systematic thinking infects every dimension of our thought today. Mortensen pays attention to this particular viewpoint in his perspicuous analysis of Max Scheler. Mortensen explains, ‘[i]n his analysis of capitalism, Max Scheler believed that he had unmasked it as a cunning, globally growing way of thought, rather than a mere economic system’ (93, Mortensen’s italics). This personalist critique, regulating the person to the bottom line of profit production, results in capitalistic or systematic thinking and violates a core value of personalism. Originally intended simply as a tool to generate wealth, capitalism has become ‘an all-encompassing paradigm for all aspects of life, smothering the spiritual, the personal, and the relational.’
My job was to teach history according to measurable standards, and I had little time to relate the student to her immediate environment. The pressure to prepare the student for standardised testing was always before me. The end result reduces persons to mere students who must be measured by performance in order to be judged ready for a university system. This rubric robs the person of their unique contribution to a democratic and pluralistic society. Furthermore, a business environment where people are reduced to employees or resources to be used for the production of profit is morally wrong because this idea violates the belief of the inherent dignity of the person. The demand to create a perfectly systematised efficient and productive society puts society under pressure and helps globalization erode our civil society.
These societal pressures result from depersonalization and the lack of treating individual persons with inherent dignity. As Mortensen remarks, ‘the depersonalization of western societies is a systemic failure’ (40). Capitalism, masquerading around the world as globalization, is systematically depersonalizing our world. People experience work as drudgery, students are failing to develop into contributing members of a pluralistic and democratic society, and the environment is being contaminated by industrial pollution. Thus, personalism provides the values to delimit the impersonal systems, ‘whether they be the market, state institutions, or multinational corporations’ (64). Respecting the inherent dignity of the person helps create a more personalised world where small and large communities can build egalitarian societies founded upon trust between human beings. Trust, Mortensen explains, is fundamental for a society to function. A trusting relationship, however, can only blossom in a soil where the fundamental bedrock is fertilised by the core values of personalism.
4.What Is The Point Of It All?
Personalism, summarises Mortensen, ‘is a philosophy of engagement’ (72). In light of our current development of student disengagement or growing feelings of non-fulfilment from work, a philosophy that engages the person in the community is desperately needed. After building a relationship with my student who asked what the point of it all was, I began to notice that her headphones remained in her desk and her engagement in the classroom emerged. We began speaking more about current events and relating these events to our immediate community. After discussing events that resonated with the student personally such as Treyvon Martin or Michael Brown, the student developed an interest in civil rights and how people should be treated. This development may not have shown up on the state standardised tests, but this growth was significant and increased her participation in class. So, what was the point? The student began to discover herself as a unique creative potential that could serve others in building a more pluralistic and democratic society. Since personalism is a philosophy of engagement, where humans have small and large communities of meaning, and where humans are relational, a more humane society can be implemented through its philosophy. This form of meaning, Mortensen writes, ‘is something to fight for’ (60). If these experiences of education or work sound familiar, and the question of human dignity has been heavy on the mind, then Mortensen’s book is indispensable.
5.Postscript: The Relational Person
In order to fully solidify the personalist argument Mortensen is crafting, a postscript that confronts modern individualistic psychology has been added to the most recent edition of his book. The purpose of this postscript is an attempt to challenge the massively growing stream of individualism in our globalised society. Even though the individual has taken centre-stage in our globalised society, the person has either been washed out in a materialist ontology or inflated in the industry of self-help. Both of these streams are an impediment to a personalist understanding of psychology.
The industry of self-help depends on the idea of an isolated, non-relational ego or self. However, as Mortensen demonstrates, a completely independent individual does not exist. There is no Robinson Crusoe. In many respects, this is great news. Since no one exists alone or independently, no one should fathom themselves living in isolation. As Mortensen acknowledges, persons in isolation tend towards depression, anxiety and self-inflicted harm. (134) Moreover, he writes, ‘individuals discover that their lack of connections means losing the very identity and self-understanding that grows from encountering the other. Which means losing oneself’ (134). The psychology of individualism does not engage the full person, but in essence, reduces the full potential of the person by fermenting the loss of self-identity from the encounter of other persons. In other words, an isolated individual is not a fully engaged person, and therefore, cannot reach his or her full potential.
Furthermore, cognitive psychology does not relate to the lived experience of a person. In fact, cognitive psychology, with its emphasis on natural science, depersonalises the person in very profound ways. Mortensen is quite correct when he states that by relying on the ontology of the natural sciences, meaning the person is nothing more than the chemistry and physics of nature, the person is stripped of depth and diversity. This materialist ontology rips the uniqueness and depth of the person away and reduces the human being to nothing more than the play of natural forces.
Finally, after understanding the negative consequences of particular psychological perspectives, Mortensen concludes with the section The Relational Human. In order to tie this portion of the postscript back to the main thrusts of both Mortensen’s book and this essay, let me briefly describe the importance of a relational human – a person.
The cliché that it ‘takes a village to raise a child’ works very well in this context. The student that I finally was able to reach after several months by treating her as a person, and not simply as a student, engaged in the class because she had developed personal relationships upon which she could rely. She was no longer alone, nor did she feel disconnected and isolated going to school. Rather, she found satisfaction in relationships that made the time at school seem worthwhile. She trusted me as her teacher, and she began to build friendships with other students in the classroom. The classroom became a community in which she could begin to fully reach her potential.
When the student was simply a student or a point of educational data to be interpreted, she seemed to feel lost, alone, anxious, and even depressed. This objectification made her lose her identity and kept her from completely being herself. She was more than the materialist ontology of natural or economic science could possibly account for. She was a relational person, a real person.
Personalism in all its aspects is what allowed the student to fully engage. She discovered herself by finding herself involved and engaged in relationships with others. She could be herself only when she was in relationships with others. Only other persons allowed her full potential to emerge in the community. The purpose of the postscript is to acknowledge that a personalist field of psychology is needed in a democratic society. Persons can only be completely whole in relation to other persons. No person can emerge or engage in life as an isolated individual. In conclusion, Mortensen rightfully claims, that the ‘development of a sense of self and the experience of identity are brought about especially through community with others’ (140).