Dialog/Persons, not individuals

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Persons, not individuals, A dialog

Persons live, or have lived, or will live; they have inner lives, they feel appetites and drives, they have emotions, they perceive, act, and direct themselves as best they can, coping imperfectly with real constraints; persons think and reason, they experience their world, they suffer, enjoy, fear, and hope. We can understand them because they and us, because we, all of us, are living or have lived concrete personal lives. A person lives in a historical, existential actuality as an “I” that inextricably includes both her “I” and her “circumstances.” I cannot abstract my life from the circumstances in which my living takes place.

V 1 — Ah! Good! You know, I was getting a bit tired of so much attention to Verbs and Concepts, so much language. Glad to see some real people on the horizon.

R 2 — Well, don't forget that verbs indicate what persons do and concepts help them do it. But you sense correctly. A Place to Study aims to help us as persons, forming our personal capacities for living autonomously, by our own judgment. We better concentrate on persons as experiencing agents.

V 3 — And you'll be happy to know that I've been doing just that as I've poked around the worksite on my own, and I have some questions. I found your essay on Formative Justice and read some in the main part, which is pretty clear and interesting. I even looked a little at the "Annotations" which glimmer here and there, but mostly seem dense, covering your academic butt! One caught my attention a bit — "Persons, Not Individuals," at least the beginning paragraphs. Your description of the person is pretty clear, but I don't really get why you think the person differs so sharply from the individual. I've used them interchangeably, more often thinking about the individual.

R 4 — Both refer to one human. The person indicates more specifically this or that human, a whole, living human; the individual signifies a human in the abstract, an instance of the general category of human being. We can of course use the two terms interchangeably, but that muddies a useful distinction.

V 5 — How do you make the distinction work in practice?

R 6 — OK. Unfortunately, my wife and I live with it all too inescapably. Several years ago, she had a serious stroke with devastating effects: her balance is shot, she walks with great difficulty, and her left arm and hand are useless. Prior to the stroke, as an individual, she was in the lowest category of risk for having a stroke: her relevant indicators, compared to those of other individuals, put her in the cohort with the fewest strokes per 100,000 individuals. Yet she, one flesh and blood person, suffered one of the few strokes statistics predict a few members of her cohort will have. And as a person it was devastating for her. She didn't get 5 one-hundred-thousanths of a stroke; she got one stroke, whole and hard. Her low risk rating as an individual wasn't wrong, but it meant nothing to her as one of the very few persons in the cohort who actually do suffer a stroke. What researchers learn about us as individuals applies to each of us in the abstract; lived experience doesn't apply abstractly, however. It's very personal.

V 7 — Well, why then don't we just stop thinking about the abstract individual and deal only with particular, flesh and blood persons?

R 8 — In very primitive circumstances, that's what people do, I suspect. But life as we know it wouldn't work without thinking about the anticipated behavior of the individual in various contexts.

V 9 — Do you mean, for instance, that I would have a hard time driving home from work if I had to judge what each person behind the wheel in other cars was going to do? I very rarely know anything about the persons driving other cars on the road around me. On the road, I'm thinking about other drivers as individuals, not as persons, making judgments about what I expect an abstract individual would do.

R 10 — Yes. You might assign one individual driver to a category of super-safe-pain-in-the-butt driver and another as a risky-fool driver and take that into account in interpreting what's happening around you on the road. But if there were an accident, the consequences would affect the persons involved and the risk category of individual drivers would be irrelevant — whatever those were, the accident took place; the effects were actual.

V 11 — But if we need to anticipate individual behaviors in many things, why do you exclaim, "Persons, not individuals!"?

R 12 — Important question. And it can get difficult, too. Why do you think that people get upset with police profiling?

V 13 — Well, I guess we've been talking about profiling in general. I imagine by compiling data about individuals committing crimes, the police can figure out that those with certain characteristics are more likely to commit a crime, say carry unregistered guns or sell dope or running it up the Interstate, and when they see individuals with these characteristics they may be extra inquisitive or even act preemptively.

R 14 — And why would that be hurtful?

V 15 — Well, most persons who might fit the targeted characteristics going up the Interstate are just folks on their way home, eager to get there, and the stop for no reason except how they look would be upsetting. And should the cop panic, thinking something dire, seeing them reach for their car papers/hand gun in the glove compartment, the consequences could be serious, final, radically unjust.

R 16 — Yeah. My profile is pretty benign, non-descript, but even so, I keep my car papers clipped to the sun vizor above the steering wheel. But most cops are pretty cool, experienced, and well-trained. I imagine the risk of things actually going crazy is pretty low. What's the cost to the individual wrongly stopped without incident?

V 17 — Uh.... Oh, I get it — it's not the individual who in fact gets stopped, but the person, and we would have to know more about the person to know whether the upset would be passed off with a repressed curse or in a continuing feeling of rejection, resentment, or despair, which could be reinforced if the person had repeated experiences like that or frequently heard of family and friends experiencing similar things.

R 18 — Yes, actions relative to categories of individuals have complex consequences for the persons caught up in the action. We get concerned about the misuse of profiling in law enforcement because it adversely affects many persons mistakenly singled out, but frankly I think law enforcement and the adjudication of criminal and civil law does a better job of concentrating on personal actions and consequences than many other large civic concerns. Techniques of manipulating individual behaviors have nearly destroyed our political institutions, which have rested on assumptions about the integrity of personal judgment on the part of citizens and their representatives in office. Political discourse egregiously ignores personal judgment and seeks only to shape individual behavior.

V 19 — Not only political life! People say we have a market economy, but really it is a marketed economy. And by the time people get out of the system of formal instruction, they are thoroughly inured to being treated as individuals, not persons. I went to a school that prided itself on "individualized" instruction, using portfolios and other techniques. But really it all amounted to ticking off a fuller set of individual characteristics than the typical standards-based program did, and in the end the complex assessment rubrics would keep us aligned with the overall system that we really were all inching through as abstract individuals, not persons.

R 20 — Don't get me started. I've struggled to make the person central to educational theory and practice through a long career. It won't happen in formal instruction, and formal instruction won't go away as one of the two or three great preoccupations of civilized life. That won't change. But when I exclaim — "Persons, not individuals!" — I'm seeking something in addition to formal instruction, educational activity that starts and ends, with and for persons, a matter through and through of self-education.

V 21 — I understand why that's important. But how can you carry through on it? I think lots of educators would like to work with students as persons, and students with teachers as persons, but they find it difficult to do so, almost impossible to do so consistently. Whether in the hall or in the classroom, every kid knows what role they have to play when. How's it going to be different on A Place to Study?

R 22 — That's a really important question, and I hope we're coming up with good answers to it. There's no guarantees. We think so-called personalized instruction fails to connect with the person because its practitioners do not locate control of the process correctly.

To be continued, perhaps on the screen; perhaps in your head. . . .