Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The struggle for recognition

“If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defences and hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.” Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man.

I plead with our community of learners that we recognise others. Recognition as a term or a concept may seem a simple one and is generally taken for granted, but over the years a body of literature has developed led by critical theorists such as Honneth and Van Manen. They have shown the concept has far reaching implications for social relationships and education.

The definition used here refers to the perception and identification of someone or something followed by the acknowledgement and honouring of the status of the individual or thing, thereby giving it worth. Every individual needs to be recognised. Recognition provides personhood and a sense of being human. Lack of recognition, deliberate or otherwise, dehumanises an individual, who can be made to feel non-valuable or even invisible.

We know too well the deliberate and dehumanisng processes that were institutionalised through chattel slavery, the Nazi holocaust, apartheid and more recently human trafficking, but let us not forget the more subtle forms of human abuse that occur daily in our homes and communities and as part of the teaching/learning act in our classrooms.

Several researchers have argued that all of human life is a long struggle to be recognised as somebody and worth something and that recognition is an essential element in the formation of a person’s identity. One researcher notes that the struggle is productive especially in friendly environments such as the family, the learning community and the workplace. But if recognition is not achieved through positive human interaction, some people may seek it in negative ways. Thus the struggle for recognition may take place in any of the social situations ranging between a loving family and a violent battle.

In Honneth’s theory, recognition is achieved at three levels. At the primary level there is the need for friendship, care and love. You need the feeling that you are being taken care of and accepted as you are. This is fundamental to children’s growth but is important for everyone regardless of age. At this level one seeks recognition of one’s existence in social interaction. At this level the individual achieves self-confidence. At the second level we need to be recognised as free and autonomous individuals with a mind of our own and at this level the individual achieves self-respect. At the third level you need to be recognised for the work that you have done, whatever your station in life, your abilities and achievements. At this level you will gain self-esteem.

Much of this we know in a non-theoretical sense but it is worth repeating as we face negative value frames especially among our youth—low self-esteem, learned helplessness, ambivalent self-regard, hopelessness coupled with anger and rage, impulsivity and lack of empathy—escalating crime and violence, domestic and child abuse, bullying, neglect of the poor and indigent and a general malaise reflecting lack of respect for one another.

Let us therefore display love for the children in our families. Reinforce this by acclamation of their worth and uniqueness, provide positive reinforcement through praise, encouragement and subtle expectations and practise empathetic listening. In our schools let us continue the positive circle of recognition by stressing the importance of love and mutual respect. Help our students to discover who they really are and what their place and task in this world is all about.

According to Freire help them “to name their world”. Provide subtle expectations for them and tentative instructions that will assist them in understanding themselves and their social world. In other words help them to recognise their worth as human beings. There is no one other than the parent who is best suited to do this, after all, teachers evaluate students all the time and as such is a main representative of society.

As one writer puts it, “the teacher is expected to represent the common values that constitute the moral code of the community”. Van Manen in his book Pedagogy of Recognition believes that educators should name, know, respect and celebrate students. This pedagogy aims at facilitating identity formation and consciousness raising for students. The state must also work assiduously at reducing the negative circle of recognition that includes all forms of disrespect of the individual. These include denial of rights, exclusion, abuse and rape and denigration and insult.

In my interaction with hardened criminals in one of our prisons, (individuals who had committed the most offensive and destructive actions), I could hear that still voice, almost child-like saying, “love me”, “recognise me”, “respect me as a human being”. Maybe if these were answered while they were children, the results may have been different.

• Lennox Bernard PhD

(Sheffield) is an educator who has taught at all levels of the educational system