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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Education as an Act of Love

In 1973, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, claimed that "education is an act of love" and that educators must risk acts of love in order to create a world in which it will be easier to love.

Fast forward 50 years and, despite the enormous influence of Freire's ideas on modern education, academics have sometimes observed that little attention has been given to how Freire actually defined love or, for that matter, how education constitutes an "act of love".

A heart drawn onto a window

But today, as I read the following lines from Alain de Botton's, A Therapeutic Journey: Lessons from The School of Life, I started to wonder if I had found a clue. 

We are often sold a fundamentally and unhelpfully romantic view of love, which proposes that love is the reward given to a person for their strengths: it is what someone can expect to receive when they are supremely beautiful, rich, impressive or popular. The most lovable person on earth is - according to this philosophy - simultaneously the most gifted and consummate one.

But there is another, broader, nobler conception that understands love not as a reward for strength but as a sympathy for, and commitment for attending to, weakness. 

… the people that we should put our faith in are those who do not recoil from us in our frightened or hesitant moments, those who don't just want to clap at us and be awed by our triumphs. They are the ones who are moved by our cries, who are on hand in the dark hours, who will still be around when the rest of the world is jeering.

This idea that love is not a reward, but a presence and a commitment even in our most vulnerable moments is certainly contrary to popular opinion. But it also contradicts the way in which many of us have learned to (un)love ourselves, growing up into adulthood of the opinion that we are lovable solely on the basis of what we have achieved, our talents and our strengths.

But what does this discourse on love have to do with education and how, specifically, does it help us to unpack what Freire might have meant by the phrase that "education is an act of love"?

In trying to connect the dots, I find myself reflecting on the way in which students and former students often speak about their experience of school and, in particular, teachers that had a positive impact on their lives.

Rarely does an individual look back on their school days and recall the teacher that constantly offered praise for areas in which a student habitually excelled. Instead, they look back with fondness on the one who, in de Botton's words, was "on hand in the dark hours… when the rest of the world is jeering." 

And perhaps, that's the point. Meaningful education occurs when we love our students enough to stand alongside them without judgement; it happens in those moments of support and encouragement when they fall; it happens when we offer our unwavering belief in who they are and who they can become.

Our graduates look back on these moments and remember that, in these moments, they were loved and perhaps even led one step closer to loving themselves.

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash.



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