Paradoxes & Praxis: The 21st Century Imperative for Educational Foundations

Understanding Paradoxes

Arendt (1961) in Between Past and Future writes of the importance of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, openings and closings, and thresholds. Janus, depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, can see in bifurcation—be-hind and be-fore, the past and the future—while his body occupies one space and his mind one consciousness. Because Janus has two opposite-facing faces he is not limited by oppositions and can therefore think differently about binaries (Egan, 1986). Noticing paradoxes by attending to oppositional contradictions may seem incomprehensible; after all, humans most frequently have only one face, which makes the space before visible and the space  behind invisible. Nonetheless, humans in multiple cultures have created ways to understand paradoxically. The Chinese Taoist Yin-Yang symbol, illustrates the interconnection and complement of opposing forces. The Sankofa Bird is a West African mythical creature. Its name, translated from Akan (a Ghanaian language) to English, instructs us to in go back and get what was left behind. The Sankofa Bird, like most humans, has one head but uses it to look back, pick up what was left, and return to the present. 

Palmer (1998) illustrates the commonality of paradoxes, 

We enter paradoxical profundities every day simply because we are human, for we ourselves are paradoxes that breathe! Indeed, breathing itself is a form of paradox, requiring inhaling and exhaling to be whole. (p. 295) 

Breathing is an easily lived paradox, after all, we cannot live without breathing. If we were to ignore this paradox and over do inhaling or only exhale, life would be labored or nonexistent. Out of biological necessity, we innately resolve the opposition of the exhale and the inhale by autonomic shifting between the two with breathing. Walking is also paradoxical, but requires more effort to master than breathing.

When children begin to walk, they struggle between standing up against gravity and succumbing to it as they try to move on unsure feet and unsteady legs. We notice them standing and falling and trust that with development and practice, most young children become walkers. Walking requires both standing and falling as we shift weight and balance from one leg to the other. When done well, the shifting between standing and falling suspends us in effortless walking. People who have lost this ease of walking know the difficulty of shifting between standing and falling. Some may use canes because of physiological problems or walking sticks to manage terrains like steep mountains or slick ground. If we notice someone having difficulty walking, like an elder or novice mountain climber, we may offer assistance to brace a potential fall. Toddlers, elders, and even proficient walkers suspend themselves between the paradoxes of standing and falling in order to walk.

We find easy contentment by destroying or ignoring a part of the paradox; as Plato explained, “treat[ing] argument as a form of sport solely for purposes of contradiction” (cited in Lipman, 1994, p. 261). While Plato referenced his observations of youth, these tactics are also relevant for current educational discourses. Plato continues, “When someone has proved them wrong, they copy his methods to confute others, delighting like puppies in tugging and tearing at anyone who comes near them” (p. 261). Making one side of the paradox the winner at the expense of the other side may work for the moment, one class period, this year’s budget cycle, the next election, and so forth; but the gains are short lived as the contradictions posed by paradoxes continue—even if we ignore them; are ignorant of them.

We can endure a lopsided existence far longer in education than we can in breathing or walking. The effect, however, is still devastating, for education is a moral praxis that ripples through our societies and communities reaching each individual, although in different ways.

Simplistic approaches are insufficient in education where paradox is ever present; where we cannot escape too many good answers.

Within the realm of education, we too often focus on just one part of a paradox; ignoring the other(s) and feeling all is well. At this moment in history, we suggest that we have chosen:

The potential of society’s economy over the potential of the students,

The ends with any means,

The future at the expense of the past,

Standardized over individualization…

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