Friday, December 21, 2007

I-Thou




Communications

I use this word in the plural for a simple and precise reason not related at all to any sophisticated nuances of that same word. The plural is in my mind because my father used the phrase “communications down” when he had a mild stoke just three weeks before he died in 1993. I can remember standing in the hallway of our then home in Artane and his refusing to talk to our Uncle Jimmy who rang frequently for a chat. This was very unlike my father who simply loved people and always used the phone to keep in touch with them. When verbal communications go down humans we can be stranded. My father was stranded. For the first time in my life I saw my father totally lost and confused, and most essentially frightened.

”Communication” is a much used and indeed abused word whether it is used in the singular or in the plural. Here, for the purposes of this post I shall use the singular and plural forms of this word interchangeably as meaning how human beings communicate with each other. For me at any rate, I see communication as happening at a variety of different levels from the surface level on down to the depth level – from the superficial to the profound respectively. It would also seem that there are many other degrees of communication in between these two extremes.

Obviously when you ride on the bus or the tram your relationship to the driver is particularly superficial – perhaps functional would be a better word to describe such relationships. By their very nature, or very obvious function, such relationships must of necessity be shallow or superficial. Our relationships with many other humans is on this functional level – the shop assistant, the waiter or waitress, the washing machine repair man, the mechanic, the electrician or the boiler repair man or plumber all belong to this category.

However, the length of time we spend in the company of these people will also alter the level of communication. What may have started out at a superficial level may be brought deeper by sheer chance or circumstance. Recently, having witnessed an accident that held up traffic on our local main road, I began to hold a conversation with one of the bus drivers of the several buses, which were held up for over an hour. I learned that he was Romanian by nationality, had a degree in music and that bus driving was the only job he could manage to get to keep himself, his wife and family with a rather average standard of living. In other words a functional relationship can be brought deeper by circumstances and by the sheer amount of time we have to spend or do spend in one another’s company.

As a teacher “communication” of content is important. However, as we commendably learned at college many years ago during our teacher education, teaching is so much more that “filling information into empty jugs or vessels.” There is a dynamism in the process of communication that is so much more than content. Indeed, many years later when I was involved in adult education, I learnt that the “process” is more important than the “content” for adult learning. I think and feel that the same applies to teaching young people also – perhaps not with the same intensity. There is also the implicit and explicit attitude of care and respect that the teacher has for the pupil as well as his or her understanding and acceptance of the children with all their various educational abilities or lack of it. When the relationship between teacher and class is good real communication exists. Where good communication exists real teaching and real learning take place.

Obviously there will be different levels of communication going on in different classes. Exploring and discussing a poem may bring a teacher and class far deeper than say working out either chemical formulae or algebraic equations. Likewise a class in life skills or SPHE may bring both class and teacher to depths of understanding and acceptance not reached in other classes. However, here again let me emphasise that each level from superficial to deep or profound is of equal importance. I’m not arguing here for an hierarchy of importance – merely pointing out that there are distinct levels of communication available to us as human beings. The real skill in both living and in doing any job, teaching and learning included, is to be able to skilfully go with ease from level to level as each is called for to do proper justice to the subject or situation at hand.

A skilled communicator can relate to any other in an “I-Thou” way with practice. An “I-It” relationship is purely functional and does have its place in the scheme of things. However, when and if we treat others consistently like objects or things they will justly feel dehumanised and we ourselves are reduced, not alone in their eyes, but with respect to our own sense of dignity and integrity. When we dehumanise others we dehumanise ourselves. When we communicate with others in a dignified and dignifying way we are saying yes to the spirit of life and the light of inspiration that dwells both in the speaker and in the listener. We consequently embrace a shared space and presence that enhances all.

Above I have pasted another picture of our christmas party for the old folks. Again it was taken with my mobile phone. Real commincation takes place so naturally really!

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