What is the "crucial paradox" mentioned in the second paragraph of James Baldwin's "A Talk to Teachers"?

Expert Answers
hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin was an American writer and social critic. He grew up in Harlem and became disillusioned with American society and its racial inequalities. He moved to France but returned to the United States and became a political activist during the height of the civil rights movement. 

His speech, entitled "A Talk to Teachers," was published in The Saturday Review in December of 1963. In the speech, he talks about the change that responsible citizens must foster in order for society to move forward and heal the wounds of the past. The crucial paradox that he speaks of is found in the second paragraph of the speech: 

"It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I'm the child's parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a Society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that societv takes for granted. Now, the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes If the Third Reich, became barbarians: The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change."

A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory but can be true. Baldwin is saying that it is the very job of teachers, education, and society is to teach people to examine the society in which they find themselves, and decide for themselves what is right, wrong, and what needs to be changed. The paradox, Baldwin states, is that no society really wants to have citizens like that. Societies prefer that people simply live within the laws and the unwritten social structures of society without questioning. He points out that because schools are part of the larger social framework, they reflect the flaws of any given society. He uses Nazi Germany as an example—children in that society were taught to be barbarians. 

He tells teachers that as the people who are charged with developing the hearts and minds of young people they will have to go against every grain of society and fight unbelievable resistance in order to develop in young people the type of questioning spirit that will enable them to become agents of social change. 

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the second paragraph of his speech from 1963 titled “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin refers to a “crucial paradox” involving the nature of education.  Baldwin then explains as follows:

The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.

In other words, Baldwin suggests that the true function of teaching is to produce persons who are capable of thinking for themselves.  Otherwise teachers are not really teachers at all but are merely tools for indoctrination. The best teachers, ironically, produce students who are capable of examining, questioning, and even rejecting the ideas they have been taught. Paradoxically, then, society establishes schools which, ideally, produce people who have the capacity to challenge some of society’s values.  In fact, Baldwin later suggests that unless a society’s schools do produce such people, a society may stagnate and die. It is only by educating people who are capable of independent thought that a society can make progress and renew itself.

Two sentences after the ones quoted above, Baldwin says this:

The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.

These two sentences raise a number of interesting questions, including the following:

  • Are the values of every single society worth fighting?
  • Is change always good?
  • Is change always change for the better?

Clearly, at the time he was speaking, Baldwin felt that society did need to be changed, and changed for the better.