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

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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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.