Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D.
, "The Pedagogical Cultivation of Crisis as an Aid to Personal and Cultural Self-Realization," FOCUS ON LEARNING, VII, 2 (1980), pp. 7-18.
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Usually we seek to avoid a crisis, and consider it a stroke of misfortune when
one comes upon us. Yet there are occasions when certain kinds of crises can be extremely helpful. lt may well be that the only way deliberately directed
education can help an individual or society achieve self-realization is to
enhance the quality of naturally occurring crises and to engender and
cultivate crises which otherwise might not occur. Let us therefore investigate
the differences between helpful and harmful crises, and discover what there
is in man and nature that makes the occasion of a crisis potentially helpful.
We can then reach some prescriptive conclusions about the characteristics of
educational techniques that can help cultivate desirable crises.
Some Examples of Helpful Crises, and How they Differ from Harmful Ones
A crisis is an unstable situation which threatens great loss or even disaster to
the participants. but which holds the possiblity of becoming resolved without
great loss or even with some gain. We note that a crisis is not the same as an already-accomplished disaster. but it does threaten to become a disaster. A crisis is not a hopeless situation, however, for we realize that there is some possibility we may emerge relatively unscathed or even somewhat better off than before. Although there is a possibility for a neutral or favorable outcome, the magnitude and likelihood of a negative outcome produce fear and
anxiety. Thus. a crisis is the opposite of an opportunity, where the magnitude
and likelihood of a positive outcome would outweigh the risks of a negative
one and produce an attitude of hope. Fear of consequences deemed bad is
greater than hope for consequences deemed good with equal magnitude;
thus. a crisis is more strongly motivating than an opportunity. If a negative
outcome is so bad and so likely that it renders infinitesimal the comparative
magnitude and likelihood of a neutral or favorable outcome, the result is despair and surrender. But so long as the situation does not deteriorate into an actual disaster or become hopeless, the motivating power of a crisis continues.
Because a crisis has stronger motivating power, it can be more helpful than an opportunity. But a crisis can be very harmful if it leads to disaster or
despair, or if the anxiety of the crisis debilitates the participant. Stated
simplistically, a helpful crisis is one that leads to a neutral or favorable
resolution of the situation. while a harmful crisis is one that leads to disaster. Unfortunately. the difference between helpful and harmful crisis is more complex than indicated here.
Neither the motivation of a helpful crisis nor the despair of a harmful crisis
are directly visible. Yet the motivation may be an essential factor in producing a favorable outcome, and the despair may be the primary cause of lack of
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action, or inappropriate action, leading to a disaster. We also note that a crisis
can be helpful even though it results in actual disaster, provided that the crisis produces self-confrontation and self-understanding whose significance
outweighs the disaster at hand. Self-confrontation and self-understanding are not operationally definable, and cannot be measured (especially are they
unmeasurable in terms of success in meeting physical needs). Yet self-confrontation and self-understanding may well be the most important
outcomes of a lifetime. Crises and visible disasters can be tolerated (and
even welcomed) if they help produce these invisible blessings. We therefore
conclude that a crisis is harmful only if it produces disaster, debilitation, or
despair, and even then the crisis is harmful only if it fails to help produce
self-confrontation and self-understanding.
Except for the talk about self-confrontation and self-understanding, what has been said prior to the last paragraph might well have been written by a follower of Dewey. A crisis was defined as a certain kind of problematic
situation with valuative valences attached to the various possible outcomes. The instrumentalist or functionalist theory of the mind would be compatible with the present suggestion that crises can be helpful as motivating factors. According to this theory, the mind is that function of an organism which helps the organism maintain homeostatic balance with its environment. The minds of more advanced organisms, such as man, are simply more efficient in marshalling the resources of the organism and taking account of prior experience and present data. The mind is dormant until a problematic situation occurs, whereupon the mind goes into action and directs the organism’s activities in solving the problem (i.e., restoring the balance). This theory of mind comes very close to saying that mind or intelligence operates only in response to a crisis (or problematic situation), and that the growth of intelligence is the accumulation of past experiences with crisis.
The talk about self-confrontation and self-understanding sounds superfluous in the context of a Pragmatist-like analysis, but would be welcomed and heralded as crucial by existentialists. Although there are vast differences among the various existentialists, one of the factors by which we identify them as alike is the emphasis they place upon the importance of crisis and its accompanying fear, anxiety, and authentic self-confrontation. Existentialists recognize that a crisis can be helpful even though all of the operationally visible consequences are bad (i.e., even though the crisis produces disaster
or debilitation or despair). The existentialist analysis of crisis therefore goes
beyond the pragmatist analysis and might be regarded as superior, although
a pragmatist would undoubtedly challenge the existentialist to show the
non-operationally-visible aspects of self-understanding (which, the existen-
tialists retorts, are unshowable). In spite of its superiority over the pragmatist
analysis, the existentialist analysis of crisis is also limited. Existentialists
produce volumes of literature celebrating occasions of crisis and describing how such occasions lead to self-understanding or disaster. In section two of this paper we shall go beyond the existentialist descriptions by discussing
the metaphysical reasons why a crisis can help promote individual or cultural
Before going into metaphysics, it might be wise to review some examples
of helpful crises. We have already seen that the instrumentalist theory of mind comes close to saying that a crisis or problematic situation is an essential prerequisite to stimulate mental activity,
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and that intelligence is the accumulation of past experiences with crises.
According to this theory. almost all crises would be helpful. except those that result in total debilitation or death. Even though the situation at hand
becomes a disaster, and even though the crisis may have caused despair, leading to inappropriate action or nonaction, leading to the disaster; nevertheless, the crisis might be helpful and would add to the organism's accumulation of experience provided that the organism survives the disaster essentially intact. Perhaps this proviso calls to mind the popular children's rhyme: "He who ﬁghts and runs away may live to fight another day."
But what about him who fights to the death? A crisis which causes the
terminal disaster of death could not be a helpful crisis according to the
instrumentalist theory. But according to the existentialists the crisis of impending death is often the most helpful crisis a person has ever faced. The existentialist need not postulate an afterlife to justify this. Authenticity, self-confrontation. and self-realization are so valuable that their achievement justifies any sacrifice, including one’s own death. The awareness of the inevitability and ﬁnality of this greatest disaster is the supreme motivating force causing people to finish important business, do the most important and valuable things in life, and make peace with oneself and one‘s God. For this reason existentialists advise us to extract maximum significance and satisfaction from life by dwelling in the anticipation of inevitable death as though it were going to happen tomorrow. Those people who postulate an afterlife may be unwitting pragmatists who believe that such a final disaster as death could not be a helpful crisis unless we survive the disaster and
somehow make use of the experience leading up to it.
Aside from the ordinary problematic situation where disaster is unlikely, and
the crisis of impending death where disaster is certain, there are many
intermediate kinds of helpful crises which seem to fit more easily into the
common notion of what a crisis is. Certain diseases run a course from early
symptoms to more distressing symptons, until a crisis occurs. The crisis is a
decisive turning point: either the organism survives the crisis and recovers, or
else the crisis leads to accelerating deterioration and disaster. Such a crisis
is welcomed as a sign that the initial symptomatic stages have run their
inevitable course and the path is now open to improvement leading to
recovery. Similar crisis points occur in cases of neuroses, and in the cognitive
and affective developmental stages enumerated by Piaget and Freud.
Adolescent problems of psychological adjustment might profitably be thought
of as crisis points signifying the end of childhood development and opening the possibility of further development into the maturity of adulthood. Sensitivity training and marathon bargaining sessions are sometimes deliberately employed to produce and enhance psychological crises leading to conﬂict resolution, as will be shown in section three.
Just as a crisis marks a turning point in the physiological or psychological life
of an individual. so also a crisis marks a turning point in the history of a culture. Toynbee‘s theory of history is the most widely known expression of this idea. According to Toynbee, every great culture has achieved its greatness as a result of successful responses to earlier challenge. Just when the culture appears in danger of sloth. stagnation. or self-satisfaction. along comes another challange. Each challenge is a crisis in the sense that failure to meet the challenge will produce decline and disaster, while success in meeting it will elevate the culture to new heights of accomplishment. According to Toynbee, it is God who gives these challenges
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to cultures as a way of helping them to become motivated, mobilize their
resources, and develop greatness. In this sense, a crisis is a gift God bestows upon a culture just as God bestowed the gift of crisis after crisis upon Job: the crisis can help us grow stronger, and our ability to view a crisis in this way is a test of our humility, wisdom, and faith. Except for Toynbee’s talk about God bestowing crises upon us, Toynbee‘s theory of the role of cultural crisis in stimulating cultural progress is closely analogous to the instrumentalist theory of the role of personal crises (problematic situations)
in stimulating the growth ofintelligence. ln section three we shall see that
martyrs and non-violent resisters succeed in producing social reform by
making pedagogical use of the metaphysical characteristics of cultural crises
which they engender and cultivate.
Why a Crisis Can Help Promote Individual or Cultural Self-Realization
There are two very opposite ways to characterize self-realization, giving rise
to two different explanations why a crisis can help promote it.
(a) According to the pragmatist approach, self-realization can only be defined as bringing the future into the present, or "making progress." Growth is desirable for the sake of further growth. The direction of growth is not established a priori, but is redetermined from time to time as the composite or resultant of changing force vectors. Self-realization for an individual is whatever happens to him, and is enhanced if the range of alternatives increases. Cultural self-realization is future history, and is enhanced if the culture acquires greater international power and larger gross national product.
(b) According to the idealist or mystical approach, self-realization is the
unfolding of an essence; the manifesting of a previously hidden reality. Hegel
tells us that history is an unending chain of thesis. antithesis, and synthesis in
which Truth is approached ever more closely and completely. According to
Hegel's objective idealist followers (especially Bosanquet, Royce, and Fichte), cultural self-realization is the institutionalization of cosmically revealed patterns, and cultures fail when they fall behind or deviate from these cosmic patterns. Plato himself thought that cultural self-realization (i.e., justice) consisted in the institutionalization of a social-class division of labor that would manifest a cosmically dictated division of labor among the parts of the individual’s soul. Self-realization for an individual is also the unfolding of his essential nature: the theories of Plato and Froebel are very clear on this point.
The essential difference between these two characterizations of self-realization is that the pragmatist claims that self does not exist ahead of time but is created and continually re-created through experience; while the idealist or mystic claims that self is an a priori (although hidden) reality which becomes increasingly known and manifested as it is discovered or revealed. In
existentialist writings it is often difficult or impossible to tell which characterization is being used. Do the choices we make create our identity or do those choices reveal who we are?
The pragmatist verison of existentialism would assert that we make choices arbitrarily in order to create our identity for a situation where choice is
groundless. There is no right or wrong, no basis for choosing one alternative
over another, and no unquestionably good reasons can be given for what we
do. But what we do and how we choose are often important and sometimes
crucial. The need to make an important choice, combined with a lack of gounds for making the choice, is a crisis whose
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anxiety gives motivation to make the choice (albeit arbitrarily) and thereby relieve the anxiety. The reason why a crisis can help promote self-realization.
according to the pragmatist theory, is because the crisis forces us to make a
choice and undergo the consequences (hence having experiences and growing) when otherwise the choice and its consequences would be avoided.
The idealist or mystical version of existentialism would assert that although we can make choices arbitrarily we would prefer to make them rationally. To be authentic means to make the choice which most completely manifests our true essential nature. The availability of alternatives, the importance of the choice, and the hiddenness of the imperative dictated by our essential nature combine to create a crisis. lf we choose arbitrarily, we temporarily lessen the crisis but continue to anguish over whether the choice that was made really was the one dictated by our essential nature. The only way we can fully resolve the crisis is by discovering the hidden imperative dictated by our essential nature; and in the act of discovering that hidden imperative we come closer to understanding our essential nature (i.e.. self-realization). Thus. the reason why a crisis can help promote self-realization, according to the idealist or mystical theory, is because the crisis produces the anxiety over a choice to be made or a choice that has been made; and the anxiety can be resoved only when we discover enough about our essential nature to tell us which choice would be the authentic one.
Both versions of existentialism are agreed in emphasizing the importance and potential helpfulness of crisis in leading us to self-realization. But they disagree over the nature of self-realization, and therefore they disagree over
the reasons why a crisis can be helpful in leading us to it. Logically there can be no way of proving the superiority of one version over the other, but the idealist-mystical version seems much more comprehensive and believable for at least two reasons: (I) As we have noted earlier, the pragmatist approach cannot account for the observation that crisis leading to disaster and death can be helpful in promoting self-realization, while the idealist-mystical approach does account for this; (2) The pragmatist version of existentialism postulates an absurd or meaningless world where all choice is groundless and self-realization is nothing more than continuing one‘s existence into the future; while the idealist-mystical version claims that crisis can force us to confront our true essential nature and discover aspects of it that enable us to
make choices which authentically manifest that nature.
In view ofthe greater comprehensiveness and believability of the idealist-mystical viewpoint, the present section of this paper will conclude with a brief
expansion of this viewpoint so as to provide a more complete metaphysical
explanation why a crisis can help promote self-realization. Before doing so,
however, it should be made clear that the general positions and labels (prag-
matist. idealist. and mystical. existentialist) employed in this paper do not
necessarily represent positions actually stated by people who are given those
labels. The positions and labels are meant to serve as heuristic, suggestive
reminders of the abstract doctrines under discussion. The positions and
labels do bear a similarity to their nominal counterparts, but attention is
focused on the theoretical issues being discussed here rather than the accuracy of exigesis or attribution of doctrines to movements.
The basic assumption which is needed to expand and complete the idealist-mystical viewpoint developed earlier is that there is a universal order or cosmic structure, which is the same for everyone, and which is the basis of
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each person's own essential nature. We are not especially concerned here with any particular characterization of the cosmic structure, although Plato’s
World of Forms, dominated by the supreme Form of the Good, would serve
as an example of what is meant by the concept "cosmic structure." The structure is the methaphysical credential for all valid ethical and aesthetic standards, so that correct choices are correct because they are in harmony with the structure and manifest the structure. Every person has the structure as the basis of his own essential nature, which means that each person is present in all others and can recognize himself in all others. The l-thou relationship is a manifestation of this fundamental (although often hidden) unity between people. ln being authentic different people will behave differently because of differences in the subordinate aspects of their personalities and differences in their environmental circumstances, but
in being authentic the differences in their behaviors will be harmonious
rather than dissonant. A crisis for an individual person forces him to search
for his essential nature and helps motivate him to strip away the superficial
veneer which ordinarily covers it. The individual may then achieve some
understanding of the cosmic structure within him and his role in manifesting
that structure. A crisis for a culture forces the individual members of the
culture to undergo individual crises. As each individual achieves some self-realization, each will learn to recognize himself in the others and all will work
together more harmoniously in manifesting the cosmic structure they share.
Pedagogical Techniques for Cultivating Helpful Personal and Cultural Crisis
Self-realization is a form of knowledge which an individual must achieve by himself. lt cannot be delivered to him by any person or set of circumstances,
although there are things which persons and circumstances can do to be helpful. Plato emphasizes these points in his philosophy of education and defends this viewpoint by developing his metaphysics.
In Meno we ﬁnd Socrates illustrating his famous technique by teaching an
ignorant slave boy the proof (and truth) of a geometric theorem. This slave-boy episode occurred because Socrates was trying to demonstrate to Meno the fact that the slave boy had the knowledge within him and could discover that knowledge even though neither the teacher nor prior experience delivered it to him. Socrates likened the teacher (himself in this case) to a midwife, who helps bring to the light of day something which was already pregnantly present. We should note that although the dialogue with the slave boy concerned a simple geometric theorem, Plato intends this dialogue and the Doctrine of Recollection to apply to knowledge of self and of the cosmic structure. The dialogue Meno was concerned with was the question "Can virtue be taught?" and Plato uses the case of the slave boy and the geometric theorem as an example to illustrate the same general conclusions
about anyone’s understanding of virtue.
The Doctrine of Recollection is explored more fully in the Republic, where the Myth of Er explains how we had knowledge prior to birth but then forgot it. The teacher’s task (and the unspoken pedagogical function of all experience) is to remind us of forgotten knowledge. The Sun Allegory may be interpreted as claiming that we have the cosmic structure as our essential nature, while the Cave Allegory describes how we grow up chained by ignorance but
can break these chains and discover the structure. Plato notes in the Cave
Allegory that the process of self-realization may be painful, but that the
conversion that takes place when self-
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realization is achieved is worth the suffering necessary to produce it.
The Socratic method not only emphasizes the autonomy of the student's
discovery of knowledge (including self-realization), it also deliberately
engenders a crisis for the purpose of ensuring the student’s personal emo-
tional involvement in the process of discovery. The Socratic method begins
when student or teacher poses a problem and the student states what he
believes is the answer. At this point, the student has invested some ego involvement in both the problem and his proposed answer. Assuming that the
answer is wrong, the teacher leads the student into a self-contradiction or
absurdity clearly derived from the student’s answer. The student must now
admit that he was mistaken. After the student has exhausted all the guesses he wishes to try out in this way, the student clearly realizes that he is ignorant of the answer. A crisis situation has already developed, since the student’s ego has been invested in his answers and he has led himself into self-contradictions based on his own answers and his own reasoning or observations. The crisis is enhanced as the student becomes more desperate for the correct answer, and as the teacher rebukes and "shames" him for thinking he knew the answer when he did not. The student comes to admit
his ignorance, and begs for instruction. Thus, the student realizes that the only way to resolve the crisis is to achieve knowledge. The teacher then helps the student discover knowledge, rather than trying to deliver the knowledge to him.
Obviously this Socratic midwifery could not work and would not be appropriate for learning factual truth about the World of Appearances, but is very appropriate for learning a priori truth in mathematics and the World of Forms. Self-realization obviously belongs in this latter category, especially in view of the analysis presented in section two of this paper. The Socratic method is interesting for our purposes here because it deliberately engenders and cultivates a helpful crisis. The student is motivated by the crisis to achieve knowledge, and the strength of motivation is proportional to the
importance of the problem the knowledge will answer plus the skill of the
teacher in using Socratic shaming and midwifery. Socrates explicitly defends
his role as a sting-ray in numbing and shaming the student: he claims that a
student is not ready for instruction until the student knows he needs it, and that the crisis produced by sting-ray tactics is very helpful.[note#1]
The Socratic method supported by Platonic metaphysics is remarkably similar to Zen pedagogical techniques supported by Buddhist metaphysics. Zen students may spend long years with a master, often living in his monastery,
seeking self-realization. The master has many techniques for stripping away the student’s superficial veneer, shaming the student, creating a crisis for him, and leading him to achieve self-realization. In classical Oriental culture, the Zen master occupied a social role in relation to his students comparable to father, priest, and emperor all rolled into one. Parents would sometimes place teenage children or adult sons entirely in the hands of a master, giving the master complete power over vocational training, personal discipline, and
intellectual development. In view of the master’s prestige and power, a rebuke from him would create a crisis for the student. Zen literature is filled with accounts of Zen masters chastising their students with both verbal blows to the ears and physical blows to the body delivered with a walking staff. Zen masters pose unsolvable paradoxical riddles for their pupils and insist that the pupils return each day with a proposed answer; when the answer is wrong (which it almost always is), the pupil receives his verbal or physical beating.
By these techniques the master renders
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the student totally humble, aware of his ignorance, and desperate for knowledge -- just as Socrates had produced the same effects upon his students.[note#2] According to Buddhist methaphysics, everyone has the Buddha-nature within him, while self-realization means the discovery and manifestation of this Buddha-nature. Clearly, the Buddha-nature common to all is analogous to the Form of the Good common to all (as illustrated in Plato's Sun Allegory). For both Plato and the Zen masters, the way to achieve self-realization is to undergo a crisis which forces us to strip away the outer veneer and discover the cosmic structure underlying our true essential nature. If we wish to operate an engine more effectively, we should decrease the resistance offered by its surrounding environment and increase the power supplied to it. Likewise, to help a person operate more authentically, we should decrease the resistance offered by his outer veneer and increase the activity of his essential nature. A crisis provides motivation for an individual to strip away the veneer, and a crisis calls forth inner resources which previously lay dormant. Thus, we can assist a person in achieving self-realization by creating helpful crises for him, as Socrates and the Zen masters have shown.
The psychotherapeutic technique of catharsis does the same thing as a crisis:
indeed, catharsis is the re-living of a crisis. Freud tells us that we achieve self-
realization by remembering, reliving, and re-solving old crises whose mishandling at the time they occurred caused maladjustments. Rogerian
techniques, shock, hypnosis, or drugs may help us strip away the protective
outer veneer, and the inner resources of the person will then be freed to generate the psychic power needed to re-solve the original crisis. Arthur Koestler has shown that the cultural function of Zen in Japan is to cut through the indirectness, formality, and conformity typical in that culture and to force the individual into a direct confrontation with himself and others. He suggests that existentialism performs the analogous function in the West.[note#3] Alan Watts claims that psychotherapy does for the West what Zen does for the East, and notes the close similarities of the two techniques.[note#4] Kobayashi claimed that Dewey's philosophy of instruction is closely similar to Zen in the emphasis both place upon interactionism, experience, the unity of subject and object, and the action-reaction concept of learning.[note#5] The foremost English-speaking expert on Zen, D.T. Suzuki, has noted important uniformities of viewpoint among existentialism, prag-
matism, and Zen.[note#6]
Additional techniques for the cultivation of helpful crises leading to self-realization and self-manifestation can be found in the customary Western
monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and humility. Seekers of wisdom have
customarily employed these techniques, and other kinds of renunciation (fasting, sacriﬁcing, etc.), in all ages and cultures. Heidegger claims that it is possible to be truly authentic only when silent.[note#7] The importance of silence in religious tradition, and general sensory deprivation in psychotherapy, is well known. By refusing to employ (or being unable to employ) the outward tokens of communication, we are forced to rely upon the inner power of communion. Aldous Huxley has recognized the importance of education on a non-verbal level, and has described some ways of cultivating self-realization through non-verbal education.[note#8]
Silence is conducive to self-realization because it provides an unstructured
situation with virtually unlimited potential for free and authentic verbal action. In general, the freedom in an unstructured situation causes tension, anxiety, and frustration. Thus, a crisis may arise which can lead to self-confrontation and self-realization. An
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unstructured situation (verbal or physical or both) is psychologically intolerable -- we feel insecure and can restore security only by providing
structure. Silence provokes nervous laughter and then conversation -- or
monologue if necessary. Political power vacuums are quickly filled. Students,
when free to sit anywhere they wish, soon assign themselves regular seats by tacit agreement. lt is a well established psychological generalization that
frustration leads to aggression; hence, the anxiety and frustration of intolerable freedom cause pampered children and adolescents to strike out against parents and teachers who fail to provide and enforce appropriate rules. The vacuum of rules, standards. and beliefs in today’s culture is being filled by drugs, violence, religious cults, and other psychologically consuming
activities that provide structure to replace the intolerable void. The rapidly
developing anarchy in our country is threatening to be replaced by authoritarian force from the left, the right, or both.
In spite of the risks involved, the freedom of an unstructured situation can provoke a helpful crisis leading to self-realization. The freedom of an unstructured situation is therefore superior to the rigidity of an authoritarian or cook-book type of situation although guidance is needed to prevent a disaster. Guidance must protect an individual or society from arbitrary, random, or meaningless filling of an unstructured situation; but guidance must not dictate the outcome. Thus, guidance must provide enough structure so the participants do not despair, while teaching the participants to suspend
judgment and "play it cool" in the process of developing an appropriate
structure. Diplomats have developed rules of protocol which provide them with just enough structure to get their discussions underway. Strangers go
through certain formalities which protect them from crushing ego blows
until sufficient intimacy and interactive structure (and therefore trust) have been generated. Novice teachers rely upon curriculum materials and strict
observance of disciplinary rules until they develop sufficient structure to relax
these formalities. Students appreciate frequent objective tests and specific,
regular classroom procedures until the development of security and trust permit a more flexible approach. Ideally, the crisis posed by a relatively
unstructured situation can force us into a direct confrontation with reality and
ourselves, leading to self-realization manifested by authentic behavior. Emotional and cognitive problems might best be regarded as opportunities
for growth rather than already-accomplished disasters. The techniques of
sensitivity training and marathon bargaining sessions are designed to
enhance and cultivate the helpful crises found in the emotional and cognitive
aspects of interpersonal and intergroup relations. Perhaps the self-flagellation
engaged in by some adolescents and mentally ill adults can be thought of as
an effort to engender and cultivate helpful crises. We have been taught to
regard aberrant, self-destructive actions as screams for help: the neurotic or
psychotic person is calling attention to himself and signaling us that he wants us to care for him and save him from himself. But in the context of the present essay we can make a deeper interpretation of such behavior. Perhaps
self-flagellation is an evolutionary adaptation which makes us more fit to
survive problematic situations by enhancing and cultivating a crisis until
the point is reached where self-realization takes place and authentic action then solves the problem. Clearly a person engaging in self-flagellation needs help. But on many occasions the most loving and helpful thing we can do
for someone is to "twist the knife" and enhance his crisis until the crisis leads to
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self-realization. This would be comparable to the rebuking and shaming
techniques used by Socrates and the Zen masters. Polanyi‘s theory of tacit
knowing[note#9] might account for the helpfulness of the crisis in promoting solutions to problems and even self-realization: the indwelling and integration of subsidiary clues into focal awareness of a problem, solution, concept, person, or self can be achieved when a crisis shocks us into shifting the focus of our attention. The methods of Socrates, Zen masters, and psychotherapists could thus be understood as providing subsidiary clues together with a shock or crisis that helps the student integrate these clues and previous experiences into an awareness of their joint meaning.
Although we have dealt almost exclusively with pedagogical techniques for the cultivation of crises in individuals, we should note some techniques that would help cultivate social crises. Commentators on Socratic method usually emphasize the tutorial relationship between teacher and student, operating on a one-to-one basis. Yet, there are at least two kinds of Socratic midwifery used by the master himself to cultivate social crises:
(I) In Apology Socrates, on trial for his life, speaks to the assembled mass jury.[note#10] He provides his own rhetorical questions, rebukes the listeners, and shows them how their condemnation of him will inevitably
produce a crisis for them. Socrates characterizes himself as the gadﬂy of
Athens, whose criticisms and rebukes have stung the body politic so deeply
that they seek to eliminate him. Socrates begs the Athenians to treat his sons as he has treated the Athenians: by rebuking and vexing them if they stray from the search for wisdom and the life of virtue.
(2) The actions of Socrates create crises for the Athenians. The speech to the masses, mentioned above, really summarizes the social effects of his
actions in speaking to individuals. But Socrates affirms in both Crito and
Apology that he has deliberately engaged in certain actions for the purpose of cultivating crises. In Crito Socrates refuses to escape from prison while awaiting execution, explaining to those who offered to permit him to escape that his duty is to abide by the judgment of Athenian law. ln Apology he makes it clear that his own martyrdom to truth will create a crisis for those
who condemned him and for the laws of Athens.[note#11]
Martyrdom has traditionally been a most effective pedagogical technique for
cultivating social crises. Socrates, Jesus, and the early Christian martyrs died for their causes. Within recent times we recall Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther
King, Malcolm X, the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set themselves afire, etc. But we may profitably broaden the concept of martyrdom to include instances when someone suffers (without necessarily dying) on behalf of
an ideal at the hands of people who are either ignorant of the issue or overtly
disagree. The death of a martyr concentrates public attention upon him and the ideal for which he died, but the death only seals all his many earlier actions which had previously generated support, criticism, and debate. The
point is that a martyr teaches his ideal to a whole society. He may use words to express and explain his ideal. but his actions lend most of the weight to his
words. and his actions may teach by example without the use of words. Martyrdom succeeds because it creates a crisis of conscience for the
persecutors. Martyrs become heroes because they are willing to create disaster for themselves in order to create a helpful crisis for their persecutors.
When the good or righteous person suffers at our hands on account of his
good and righteous beliefs which we persecute or laugh at, the combination
of his righteousness and his suffering rebukes us. Our inner nature is activated
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by sympathetic resonance (since our nature and his nature are based in the
same cosmic structure) and our outer veneer is eroded by the forcefulness of
the crisis and the obvious injustice of our own attitudes and actions. As an
example. consider the case of Negro civil rights leaders in the late l950’s and
early l960’s, leading peaceful parades down segregated White suburban
streets. The bigoted residents created violence by throwing rocks and bottles
at the paraders, causing injury to some. Police sometimes added to the miseries of the paraders by clubbing them in order to break up the now-"violent" demonstration. The paraders knew ahead of time that they faced verbal and physical violence, but were willing to suffer at the hands of the bigots in hopes of summoning forth the human decency of the bigots whose attitudes and actions would then be rebuked by their own aroused consciences.
Traditionally, those who believe they have the truth have employed physical
violence or legal and political coercion to force their views upon others. The
extent of the violence and coercion have varied in proportion to the extent of the social power held by those who believe (or claim) they are righteous. Religious wars, inquisitions, and political witch-hunts have been all-too-familiar
ingredients of history. But powerless minorities and individuals who claim to
be righteous have traditionally used non-violent protests, passive resistance,
and other forms of martyrdom as pedagogical techniques to instruct, rebuke, and obtain concessions from the established power structure. Violence is
successful according to its force, not its righteousness, and violence usually
alienates its victims from the ideals being forced upon them. But martyrdom draws its success from the righteousness of the ideal being proclaimed and the sympathetic resonance of conscience which converts a persecutor into a supporter. Obviously martyrdom is both more just and more effective in the long run than violence. Educators might ponder how to teach techniques of creative martyrdom to young people, who could be expected to be receptive to such instruction in view of their current commitment to love, peace, beauty, and altruism.
The nation and the world are now in the midst of a great social crisis. As educators we ought to seek ways of employing our art to discover the helpful aspects of this crisis and to cultivate them. By cultivating the helpful aspects of the crisis we might prevent a social disaster. As Sorokin suggests, we are now in the twilight of our sensate culture and are in the midst of a crisis. This crisis has the potential for early movement (and the inevitability of eventual movement) through catharsis, charisma, and resurrection.[note#12] As educators we might assist in performing midwifery leading to the birth of a better social order.
Much has been written and spoken concerning education for social reconstruction, but little has been done. From what has been said concerning the pedagogical cultivation of helpful crises, it seems that we should adopt at least two programs.
Firstly, hotly contested controversial issues should be included as the core of
the social studies curriculum in the upper elementary and secondary schools. The confrontation with these issues could engender crises for the students, and skillful teachers could cultivate such crises to make them socially helpful. Students would undergo both cognitive and emotional growth in learning about the controversies and learning how to live through and resolve them. Soliciting the substantive involvement of community groups in planning and contributing to the curriculum is another way the school can cultivate the crises of controversial social issues. By securing this intimate community participation the school can
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directly cultivate community crises (thereby engaging in adult education) and can ensure the genuineness of its daytime curriculum.
Secondly, young people, upon attaining age 18 or graduating from high school, should be recruited into mandatory participation in some form of national service. Both boys and girls should be required to serve, and service should be done for a one or two year period living away from home and family (thereby cultivating the adolescent identity crisis). Some of the youngsters would serve in the military, but most would serve in slums, in rural areas, on Indian reservations, in schools, parks, and hospitals, and in other places which require large numbers of low-paid, idealistic, semi-skilled helpers. Such a program of national service would not only supply manpower to help solve pressing social problems, it would also be educative in the best possible way. Young people would see life as it is, learn to work with each other and with adults, and develop a sense of identification with their nation. Participation in shaping the social process would lead to commitment to that process and a willingness to abide by and defend the process.
1. Plato, Menu, 80-84.
2. See especially the indicated chapters in the following two books by D.T. Suzuki: Studies in Zen (ed. Christmas Humphreys; New York: Philosophical
Library, I955), chapters 3, 4, and 6; and Zen Buddhism (ed. William Barrett; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, I956), chapters 5 and 6.
3. Arthur Koestler, The Lotus and the Robot (New York: Macmillian, I960).
4. Alan Watts, Psychotherapy Easy and West (New
York: Pantheon Books, l961).
5. Victor N. Kobayashi. "The Quest for Experience: Zen, Dewey, and Education." Comparative Education Review, V. 3 (February. I962), pp. 2I7-222.
6. D. T. Suzuki, "Existentialism, Pragmatism, and Zen." Zen Buddhism (ed. William Barrett; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, l956), chapter
7. Marc Edouard Briod, "The Primacy of Discourse in Determining the Sense of Heidegger‘s Authenticity: Ground for a Sensitive Education" (Ph.D.
dissertation, Northwestern University, I968). Abstracted in Dissertation Abstracts. XXIX, 10 (I969).
8. Aldous Huxley. "Education on the Nonverbal Level." Daedalus. XCI, 2(Spring. I962), pp. 279-293.
9. Michael Polanyi. "Tacit Knowing: Its Bearing on Some Problems of Philosophy," Reviews of Modern Physics XXXIV, 4 (October. I962). pp. 601-616. See also The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., I966).
10. Plato, Apology, 31-42.
11. Ibid., 38-39.
12. Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics (One-volume edition; Boston: Porter Sargent, I957). See especially Chapter 42.
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Contents of this article may be freely quoted, provided the following citation is given:
Original publication Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. , "The Pedagogical Cultivation of Crisis as an Aid to Personal and Cultural Self-Realization," FOCUS ON LEARNING, VII, 2 (1980), pp. 7-18. Article now available at
** NOTE: Until this webpage was created, this article did not exist anywhere on the internet. The plain-text version of this article, above, has been created by the author on September 18, 2011 by scanning it from his own stored copy of the original journal using an Epson Stylus NX420 all-in-one printer at home; then converting each scanned page into simple text and correcting scanning errors; then joining together the text from all the pages and creating the html formatting. I felt it important to do this work because I cited this paper in a new essay published September 11, 2011: "Let's use the fiscal crisis to eliminate federal and state racial entitlement programs. Funding for shovel-ready jobs can come from scalpel-ready cuts." at
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