Where Have You Gone, Immanuel Kant?

by | April 29, 2024

Not many people in the US know we just passed the 300th anniversary of Immanuel Kant’s birthday, nor would they necessarily know how to celebrate it. Most people, if they read any of his writings in school, will likely have experienced him as a writer of brain-breaking sentences on reason and rationality; sentences that either made you fall in love with philosophy or decide that mental gymnastics are a waste of time. 

But there is perhaps no philosopher whose thoughts seem more urgently worth revisiting today, as we face the urgent need to renew both education and democracy in the face of rapid technological, demographic and climate change.  Three hundred years ago, Kant boldly outlined the imperative of designing an education system that not only nurtures every young person as a critically thinking, thriving individual, but also helps them develop a deep moral obligation to help share the future for all of humanity and the planet. 

To be honest, I am one of those people who felt that my brain couldn’t handle Kant. My last memory of reading his works was when I was a teaching assistant, making a “Cliff Notes” version of the “Critique of Pure Reason” for my undergraduates who couldn’t understand a word of what he wrote while I, at least, could read his work in its original language.  

But over the last few days my inbox – which is connected to various global news sources –started filling with references to global celebrations of Kant’s upcoming birthday.  Journalists, academics and politicians all have been sharing reflections on reviving the parts of his writing that are most relevant today. In so doing, they have been unfurling before the public eye Kant’s sketch of the road not taken by the world’s democracies:  a road to progress and peace built on a fundamental rejection of slavery, embracing a transnational, universalist approach to governance systems.  

Among the gems that surfaced is his writing on education. His treaty “On Pedagogy,” is a collection of four powerful arguments for an educational philosophy that could just as well be made by progressive education innovators today:

Young people are citizens of the world and planet.  Despite never traveling far from his hometown of Koenigsberg, Germany, Kant believed that young people should grow up feeling part of the global human community, and should in every aspect of their daily routine live in curiosity for the world and in harmony with nature.

Enlightenment is the Purpose of Education.  Kant considered the rote memorization of content presented by adults, which is what our industrial school system tends to motivate, as the antithesis of learning.  Instead, he believed that young people need to learn to think for themselves, finding the “ultimate touchstone of truth” within their own reason.  

Learning for Humanity is not just child- and reason-centered, it is intensely community, and future-focused.  Kant’s educational framework had four key stages that reinforce one another for individual and societal thriving.  

  1. Self-Regulation:  While a deep believer in nurturing the capacity of individuals to think and form opinions for themselves, Kant saw the practice of self-regulation (which he called discipline) as central to pro-social learning.  
  2. Cultivation of Competencies: Young people must be encouraged to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge to achieve self-set goals, with a focus on developing the mindset of an explorer. 
  3. Civilizing: To enable young people to pursue their interests and allow them to function in harmony with others, they must learn in connection with their community.  In so doing, they learn how to get along with others and to have influence without either dominating others or sacrificing their interests. 
  4. Moralizing: The final stage of Kant’s learning cycle is the one in which young people are taught to reflect deeply on what is good, and to learn how to strive towards justice and freedom for the whole. 

Freedom includes shaking off the shackles of the despotism of desires. Even before capitalism and consumerism were a thing, Kant warned that humans could be lulled into complacency and passivity by being made to focus on their wants. He argued for a balanced approach to life in which one could of course enjoy pleasurable experiences, but only and always with a view of one’s responsibility for the whole and for the future.  

In sum, his work is as clear a call as you could make for a learner-centered, future-oriented, community-connected, humanistic model of learning as the foundation for a world at peace.  What could be more important, as we design learning systems for a generation that needs to be fluently bi-lingual in the rapidly converging languages of artificial intelligence and of being human? 

With his exhortations on universal humanity and morality, he also reveals a painfully missed opportunity.  Maybe if our founding fathers had read more of Kant’s writings than John Locke’s, our democracy would be more robust.  While Locke and Kant both emphasized every individual’s nature-given rights, for Locke (arguably the strongest influence on the architects of the American revolution) the idea of universal morality was less important than the role of government in protecting life, liberty, and the sanctity of personal property

Locke’s mental model of property created the foundation for a system that values individualism over communal responsibilities, and paved the way to our modern world – a world centered on ideals of economic liberalism in which broader societal welfare is often sidelined in favor of personal gain.  It is the celebration of such individualism that leads to our ludicrously stark economic disparities. It is the motivation of profit that keeps our malfunctioning school system in place, as a complex web of companies benefit from the existing flawed paradigm. It is the mindset that some people can be utilized as means to an end that powers a global economy fueled by extractive and exploitative practices. 

Kant, in contrast, places a relentless and uncompromising emphasis on morality and autonomy. In the world imagined by Kant, individuals are free, but they are bound by moral imperatives that force them to respect the freedom and dignity of others. This vision of democracy centers not just on creating a structure that allows every individual to succeed, but one that crafts a moral community and enables, through its values, the ‘many’ to become the ‘one.’  Importantly, Kant fundamentally rejected the idea of treating individuals as means to an end, and insisted that all human beings be considered autonomous beings and precious ends in themselves.  All forms of exploitation and inequalities were unacceptable to our man from Konigsberg. 

Manny, Happy Birthday.  I wish you had been a more accessible thinker and writer, for then world would surely be a better place. But don’t worry, we hear you now.  

It may have taken us 300 years, but it’s never too late to get history back on track. 

Filed Under: Featured

About the Author

Fernande Raine is a social entrepreneur and founder of The History Co:Lab. The History Co:Lab is a systems-change initiative to strengthen history education for a better democracy by crafting community partnerships for engaging and inspired learning and by amplifying youth voice. She has a PhD in history, started her career at McKinsey and Co. and spent 15 years with Ashoka launching programs and growing the institution around the globe.

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