Learning to “grow”, a battle to be waged with Susan Neiman


What does it mean to “grow up”? The question should haunt all parents, and all those who have the task of accompanying children on their path to adulthood. However, it is rarely asked. Why ? Perhaps, answers the American philosopher Susan Neiman , because the fear of growing up hides the fear of aging, which itself hides the fear of dying, that is to say, paradoxically, the fear of living!

In a society fascinated by images of youth, a double fight against our “reluctance to grow up” is then necessary. This fight, Susan Neiman resolutely and courageously commits to it in a book that every educator should read, and whose Premier Parallèle editions have been offering a translation since September 2, 2021. Subtitled Praise of adulthood in an era which infantilizes us , his reflection aims to show the reality of “growing up”, as an ineluctable process for human life, and its legitimacy, as an inescapable objective of educational action. Because growing up is at the same time an indisputable fact; and an ideal, “which deserves to be harnessed”.

In this book which “wants to be useful”, the philosopher intends to show what it means to “mature as it should”, in order to be able to say how one can “intelligently accompany a life”. Its subject is the same as that of Emile or Education , of Rousseau , “the only philosophical work entirely devoted to the fact of growing up”, she believes.

A necessity to accept

The book reminds us that, because of human incompleteness, growing up is a fundamental necessity. We are born completely destitute, and our survival depends on a whole series of conquests (cognitive, motor, emotional, and social) which take place not only during childhood and adolescence, but throughout life. . The “process” that makes everyone a (fully) human being is “a process that never ends”. The child is in this sense “the living affirmation of human transcendence”, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, by bringing something radically new, and by never being reducible to what he is at a given moment. determined.

If one does not accept to recognize the immediate positivity of “growing up”, it is often because one refuses the impoverishment and the shrinking which would be the mark of “adulthood”. But we must distinguish between lucidity and resignation. To be an adult is not to resign yourself to a narrow life, and of less interest. One must accept the uncertainties, and give up certain dreams, leaving the world of the illusory for that of self-realization.

Certainly old age is on the horizon for the best life in the world, and it has often been seen as a shipwreck. But it can have “sparkle”, and “humanity, creativity and self-development continues, beyond flops, falls, excesses and mistakes”.

Social mechanisms of infantilization

However, the question “what’s the point of growing up?” Arises in a cruel way if one takes into account what Susan Neiman calls “the conceptual horror of our world”, in other words the negativity of a time when neo-liberalism triumphed. Because “the social structures in which we operate are designed so that we remain childish”.

We would like to know more about the mechanisms that keep us in the alienation of immaturity, and make us wade through “the swamps of adolescence”. These mechanisms “intended to infantilize the subjects” are now “more subtle but not less powerful, and certainly more invasive” than the feudal-type mechanisms. It is not sure that it is enough to designate the state, which would like to prevent us from “thinking independently”, and the dominant culture, “which does not want adults”.

It is the question of the very possibility of change that is posed. Isn’t the hope of moving from a society that infantilizes to a society that allows one to grow illusory? We should be able to change both individuals and structures.

We come back to the difficult question of the training of trainers. Only free individuals could build a society of freedom. But where can these adults come from, in a society that infantilizes and alienates? This is the paradox on which Rousseau has studied. Who can start? Where will the miracle come from? Susan Neiman isn’t really responding. In any case, we can retain that, if such a miracle of the emergence of an adult society in a world that does not want it is not certain, or even probable, it is not impossible. Didn’t Guy Béart sing: “The miracle comes from everywhere”? But any “solution” can only be “partial”.

A chasm between ideal and reality

It is not enough to want to grow, and to have the opportunity to do so. You still have to know how to go about it. One of the great merits of Suzan Neiman’s book is to provide concrete answers, by proposing, and by carefully describing, three privileged paths to “become an adult”, namely education, travel, and work. .

The pages devoted to these three avenues offer analyzes as in-depth as they are fascinating, on the education crisis, the difficulty of being a parent, the importance of reading, the dangers of the Internet and screens, the interest and the inconveniences of travel, the future of work; and allow the author to clarify his critique of neoliberal economics.

But before (or, at the very least, thanks to these three “experiences”), in order to grow up, it is necessary to have experienced the “chasm” or the “gap” which, at the same time, separates and unites, real and ideal. We must “recognize the abyss that separates ‘is’ from ‘should be’ while trying to preserve each of these two modes.”

Education, travel and work are three ways to grow. Shutterstock

The cardinal experience of becoming an adult is the awareness of “the gulf which separates what is from what should be”. It is the experience of reality, but at the same time, of insufficiency, of things. And also the experience of transcendence (because “the“ should ”does not belong to the world”) and of the value of the moral requirement, through the discovery of the “ideals of reason”. It is the discovery of the “normative dimension” of human existence. One could say, with Alain: to know oneself spirit.

To be an adult is therefore to accept to continue living one foot in reality and one foot in the ideal, having understood that these two “modes” are of equal importance. In a “fragile balance, on which we must constantly watch”.

Size and limits of a philosophical struggle

By asking the question of the meaning of the “growing” process, we are led to wonder about the very possibility of saying the meaning. Who is qualified for this? Isn’t there something insane about the determination to imagine a world that makes sense? The author distinguishes two types of works: philosophical works, and others, which can be qualified as empirical. The book Growing Up belongs to both categories. The book claims the truth of empirical work, which presents factual, verifiable data. But also to the relevance of philosophical works, which aim at another type of truth. Which ?

The author’s answer sheds light on both philosophical and educational work. The philosophy is “adult education”, in the sense that it seeks to answer questions that we thought we had already answered thanks to the education received as a child, then as an adolescent. It is called into question of answers which, in their dimension of “truths” going without saying, stifled the existential questions which one thought to have been able to answer at little cost.

This radical questioning is presented as the attempt to reach “the Unconditioned”, “that point where the world as a whole would make all sense”, and where there would be no more need to ask questions. A point that no one can claim to reach, except by abandoning themselves to a fundamentalism that is difficult to defend, whether religious and / or economic. But an “Unconditioned” playing the role of a “regulatory ideal” in Kant’s sense, and whose identification and pursuit are like duties for human beings.

This is why philosophical analysis is so precious. And why we will take so much pleasure to follow Susan Neiman in her presentation so generous, and so relevant, of essential works (among others) of Rousseau, Kant, and Hannah Arendt. “Philosophy, practiced correctly, fully participates in the art of becoming an adult,” she assures us. We can only thank the author of “Grandir” for having demonstrated this, by example …

Author Bio: Charles Hadjiis Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at the Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)