Can an individual change history? Yes. In fact, only individuals change history. History is not made up of groups, but of individual people. Similarly, wars are not won by armies, but by individuals. Social movements are not carried out by crowds, but by individuals. Technological breakthroughs are not brought about by companies, but by individuals. And a classroom does not make academic or virtuous strides by programs being leveled out across giant hordes of students, but by the work of individuals.
Through his experiences as a holocaust survivor, psychiatrist Victor Frankl came to this realization that destinies are determined by individuals. Face-to-face with some of the worst treatment that modern history has to offer, Frankl recognizes the power not of the Nazi Party, but of each distinct person and the choices they make. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl writes, “In the concentration camps…in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine, while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself. Which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
The environment in the concentration camps produced some who treated their fellow prisoners like dirt, and yet others under the same harsh conditions “walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” It wasn’t only the prisoners who were left to make their own choices in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, however. When considering the party responsible for the atrocities committed against him, Frankl stands firm in his belief that each individual should not be measured by sweeping generalizations, but by their own choices. He writes, “Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole would be easy to condemn.”
For the sake of making general observations, considering a large group can be helpful and may even at times be necessary. The teacher, for example, must most often address the class as a whole. But when it comes down to producing real results, whether good or bad, that will always rely on individuals. The holocaust does not happen without each person who either willingly followed along with Hitler’s regime or chose to stand idly by while the horrors mounted up. Neither, though, does the Civil Rights movement happen apart from every citizen who chose to stand with those who were suffering.
What does all of this have to do with the classroom? Our children will succeed and become the decent people we want them to be not through fancy educational programs or even a very skilled teacher, but by making the right choices. Success may manifest itself in groups, but it is rooted in individuals. Therefore, it is the teacher’s duty to invest in each child as a distinctive soul.
Positive data does not come out of a magic bottle. We mustn’t think too highly of ourselves and our methods, it is the children who do the work. Every high test score, surge in reading ability, and demonstration of virtue comes from a real, unique, and whole person — from the hard work, integrity, and perseverance of a single child. This is not to diminish the work of wonderful teachers or the power of an improved curriculum. Both play a vital role in guiding students towards making wise choices. But in the end, for good or for ill, the choices they make are theirs.
Teachers must do their best to avoid seeing the group of students in front of them as some nebulous whole. Instead, they must see the classroom as a room full of unique individuals, each capable of making choices that will lead to the success or failure of their classroom, and ultimately of society. So invest in the individual student. Make personal connections. See each of them as their parents are sure to see them: a complete and real person, not just a cog in some larger machine.
Wayne is an assistant teacher for Great Hearts Archway Arete in Arizona, where he has lived his whole life. He enjoys mildly unhealthy obsessions with comic books, theology, and the classical tradition.