03/10/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

Love: Who Cares?


Who cares?

Apparently, a whole bunch of high school students.

I'm giving the opening keynote talk at the University of New Hampshire on Monday to 500 high school students from around the region. They're participating in the HYPE (Hosting Young Philosophy Enthusiasts) program, which brings together high school students "to discuss philosophical topics with peers." They're spending the entire day reflecting on the question of "what is love?" and the role of love (and its correlates of empathy and compassion) in the world.

My job is to provoke and help them, I hope, to see the question in a slightly different way as it relates to teaching and engaging students and communities. Specifically, I want to push them on the fact that the question of "What is love?" is useless unless we also ask the more complicated question of "How do we love?"

In one respect, it is easy to answer the question of "What is love?" At the most basic level, there is the need to respect and honor the other person as another individual capable of being taught and supported, just as much as we are in need of being taught and supported.

I talk about this in my academic research as the "four Rs" of community engagement: respect, reflection, relevance and reciprocity. Without these components, our work with, in and for the community will all too often go awry. In education, moreover, such a perspective plays out through the language of cultural competency and multicultural education as teachers learn to understand, respect and value the backgrounds and cultures of kids different than themselves.

Yet I like to talk about this differently. The philosopher Martin Buber argued that we all too often approach the world by seeing everything -- people, ideas, things -- as objects and we thus relate to everything through an "I-It" relationship. Instead, he suggested, we must have an "I-Thou" relationship that allows us to see the other (and thus the world) as a subject. "Every It," Buber wrote, "is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds." To see people as objects is to limit them, and thus ourselves.

The critical theorist and educator Paulo Freire used a similar vision when he argued against the "banking" model of education where teachers simply "deposited" information into passive students. Treating students as objects, Freire argued, was deeply destructive; instead we must foster the "student as teacher" and "teacher as student." The only way we could break this hierarchy, Freire suggested, was through love. This is because all true education is dialogue. And dialogue, Freire argued, "cannot exist in the absence of profound love for the world and for men ... If I do not love the world -- if I do not love life -- if I do not love men -- I cannot enter into dialogue." Dialogue was engagement with the other, which itself must be premised on being able to relate, to love, the other.

And it is here where the question of "What is love?" gets tricky. Because dialogue, true engagement, deep connections, the "I-Thou" relationship, are never simple, neat or easy. These are not "kumbaya" feel good moments. To truly teach, relate to, listen to and respect the other is a leap into a very different type of relationship than we are used to.

That is because the traditional teacher-student relationship or university-community partnership is filled with implicit and explicit power dynamics that privilege the teacher and the university. There are lots of grand claims for "student centered" teaching and "community based" learning, but more often than not these revert to very traditional models with minimal transformational impact.

I am as such much more interested in the question of "how" than of "what." How can we truly hear our students? How do reciprocal partnerships look and work? How do youth engage in their own learning? How is equality sustainability?

These are complex issues that require us to relinquish control and trust in the process and in the other as a subject. And, that, then, begins to look and feel like love.

So in the end, I want to tell the high school audience, I don't really care about what is love. And neither should they. Instead, they should care about how to love. How to relate. How to care. I want to turn the discussion from an abstract philosophical exercise into an actual pragmatic practice. To relate. To feel. To care. That is much more important, much more difficult, and, in the end, much more exciting and transformational.