How Did I Get Involved with Janusz Korczak’s Work
Hanna Arendt wrote that no matter what our intellectual ideas are and how theoretical our arguments may appear, there are always stories and authentic life experiences behind them. Thought itself, she contends, arises out of the actuality of life incidents and these life experiences should always guide our thinking and writing. I remembered Arendt’s words as I was asked by Mariola to relate how I got involved with Janusz Korczak’s work and turned to his ideas as inspiration for my educational work.
It was late at night in September 2004 when I moved to the small house I rented in Kiryat Tivon, a small and beautiful town in the north of Israel. I was excited to have my own space, close enough to my daughter and grandchildren, but secluded enough to allow me the freedom to dedicate myself to writing during my sabbatical from university. What to write about was another matter. Those were the confusing and painful years that followed the collapse of the twin towers on September 11. The horrific transnational terrorist act, and the global national and cultural wars of intolerance that followed, struck a deep, alarming chord of ‘existential crisis’ within me. Is the human race ever going to learn? Is it capable of changing? Can I possibly believe, that education has the power to halt humanity’s moral decay?
Education inherently is based on hope for the future. You can’t teach without believing in change and renewal. I believed deeply in education. I was a classroom teacher and then a teacher educator and worked closely with teachers. Passionately I advocated the issue of moral education and the need to work toward a just and democratic world. This was also a focus of my research and writing. Was all this a worthless illusion? Can education bring about change and strengthen the ethical core of human nature?
I had to reexamine my ideas about moral and ethical education and reevaluate my beliefs, my hopes. I was not looking for simplistic solutions. As companions on my journey I chose thinkers and educators who lived through the radical evil and the darkest of time during the Holocaust. What were their ideas, reflections and reactions as they witnessed the collapse of ethical standards and human decency? How did they make sense of education? Did they give up on their “big” dreams of justice, truth, and beauty? I studied Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Simone Weil, and Janusz Korczak. In the educational academic circles Korczak was the least known. But my thoughts kept returning to him, his pedagogy, his ideas and actions. As with most Israelis, I read his books and stories as a child and I knew, in general, about his progressive ideas as educator and about his heroic walk with the children to the train station that brought them all to Treblinka, the site of my own family’s murder. As I started reading about his background I chanced upon his optimistic saying: “mending the world means mending education. Did he think that the world is mendable or worth mending as he wrote in his Ghetto Diary, with his doomed orphans next to him? I wanted to find out how he reconcile the disparity between the ethical world he created in the Children’s Home and the surrounding immoral society? Did he continue to teach the values of truth, justice, and acceptance of the Other while the world around him was awash in hypocrisy, injustice, and hate?
My heart longed to spread his ideas among educators, teacher educators and students. I wanted to work toward making his belief in the child, in the dignity of man, and in the power of education arise from the ashes of Treblinka.
I couldn’t sleep and turned from side to side. I had to make a choice between following my heart and spend the next few months in exploring Janusz Korczak or elect the ‘safe’ route of exploring a thinker-educator who is much more known within the academic world. The second choice would provide a stronger chance of being able to publish articles and present papers in prestigious journals and conferences.
I woke up, tired, undecided, and unsure. I walked out to the small garden in front of the house. And then, across the street was a big sign Gan Korczak! – a small nursery school bearing Janusz Korczak’s name was right next door. The joyful, vivid voices of the children moved me: Don’t the lively, happy children in nursery school in Eretz Israel represent a victory over the Nazis? If Jazusz Korczak’s name is exalted among Israeli children, parents, and educators why not in USA? Will it not be a moral declaration that, in the long run, Good overcomes Evil, hope conquers suppression?
My choice was made!
The sabbatical and the years after were dedicated to researching Korczak. I was amazed how advanced his pedagogical ideas were. To my surprise, although I doubt that either of them read the other’s writing, his educational ideas and his vision for the role of educators were very similar to those of John Dewey. Korczak put into practice methods of moral education that many years later have become central to many contemporary theories. Moreover, I discovered that Korczak advocated the notion of practitioner action research (and used it as part of his daily work) even before the term was established. I was also in awe learning that, although not religious man, he was spiritual man who held on to faith in a world from which Deity seemingly withdrew. Most of all, I was amazed by his ability to harmonize his vision and deed, words and actions and theory and practice. The more I knew, the more I became convinced that it is a moral obligation to make his praxis familiar to the American educational community.
The result was the publication of articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of Teacher Education, Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, and Curriculum and Inquiry. I also presented several papers at national conferences and lectured before different audiences in Israel and the United States. What was even more wonderful was that I found out that I am not alone in working toward advancing Korczak’s name in the US. While in Israel, I got a phone call from Mariola who enlisted me as a member and then as a board member of the US Korczak Association. Through her I also got in touch with Batia Gilad, the Chairperson of International Korczak Association. Slowly, I become acquainted with a dedicated and devoted group of people, who share my passion. They all work hard and each does different things but all with a common purpose to spread Korczak’s light in the world. The challenge is great but I know that it is doable.
Sara Efrat Efron is a professor at the National-Louis University, Wheeling, IL. She is a Board member of the Janusz Korczak Association of the USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.