As Hummingbirds, Starting Our Own School: The Mission of Aegis Institute
At Aegis Institute, we believe that changing the world begins by asking better questions. In a time where thinking broadly and inclusively are paramount, when society, especially in the United States, is critically questioning and ardently reexamining its collective values, our teachers, our thinkers and disseminators of knowledge – scientists, mathematicians, linguists, writers, historians, painters, musicians, composers, etc. – must direct us to better modes of moral measure by which we might fashion a fairer, less divisive future.
One might not be surprised to discover that should you survey any group of Americans, nearly all of them will know who Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffet are, many will be able to list endlessly their favorite actresses/actors, athletes, or pop singers; however, very few could list their favorite living scientists, humanitarians, philosophers, or educators. Even those who could possibly name some figures from these less “affluent” professions could probably not name more than one woman for each category, if they could list a woman at all.
Many recognized these icons:
How many recognize these?
Presently, we - Jason Johnson, Jordan Alexander Key, and Tristan Czarnecki, founders of Aegis Institute of Gainesville, Florida - teach at the University of Florida, and every semester we survey general, first and second year humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and discover, to no surprise, that nearly every single student knows the name “Steve Jobs;” however, over five years of surveying and over 1000 students, fewer than five have vaguely known the name “Wangari Maathai."
Wangari Maathai and Steve Jobs died within one week of each other. During the subsequent week, around the world the “rich white man” was on the cover of countless newspapers, magazines, and website pages. Contrastingly, the “black woman from Kenya” – the woman who was born in a mud hut as the lowest stratum of a subclass of people under British occupancy, who, despite such adversity, became the first central African woman to earn a PhD, the first central-African woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first woman to become a member of an African parliament; the founder of the Green Belt Movement that has now planted over 1-billion trees; the spearhead for Central African democracy, women’s rights, and environmentalism; the catalyst that halted the growth of the Sahara Desert itself amidst death threats from a fascist tyranny that she would ultimately peacefully tear down – that “black woman” so few have still heard of, was relegated to small sections in the back of most papers and magazines, if even mentioned at all.
It is, in fact, Wangari Maathai, who stands at the core of our school’s mission and philosophy, her struggle and sacrifice to make the world a healthier, greener, fairer, and more peaceful place. We humbly take Maathai’s often-told story, “I will be a Hummingbird,” which encapsulated her life-long passion and fervor, also as our mantra; our school hopes “to do the best [we] can,” as the eponymous hummingbird did itself, by better educating our youth to fight "the fire" that engulfs our world, literally and metaphorically.
Beyond the obvious concerns of pandemic, our society is in philosophical turmoil, at least in part, because most of us still, knowingly, or unknowingly, deify “the capitalist dream.” We need to find less selfish and more sustainable dreams and more worthy role-models to direct our path towards a fairer future. As teachers, we see it as one of our missions to not only instill within our students knowledge and necessary skills but also to expose them to the best humanity has to offer. Our bettered collective future begins by teaching not merely knowledge and concrete skills, but critical thinking and logic, argumentation and analysis, and - perhaps consequently and mostly importantly – perspective and empathy.
Our world is faced with many daunting problems and questions. Cultures and societies around the globe are approaching, if they have not already arrived at, a critical juncture. Furthermore, we realize that it is the youth of today that will likely bear the long-term consequences of these crises and the consequences of how we handle them today. How will the next generations fare in this new world? What, other than seemingly insur-mountable questions and problems, will we have left them to confront and solve the errors we have made yesterday and today? The best aegis we can give them to defend themselves against the uncertainty and aggressiveness of these problems is a keener mind.
It is our mission in starting this school – Aegis Institute – to give our children the shield of truth so that they can bravely and boldly forge future paths of positive change in our world. In the face of so many barriers to understanding and empathy, we no longer can afford to concede to the seemingly intractable demands on our mental and physical capacities to reach beyond ourselves and find the intrinsic value in the other. Beyond base and belligerent self-centeredness, the greatest barrier to our expression of empathy is our fear of our own inadequacy in relocating the center of our universe to something other than our self. However, learning to refocus this center better, despite the assurance of ultimate failure in perfect refocusing, is paramount to the progress of the human project. Empathy, however imperfectly executed, is our best aegis against our own self-wrought destruction. We believe that better education is yet our most well-suited forge to craft such a shield as a more empathic and collectively minded humanity.
Education should not merely be the absorption of information and verbatim regurgitation of it, but the cogent re-expression and re-examination of that information though a self-consistent, well-informed, and critically reasoned logic. Thus, as teachers our primary duty is not to disseminate knowledge but rather to develop critical thinkers that can discover truth for themselves. If we are to foster a new generation of worldly and self-aware human beings, we need to begin demanding more from our curricula, teaching not only “a subject” but a way of thinking and understanding the world in a profound, empathic, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and a generally more meaning-centric manner.
We believe there are four tiers to the learning process, through which teachers guide their students. These tiers are
logical criticism, and
Quantitative development is the measurable absorption and comprehension of the basic building blocks of any discipline’s modus operandi. This tier is called “quantitative” because this level is perhaps to most easily measured by standardized testing.
Following quantitative development is the cogent expression and application of those tools which one has acquired. This is not merely the regurgitation of ideas and definitions or the demonstration of the ability to follow a method, but the novel application of these tools to new inquiry.
As a consequence of one’s inquiry and research one is asked to logically criticize one’s inherited knowledge, newly acquired knowledge, and methods taken to those understandings.
Through this reasoned critique, one is then able to make a meaningful qualitative evaluation regarding that which they have investigated. Furthermore, because such an evaluation has been critically made through the logical use of the rhetoric of the discipline, the evaluation moves from the realm of pure subjectivity to objectivity, revealing to some extent a more universal truth.
Having backgrounds in mathematics, our teachers recognize that proof is an integral part to truth. Nothing in mathematics is taken for granted and nothing is true unless it can be proven through a systematically consistent logic that can be rationally followed. Over the past fifty years, however, our schools, in all fields, have radically divorced themselves from all methods of objective critique. This is one deep flaw we identify in the present model of public education, which we wish to amend. The most important aspect of proof is critical, rational, consistent logic. What much of our society lacks, and particularly the humanities, is the tools of logical critical thinking to seek truth.
Through these four levels of learning, the student achieves the ability to not only demonstrate knowledge in a field, but also find truth in what they study through meaningfully and critically evaluating their given and discovered knowledge and communicating their well-reasoned conclusions – truths – to others.
What you learn in our classes is not merely the basic facts and figures of math, music, history, biology or what have you in hopes that you can better understand a Beethoven symphony, an anti-derivative, or mitosis when confronted with these concepts it in your life. The point of your education in all regards in all classes is utmost the creation of your critical and self-aware person. To become this person, you must learn to critically listen and critically think in order to cogently communicate what you have heard and understood, giving it some objective truth beyond your subjective self. Truth is the ultimate goal of all higher education and the goal of Aegis Institute's hummingbirds.