The Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul

29 Jan

Human Education

Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. – H.G. Wells

A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Its apparent self-contradiction can generate a tension so strong that it snaps and collapses into a dualism of either this or that, this versus that, this but not that. In a paradox, this and that are held as complementary in a larger truth that can be appreciated only as their tension is preserved.

The paradoxical nature of education is suggested already in the very definition of the word. Very simply, to educate is “to lead out.” From the Latin educere, it can refer to “leading” a mind “out” of ignorance and into knowledge, or to “leading” the deeper intelligence and native talents of mind “out” of dormancy and into actualization. Which is it? If we can honor the paradox, it is both.

But the paradox of education has not been honored, particularly in the West where the operating assumption is that what we need to know and know how to do, if we have any hope of making it in this world, is something we need instruction in. Our natural ignorance must be dispelled with the information and techniques that make society work. Otherwise we will be left in a ‘state of nature’ with the beasts, infants, and idiots – ‘blank slates’ forever.

In a way, this preference for technical knowledge over self-actualization, for mastering the outer world over nurturing our inner spirit, plays out in “the two cultures” (C.P. Snow) of Western education, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) on one side; the humanities, the arts, religion and philosophy (HARP) on the other. Because STEM prepares students for professions in the industries driving our world economy, and while HARP amounts to a major distraction from real-world concerns, the Western curriculum in recent decades has been steadily shifting away from spirit and more to machines, out of feeling and more into thinking – more and more into facts, data, analytics, and the technical skills that society depends on.

As the gap widens, a general appreciation for and even an understanding of our own inner life is rapidly diminishing.

Working in higher education, the human cost of this shift is painfully obvious. As the process of education gets reduced to classroom instruction, standardized testing, grade rubrics, academic interventions, and remedial accommodations, students themselves get left out. It may appear as if students are the principal value, but in actuality they are little more than an ID number, a GPA, a graduation and job placement statistic. An expert stands at the front of the room and all the blank slates are arranged in straight rows, facing forward, passively absorbing the data-stream. More students than ever before are succumbing to boredom, depression, anxiety, and the autoimmune complications that fall out from these.

It might sound as if I’m advocating for more art and music in our schools, and while I think that would be a good thing, it’s not the point I’m making here. The leading-out-of-ignorance and leading-out-into-expression models of the educational enterprise are not mutually exclusive, as my argument for their paradoxical relation suggests. It’s not that STEM aligns with the first model and HARP with the second, and that we need more HARP to fix our problem. Our current crisis in education cannot be reduced to the disappearance of performance studios and the proliferation of laboratory classrooms.

As paradox, education is both about preparing students for the workaday world of adult life and assisting in their self-actualization as human beings.

When a paradox is functionally intact, the tension generated between its internal poles is apprehended by our minds all at once, as it were. It is one thing – paradoxically. But after its tension snaps and this unity collapses, repairing a paradox to its original state isn’t simply a matter of gluing the pieces back together. As in all dynamic unities, the whole is always more than the mere sum of its parts. So too, an active paradox is one plus one … plus. For education, I believe this non-added ‘plus’ is its soul, now lost.

In the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is depicted as a big egg who falls from atop a wall and breaks into pieces. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Our solution for education will not come by tape and glue; we need to contemplate the chicken (unacknowledged in the rhyme) that came before the egg.

We should agree that education is not only a matter of preparing future employees for the job market; it is also about developing human beings. When the paradox snaps and the process becomes one of filling blank slates with the technical information and employable skills they will need to punch clocks and pay taxes, we stop teaching students how to think and start imposing an orthodoxy of what to think. It’s a short but precipitous slide from there to standardized testing, academic failure, and the crisis we have on our hands.

When I consider the soul of education, what I’m getting at is the deeper spiritual source out of which human consciousness, thought, feeling, desire, and intention arise; it is the grounding mystery within. My reader needs to know that I attach no metaphysical status to this grounding mystery: it is neither some thing or some place, nor can we properly say it exists on its own. It is not god – although I do regard the grounding mystery as the inspiration behind our best metaphors of god.

Finally, in calling this deeper source spiritual I am not thereby setting it apart from the physical realm and our animal life, as in the classical separation in religion of ‘soul’ from ‘body’ – yet another symptom, along with our current malaise in education, of the Great Collapse.

In the diagram above, I offer the image of a tree to illustrate what I mean by the soul of education. My use of an organic metaphor rather than a mechanical one is intended to make the point that education is a living enterprise; it is dynamic, vibrant, and constantly evolving – or it could be, and hopefully will be again one day. Just as in the life of a tree, there is directional flow in the life of education, which I represent in the four terms arranged around the tree.

The place within, where the grounding mystery – that wellspring and spontaneous stream of consciousness – first crosses the threshold from ineffable experience into the articulate network of language, is our imagination. Metaphors (from Greek, meaning to “carry across”) quite literally are preverbal images that translate experience into meaning and serve as foundational insights into the nature of reality. Imagination is perhaps what makes us most uniquely human, and its death is the moment when education begins to lose its soul.

These primordial images rising out of the metaphorical imagination stimulate a more conscious creativity, enabling us to see beyond the given facts into a wider range of probabilities, hidden frontiers of possibility, and even into what is only conceivable but not (yet) possible. Human creativity is a productive and prodigal force in the universe, generated by a powerful urge to simply bring forth and realize what is within us. When it gets blocked, stifled, or penalized for not staying inside the lines, the consequence is spiritual frustration and all the psychosomatic illnesses that Western medicine refuses to validate.

When creativity is allowed to flow and the imagined possibilities can continue to evolve, the wonderful outcome is innovation: bringing about something utterly new. What do we see when we consider human culture – its hardware in the infrastructure, architecture, art, technology, clothing, costumes, uniforms, utensils, instruments, tools, machines and all the rest? And what about its software in the languages, disciplines, theories, paradigms, belief systems, codes, laws, principles, ideas, and ideals that comprise our many systems of meaning? These things are not mere facts of nature but artifacts of culture, and all of them started as innovations of human creativity.

Which brings me quite naturally to my fourth term: community. From previous posts my reader will know that community is not merely a synonym for ‘family’ or ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ or even ‘society’. While these other terms can be defined quantitatively, as a collective of individuals who relate or are related in specific ways, community names a qualitative up-shift in the consciousness of a group, where the intentional and empathetic interactions of members prime conditions for a consilient leap to higher unity. (For more on this, see The Promise of Consilience.)

Community in this sense serves as an incubator of innovation, a provident support for creativity and a deep engagement with the metaphorical imagination. It is itself a manifestation of all this magic happening deeper down, even as it holds sacred space for the magic to happen. In my view, this is what education is and what our schools should be doing.

We need to become communities of learning by restoring the paradox of education and recovering its lost soul.


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