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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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