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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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The Creative Life

In our exploration of creative change, it is tempting to romanticize creativity into a free-ranging, spontaneous, and artistic-expressive activity that defies limitations. There is something to this, of course. The “creative life” does seem to stand at the far end of a continuum from the “secure life” where everything is safe and comfortably tucked in.

But that’s the thing about continuums: like the Yin and Yang of the Chinese Taoist symbol, a little of each extreme is inherent in its distant opposite.

Creativity and security might be thought of as the twin-yet-opposite forces in human experience that play against, around and into each other in our evolutionary quest for fulfillment. One can’t be defined without some reference to the other, but each represents a “pressing concern” that powerfully affects our quality of life. And because they are at opposite ends of a continuum, it can be enlightening to investigate their interplay in our daily experience.

Security has a lot of emotional weight, especially these days when terrorism and international politics keep reminding us how fragile the status quo really is. As one of those pressing concerns shaping our sanity and happiness, security is deeply entwined with our development, going way back into that first holding environment of our mother’s womb.

A small yet influential structure in our brains called the amygdala, which specializes in initializing internal states and reactions in situations of perceived danger, is in full operation already by the eighth month of gestation.

flower

Most organisms – and even many plant species – curl inward or retract when the “vibe of danger” is in the air. They will unfold and relax only when the coast is clear and things return to normal. Security, then, appears to be a key indicator that life takes into account on a moment-to-moment basis. Danger and risk could result in extinction, so natural wisdom (also known as instinct) will be quick to move (or “freeze”) the organism in a manner that is appropriate to the perceived threat so that security can be recovered.

Interestingly, this factor of security seems strongly associated with the notion of “ground” that I have explored in other blog posts. The descending path of meditation leads the focal center of conscious awareness deep into that “place that is no place,” beneath identity and below the reach of language. This might be the same “place” that organisms naturally “go” when they pull into themselves for security.

A human being will also contract and withdraw under hostile or inhospitable conditions. The mystic, however, is one who develops the path of inward descent in order to surrender ego, relax the body, and release fully to the present mystery of reality. This can appear as nothing but an escape from reality to those observing the meditator – in tranquil repose or undisturbed contemplation, not nervously buzzing about like the rest of us.

The ground of being is not an abstract philosophical concept, but a metaphor for that deeply inward station where who you are (ego) is relinquished and the whatness (the be-ing) that you are is manifested to awareness. Going there is how you can catch your balance, find your center, recover your focus and be fully present to what’s going on right now.

It is out of this grounded, centered, balanced and focused place that your creativity proceeds – up and out into the extended context of your life. The creative spirit ascends and flows along a “stairway” of progression thresholds – from cells to tissues to glands to organs to organ systems, and out through the body into the particular opportunity, challenge, or predicament of the situation at hand.

At each point of transmission, a mechanism or method of control supports the freedom of a higher purpose. Each cell, for instance, operates according to a mechanism of control whereby its energy needs and functional integrity are maintained. But in addition to its own energy needs, the cell “opens up” to be incorporated in a lattice of many cells functioning together as tissue.

This self-transcending intention – opening up and contributing to the higher-order purpose of a larger, more complex system – is a perfect picture of what I mean by creativity.

The point here is that this higher freedom (from the cell’s perspective) is made possible by a deeper control. This principle is demonstrated in countless ways, as in the example of a musician who is not “free” to create inspiring music until she has achieved sufficient control of her instrument. Such control at this level is conscious, voluntary and learned, while most control farther down is instinctual, autonomic and reflexive.

Now we know that if the musician-to-be is feeling insecure within herself, the facility of her control on her instrument will be compromised and she may never become an accomplished (creative) artist. Perhaps she will lack precision in her movements, as she trembles and frets. Or else she may grip down with such force that she produces a strained and unpleasant sound. She is not free to create because her insecurity is interfering with her artistic control.

If instead she is inwardly grounded, her movement on the instrument will strike the perfect balance of control and freedom, thus serving as a spring of creative intention. Her attention can then be dedicated to the purpose of playing – the feeling she wants to express and evoke, where she wants to go with the music, or where she wants to take her audience.

How does this translate to the creative life? It should be obvious, but let’s talk it out.

Creativity (or living out your creative purpose) is in dynamic interplay with security (your ability to stay grounded). When you are calm and inwardly established, the control you bring to the tasks of living will be in balance with the freedom that your skill mastery makes possible.

The greater your mastery – what I earlier called “facility” – the less conscious attention is required in the performance of a skill, which means that consciousness is liberated for creative expression and accomplishment. But if your manipulations are too effortful, to the point where you become frustrated and try harder to force an outcome, the gears will likely seize up and the performance will crash.

The creative life is living on purpose and with purpose. You are able to go beyond yourself because you are not obsessed with yourself. Letting go and getting grounded lets you take up your life with creative intention.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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