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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 Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul

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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