Monday, June 07, 2004

Mastering the Art of Living

“The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

Zen Buddhist Text

The quotation above is an excellent statement of one of my ideals as an educator. In addition to mastering the art of living as described above, I would want my students to be complete autodidacts: Capable of learning anything on their own by the time they are 18. They should be polite and respectful, independent and creative.

I believe that most young human beings can be educated in such a way that most young people, even those from the poorest families, could develop abilities that are superior to those of our most capable adults today. As an educator with 15 years experience in innovative education, I am certain that our existing efforts at education are analogous to medicine circa 1500: Primitive.

How could such gains be possible?

To begin with, when I hire teachers, I look for three things: Do they love young people? Can they set boundaries with young people? Are they truly masters in their area of expertise?

If I were allowed to select students, there would be one criterion: Is this person ready to commit him or herself whole-heartedly, heart and soul, to excellence in the chosen course of study?

Then, in a large, diverse market of seekers of excellence, an innovative dynamic among truly committed expert and novice learners would develop, capital would rush in to support research and development, and new ways of learning would be developed that are strictly unimaginable today. As the learning process began offering real results, more people would commit their lives to excellence in the various learning paths being offered.

Note immediately that, despite massive spending on education and participation in education that the description of teachers and students stated above describes less than .0001% of our existing teacher - student interactions. One would have to conduct a very careful search to discover any such interactions in today's world. Perhaps a music student here and a martial arts student there have relationships with teachers similar to that described above. Such simple and obvious pre-requisites to excellence in education are almost non-existent in today's world.

Suppose that a ruler once read a beautiful love story, in which two hearts' longing for each other was at last blissfully relieved when they found each other, consummated their love, and lived happily ever after.

Then suppose, having read this love story, and thus concluding that love was a good thing, this ruler forced everyone in his land to marry immediately. In order to ensure that marriages happened, police would enforce the law. Experts in marriage, who had received licenses from universities in their expertise, trained each participant using a state-approved textbook on marital happiness. Then people were forced together and required to use the "research-driven" techniques for "marital happiness." Worse yet, the "marital happiness" manuals continually emphasized the importance of "love." Individuals were trained in "love" and certified in "love" based on the scores they received on tests. The tests, of course, were based on "research."

People would come to loathe love and marriage. Young people, forced into their "marital happiness" courses, would hate the courses and rebel. While there would be earnest professors doing their best to write good books on "marital happiness," many people would realize that the whole system was a joke. Or, in terms of last Friday's post, it was all crap.

This is precisely where our education system is. Education should be based on love and a commitment to excellence, a longing for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Education should not be a forced marriage supervised by government-licensed experts.

Former communist nations are going through a long, painful process of re-creating the most basic human virtues and civic institutions. If we dismantled our education system, we would have to go through a similar long, painful process of re-creating healthy educational relationships. But it is important to realize that we cannot get to a better place by continuing in our present direction.

No Child Left Behind is a Kafka-esque extension of the insanity of our existing education system. The nightmare would be that, after it fails, the response is to increase control more, with more specified curriculum and more tests and more dishonesty about what is really happening to the hearts and souls of our young.

I await a time when the Berlin wall of government-controlled schooling is finally shattered, and we can begin to share the art of living with millions of young people in honest, straightforward, real relationships.

A new era of human happiness will begin at that point in time.