This morning I had a revelation. For years I’ve been blaming student apathy, burnout and anxiety on the various components of the educational system which I had previously labelled ‘broken’. Testing, competition, class rankings, lacklustre teaching, pointless busy-work, politician-designed curriculum… the list goes on.
But this morning, whilst listening to Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” (and you should try to fit in listening to that if you’ve got the time – it’s got a lot of power and beauty to share with the world), I realised that the problem with education is the self-same thing that is the problem with the world in general. We don’t live in the now, we live in our regret, disappointment, longing or pride in the past – or we live in dread, uncertainty, ambition or striving for the future. Like life, education becomes drained of the joy of experience when its focus is constantly on the future.
I cannot paraphrase the entire book into one jazzy paragraph – but if you could understand just this one concept that would suffice for now: the idea of future and past are constructs of the mind and not the physical world – and in order to find peace and contentment, one must exist within the present, physical world rather than in the psychological realms of past and future.
OK – mull on that for a bit.
Now, consider this (a quote of a quote of a quote of a quote, but still powerful):
Carl Jung tells in one of his books of a conversation he had with a Native American chief who pointed out to him that in his perception most white people have tense faces, staring eyes, and a cruel demeanor. He said: “They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We don’t know what they want. We think they are mad.” (The Power of Now, E Tolle)
Our entire educational system is predicated on the belief that one must jump through certain hoops, in a certain order and by a certain time, in order to be successful later in life. Getting ‘ready’ for kindergarten means the child won’t be over-looked when selecting those most promising children to be challenged further. Good grades on elementary school exams means placement in the best ‘track’ in secondary school. Achieving all As in high school means getting a place at the right University. Graduating magna cum laude means getting a high-paying job at the best company.
We have constructed our entire educational system based on the notion that what we are doing is not worth doing for its own sake, but for the rewards or achievements that we can earn in future. We are subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly), repeatedly and relentlessly teaching our children that their only purpose is to ‘get ready’ for something else.
Our schools are completely void of the notion that the power and the beauty of existing within the ‘Now’ is not only a valid, but a worthy, education. We do not teach children to observe their surroundings (unless we are using those observations as ‘writing prompts’). We do not encourage children to study the intricate structure of a leaf (unless it is to attempt to recreate it in a drawing). We do not allow our students to revel in the joy of mathematical patterns (unless they can be used as drill and kill for mental maths tests).
It’s no surprise that I’m advocating for reform of a system that has so much wrong with it that it barely seems worth trying to ‘fix’. But the first question is always ‘What will we put in its place?’ And this morning it became clear to me: we must teach children to observe their world, to be present in their lives and to enjoy what they are doing for the beauty and the delight of participating in those things. Education, then, rather than being a means to an end, must be the end in itself.
Children are delightfully rubbish at not being able to think through ‘consequences’. They don’t worry about their future and they don’t have any way of conceptualising life beyond today. And yet we are constantly trying to drag them into the future: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “You need to learn how to write so that you can write when you get to high school.” “You need to learn how to spell so that your job applications aren’t misspelled and no one wants to hire you.”
Children do an excellent job of existing within the ‘now’ and we seem to be doing our level best to drag them out of it. We are all going to need to agree that the sense of wonder, enthusiasm and delight that children take in the world around them is the part of humanity that is worth saving.
The constant drive for more, better or new has gotten us nowhere and has left us ‘uneasy and restless’. We label children who haven’t performed well in the past and use this to predict their future. We treat all knowledge and skills being delivered within the school walls as currency to be applied at a later date. We think we need to instill in kids some ‘drive’ or some ‘motivation’. But really, all they need to do is learn to be present and find the job in the physical space around them. The rest will follow.