TEACHING AS A SACRED PRACTICE
by Justin Miera
Much of today's schooling is product oriented. This product is designed to be skilled in technological manipulation, mathematical calculation and language dissertation. It follows rules and commands without challenging motivations. It is categorized and measured to provide precise comparisons for marketing and projections. It may seem outlandish to portray the precious children of our society in such a objectified manner, yet it is the reality of our circumstance.
We gather enough data to chart a predictable course for every socio-econo-political human concern from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Within a few clicks on the internet we can easily find out how many children in our city are reading at grade level, where our students rank against those in the neighboring states, or countries, and even how many "inutile" dropouts there were last year.
These statistics lack the condition of the children's spirits. Are they reading because of intimidation and fear? Do they feel so fatalistically impotent that they care not to apply the irrelevant trivia in tomorrows test? Can they earn more money, to buy more things, as drug dealers and prostitutes, literally and metaphorically, then by jumping through innumerable hoops to earn a paltry teacher's salary?
Our society has lost the sacredness of education just as we have lost the sacred beauty of everyday life. As we pave over a flowered field for the expedience of traffic flow, so do we pave over the delicate spirit of our students for the illusion of control. Educators need to help cultivate strong souls that can wisely manage today's orchard of knowledge. To fulfill this sacred trust students must be exposed to universal truths and values, a lasting sense of happiness and an environment for encouraging imagination and wonder.
Truths And Values
People often inappropriately classify values as a religious subject. Actually, every day choices carry powerful value judgments. Some people feel justified in driving five miles over the speed limit. Others will only buy organic produce. Many have agonized over street corner charity. In all three cases values are weighed: honesty vs. expedience, cost vs. benefit, compassion vs. enabling. While religions may address these values to varying degrees it is ultimately our individual responsibility to make the choices. As the Dalai Lama said, "...what we call love and compassion is not necessarily a religious matter. They are basic necessities of life not only for society but also for the individual" (1997, p. 5).
The Dalai Lama also addressed the need to distinguish between religious practice and "secular ethics" (p.6). He considers religion an individual choice. When one tries to persuade or pressure another to join a particular religion then there is confusion and conflict. On the other hand, we all face difficulties with other humans both in and out of our respective religions. It is therefore fundamental that we find workable ways to resolve disagreements. Some values that are consistent throughout world religions are compassion, forgiveness and kindness.
Palmer offers the single notion of respect as an encompassing value: "the sacred is that which is worthy of respect" (1997, p. 11). Once we realize that all things and people are sacred, of creation, interconnected, numinous, then we must live up to the constant responsibility to be respectful.
Regardless of the semantics, Gatto argues that the values taught must be consistent within the community, or "congregation" (1997, p. 19). Ultimate spiritual strength resides in individuals and their voluntary association with others. It does not come from an anonymous central governance.
Educators can apply these values through other proven methods of instruction like example setting, cooperative group-learning and role playing. When teachers start living the values of respect, compassion and kindness in the context of their community and class, then students in turn can fully appreciate how to value others.
Happiness, in the spiritual sense, is far different from gratification. Much of today's society is preoccupied with the "narrow-mindedness or shortsightedness or extreme selfishness" (Dalai Lama, 1997, p. 5) that is personal gratification. The Dalai Lama insists that true happiness comes from keeping the larger community in mind; to think of others first.
He also observes that we often look outside of ourselves for answers and resolution. One example is in our pleading to medical technology for external vehicles to ease our discomfort. The real search should be into what causes the disease, and the Dalai Lama concludes that ill-feelings and hatred are the culprits. If we develop "an open mind and a good heart" (p.6) then we will find peace and happiness.
Palmer believes the process of education, specifically self inspired learning, is a great relief to depression and darkness. He quotes extensively from T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King. In the novel Merlin counsels the young, depressed, soon to be king, Arthur:
The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You many miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.
There is only one thing for it, then: To learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you (Palmer, 1997, p.10).
When we lead our students to become life long learners we are not just giving them skills, but more importantly a way to care for their happy souls.
Palmer extensively expresses his dissatisfaction with how our educational system is one "which honors only data, logic, analysis, and a systematic disconnection of self from the world, self from others" (p. 10). This is done through "reductionism" (p.12). There is a tendency to take the ethereal beauty that lies outside ourselves and categorize it in a way that makes us feel comfortable. No longer is there a transcendent identity of another, but rather a quantifiable, bland explanation to calm our fears. It has become convenient to observe a child bouncing off the walls and let loose the acronym ADD along with a few hits of Ritalin. How often do we, teachers, parents, society, look at emotional abandonment or apocalyptic fear as a source of agitation? How often do we spend hours of close, respectful communion with a child to help them redirect their energy into creative imaginary play?
It is now common to find preschools that discourage boarderless play. Instead, three and four year old children are drilled on an alphabet that has little relevance because they haven't spent time pretending to be a "C" for cat.
If we do not let children expand their imagination regarding corporeal concepts how will they ever grasp the unseen "mysterium tremendum" (p.11)? If we disregard the seemingly obtuse observations and quirky questions of a struggling student how will they ever learn to appreciate the cryptic faith of another? It is through wonder and exploration that we find relevant links to ourselves and an appreciation for things not of ourselves.
We as teachers need to let this sense of wonder and mystery back into our classrooms. We need to move away from the fear of what others will think and embrace the exciting and beautiful landscapes that decorated our own earliest childhood imaginations. It then becomes easier to appreciate the divergent perspectives of our students. When they become comfortable with vulnerable explorations then joy will return to their hearts, wonder to their spirit and humanity to our classrooms.
Sacredness in education is necessary for developing the souls of our students. This is not the sole domain of religion for such categorizations separate the parts from their whole. Universal truths and values exist predominantly in the events of everyday life, not in insulated temples, churches and mosques. These are great places to find support and direction, but the daily actions in our classrooms speak louder than any words. Happiness comes from both the explorative learning process and the work we do for others. Daily, hourly, if not momentarily, educators face sublime and transparent opportunities to help our students find happy, soulful ways to live their lives. We need to loosen up the rigid work of compiling data for some far away institution and preparing our temporary wards for marking well on the Iowas. Only then can we take time to appreciate the diaphanous delicacy of our student's imaginations.
All of these sacred endeavors require great responsibility of teachers. It is difficult to make the time and promote the patience that allows values, happiness and imagination. Within Palmer's talk at the Naropa Institute (1997, p. 9) his recited a prayer. Some teachers may not pray for guidance, but to use these words for an affirmation would go a long ways towards creating a sacred classroom:
I ask guidance for myself and, as Quakers say, hold this entire conference in the light, to be here, to be present to each other in the right spirit, speaking our truth gently and simply, listening respectfully and attentively to the truth of others, grounded in our own experience and expanded by experiences that are not yet ours, compassionate toward that which we do not yet understand, not only as kindness to others but for the sake of our growth and our students and the transformation of education. Amen.
Dalai Lama (1997). Education and the human heart. Holistic Education Review, Autumn97, 10, 3, 5.
This is the written text of a lecture given by the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute's Conference on Spirituality in Education, June 1, 1997. He speaks to such issues as values, happiness and material affluence. He also explores how mental and spiritual education and life have been segregated in the Western tradition.
Gatto, John Taylor (1997). Education and Western spiritual tradition. Holistic Education Review, Autumn97, 10, 3, 8.
This article is adapted from his talk at the Naropa Institute's Conference on Spirituality in Education, May 30-June3, 1997. Gatto compares and contrasts the values implicit in the traditional spiritual perspective of the West with those of the dis-spirited modernist world view and their implications for education.
Palmer, Parker J. (1997). The grace of great things: reclaiming the sacred in knowing, teaching, and learning. Holistic Education Review, Autumn97, 10, 3, 17.
This article is adapted from Palmers's keynote address delivered at the Naropa Institute's Conference on Spirituality in Education, May 30, 1997. He discusses how our educational system tears sacredness out of children's lives. He offers several avenues of recovery including otherness, inwardness, sense of community, connective capacity, humility and wonder.
A method of instruction in partial fulfillment of the course Philosophical Foundations of Education, MLS 654 E, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D.
REGIS UNIVERSITY - March 19, 1998
Justin's Regis Papers Page