Friday, October 11, 2013

The "However" Part of Education

I’m in the middle of preparing a talk on the wider dimensions of education, especially those aspects of whatever it is in “education” that is related to the development of an ethical compass. In some ways, these “other bits” of the educational enterprise are obvious and self-evident, known well to any parent who is raising a child (an interesting use of that verb, by the way). But in other ways, non-traditionally recognized aspects of what really happens in education are largely neglected, and they are usually not intentionally pursued in schools. Thankfully, they are the daily substance of how genuine teachers live out their vocation.

W.B. Yeats famously said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” There is a powerful spark within each of us, just waiting to be turned into a flame. Yes, part of the educational journey requires the acquisition of information and the processing of that information in ways that make sense. There is indeed something to be “filled” through the process of education. However, this emptiness, openness, desire for knowledge, capacity for learning, is something that has more to do with the power and potential of fire, with all of its risky and quietly fierce potential, than it has to do with a simple container waiting to be patiently filled with liquid knowledge.

We should also take note of fact that fire cannot live without fuel from below and oxygen from above. Learning is empowered by those who, and that which, feeds the mind and the soul, giving life to the potential spark within each soul. And learning is enabled and shaped by the surroundings, context, community, friends and family, society, and world within it is bound to live, or brought to live. Both bring substance and definition to how that fire will come to be, for good or ill.

The formation of character has more to do with surroundings than with acquired knowledge, although both may be considered. Many success stories by individuals often revolve about a particular group or person who made a key difference in the direction of their lives. Recently, I heard a very successful business man speak about how his principal in grade school found out that he had fainted on the school grounds, determined that it was due to a lack of proper nourishment, and for a long time afterwards made him come to his office each day at break time in order to drink a small container of milk, not allowing him to leave until he had done so. To this day, the man remembers that story and the impact that it had on him. Something more than filling an empty stomach was going on here, and that’s “more” piece made a real difference in his true education.

What this is about is the formation of character, the shaping of the attitudes, priorities, convictions, and dispositions that define how an individual will live in the world, whether observed or not. Character is who you are when no one is watching.

What do you value from your education? Dribs and drabs of knowledge may rise to the surface, but true memories revolve around people, situations, dilemmas, decisions about what to do and what not to do, mistaken made, friends hurt, relationship repaired, services rendered, and so on. True education – the kind that really takes place – is found among the relationships and dynamics that others may see as “only” the context for education. 

Exams are okay and necessary. Knowledge feeds the mind and gives substance to our conscious life. Learning is happening all of the time, with books, with people, with situations, with the universe within which we live. All of that makes sense and should be applauded. There is a “however,” however. What dwells in that “however” will, I think, turn out to be much more important in one’s life than may be anticipated or fully appreciated.