Tikkun Magazine, November/December 1998
A Spiritual Renewal of Education
By Matthew Fox
Education is everywhere in crisis. This is true not just in the failed schools of our inner cities but also in our successful" schools where we are spending huge sums to turn out graduates who lack a moral conscience to match the power of their skills to destroy, to make greedy profits, and to despoil the earth for future generations. It shows in our preference for competition over mentorship and eldership.
The crisis in education is not just an American or even a Western dilemma, as the Dalai Lama observes when he says: "Our whole educational system is in a crisis. It can't adapt. In fact this crisis extends to industry and politics."
Since spirituality has been so neglected in academic education in the modern era, we might borrow the Freudian principle of the return of the repressed to ask: Can spirituality assist us in leading us out of this bondage? Can spirituality return us to the spiritual experience that learning is and is meant to be? The fundamentalist push to put prayer into the classroom (which recently lost a vote in the House) might not even have occurred if a secularized modern era had not eliminated altogether the ancient belief that our minds are holy and that using them is a prayer. The idea that learning is a prayer can be found both in the study of Torah and in the Dominican tradition where Thomas Aquinas had a running fight with the monks of his day who insisted that liturgy was more important than study. "No," said Aquinas, "Study is prayer too." By study we learn to return our gifts to the community more fully and more deeply. I propose the following five ways to begin the renewal of education.
1. For the Celtic poet W.B. Yeats, "Education is not about filling a pail but about lighting a fire." Fire is the metaphor for the chakra energy - true education must set all our chakras on fire. With Descartes, European educators were seduced into believing that education was all about the head, all about the "left brain." What about the heart? What about the guts? What about our sexuality? What about the rest of creation, represented by the first chakra? Lighting a fire means igniting the ancilla animae, the spark of the soul, and thereby creating a being on fire. And what is that fire? Thomas Aquinas says that "Compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on the earth." I think that compassion is the fire that Buddha came to set on the earth; and Isaiah; and Sojourner Truth; and Mohammed; and Dorothy Day and more. All education worthy of the name is education in compassion. That is why it takes fire - a kind of passion - to keep it going. We teach compassion by teaching interdependence.
What is behind Yeats' observation is a basic trust that all beings want to learn. Learning is as natural - and as necessary for survival - as eating or drinking. It should be just as delicious. The school's role is primarily to motivate, to excite the mind - when that happens, the individual will learn provided there are teachers able to show the discipline of learning and to demonstrate the excitement of ideas. Yes, the fire.
2. "Awe is the beginning of wisdom" says Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Fire comes from awe. So do passion and compassion. In the presence of awe we are in the presence of Great Mystery greater than ourselves. In the presence of awe the heart opens up and grows larger than fear (thus courage, a "large heart," in French). And Heschel is insisting that wisdom is possible - indeed, that wisdom is essential. E.E Schumacher warned us that today we are "far too clever to survive without wisdom." How is wisdom different from mere knowledge? Why is wisdom so rare today? Why is there so little room for it in the forms in which we learn and teach?
Because wisdom is feminine. Sophia (in Greek) and Hokum (in Hebrew) are feminine. She walks the vaults of the sky and journeys in the sands of the deep according to the Book of Sirach. Thus she is cosmological, she cares about the whole, not just the part. She is always universalist (thus fundamentalism will never find her) and she is a lover of life, of the erotic. Education needs to make room for eros, for love of life, for wonder, if wisdom is to return. The body must be honored for its own wisdom and its own access to truth. No one controls awe; it is bigger than us. That is why it moves us.
3. A necessary way to teach awe is by way of teaching the new cosmology. Creation stories have always recounted the awe of existence, the wonder of creation, the gratuity of our being here - until of course the modem age told us we lived in a machine and we are all here by accident. This illusion is being dispelled by science itself today. Who can take in the wonders of the pictures from the Hubble telescope and be indifferent to our existence? Cosmology heals because it puts us in a larger context than merely human history. No matter what humans do to one another, the universe has loved us unconditionally. Grace happens. That is awesome. Can we teach this?
Today we know that we are all fifteen billion years old, that we contain hydrogen atoms from fourteen billion years ago; that we are related to every galaxy, atom, planet, and supernova in the universe because it all began from one tiny point smaller than a pin-prick; that most of the elements of our bodies were birthed in a supernova explosion five and a half billion years ago; and that our bodies are themselves temples of awe as much as the universe itself is a divine temple.
A first grade teacher I met recently told me she spends "95 percent" of her time trying to bring awe alive again in the kids. The death of awe is the death of wisdom. The modern age and its forms of education and mass media can readily kill awe. Nothing is more dangerous, nothing more able to bring despair, than the death of awe. Education that ignores awe kills the soul. It is lethal - to ourselves and to other beings. And it is everywhere.
4. Another sure way to bring awe and wisdom alive again is through honoring the creative process. Creativity is always awesome, whether we are talking about the growing of food in gardening, the telling of our story in poetry or rap, the birthing of our moods in color and paint, or the dancing of our wonder or our pain. In creativity our actions link up to the creative work of the universe. Discovery and excitement happen. What we now know about the universe is that it has been profoundly creative from the get-go.
Does education consider creativity important? Our school systems tend to treat creativity as a luxury item; when there is a budget crunch it is the theater and art and music departments that are the first departments cut. Creativity is a way to deal with despair and pain and misery - it provides a language and contours for dealing with grief in all of its manifestations, including anger. I met a woman in Ohio who was asked by a judge if she could invent a school where he could send tough kids instead of to prison. Reading my works at the time, she invented a school where all the kids do from nine to four is creative arts: theater, video, rap, paint, dance, music, clay. What are the results? First, they come! (Not a bad idea if you want the next generation to be learning.) Second, they get involved and even beg to stay over and do more on weekends. Third, they learn self-discipline and then they are ready to learn other dimensions of what school can teach. A cheap way to solve many youth problems? And the social problems like crime and prison that follow from education not reaching many young people? You bet. And a lot cheaper than prisons.
Meister Eckhart warns that "becoming fruitful as a result of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift." If we want to teach gratitude, then we better start teaching how we become fruitful.
5. Picking up on Eckhart's theme is Rabbi Heschel again who warned us most prophetically that "Humanity will not perish from lack of information but from lack of appreciation." We live in a culture that proudly commends itself for its "information technology." We are indeed inundated by information in this "information age." But Heschel brings us back to reality: appreciation is more important than information. We must be educating in gratitude or we are not educating.
How do we develop a pedagogy for appreciation? Cosmology helps here too. Once we begin to know where we are and how we got here, then we might be grateful for our existence. As we relearn how interdependent we are with every other being, from ozone to forests, from soil to whales, from bees to hot lava, we might begin to reawaken thankfulness. Ritual is the gathering of those who want to give thanks; to participate in ritual we must work though such obstacles as fear or hate or despair that interfere with appreciation or gratitude. Unfortunately, it often takes a trauma to awaken gratefulness - a death or a near death, a sickness or a loss or a doing without.
Appreciation is an attitude we take with us through life. When we grow in gratitude we have truly grown. Or, as Meister Eckhart put it, "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice."
I believe we have in these five principles the basis for a revolution in education, indeed, the basis for a postmodern pedagogy. We are busy applying them at our University of Creation Spirituality in graduate programs for adults, because wisdom, unlike knowledge, is not something adults give to children. Adults must be busy learning themselves in order to unlearn bad lessons from the past and to unleash their own wisdom so as to recognize it in the young. All educators, be they teachers or administrators or accrediting officials, must themselves get re-educated today in the fires of awe, wisdom, creativity, cosmology, gratitude. Only then will the young have a chance. Only then will we be responding to Heschel's challenge that education "must be of the soul, not just of the mind."
Matthew Fox is author of twenty-three books including Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and The Reinvention of Work. He is the founder of the new University of Creation Spirituality in downtown Oakland (www.netser.com/ucs).
Fox, Matthew. 1985. A Spiritual Renewal of Education. Tikkun, 13(6): 49.