Category Archives: Education

Two Dreamers: Martin and Willy

Martin

Willie

Plato clearly saw that the material realm is a sluggish and recalcitrant collaborator with Soul in the creation of a world–personal and social–that is truly good and beautiful.  Even though we live in a messy, confusing, inconsistent world, however, we are blessed with the power to dream, and to shape the world, partially at least, into the image of our dreams.  The dreams we dream spring from, and express, the depth of our humanity and our vitality..  So I wonder: do my dreams approximate those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or those of Willy Loman?   I know what I like to say, but I must ask myself how I live, for it is only in the living of life that my true values manifest themselves.  Joseph Campbell once said that we live in one world and babble about another.

Further, it seems that the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity, the dream of aiding the human family to align with each other and with the transcendental source, however it is understood.  For our dreams–those we imagine and those we live–are the stuff of which our social systems are made. The need for structure and order in those systems molds them into powerful institutions that quickly become rigid bureaucracies.

Perhaps our inner values and outer behavior are strange amalgams of King’s dreams of love, and Loman’s dreams of social prestige and material success.  It seems that our major institutions share this central dissonance in that they offer the great promise of lofty dreams, but deliver the tawdry disillusionment of the salesman’s silk stockings.  Education promises learning, but many teachers deliver dry, rote memorization; medicine promises health, while doctors often deliver cold technique; the justice system promises equal justice for all, yet the courts deliver racial and economic discrimination; religion promises God’s love and forgiveness, while ministers with patriarchal authority deliver sin and Hellfire, building funds and empty ritual.   Martin dreams, and Willy delivers.

These observations are tragic in the classical Aristotelian sense: greatness brought to ruin by a tragic flaw.  The magnificent dream of America–liberty and justice for all–is corrupted by “The American Dream” which becomes more materialistic with each passing year.  American institutions and America herself embody incredible promise and disillusioning heartbreak.  The great voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, puts it this way: “Who am I? You know me, Dream of my dreams. I am America.  I am America seeking the stars.  America—Hoping, praying, fighting, dreaming, knowing there are stains on the beauty of my democracy. I want to be clean.”

In the light of the above, it is tempting to give up on our society and her institutions.  To say “To Hell with it; be dirty if you want.” How simple it would be to heed Voltaire’s advice, and with Candide, to cultivate our own gardens.  But to relinquish the dream of a better tomorrow and to sink into complacency might be the truest tragedy.  It would mean that we had stopped reaching for the stars.  No, with Langston Hughes, I want to be clean.  I want America to be clean.  I want our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms, prisons and churches to be clean.

The truth that transformation starts with me is so obvious and so often stated that it borders on cliche.  Be that as it may,  It seems clear that if I value my integrity, I can only ask the world to be as compassionate as i am, as non-punishing as I am, as non-judgmental as I am.  To ask more of others than I ask of myself seems self-indulgent and hypocritical.   What good does it do to rail against the Willy Lomans of the world and to ignore the Willy Loman in myself?  Willy will fight me, will sabotage me, just as he does the institutions of the world.  I must ultimately see Willy for what he is: a self-created  and powerful part of myself.

The quality of my character contributes to the character of the whole.  Just as a beach is composed of countless grains of sand, so every act of every individual contributes to the spirit of all. While most of us will not be called to the center stage of the human drama, we each alter the world, infinitesimally but truly, by each kind or harsh word, each creative or destructive gesture as they unfold in small and seemingly insignificant moments.  It has been said that the world will be a shade kinder or a shade more harsh simply because you and I have passed through it.  That, to me, is an awesome responsibility.  And if we are called to a wider social arena, let us hope that we can remember our belief in the power of love as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

As Plato says at the beginning of this post, we live in a world that is inherently and perhaps eternally imperfect.  Dr. King was not perfect, and neither is any human being.  I like to think that the current population of the world is simply at a relatively early stage in the evolution of humanity.  Wonders await us–if we can survive our childhood. But for now, Willy is with us, in our hearts and in the world, and he must be dealt with.  I believe, however, that it is not helpful to see Willy–the materialistic imperfections of self and world–as an enemy in a war. The Buddha’s teaching that only love turns away anger is an ancient truth that Dr. King not only believed, but lived.  Attack engenders defense and retaliation.  Judgment is by its very nature divisive.  So I must bring the Philistine in me, the materialist in me, the coward in me, and yes, the racist in me, to light, and once there, to acknowledge him with compassion and understanding.  For if the Buddha is correct, it is from the ground of love that transformation can begin. Plato suggests that the most powerful teaching is not through words but through actions.  The teacher simply points to, and lives, the light. The Martin in me (and I believe he is in all of us, dormant in some, quickened in others) needs to reassure and guide the darker parts of myself toward the light.  Like everyone, Willy needs reassurance and guidance, and only then might he quiet down, might he entertain the possibility of more humane dreams, and discover the resources to live with kindness and grace.

And so, like Sisyphus, we trudge up the hill of personal and social transformation.  Each day of our lives offers us new challenges that invite further growth.  Life is a wonderful friend, for it never leaves us alone, always ready to throw another curve ball to disrupt our complacency. We often encounter Willy Loman along the way.  Our personal lives as well as our social institutions can be profoundly disheartening, but the challenges and imperfections we encounter give energy and direction to the unfolding of beauty, much as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon.  Martin invites us on a journey toward a more just and loving world, a world that shines like a pearl. Willy supplies the sand, the grist to soften our hard edges.

Erleichda: Lighten Up!

Erleichda: Tom Robbins suggests, tongue in cheek, that this was the last word of Albert Einstein.  Robbins defines it this way: “The word was a transitive verb, an exclamation, a command, of which an exact English translation is impossible. The closest equivalent probably would be the phrase “Lighten up!”

Ben Zander calls his variation of this command  “Rule Number 6: Don’t take yourself so darned seriously.”  I began to learn this lesson on a dark, lonely night in 1978.  Here’s how it went:

In the mythology of my early family, I was the klutz.  I was identified as the bookish one, and my Dad and brother did their best to keep me from making a mess of things if I tried to hammer a nail or use a screwdriver.  It is amazing how often we buy into familial self-definition.  Becoming a pilot in my late thirties helped to ameliorate my self-distancing from things mechanical, but the journey to that point was long, and fraught with some funny stops along the way.

Back in 1978, I had agreed to help a friend by ferrying his small Datsun Honey Bee from Phoenix, Arizona to Burlington, Vermont. It was a journey of 2600 miles, and I loved to drive.  The first day went without a hitch. The next day, however, as I left Albuquerque, New Mexico, the accelerator became sluggish.   Even floored, I could only coax the car to do 50 mph.  It was going to be a long trip.

The third night found me in rural Arkansas, about 150 miles West of Memphis.  It was a pitch black night on an empty desolate stretch of road.  Suddenly, the accelerator had had enough, and quit altogether.  With what little momentum I had left, I managed to coast up an exit ramp, and come to a stop under what seemed to be the only street lamp within 50 miles.

A quick inspection showed me that the accelerator linkage had separated.  I was proud that I could even see the problem, and then with seemingly supernatural inspiration, I rummaged around in my suitcase, found a coat hanger, and twisted it straight.  My confidence building by the second, I used the hanger to join the two loose parts of the linkage together, and sure enough, the car roared into life.  “Roar” was the appropriate word, because now the only control I had was full throttle, and to slow down or stop, I had to depress the clutch. This caused the car to scream in protest.  Now instead of poking along at 50, I went zooming across the bridge into Memphis at 90 miles an hour.  I turned into the first motel I could find, and stopped in front of the office with such a din that the clerk at the desk went as pale as a ghost.  I explained my predicament.  “Leave the car where it is,” she said, “and take it to the Datsun dealer around the corner in the morning.”

At 8 am the next day, I attracted strange looks as my laboring engine heralded my arrival at the dealership.  I drove right into a bay, and gratefully turned off the engine.  A tall older mechanic from the hills of Tennessee ambled over to the car and raised the hood.  I stood by feeling ten feet tall, as I anticipated fulfilling a lifelong dream of being seen as mechanically competent.  Finally, I was about to come into my own.

The old fellow peered intently into the engine for a moment, and straightened up.  “Hell,” he said.  “It ain’t hard to see what’s wrong.  Some asshole has gone and wired your engine!”

Erleichda, indeed.

 

A Dialogue from the Blogosphere

Lao Tzu and Confucius

This morning, Hariod Brawn and I exchanged these ideas sparked by a remark I made in the post  Living the Love of Wisdom: Spirals of Transformation.

I think this is worth sharing as an example of “dialogue” in its literal sense.  The word does not refer to a conversation between two people.  The prefix “dia” means “through” as in diaphanous or diagram.  “Logue” comes from Logos, that has many meanings in Greek, but it generally refers to the process of thought.  So “dialogue” could perhaps be best understood as “Thinking something through together,”  whether between two people or among thirty.  In the following brief exchange, we are working together toward a deeper common understanding of cultural and philosophical trends that we both care about. Rather than “answering questions,” we are probing possibilities, and sharing insights and experiences. Parker Palmer has defined Philosophy  as “the eternal conversation about things that truly matter.”  I think the blogosphere has become a marvelous forum for enlivening this eternal conversation, and it is my hope that the following might be seen as a brief verse in the song of wisdom.

Continue reading

Songs Old and New

“When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart”
Rabindranath Tagore

This blog has taken me in directions I could not have envisioned, and now it is asking for a new name. After much thought, I have settled on “Songs of Wisdom.”

Over the years, my teaching became less lecture, and more a creative dialogue between my students and me. It felt as though we were collaborating on a variation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, where we entered a field beyond time and fixed ideas. Together we would trace the tracks and hints of our ancestors, and sing a world into being. We were in fact following the songlines sung by fellow travelers from Thales, through Lao Tzu, to Camus. We would embrace some touchstone ideas from a common reading, and follow the path they suggested in order to create a vision that was highly individual to each class, yet universal in the light it cast upon the human condition.

Every human being, I believe, sings A world, not The world, into being. In this regard, Robert Pirsig offers an illuminating analogy. In every instant, we are bombarded by myriad things vying for our awareness, and we simply cannot give our attention to everything. It is as though we are standing on a beach composed of millions of grains of sand. We reach down into that beach and pick up a handful of sand, and call that handful “the world.” The handful we choose is often determined by the cultural, familial, and religious conditioning of our early lives.

Here is where Philosophy comes in. Ben Zander says “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” Violence and loss, sickness and death are inevitable, but by following the songlines of visionary women and men down through the ages, we have the possibility of clicking the kaleidoscope of our minds, and creating more ample and generous templates that frame an increasingly kind and compassionate world. These are songs of wisdom, living words given soul by the melodies of the heart.

Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy?  What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history?  Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages?  Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.”  Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise.  He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor” of course primarily refers to physicians.  Ph.D.’s sometime use the term in academic settings, but truth to tell I think most feel a bit fraudulent when they do so.    (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom.  Thus philosophy is more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge.  It is this love, according to Plato, that should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences. It sets us on the road that leads beyond the confines of our illusions as he illustrates in his famous allegory of the cave.

But how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom?  Robert Pirsig once suggested that many teachers are so smug and self-satisfied that wisdom is a threat to their ego-bound security.

One cannot teach love with words.  The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it.  The teacher must BE what she teaches.  Sure, the facts and the information have an important place, but if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.  As a teacher, I need to know my subject, but I believe that what ultimately stays with my students is the respect with which I listen to them, the attention with which I regard them, and the love I have for them and for the wonders and surprises of the subject I teach.  Ten years after the class is over, if they remember me at all, it will be for my love rather than for my knowledge.

So to be a Ph.D. is a humbling and challenging mantle.  It is also a beckoning aspiration for which I am eternally grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Children’s education] should not be in the form of compulsory instruction, because for the free man there should be no element of slavery in learning. Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind.
Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 536