Category Archives: Teaching

What’s a 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 sometimes use this title, but most prefer Professor. (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. Philosophy is therefore more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge. It is enlivened by wonder and entranced by mystery. It is, as Jacob Needleman says, a longing for awakening.  This love, according to Plato, should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences.

I wonder how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom? How many professors, how many people, recognize their own lack of self-knowledge and general ignorance of “what is truly good and beautiful?” Robert Pirsig laments the university professor who unwittingly kills the creative spirit of his students, which is something none of us wants to do.  It is so easy, however, given the pressures of modern education, to be caught in the vortex of a downward spiral.  Our youthful ideals can atrophy as we approach the shoals of burn-out.

I was blessed to be drawn to Philosophy.  The readings in my courses inspired me and most of my students as we encountered provocative questions, and were swept up in “the eternal conversation of things that truly matter.”

Clearly, the facts, the information and the skills necessary for one’s subject are important, even lovely, things. They have served to spark the interest and quicken the heart of every engaged teacher. But if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.

One cannot teach love with words. The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it–and living that love in and out of the classroom. The teacher must BE what she teaches.  She can only teach peace with a peaceful heart; he can only teach love with care and vulnerability.  What ultimately stays with our students, I believe, is the respect with which we listen to them, the attention with which we regard them, and our abiding faith in the power of our subject to enlarge the soul and thus to expand one’s world.

A Ph.D., therefore, worthy of the name, does not identify an “expert.”  It identifies a dedicated, passionate and skillful learner.   In every class she gives life to these words of e.e.cummings

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing

Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

A Prisoner’s Honest Question


In 1996, I found myself teaching honors sections on Plato’s dialogues at  Indiana State University.  After a couple of weeks, I received a call from an administrator asking if I would be willing to teach outreach courses at the State Penitentiary in Carlisle, Indiana. “Why not?” I thought.  “It should be an interesting experience.” Little did I know.

I showed up on the appointed day and made my way through razor wire fences and electronic gates. I was then photographed and fingerprinted, and led by a guard down a long corridor of the Maximum Security Section, where the inmates were serving 20 years to life. We stopped at a door, and he said, “This is your classroom.” “Aren’t you coming in?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “you’re on your own.”  I entered the classroom with shaking knees.

There were 26 very big men in the room, mostly African Americans, and they sent waves of distrust and hostility in my direction. Most sat sideways so they didn’t have to look at me. With great trepidation, my voice 2 octaves higher than usual, I began to talk about Philosophy using the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. After five minutes or so, a hand went up. “Wonderful,” I thought, “class participation so soon!”

“Listen, man,“ the student said catching my eye. “Are you just here to give us some more White Man’s Bullshit?”

He stopped me in my tracks. I had never had a question more relevant, more clear and direct, and more to the point. The elephant in the room was loudly trumpeting. I had only two choices: run and hide in the protective mantle of the Teacher, or do my best to match his authenticity. “OK,” I said, “I guess you noticed that I’m White.” A few chuckles. “And to be honest, I have my share of bullshit, but I don’t want to lay it on you. So if you catch me being insincere or dishonest, I give you absolute permission to call me on it. Will you do that?”  “OK,” he said.  “One more thing,” I said. “If I catch you giving me any Black Man’s Bullshit, I’ll call you on it. Do we have a deal?”

With the ensuing laughter, the ice began to melt, and the atmosphere in that room went from cold to warm to scintillating as these bright and spirited men found room to grow. They actually came to understand that Plato was talking about the idea that we were all “doing time” inside our own heads, and that he, like the Buddha, was suggesting ways to ease our pain. Most of these men were Black Muslims, and it was clear to me that they took their new beliefs seriously.  We therefore read some poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and sections from Al-Kindi’s Treatise “On the Art of Banishing Sorrow.” The book, however, that most impressed them was the Tao Te Ching. Some days when I arrived at the classroom, the entire class was already heatedly involved in a focused discussion of Chinese Philosophy.  One day a guy said, “This Lao Tzu is one cold blooded dude!” I think the Chinese Sage would have smiled.

It is ironic, I think, that the most honest question I was ever asked as a teacher came to me in a maximum security prison. That one adamantine question broke the prejudicial chains that imprisoned us in separate worlds, and transformed us into a group of men simply trying to help each other figure things out.  It seemed to me that the man who asked the original question was exhibiting tremendous respect for himself, for me, and for the process of learning. He shone a bright light on the darkness in the room, and gave us all a chance to step into that light.

On the final day of the semester, every man stood in a line by the door, many with tears in their eyes, as they waited for a hug before returning to their cells.  That marvelous question broke all of our hearts–and broke them open.



When I passed my flight test to become a Certified Flight Instructor, the FAA examiner turned to me and said, “OK, John, you are all set to go. Now your first 10 students will teach you how to fly.” The same has been true in my university career.  It is a cliche that teachers learn as much or more than their students, but there is more than a modicum of truth in this. A provocative question or a lively discussion can inspire ideas in me that I had never known before, and in many classes I heard myself saying things that I found surprising. I have often thought, “Where in the world did those words come from?” Sometimes I even found myself rushing back to my office after a class to take notes on what I or my students had just said before I lost the ideas. I have already written about the daily gradual illumination that teaching offers in this blog’s essay on Teaching as Improvisation. In this essay, I would like to share a few thunderclaps that changed how I taught, how I thought, and how I was in the world. Interestingly, the experiences I am about to relate left me with stimulating questions rather than answers, and these questions have remained with me as vital catalysts during my subsequent 45 years of university teaching. It is my hope that you might find these experiences and insights transferable from the classroom to the everyday living of life.

What and Why am I Teaching?
I began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in 1967. My early attitude toward teaching embodied what Paolo Freire calls the banking method: I had knowledge the student didn’t have; I deposited it into the student’s mind; the student regurgitated it on a test, and I rewarded him or her with a grade. One of my earliest and brightest students said one day that I was not teaching them Philosophy. I was teaching them how to play the game called student. I felt a jolt of recognition and an almost desperate longing not to be that kind of a teacher. My external behavior might not have immediately changed, but my internal landscape was shaken. I began seriously to ask myself what I thought I was doing when I entered a classroom. What was my intention? What would make the next 90 minutes valuable for my students and for myself? I continue to ask these questions today, as they nurture an ever-deepening awareness of the meaning of teaching.

What do I Think I Know?
My formal training had been in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, and my first teaching covered the years from 400-1400 CE: St. Augustine to William of Ockham. For a good five years I taught the words of these great thinkers with confident authority. One day, however, I was teaching St. Augustine’s explanations concerning predestination. Essentially, I understood him to say that God knows the future because His reality is eternal Presence, but that does not determine the future. After listening for a while, a student said, “I don’t get it.” I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I realized that I had been teaching students and grading them on ideas of which I had little grasp. Moreover, I also realized in that moment that I really didn’t care about these ideas. That traditional Western God had become more and more abstract, dry, and remote. He was way too masculine and intellectual. My soul longed for a gentler, kinder experience of Divinity.

I therefore began to ask myself why I was teaching what I was teaching. Why should I teach ideas that made no sense and held little meaning for me? Why should I require students to read books that had no fire for me? Why should I require students to memorize answers to questions that neither they nor I had asked?

These questions have informed my teaching for over four decades. My interests shifted away from the medieval period and back to Plato and the Greeks, forward to Existentialism, and to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen. (In fairness, there are fine thinkers, such as Matthew Fox, who write about St. Thomas Aquinas with sensitivity and intelligence. My point is simply that I personally find more “juice” in other ways of thought.) At any rate, I think it was in that class that I began the slow process of becoming a lover of wisdom.

Lightning Strikes
After  a few years of teaching, however, I was honored with a grant from the Carnegie foundation.  I was to have one of my classes video-taped, and then bring it to Boston for a week’s seminar with 10 other honored teachers from around the country.  Throughout the week, I saw many examples of magnificent teaching.  On Friday morning, it was my turn.  I had chosen a lecture on Sartre’s play “The Flies,” one of my favorite platforms for waxing eloquent.   But 30 seconds into my video, I could have died. I wanted to crawl under the table. There I was for all to see: “Mr. Hotshot Professor.  Mr. Ego.”  I can’t express the pain of that moment, as I saw myself so clearly self-involved as a flashy performer, but a truly lousy teacher.  The experience was so painful for everyone that the leaders of the seminar mercifully turned it off after just a few minutes.  Everyone was most kind, but equally clear that I had some changing to do.

That was the last straw.  From that very day, as I crossed the threshold of my classrooms, I reminded myself in a nearly audible whisper, “It’s not about me. If Love is missing, this will be a waste of time.”  I’m pretty sure that things started getting better.

On Reading Plato

About 35 years ago, Plato stopped being a stuffy old philosopher full of “teachings,” and became a friend. For the previous five years, I had been centering each semester’s introductory course around The Republic. After ten preparations, I had gotten pretty good at showing the chain of Plato’s reasoning from beginning to end. I thought the book was brilliant, although it contained many ideas that did not seem to make a lot of sense to me or to my students. Still, the ideas that did make sense were numerous enough to justify the book’s 2000 year stellar reputation. (Who, after all, will be reading this blog in 4014?)
Continue reading

Teaching on the Edge

(This is a highly abbreviated edition of a previously published page)

Once you start looking, the heartfelt criticisms of modern education are stunning. In a delightful letter written to Paul Strand from Texas in 1917, Georgia O’Keeffe told of an exhilarating risk she took in her search for authentic education: “I’ve talked in Faculty Meeting,” she wrote, “a rearing, snorting time – it was amazing to me – I just knocked everybody’s head against the wall and made hash – and told them what I thought of school teachers and their darned courses of study and raised a time generally — it was an event … I talked for conservation of thought- in the child and the student- education for the livingness of life rather than to get a certificate- That teachers are not living – they are primarily teachers … Art never seemed so worthwhile to me before” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, P. 166).

Another powerful example can be found in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
There was nothing in his style to indicate that Aristotle was ever one to doubt Aristotle. Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. [He was] the prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirits of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind rote, eternal naming of things. Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries – the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason (1974, p. 360).

It is tempting to dismiss these acerbic utterances as the hyperbolic fulminations of disillusioned curmudgeons. I have been struck, however, by the sincere agreement expressed by many of my students as they read these and similar texts. Far too many of my students have voiced not only dissatisfaction with, but downright hatred, of the whole enterprise of school. Many will leave college with a profound sense of relief, and will never turn to poetry, or philosophy, or history again. Further, the strength and certainty of their experience, the severity of their judgments, simply replicate my own often boring and confusing experience as a student. And so I wonder: am I, as Pirsig charges, in danger of killing the creative spirit of my students?

When I was a young teacher, I thought of myself as a teacher of texts. I had been trained in the canon of western philosophy. My job, I believed, was to transmit the wisdom of the ages; to expose a text as clearly as I could and then to dispel any difficulties my students might have. “Any questions?” I would ask, assuming an expectant John Wayne-like stance at the front of the class. Finally, a willing student would throw a plate-of-a-question into the air for me, and I would whip out my six-gun-of-an-answer and blast it into oblivion.

At the end of one class, the floor littered as usual with the debris of dead questions, I returned to my office to find a note on my desk. A colleague must have been listening to part of my lecture. His advice took the form of a quote from Malreaux that said, in effect, that one good question was worth a thousand answers. I was both touched that he had cared enough to give me some advice, and miffed to think that in his opinion I needed it. But more importantly, I had not the slightest idea what his message meant. Questions, I thought, were to be answered, and that is exactly what I was doing. What possible good, for heaven’s sake, was an unanswered question?

It did not occur to me at the time that I was forcing my students to memorize the answers to other people’s questions, questions that had never truly lived in their minds- or in mine, for that matter. Yet my dependence upon the answers found in books turned out to be a model of education that has been recognized as destructive since the very beginning.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates quotes Thamus approvingly: [writing] is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality (1920, [275A], I, p. 278)

Having the show of wisdom without the reality is the classic description of foolishness that Socrates gave at his trial that is recorded in Plato’s Apology. After questioning the wisdom of a famous politician, Socrates says: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, -for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (1920, [21D], I, p. 405). Now how can a person not know something, yet labor under the fiction that he does? It seems to me that it is precisely having a head filled with vaguely understood answers that can lull a person into the false security of the fool. Thus, book learning can easily become a veil that shields a person from recognizing his own ignorance, and it is precisely this lack of recognition that is the mark of the fool. No, Plato has Phaedrus say, we must search “for the living word of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is no more than an image” (1920, [276A], I, p. 279).

And yet…the Beauty of Reading
Surely texts themselves, and the use of texts by the teacher, are not the core of the problem. The majesty and wisdom of great literature is simply too powerful to be dismissed. It seems obvious that books are the scholar’s basic tool, and that the mastery and love of texts are the mark of the vital teacher. Ralph Waldo Emerson was eloquent on this point: “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 30).

Georgia O’Keeffe, too, was an avid reader: “I had been reading the Divine Comedy – Longfellow translation,” she wrote her friend Anita, “and the tearing storm seemed to be just a part of it all – I was so interested I read almost all night … it reads even better the second time” (Robinson, 1989, p.165). Her biographer Roxanna Robinson continues: “Georgia was reading seriously this year [1916]: Ibsen, Dante, and Nietzsche.” All of her reading raised “questions of sexual equality…. and all granted philosophical permission to develop a personal code of values” (1989, p. 165). O’Keeffe was also deeply influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ and most especially by Goethe’s Faust. Concerning the latter she wrote: “Anita it’s simply great … I almost lost my mind the day I started it” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1989, p. 16).

Here we find a crucial and fundamental difference between the quality of O’Keeffe’s reading and mine as a young teacher. I viewed books as entities in themselves, as things that contained the Truth. Engaging, surely, filled with fascinating insights and difficult ideas, but not really addressing questions which were matters of life and death to me. As long as I was simply a teacher of texts I can honestly say that I was never in danger of “almost losing my mind” over a book. “Losing one’s mind,” however, might be what education is all about: to explode the boundaries of our conditioned minds, and to open them to greater vistas. Thus the teacher who wishes to nurture learning in her students will use writings that Emerson calls “Blood-warm” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 44). She will choose books that have brought her more deeply into the conflagration of human experience -her own experience- messy, uncertain, and paradoxical. She will choose books that have exploded the boundaries of her own world, propelling her outward toward richer patterns of being.

The Power of Questions
The philosopher Jacob Needleman says: “Whether we are speaking about the education of young people, or the education of what is young and searching in ourselves, it is first of all necessary to support the love of wisdom, the sensitivity to universal ideas that throw the whole of our common life into question. To think in new categories; to envision life within a vast, new frame of reference; and through that, to awaken and orient that impulse in human nature which is deeper and higher than ego — this is the first task of real philosophy” (1986, p. 177). Real questions have the power to expand the horizons of the world. They are “those that we have all but given up hope of ever seeing asked or answered, questions that somewhere deep within us, in the child within us, we long to think about, dream about” (1986, p.8). These questions, Needleman continues, are different from the problems of philosophy: the problem of the existence of god, the problem of universals, and the like. He says: These are not the questions of philosophy; they are only the fossilized remains of what were once living and breathing “creatures.” Official philosophy, a sort of paleontology of the mind, lays out these bones and fragments and reconstructs gigantic skeletons called “philosophical arguments,” which are housed in museums called philosophy departments and philosophy texts. But reconstruction is not remembering. The “problems of philosophy” are only the tracks left by the questions of philosophy — something that has long since moved on, and is still moving on within every serious human being (1986, p. 8).

Needleman distinguishes here between problems and questions. Problems need to be solved. Questions, on the other hand, transform our experience of life and of ourselves. Their answers are not spoken or written. They can only be lived. Rainer Maria Rilke puts this well in his Letter to a Young Poet: …1 beg you …to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer (1975, p.25).

The true Socratic question, then, teeters on the brink of mystery. Questions such as this do not seek to add to the known. They push us, rather, to the edge of the unknown, and keep on pushing — until we fall in. These questions ignite the flame of wonder. A mind inflamed with wonder and a heart inflamed by longing are simply the natural human responses to a world that is cracked open by an adamantine question; a world which is itself revealed to be dynamic, like a living flame. The pronouncement of Heraclitus that “this universe …has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is , and will be — an ever-living fire … ” (1960, fro 29, p. 71), is rendered in the modern idiom by Annie Dillard: “The whole show has been on fire from the word go,” she says. “I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames” ( 1990, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, P. 9) Perhaps it was this type of creative looking into the unknown that Plato had in mind when he spoke of ‘the living word of knowledge which has a soul.’

I believe the most fundamental quality that allows one to wear the mantle of “teacher” is that she is a passionate, joyful, and skillful learner. First, she has the desire and the ability to nurture the love of wisdom in herself and in her students; second, she cultivates an ongoing engagement with what is given in texts and in experience; and third, she musters the willingness to risk the contemplative interplay between the given and the mysterious, the known and the unknown, within which the creative activity of vital teaching can unfold. Her desire is to be a mid-wife in the process of creating a newer and hopefully more comprehensive vision of human possibilities, freshly understood and beautifully rendered. The vital teacher is dancing on the razor’s edge of provisional knowledge, moving in a liminal reality between what he thinks he knows and the unexpected and surprising perspectives that emerge in a wonder-filled classroom. Robert Pirsig’s challenge touches the heart of every dedicated teacher: killing the creative spirits of our students is the last thing we want to do. And so I find myself journeying along the continuum that lies between Pirsig’s warning and this magnificent aspiration set forth in a couplet by e. e. cummings:

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance (1959, p. 66).

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.

Living the Love of Wisdom #1

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.


I loved every moment of my 45 years of university teaching–almost. 98% of the time was amazingly alive, but the 2% devoted to grading threatened to undermine the excitement of learning that had been taking place. My students and I had entered a field in which teaching and learning had become a collaborative effort. Together we had formed a joyful team of learning the skills of reading, dialoging, and assimilating congruent ideas into our individual repertoire of beliefs. But then came test time, and a not-so-subtle adversarial aura crept into the classroom. Now they had to answer my questions, not theirs, and my questions may not have been at all relevant to their interests or learning. Over the years I tried to create tests in whose answers I was sincerely interested. In Philosophy I believe there are no “right” answers. But there are “good” answers: answers that are informed, thoughtful, coherent, and ultimately personal. I found that if the students and I had been successful in creating a vital learning atmosphere, if we had managed to create a common vision of what we were doing and why we were doing it, then the tests and papers they wrote became a form of intimate communication. In a lovely book, The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander tell us that they go so far as to give every student an A on the first day of class. Then they asked their students to write an essay during the next two weeks imagining what they would say at the end of the semester about why they were A students. The idea here, it seems to me, is to give every student (and every person in your life) the unconditional love and respect that will allow them to flourish. Roz puts this beautifully: “In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda, finding people whose interests match our own, and inattentive to those with whom we appear to have little in common. We automatically judge our players, workers, and loved ones against our standards, inadvertently pulling the wind from their sails. But with our new practice of granting an ongoing A in all our relationships, we can align ourselves with others, because the A declares and sustains a life-enhancing partnership.”

Certainly there are standards. This was especially relevant to my years as a flight instructor. It was obvious that the only reason for getting into the airplane was so that the student could become a skillful and safe pilot. Any grade less than A was unthinkable. (Who would like to fly with a pilot who had received a C in her flight training?). Again, as the Zander’s say, “a standard becomes a marker that gives the pair (teacher and student) direction. If the student hits the mark, the team is on course,; if not, well, “How fascinating.” The instructor does not personally identify with the standards, nor does the student identify personally with the results of the game.” If a flight student failed his test with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA officials would be knocking on my door, wondering what kind of a lousy instructor I was.

I felt the same way in my university courses. A good part of my job, I thought, was to share my enthusiasm for entering the worlds of Plato or Lao Tzu or the Buddha or Camus, and igniting a joyful spark of learning in my students. Certainly, there were a few young people with pressing demands on their lives of which I had no knowledge. I could not, therefore, take their lack of engagement with my course personally. Rather than give them an F that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, however, I would suggest at mid-term that they drop the course. The vast majority of my students, however, were prepared for most classes, and came ready for action. I would tell them that if I were certain that they had done the reading, and participated well either verbally or in their written expressions, they would receive a B. I explained that it seemed to me that some few students were truly gifted, and that I would reserve the A grade for them. (I half-joked that if I had to go into another room to read an exciting paper to my wife, that was an automatic A).

This seemed to work pretty well, but of course some of my colleagues disapproved. One teacher bragged about how he had never given a passing grade to a single student of a particular nationality in all of his years of teaching. Others seemed attached to an adversarial role toward their students. The air in some faculty rooms was dense with complaints about stupid or lazy students. These types of teachers thought I was easy, but I am idealistic and perhaps naive enough to believe that if students can get a taste of the delicious flavors of learning, Socrates’ ideal of the teacher as midwife kicks in. The classroom becomes a sacred place where the human soul emerges. And when a midwife assists a woman at the birth of her child, there is no question as to whom the baby belongs.


Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace! But there is no Peace.
Patrick Henry, 1775

More Words??
In yesterday’s post, I quoted some peaceful words of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu. All were written over two thousand years ago. Almost everyone would agree with them. Yet they are too often honored in the breach. And so I wonder what further words could possibly be said in order to staunch the flow of blood, hatred, indifference, and self-righteousness that threatens to engulf our world? Yet I feel an imperative to have my say in favor of love, tolerance, and non-violence. Otherwise, as Albert Camus has pointed out, in my silence I would be choosing to align myself with the segment of humanity that sees murder as a reasonable avenue to conflict resolution. The only other option would be to fade into the grey tones of apathy.

So what can I say? Perhaps the three shadows I isolated in the previous post might serve as hints or tracks I can follow in order to glean some understanding. All three shadows deal with the enigma of ineffective words: the first with those of liberal idealism; the second with the dry utterances of academia; the third with the gap that lies between the highest teachings of religion and the lives of many religious practitioners. These shadows, these stumbling blocks, have revealed the dimensions of some seemingly universal tensions: idealism vs. realism; rigidity vs. circumspection; righteousness vs. tolerance; words vs. deeds. These incompatible dyads lie at the heart of conflict. They are sources from which spring the unholy coalition of loving words and fearful actions. As long as they obtain, they will inevitably spawn the violence that crushes the body, and the acid of righteousness that corrodes the spirit. As a result, the people of the world groan under a myopic intolerance that mistakes moralism for morality, rigidity for fidelity, and blindness for patriotism.

I wonder where to insert the scalpel of analysis in order to relieve the pressure of these tensions. In this essay, let us focus on the mental rigidity and emotional righteousness that can be found throughout the political and religious spectrum, and which seems to characterize all conflict. In verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes these telling words:

People are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
The soft and supple will prevail.

Rigidity, or clinging attachment is a foundational concept in the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Human suffering (dukkha), said the Buddha, is caused by clinging attachment (trishna). Reflecting on the nature of attachment, therefore, might shed some light on the Psychology of Self-Righteousness.

As Fritz Perls said so many years ago, the first job of every baby is to create a world. We are bombarded by the buzzing booming cacophony of our surroundings, and we struggle to make sense of it by forming ideas or beliefs that give form and meaning to it all. We fashion a matrix of ideas, that frame and craft a world. This construct is further enhanced by our acculturation in the home, in school, and in the churches, and it is this construct to which we cling with all our might. Now, the ignorance (avidya) that gives rise to illusion (maya) is not simply that we are unaware of the “real world.” Rather, we cling to the world that is created by our construct as though it were absolutely real. Here lies the destructive illusion: I become addicted to MY world, thinking it is THE world.

Moreover, as I build a world, so I build a self. My I, my ego, is actually a complex of ideas about who I am, what I think and believe, and how I act. I again attach to this self-image (asmita), and will not let go for dear life. Any thoughts, values, or feelings that are incompatible with this constructed self-image are quickly denied as I cling to the self I think and need to be real. Cognitive dissonance tends to produce anxiety if it is recognized. As a result, we often relegate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the periphery of awareness. Have you noticed that there is an active ingredient to ignorance? In ignorance I choose “to ignore,” “to look away from” that which I do not want to see.

This clinging to my constructed world and constructed self is understandable, for it creates a sense of sanity, a hedge against the uncertainties of life. It also acts as a bond of loyalty and fellowship with our parents and teachers and with the broader culture. I would also agree with the American Pragmatists that in the early stages of human development, this clinging is necessary. To become a fine jazz musician, for example, one needs the mastery of technique, harmony, rhythm, and structure in order to ground one’s flights of creative improvisation. It is the same in life. We need a structure, we need a history, and we need facts, in order to function in the world.

But we must not stay too long at the fair. If the jazz musician remains dependent upon the tune as written, she will be unable to discover the true miracle of music. What she plays may be very right, but it will never be very good. Her playing will lack “soul.” Likewise, it is this clinging to our received world-view as we mature that causes the greatest human pain, a pain that often escalates conflict into violence. This is so because our constructs are usually not ample enough to include the breadth and depth of life as it unfolds. When we are confronted with the demands of a complex and fluid world, and with the frameworks of other people and other cultures, we are sometimes too terrified to let go of our own secure mental constructs. This fear leads to a defensiveness that breeds stereotyping, anger, and violence.

Listening and Looking
Clinging to one’s own ideas in this way traps one in the cave of the mind. Dialogue becomes impossible, since the fortress of the closed mind renders many people incapable of truly looking and listening. In the Buddhist tradition, listening is seen as the essence of compassion. In a similar vein, the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano points out that America had elected a deaf President: “a man incapable of hearing anything more than the echos of his own voice. Deaf before the incessant thunder of millions and millions of voices that in the streets of the world are declaring for peace against war.” (“un hombre incapaz de escuchar nada mas que los ecos de su voz. Sordo ante el trueno incesante de millones y millones de voces que en las calles del mundo están declarando la paz contra la guerra.”)

Annie Dillard powerfully underscores the importance of looking when she says: “We don’t know what’s going on here…we don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Healing words, that is, need to grow from the still ground of our looking and listening. Conflict, on the other hand, is always characterized by glare and noise. When people care more about being understood than understanding, they simply shout louder, thus making themselves impossible to hear.

I am going to put the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi in bold letters because I think it is so central:


I am thinking of education here both in the Spanish sense of educación: upbringing, and in the thought of Plato as “e ducere:” to be led out of the cave of one’s own mind. As Teilhard de Chardin taught, we human beings might be terribly imperfect, but evolution is not finished with us yet. We are works in progress, as individuals, as societies, as a human family. Liberation from the illusions that underpin righteousness takes tremendous courage. In my experience I could never have found even a smidgen of this courage without the caring nurture and inspiring example of friends, teachers, and guides to help negotiate the uncharted–and unchartable–territory of life’s mysterious surprises. As Parents, Friends, Psychologists, Educators, and Peace Activists, we must find a way to help people (including ourselves) loosen their dependence upon their constructed worlds and constructed selves. Early acculturation need not be indoctrination. It can be taught gently, lovingly, with a gradual opening to the visions of other cultures and new ideas. As education progresses and as the student matures, there comes a time—-an exhilarating time—-when the kaleidoscope of the mind shifts, and new patterns of thinking emerge. This happens again and again, as simple clicks of the wheel reveal unimagined vistas of thought and attendant feelings that have the power to transform the world and the self forever.

I believe the world’s deepest need today is for great teaching and great learning. Teaching Peace, however, does not fall only on the shoulders of the Gandhi’s and the King’s of this world. We, too, are the gatekeepers, blessed with the awesome responsibility of inviting those we meet on the quotidian byways of life to the adventure of greater conceptual amplitude and emotional intelligence. We are all teachers who stand at the threshold between love and fear, kindness and violence. George Fox, the Founder of the Quaker movement, beautifully expressed this ideal in a statement of 1656:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may [teach] among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

Finally, only the teacher who is herself engaged in the risky and exhilarating process of daily creation can effectively invite other people to this journey of discovery. If we are to stand before the world as teachers, we must be willing to wear the heavy mantle of self-confrontation and self-knowledge. As Gurdjieff said: “If you wish the best for your children, you should seek it for yourselves. In fact, if you change, they will also change. Thinking of their future, you should forget them for a while, and reflect upon yourselves …Only in knowing ourselves can we look to someone else.” Thus we are challenged to strip away all pretense of certainty and all the protection of rigidity. But it is only here, in this posture of naked vulnerability, that our words and actions might coalesce into a beneficent synergy. Then, to quote an ancient Zen poem: “without trying, our smiles will heal withered hearts.”