People in the West are always getting ready to live – Chinese Proverb

Today, an attempt at enlightenment.

I’ve been around for 38 years now. I have to tell you that of all things that puzzle me in life, this one really stumps me: where do so many people get their deeply-ingrained fear of thinking?

After all, read – or listen to – any of the great philosophers East and West, and in no time you’ll have found a second home for your own thoughts and musings.

No impatience, no sense of futility, no dismissal. Just the “Joy of Thought”, of enriching your awareness, and that strange wonder of being conscious that comes over you once in a while!

enter The Realist

“No, no, no. Not so!”, says the Realist: “too much thinking will paralyze you!”. Or, “life demands action…”, and “it’s totally horrible and useless to be stuck in your head”, etc.

Now, who could disagree with that?

But, but, but: any admissions to the value of thinking? “Only if it helps you solve real-life problems!”

So is philosophy forever doomed to having to justify itself to Lord Utility? And how did Lord Utility get so much street cred, anyway?

Well, I have my own ideas about this, but I thought I should let Zen philosopher Alan Watts (thanks Vic!) open up the discussion… (Musicians beware: Alan wants you in the front lines of his battle!)

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“they made you miss everything…”

Ever try to write down an account of your school years? What about the last biography of a famous person you read? How were their years in school presented in the book?

Details I’ve come across over and over again in people’s accounts of their schooling: perhaps a stimulating course, or an excellent teacher, or worthy “extra-curricular” activities (sports, music, theater, etc.) here and there… But for the most part, for most people:

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Years in school = a tremendous waste of time and energy, and way too much tedium and negative social interaction to justify the happy bits!

In other words: if schooling is ever referred to as a positive experience, it’s because it happened to be set in a stimulating and supportive environment that respected the principle of learner autonomy.

Now that doesn’t sound like our public school system, does it? So how are we to account for the life-sucking monster Modern Education has become?

independent thinking: not in the curriculum

“Too many teachers are mediocre!” … ” If we only we didn’t have so many lame-ass, career-obsessed parents!” … “the cuts to public education are relentless!”…

Agreed, there’s room for much improvement in the existing system. But don’t you agree with Alan, that improvements and reform are all for naught if they lead to the same basic outlook in life?

As Watts points out, the very design of our education system is based on a carefully cultivated social mythology of “success”: life as a long, drawn-out “journey” with a beginning (our individual potential), plenty of “obstacles and challenges” along the way (preparation for economic life), and a happy ending (our social and professional success).

Witness the kind of talk we hear in a typical high school graduation ceremony: “preparing our youth for life”, “going out into the adult world”, “the virtues of effort and perseverance”, “through trial and error”, “living up to your full potential”, etc.

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But, wait a minute: what are we graduating from, anyway? Doesn’t this lofty language prove that we’re not just graduating from school, but graduating into “adult life“? That our educational system, with its grades and degrees, is some kind of long, drawn out process of ritual initiation? That through schooling and its compartmentalization of knowledge, we are actually being vetted for potential upward mobility in social and professional life?

we are the world, we are the hierarchy

There you have it, there’s a permanent contradiction at the heart our educational system: the official discourse on the primacy of teaching and learning – the “No Child Left Behind” kind of talk so loved by politicians – running up against the credentialing function of educational institutions, a process that relentlessly standardizes our unique learning personalities for career-readiness in public or private corporate hierarchies.

The question remains: if so many of us are aware of the nature of the Juggernaut, then why do we allow this state of affairs to be perpetuated? And what do we have to lose in letting alternative concepts of education flourish, as legally available options open to all parents and children?

There’s a permanent contradiction at the heart our educational system: the official discourse on the primacy of teaching and learning – the “No Child Left Behind” kind of talk – which runs against the credentialing function of educational establishments, that relentlessly standardize the unique learning personality of individuals for career-readiness in public or private corporate hierarchies.

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