“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates 1500 years ago, and I’m inclined to agree. Paul Gauguin’s enigmatic 1897 painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” has always seemed to me to embody the essence of the quest for meaning that gives value to our own lives—that even in a paradise of beauty and abundance, such questions engage us. Asking them is part of what it means to be fully alive.
Now I am temporarily residing in paradise, vacationing in Kauai. I sat down this morning to write about The Spirit of Education, a book sent to me by a fellow blogger, Jeff White. Typing, I lifted my head to gaze right: a steel-gray sky loomed over the landscape, the perfect shade to highlight a brilliant tapestry of banana and screw-pine leaves, of red and orange flowers, of a distant hillside the precise yellow-green Gaugin used to paint the central figures in his great tableau. Over my left shoulder, the tall trunks of palm trees rose in silhouette against a creamy pile-up of sunlit clouds.
The existence of paradise on earth speaks to me of a great cultural mystery. Sometime between Socrates and Gauguin, in this place, with fruit and fish for the picking, a room-temperature climate, abundant water and natural land forms that take your breath away, flourished a culture based on the most extreme social stratification. The ali’i were members of the highest class of hereditary royalty, ruling a rigid caste system held together by kapu (a system of taboos), often punishable by death. Interaction between the ali’i and lower castes was so severely circumscribed that commoners could be executed even for gazing on a member of the ali’i or for touching the shadow of an ali’i. Because many of the most serious taboos concerned marriage and procreation, ali’i interbred with their own family members, bringing genetic consequences that led to extreme abuses of power.
So much for the idea that harsh climates are the cause of harsh cultures.
It seems that just as we humans are predisposed to ask the great questions wherever we live, we are also disposed to create cultures founded on great disparities in power, autonomy and value. The choice is ours, and one of the things that drives Jeff White’s book is his wish—which I most emphatically share—that the choice be both conscious and considered, and his concern at mounting evidence that so many our society’s choices are neither.
What I enjoyed most about The Spirit of Education is that it is in every way the artifact of an examined life. The author stepped back from long years as a student, teacher and teacher of teachers in order to consider what experience had taught him, extracting many interesting observations and ideas from an approach to education he found deeply unsatisfying and damaging. His book is a compendium of learning and belief, touching on dozens of topics in some way connected to education. He might have entitled it “What I Have Learned Despite My Education.”
Jeff White’s book is impossible to summarize in a few words, but I have been thinking since I read it about one of his key points, perhaps his main point: given that true education is the process of bringing out the full potential of each person, sprouting each person’s unique “acorn,” then
What I’ve suggested here isn’t so radical. It’s a simple thing, making learning voluntary. I can tell you, it isn’t fun being either a teacher or a student when the program in front of them is to move a set of facts from a textbook into students’ heads, whether or not those students might be receptive to the information. Isn’t it a simple thing to suggest that only those who are interested might show up?
With the possible exception of the multiplication tables, which I certainly would never have memorized had I any choice in the matter (a chore I understand is no longer required), I can’t think of a single useful learning that came to me by compulsion. Indeed, everything I’ve cared about learning and seen as adding to my capability and the meaning of my life, I’ve come to understand out of my own desire.
Making learning voluntary would certainly change the public schools’ challenge from what we now see—how to compel obedience and punish misconduct—to an altogether different task, assisting students in learning what they find interesting and worthwhile, or admitting our schools need rethinking so as to be up to the task. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
I’m sure when the ali’i system was crumbling under its own weight, busily decimating most of the islands’ bird species to make ceremonial feather capes, there were ali’i chiefs declaiming solemnly that members of the makaʻāinana, the commoner class, and the kauwa, the slave class, should for their own good continue to perform the tasks that served and supported ali’i power, or how else could they learn what was good?
The examined life seems like a critical part of any antidote to the damage done by compulsion, whether sanctioned by mana (divine power) or the state. I wonder what might happen if we all followed Jeff White’s example, taking time off from our appointed roles to understand ourselves, share what we have learned, and make a few modest proposals.