A Philosophy of Education


Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach;
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thought,
you return to the source of your being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell

This summarizes the ancient Chinese Taoist Master Lao Tzu’s philosophy of education. It was based on his contemplative approach to life. Parker Palmer makes a similar point in The Courage to Teach,

“As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Along with communicating course content, communicating the teacher’s soul through a unique connection with each student is vitally important. Simplicity, patience and compassion, as Lao Tzu states, must be the true contents of the courses we teach. How else can schools genuinely produce the “well-rounded student” most Student Learning Results asks for?

At most private schools the “well-rounded-student” is steeped in academics and gets a liberal balance of athletics, the arts, and social service activities. Throughout the learning experience the hope is that students will also develop positive character traits, leadership skills and a degree of religious, gender, political and racial tolerance. As worthy as these goals may be, I believe it produces one-dimensional individuals who, though they will surely succeed in our competitive world, lack the ability and motivation to “see inside themselves”.

We are great at helping students form the container that will define them as unique individuals and we help them learn how to maintain the container (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward) but we don’t do a good job of showing them the true purpose of this container. We need to put a more deliberate emphasis on people as “homo-duplex” or “two-tiered beings” (Emil Durkheim). What we are neglecting is deliberate discussion and education regarding authentic self-hood that transcends (yet includes) individual identity and we neglect emphasizing to students that the true purpose of their container is to fill it with compassion rather than the “stuff” of this world.

Acknowledging that we are two-tiered means we recognizes that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience” (Teilhard de Chardin).

“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

If teachers are socialized to ignore what it means to be fully and authentically human how can we be equipped to guide students into the upper tier of human life? Jesus’ rebuke in Matt. 23:13 aptly applies to us.

“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

The kingdom of heaven is within and among us. It is entered through a contemplative practice of one’s own and becomes the root source of compassionate activity in the world. Obviously teachers need to enter the kingdom of heaven themselves so they can open the gates to others.

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” Parker Palmer

As I teach I try to maintain a vision of both levels of being human, the ordinary and the transcendent. I do so by living out of my own contemplative practice to maintain a compassionate perspective. Living into the kingdom of heaven is the goal and joy of my life. I try to share with my colleagues and students the exuberant energy and joy this practice gives me . My collaborations and communications with my peers and with students becomes a matter of projecting the “condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Those focused on success in a worldly sense might say that “my teaching is nonsense” and “impractical” but those who can “look inside themselves” will see that “this nonsense makes perfect sense”.

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