Humanizing the Process
Sir Roy Redgrave, former Commander of the British armed forces in the Far East, and a childhood friend of mine, once remarked to me, “The character of every regiment is determined by its leadership.”
The same is true of businesses, of monasteries, and of any activity where groups of people are involved. The spirit of the leader, or leaders, determines both the character and the spirit of the group. Hence, the importance of developing leadership in those children who show a talent for it.
Hence also the importance, in schools, of developing effective teachers. For if children are to be taught according to this new system called “Education for Life,” it is imperative that the teachers be trained first in the system, lest old and habitual methods of teaching reassert themselves later.
To teach these principles, special studies will need to be developed. Special teacher training will be necessary.
There is much also, however, that might be done with conventional subjects to impart the basic principles of Education for Life. The important thing would be to humanize the process as much as possible, that it be made relevant to the actual needs and interests of the students.
Here are a few suggestions for how this humanizing might be achieved — suggestions which I hope will, in turn, help spark other creative ideas in teachers’ minds.
History teachers might make it a point not to teach history only as a series of events long past, but as a guideline for the students’ own present and future life. Consider the Battle of Agincourt as an example.
In 1415 A.D., King Henry V of England, against seemingly impossible odds, vanquished the flower of French chivalry by introducing a new method of warfare. His way was to rely on his foot soldiers, especially on those who wielded the English longbow. The French knights came unprepared for this kind of battle, and lost heavily. From then on, victory no longer depended on knights in armor. Agincourt was a victory not only for the English, but for the inspired use of common sense.
Another battle, similar in the resourcefulness of the weaker party, was fought during the middle ages by Swiss peasants against their aristocratic overlords. The peasants had for weapons only their scythes and pitchforks. The noblemen rode horses and were heavily armed and armored.
What the peasants did was flood the battlefield on the eve of battle with water from a nearby river. It was the dead of winter, and the water froze overnight. When the oppressors sallied forth on the following morning, the horses slipped and fell all over the ice. The peasants came to battle shod for walking on ice, and dispatched the lot of them with ease.
What practical lessons might a child learn from these and other similar examples in history? Well, for one thing, he could be taught that solutions to problems often depend on being solution-oriented, rather than problem-oriented; that opposite cases — in other words, history’s outstanding failures — often resulted when people brooded on the hopelessness of their situation, instead of casting about expectantly for a way out of it.
Children might also learn that creative initiative can accomplish far more than brute force; and determined energy, far more than complacent power.
Again, they might learn that traditional ways of doing things are not always the best; that a fresh and better approach usually requires pulling back mentally a little bit, and casting about for a better way.
History is full of examples that can be similarly turned to useful advantage. And wouldn’t it be vastly more enjoyable to learn the story of the past, and for that matter to teach it, in its relevance to actual needs of the present? What matter, if a few minor dates, events, and individuals in history receive less mention, or even none, for lack of the time usually devoted to them? One must be selective in any case regarding what one teaches. Why not be selective, then, with an eye also to the students’ actual needs?
Humanizing the Instruction of Languages
An important subject, nowadays especially, is foreign languages.
It would be helpful, at the outset, to offer as a new academic course an overview of general linguistic trends. Such a course could include a study of how languages evolve; of basic differences between one language and another; of the source of words; and of how the use of words actually helps to direct the way we think.
Take, for example, the Romance, or Latin-based, languages. These, unlike English, assign a gender to every noun. When you start a sentence in French, Spanish, or Italian, you must already be committed to whatever nouns you plan to use in the sentence. Only by knowing in advance whether those nouns are masculine or feminine can you know what modifying articles, adjectives, and adverbs to start out with.
When speaking those languages, one is obliged to be conscious not only of concepts, but of the specific words one intends to use to express those concepts. Such uncompromisingly logical speech forces itself, with its advantages but also disadvantages, on the very way people in those countries view life.
English, by contrast, has been described as an intuitive language. You can “switch horses” in the midstream of an English sentence, selecting at a moment’s notice, perhaps, some new word that you hadn’t thought to use at first, but that you now see will suit your purpose better.
The ultimate purpose of this sort of study is that it makes the student more flexible mentally, more aware of other ways of thinking and looking at things than those to which he has been raised. Respect for another person’s mental processes is part of what it means to be mature — to be aware of, and thus to relate to, that person’s realities, and not only to one’s own. Lest this analysis strike the reader as a value judgment in favor of English and against French and other languages, I should add that maturity is too complex an issue to be determined by anything so simplistic as the outer garments of a language.
The point of the “Education for Life” system, however, is not only to draw morals from what one teaches. Too much moralizing, indeed, can become dreary, even if the goal of it all is to guide the student toward deeper understanding. But one of the greatest lessons that life teaches is how to enjoy what we do — and, in the classroom, how to enjoy whatever one teaches, or learns.
In this respect, conventional pedagogy, rooted as it is in the transmission of a fixed body of knowledge, tends toward sterility. The learning process ought to be rooted in life itself, and therefore — for the teacher quite as much as for the student — a thing fresh and wonderful every day. Any teacher who really enjoys what he teaches, and who can spark a kindred enjoyment in his students, has already mastered one of the central points in the Education for Life system.
If conventional teaching suggests few creative insights to the average student’s mind, it is because facts by themselves are static. Excessive devotion to committing facts to memory actively discourages dynamic creative thought. Teachers themselves who teach by this method easily sink into a rut of teaching from habit, out of the depths of which they may view only with resentment any attempt to dislodge them.
The very examples teachers often use in their instruction offer little challenge to the imagination. We were discussing the teaching of languages. A delightfully stuffy book of guidelines that I was once shown for the English-speaking tourist in Germany included this helpful sentence: “Stop, barber, you have put the brush in my mouth!” Much can be done, however, to inspire students to identify themselves with the mental outlook of an Italian, for example, when learning Italian; with that of a Frenchman, when learning French, and so on. The art of learning languages is to a great extent a matter of “tuning in” to the general consciousness of the people who speak it.
Every language has a peculiar “melody,” or lilt. This melody is, in my opinion, as important in its own way as the words and grammar of the language, for it contains its inner “feeling,” without which no language is living, and from which the words themselves evolve. Without that inner “feeling” of a language, mere words and grammar are like Esperanto — interesting, but essentially an abstraction. You can’t master a language if you can’t emerge from the consciousness and attitudes of an American (or whatever your own nationality is). One hears the advice, “Learn to think in the language you are studying.” Actually, much more is involved. Be a Frenchman, in attitude, if you want to learn French. Be a German, or an Italian. There would be no harm in even getting students to dress the part, to enter the role with their gestures, and above all to abandon their natural shyness at moving their lips, tongues, and faces in unaccustomed, but necessary, ways to speak like a native. The children can, moreover, have great fun with this practice. (I’ll never forget the challenge I faced with the broad “A” in Italian. In my efforts to master this language, getting that “A” right seemed quite like crossing the Rubicon!)
I’ve mentioned the “melody” of a language. Rhythm, too, is important. Every language has certain rhythms that are peculiar to itself. Melody and rhythm are intrinsic to music, which is another mode of communication entirely from the spoken word. Without them, much meaning would never be conveyed. And without them, I dare say, no one would ever learn a language perfectly, or even very well.
The purely mental approach to learning is shown at its greatest disadvantage, perhaps, in the study of languages. Most of us have also been through the dry declensions of nouns, the “amo-amas-amatting” of Latin verbs, the presentation of even living languages as though they were already dead and mummified. I once saw a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine: a sign in a Paris shop that read, “College French spoken here.”
In my own experience, I recall getting low marks in a course in French even though, having spent a year and a half as a boy in French Switzerland, I spoke the language better than my teacher (or so he told me). But I’d learned French by speaking it. I couldn’t relate this living language that I knew to the sterile lists we’d been given to memorize in the classroom.
Why not include in the study of languages a study also of the people who speak them — their history, their national traits, their heroes? Why not study language, in other words, from its inner heart?
If, for example, the subject is Italian, it will help enormously to identify, from your own heart, with the Italian people, and not to look upon them as “those crazy people with this weird tendency to finish every word with an a.” That is what Italians and their noble language are likely to remain for the student, if all he learns in the classroom is verb forms dangled at him in midair, and tangled in stilted sentences.
From the standpoint of the Education for Life system, there is much to be gained from learning to approach any new subject as it were from within — from its core, rather than from its periphery. And one way to accomplish this feat is for the student to be involved totally in whatever subject he or she is given to study.
And what matter if, in the process, traditional teaching lines have to be crossed? For a language teacher to teach a little of Italy’s history along with its language may constitute a minor incursion into the history teacher’s domain, but where is the harm in getting the student to see the same history from a broader perspective?
Indeed, it is partly in the rigid compartmentalizing of subjects that formal education loses so much of its potential relevance. Compartmentalized knowledge somewhat resembles an approach to the study of the human body by examining the head alone, then the lungs alone, then the intestines alone, and so forth, while ignoring the living interrelationship of the different parts to one another. Medical education, in fact, errs in just this respect.
I have often played with an idea that, unfortunately, I don’t see as workable very soon in the schools, but it is worth including here for future students of this subject: to have every study for a certain period of time revolve around an over-all subject that is relevant to all of them.
I first got this idea from a two-week study I did in the fine points of English grammar. It was the sort of study that might easily have taken a year to complete in a standard curriculum. Such a long time frame, and the necessity for hopping back and forth between this subject and four or five others, doing homework daily in all six fields, would have left me a comparative outsider to all of them, including the subject of English grammar. I’m sure I would not have learned grammar nearly so well in a year as I was able to in two weeks of steady concentration on the subject.
How good it would be, I thought, if this kind of concentration could be devoted to every subject studied. Most young people are too mentally restless to focus on only one subject at a time, but one way to make such concentration possible would be to arrange the other subjects around a single focus, so that all of them conspired to help the student really to enter into what he was studying.
An idea, only. But I must admit, I like it.
In the study of mathematics, too, considerable interest in the subject might be sparked by including in the course a general history of mathematics. Interesting, too, would be a study of the lives of great mathematicians, and perhaps of the challenges they faced in getting their work accepted.
Great mathematicians often have a sense of the sheer poetry of numbers — a sense that is seldom hinted at, and perhaps not even imagined, by most teachers of mathematics courses.
There is Pythagoras’s application of mathematics to the study of music: a fascinating subject, but one that is rarely even mentioned in the classroom.
Of great and practical interest to students of algebra would be a study of the importance of symbolic logic in everyday life — of making definitions serve in place of complex realities as a means of simplifying one’s thoughts about them. The advantages, and also the disadvantages, of symbolic thinking make a fascinating and important study.
For we engage in it all the time, consciously or unconsciously, on every level of our lives. There is, for example, symbolic emotional thinking, where a person will say one thing but mean quite another and expect to be understood. There is the symbolism of poetry, with its use of rain, for instance, to imply sorrow, or spring flowers to suggest new beginnings. And there is the importance of learning to distinguish between symbolic and literal thought — the importance, in other words, of learning not to confuse definition with reality.
Children in the lower grades, on the other hand, could have emphasized to them, when faced with arithmetic’s immutable rules, the importance of accepting and adapting to things as they are. Two plus two always makes four; it is not a matter of whim. The children may have become used to getting their own way in certain matters, but here is an example, selected from countless realities in life, of something that no amount of wishing will be able to change.
There is even something that might be taught — a point, incidentally, of considerable interest: that different types of human activity require different directions of energy. Language and music, for example, require a greater focus of energy in the heart: a “feeling” energy. Mathematics and logic, on the other hand, are more mental; they are easier to grasp when the mind is focused, as the yogis of India suggest, at the seat of concentration in the body, midway between the eyebrows.
The mastery of any subject requires that one identify himself with the particular state of consciousness appropriate to that subject. To learn mathematics, one must try to think like a mathematician. To learn French, one must try to think like a Frenchman. To learn cooking, one must think like a cook. To learn skiing, one must assume the attitude of a good skier.
The Importance of Fantasy
For young children especially, the importance of fantasy should not be overlooked. History, for example, might be taught as though seen through the eyes of a child traveling back in a time machine to centuries long past, and relating what he sees to their own lives today.
Geography, again, might be taught as seen through the eyes of a boy and girl traveling to distant places, and experiencing exotic sights in terms of their own immediate realities.
In every field, even the most prosaic, there are endless opportunities for creative application of Education for Life principles to make the subjects more immediately human, and less abstract and statistical.