The Importance, to Understanding, of Experience
Much can be done in the teaching of conventional subjects to educate children in the art of living. In order seriously to offer them an Education for Life, however, special training in this art of teaching needs to be offered as well, both in special classes and outside the classroom.
An intellectual understanding of how to live is never sufficient. Even in so intellectual a subject as algebra, John Saxon, a teacher famous for the efficacy of his methods, has demonstrated the importance of grounding students in constant practice.
Saxon has convinced many teachers of the appeal of humor, moreover, and of offering down-to-earth, human situations when presenting a problem. In his book, Algebra I, he wrote: “At the Mardi Gras ball, the guests roistered and rollicked until the wee hours. If the ratio of roisterers to rollickers was 7 to 5 and 1080 were in attendance, how many were rollickers?” Students generally find this sort of problem much more fun to consider than, let us say, the ratio of trucks to wheelbarrows filled with cement. Math problems are commonly stated with no thought at all to giving the students a good time. It is almost like the notorious “Protestant ethic”: “If you enjoy it, it can’t be good for you.”
If in conventional studies there is a need for experience in the sense of repeated practice, and not only for intellectual explanation — a point hotly contested, incidentally, by the majority of Saxon’s peers in the school system — how self-evidently is it true for the living values that are the focus of the present book.
Well, on second thought, perhaps it is too sanguine to call it self-evident. For we live today in a society that holds practically as a dogma the notion that to define a thing is to understand it. All teaching, virtually, is of the blackboard, variety: “Spell it out, and you’ll understand it.”
Many a psychiatrist considers it the limit of his duty to get a patient to “see” the point he is making. “Yes, Doc, it’s true, I have a low self-image.” Very well; and then? Even at this point, how much has really been achieved?
I have known many highly intelligent people who pride themselves on the range and subtlety of their self-understanding, but who never take the first step toward actual self-betterment. It is as though, by mental acceptance of the need for making a change, they somehow imagined that the change had already occurred!
The more intelligent a person, it often seems, the more difficult it is for him to make a serious commitment to positive action.
Of course, I am not referring to intelligence per se. The greatest deeds in any field of endeavor are always performed by people of exceptional intelligence. My reference, rather, is to those whose intelligence is, in a manner of speaking, ingrown; whose intellectuality tends to isolate them from objective reality, or to leave them satisfied with merely reading or thinking about reality. Such intellection only paralyzes the will.
This, indeed, as I have already said, is a basic weakness of our modern educational system. The very people who are the most involved in the system — the teachers and professors — are those, usually, who are the most resistant to change of any kind. Their intellectual bias is toward theories, and toward a corresponding lack of practical commitment to anything.
Much can be accomplished in the way of giving children an Education for Life even while teaching standard classroom subjects. Special classes in the art of living need to be taught also, however, classes filled with narrative examples, practical illustrations, and useful techniques that the children themselves can practice in the classroom and at home.
There need to be classes in self-expression; in understanding oneself and others; in the benefits of cooperation with others; in the true meaning of success; in how to succeed at anything; in how to have a positive influence on others; in joyful self-discipline; in the importance of right, positive attitudes; in the art of concentration; in developing memory; in general problem-solving; in secrets of achieving true happiness. The list given here is by no means exhaustive; it is intended to suggest a direction that, if pursued, will open up ever-fresh possibilities. Suffice it to say that the classes should as much as possible be experiential, not didactic.
Outside the classroom, time should be set apart for a more spontaneous, more individualized type of education. In this respect it is a pity that most education is only a daytime affair. Far more can be accomplished with students who live full time at the school during the school months.
Paramhansa Yogananda, the noted spiritual leader and teacher, when directing the boys’ boarding school he’d founded at Ranchi, India, discovered that two of his students were bitter enemies. He tried counseling, but his attempt at advice proved a failure; they lacked the motivation to “bury the hatchet.”
He then had them share the same bed. After that, it was either constant warfare or grudging peace. After struggling for some time with the issue, they decided on peace. Gradually, indeed, they became friends.
After some weeks, Yogananda decided to bring the lesson home to them on an even deeper level. Tiptoeing silently to the head of their bed as they slept, he reached down cautiously and rapped one of them on the forehead, immediately withdrawing his arm.
The boy rose up wrathfully and accused his bedmate of breaking the peace.
“I didn’t hit you, I swear it!” cried the other, wide-eyed with surprise.
Both settled back to sleep. After a few minutes, when they were sleeping soundly again, Yogananda rapped the other boy on the forehead.
“I told you I didn’t do it!” cried the second boy angrily. They were on the point of blows when, looking up, they beheld their school principal smiling down at them.
“Oh,” they exclaimed in amazement. “You!”
This shared experience, and the humorous light that it cast on their previous enmity, cemented their friendship from that time onward.
I grant you, this sort of teaching demands both the right occasion and the right teacher. The limitations imposed by daytime education, however, make such in-depth training all the more difficult. And the
difficulty of finding wise teachers makes teacher-training, and a greater appreciation on the part of society for the role of teachers, imperative.
Meanwhile, what can be accomplished with things as they now stand?
It is difficult, even in the most ordinary situations, to avoid artificiality when seeking to convey direct experience to a child. The very act of saying, “Now we’re going to experience how and why it is good to forgive others,” not only creates a false situation, but also encourages a merely superficial response.
Obviously, then, teachers need to be aware of, and quickly responsive to, situations as they actually arise in the lives of their students. The test of a teacher’s wisdom will lie in his ability to recognize a problem, and to respond to it sensitively and appropriately.
For instance, were a teacher to leap enthusiastically at every opportunity to instruct his students in the art of living the moment any such opportunity presents itself, he might well develop in them, gradually, a resentment toward all instruction in human values.
I knew a teacher who suffered from this excess of zeal. A girl in his class had an accident on her bicycle one day. She was lying, curled up and weeping, in the school driveway, when the teacher crouched down beside her.
“Now, Nancy,” he demanded insistently, “analyze your thoughts. Why did you have this accident? Be honest with yourself. You’re trying to escape something, aren’t you? Can’t you see that you’ve attracted this experience?”
Poor child! All she needed just then was a little comfort and sympathy. And if the teacher was correct in believing that her need arose from some deep
self-deception, what of it? People deceive themselves constantly and in countless ways. To reproach her on such an obvious issue, when she was at her most vulnerable, displayed an insufferable sense of superiority and belief in his own infallibility.
Love a child when he weeps, and he may be the more ready to listen to reason after he’s calmed down. And maybe it isn’t really reasoning that he needs anyway.
It is difficult enough to deal wisely with living situations. It is far more difficult to create them artificially, for the purposes of instruction.
Much, however, can be accomplished by a sort of deliberate artificiality, in the form of fantasy: stories acted out; little dramatic pieces; story-reading that involves the children’s response and verbal participation.
In this respect, an excellent lesson can be taken from the children themselves. For what is the universal game played by children everywhere, regardless of culture or nationality? Let’s pretend:
“You be the dragon, Johnny. Jeannie, you be the princess. And I’ll be the prince who comes to the castle and saves her, riding on a white horse and holding a shiny sword.”
“Here is the dragon. He was once a soldier who wanted to protect his princess. One day, he fought off the attack of an evil wizard who wanted to carry the princess off to his dungeon. The wizard then cursed him to become a dragon, and to become as mean and violent as dragons usually are.
“Now that same dragon won’t let anyone near his princess, and is doomed by the curse to lay the countryside to waste for miles around with his fiery breath. No knight can destroy him, no matter how sharp or shiny his sword.
“If anyone can forgive him, however — deeply, from his heart — his forgiveness will break the evil spell cast by the wizard. By forgiveness, the dragon will be turned back into a good and loyal soldier. And the brave knight who saved him will marry the princess.”
The children might also have fun fantasizing the dragon’s rejection of any forgiveness that didn’t proceed from deep enough feeling in the heart.
An important point to be realized, when helping children to achieve fresh insight into the problems they encounter in daily life, is that the intellectual understanding of a problem is not only insufficient, but often is not helpful at all. What is important is that they find themselves moving happily in a new direction, and not that they themselves understand all the reasons for the direction.
I am reminded here of a story from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis and a small group of his friars minor were walking one day along a country road, singing joyfully of God’s love. At a turn in the road, a stranger appeared and threw himself on his knees before Francis, begging admittance into their brotherhood. St. Francis accepted him lovingly.
Brother Elias, as this man came to be known in the order, joined the others on their walk. He was more a scholar, really, than one dedicated to a life of prayerful worship. In later years he became the general of the Franciscan Order, from which time onward his love of analysis undermined much of the free and spontaneous spirit that had marked the Order during the early period of its history.
On this particular day, however, he expatiated enthusiastically to the others on the reasons he’d decided to join them, and on the importance of the Order to the society of their time.
The friars had been singing as they walked. All of a sudden, their singing died in their hearts. They continued their walk in an uneasy silence.
Who would kill the song in a child’s heart? Instead of explaining the benefits of living harmoniously, why not get the children simply to do whatever will help them to live in harmony with themselves and with others? Action, far more than words, will uplift them into a positive outlook.
Singing, too, is a wonderful therapy. No need to explain to a child the reason singing is therapeutic. Just get him to sing. In music lies one of the best ways of bringing out the best in children.
Dance is another excellent way. Body movements are closely allied to attitudes of the mind.
It might also help children to make affirmations while moving their bodies. They can walk vigorously in place, for example, affirming as they do so, “I am awake and ready!” Next, get them to stretch their arms out — first sidewise, then in front of them, then high above their heads, affirming, “I am positive — energetic — enthusiastic!” They can rub the palms of their hands vigorously over their bodies while affirming, “Awake! Rejoice, my body cells!” Next, tell them to rub their heads lightly with their fingertips, repeating, “Be glad, my brain! Be wise and strong!”
They can use the centering movements of dance to affirm, “I live in peace at the center of my being.”
Certain outward-reaching dance movements might be used with the affirmation, “I reach out with love to help my fellow creatures.”
Upward-stretching movements might be accompanied by the affirmation, “I reach up to the heights within myself.”
Downward gestures could accompany the affirmation: “I reach down to uplift all who weep.”
Vigorous dance steps and gestures might be accompanied by such words as, “Though troubles threaten me, I overcome them all!”
Certain yoga postures also, with related affirmations, are notably calming and invigorating to the entire body.
Painting, too, can be a means of drawing out feelings in a child which, once objectified, might be emphasized if the feelings are constructive, or positively redirected if they are destructive.
To share together in any activity, moreover, can help to harness excess energy and direct it positively.
A final word: Never underestimate the importance of fun to the over-all teaching process. It is often during the moments of lightness, when the mind is diverted, that the most fundamental lessons are absorbed.