Whether or not we think in these terms, our lives and our activities are in service to something.
Our duty is to become good ancestors. Thus we must practice being good and true servants. In order to be a true servant, to have a heart that serves with purity and fullness, one must know what one serves.
Ideally, education serves society. Conventionally, an educated society helps society progress and flourish. What we learn in school and how we learn to be imprints our cultural traditions and values. Education is generally seen as a service profession, and is arguably devoted by nature to a collective benefit. It’s interesting then how the codependent forces of individualism and materialism that hold sway in modern society interact with our educational motivations. For an institution that has a natural basis in service and collective welfare, there tends to be a disproportionate embodiment of individualism and competition. Basic schooling is frequently rationalized as a necessary means to the goal of further education, and ultimately employment. The spectre of social failure is implied, and sometimes invoked directly, as a goad to personal motivation for students. Success in the world, seen as a finite resource, is something to be won, Hunger Games style, from our peers. And this competitive spirit trickles down into the school years. These days even pre-school children are expected to be hitting learning objectives to get them on the train toward higher education.
For now, let’s set aside the fact that the train is fucking broken. Society and the economy no longer function such that “a good education” (for middle class white people) is more or less a guarantee of a good job. More important is the question of what kind of society this entire approach is preparing students for, what kind of culture it embodies, and ultimately what it is in service to.
David Loy writes, “Today the values of a liberal education are increasingly subordinated to, if not swallowed by, the demands of the marketplace. Schooling is becoming little more than exam preparation and job training. this deference to market values reflects our preoccupation with money, which from a Buddhist perspective is upside down. In a spiritually healthy society, the most important institutions, which would receive the greatest social attention and therefore the greatest share of resources, would be schools. Instead of economic development as the ultimate goal or end-in-itself, such a society would evaluate itself according to how well educated (in the broadest sense of the term) its members were and wanted to be. This understanding of education includes culture, not in the sense of entertainment but in the root meaning of self-cultivation.” (The Great Awakening, pg.33)
In order to explore “self-cultivation,” an inquiry into the “self” is in order. The Shambhala tradition shares similarities with a variety of Eastern and Western contemplative traditions in which the self is not viewed as an independent, self-existing entity, but as a nexus of relationships. As humans we are, in a sense, inherently social, in that we exist in association with others, with the earth, with the dralas. Self-cultivation then, has to do with cultivating our whole being, which is not separate from our relationships, from nature, or from our world altogether. Since this connectivity is inherent, “cultivating” is simply becoming aware, or becoming educated.
The wonderful Confucian scholar Tu Wei Ming writes, “Education is more than the mere acquisition of knowledge…it is a holistic way of learning to be human. In Confucian terms, such learning is defined as ‘learning for the sake of the self,’ ‘the learning of the heart-mind and nature,’ or ‘learning to be a profound person.’ It is misleading, however, to assume that Confucian learning is a quest for individual happiness or inner spirituality. Rather, far from being ‘individualistic,’ Confucian learning is a communal act… The self as a center of relationships is inevitably interconnected with an ever-expanding network of human-relatedness.”
An education that cultivates a living relationship with society, and a vibrant sense of the whole person as integrally related to the world, is somewhat more compelling than one that seeks to create a society of successful consumers. It could be a way of serving and fostering a culture that folds the spirit of good ancestry into the future.