educating the sky

little princeChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a text on how to educate a prince, someone who would grow up to be a wise, compassionate, skilful, and joyous leader.  The text states that the prince’s education should occur in an environment free of jealousy and competition, and that those who raise the prince should not think in terms of raising a child in a conventional sense.  Rather, they should take the attitude that they are educating the sky.  Then the prince will begin to have inquisitiveness toward the world, developing wonder about the details and processes of things.

Every student is a prince or princess, an heir of the royal family of human dignity, and a potential ruler of future society.  They possess a mind that is vast as the sky, and a heart that is pure, oceanic, and delicate as a drop of rain.  These qualities of mind and heart exist within all of us.  They may have largely been forgotten, but they’ve never been lost.  A true holistic education is one that fosters the rediscovery and blossoming of these qualities as well as the teaching of knowledge and skills.

The basis for this approach is innate goodness, knowing the students to be good, worthy in themselves, holders of true dignity, and worthy of great care and attention.  This is not to say that they are entitled to special treatment, or that they should be pampered and spoiled.  Trungpa Rinpoche’s text also emphasizes great discipline.  But discipline, learning, and the entire realm of education can be practiced as an appreciation and support of goodness.  Rather than beginning from the perspective of a problem to be remedied, we take an extraordinary leap of kindness, and hold the view of confidence in the natural perfection of human beings.

It is the student’s sense of this goodness, and its manifestation as self-respect, that becomes the fertile soil for the cultivation of the full human being, what we call education.  As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, “emphasizing human dignity as an educational foundation brings to students an inherent respect for themselves.  The transfer of knowledge can then occur, and the discovery of wisdom is appreciated, which leads us to acknowledge the worthiness of others.  If we doubt our own dignity, no matter how much education we receive, we will always feel inadequate.” (Shambhala Principle, pg. 180)

In our capitalist, credential-oriented culture it is often the assumption that respect and worthiness are conditional, to be granted upon success.  The successful student learns to view their self-respect as earned, as opposed to inherent- it is the product of their choices, intelligence and hard work.  The worthiness of others is then measured by their degree of success.  Lack of success in others is simply a reflection of the level of worthiness they chose to earn.  Conversely, planting the experience of “failure” in the soil of unworthiness yields further crops of self-doubt.  In either case there is inadequacy, either of compassion or of confidence, as we have begun with a foundation of mistrust in our beings.

Teachers tend to be immensely practical, and this approach of great trust in human nature may seem naive or excessively philosophical.  However, many teachers were inspired by a teacher they had who showed great faith in them, even if they themselves had lost heart or felt unworthy.  What we see in our students and what we assume about them, not just about what they can do, but about who they are on the deepest level, determines everything that follows.  It is a matter of the greatest practicality.

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care for a cookie?

img_28903.jpgTeaching is a questionable undertaking.

Most of the teachers I have known have good hearts and and are willing to work hard, often for few tangible rewards, to help their students succeed.  No matter how rewarding, teaching is a challenging endeavour under the best circumstances, which rarely come together. Many teachers work in very difficult systems, and loss of heart is common.

But that’s not what makes it questionable.  It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or if we’re not sure whether we’re making a difference.  Teachers know that teaching is worthwhile, no matter the challenges.  What is questionable is our assumption that we know what we are teaching.

If we think of teaching as simply passing  knowledge from one person to another, it’s a fairly simple matter, like making a cookie and handing it to someone to eat. We know how to spell, so we teach someone, and then they can spell.  That’s a good thing in itself, but that’s not all that happens.  Teaching is a social interaction that taps into some of the most volatile forces embedded in society.  So much is transmitted and communicated beyond the facts and figures of what is being taught on the surface.  It looks like a cookie, but it’s a nuclear bomb.

All social interactions have invisible dynamics in that we are always communicating more than the simple content of our words. Our attitude, outlook, bearing, eyes, tone, and the whole environment determine the feeling of the interaction.   In the teaching relationship those dynamics are heightened.  The hierarchy of teacher and student contains a treasury of unspoken implications.  Foremost among these is that the student must be open, on some level, in order to receive whatever is being taught.  What comes with openness is vulnerability.  Even just showing up in the role of a student invokes a degree of vulnerability.  Being a learner implies that you have something to learn- you don’t know something, and that makes you humble and soft.  The student is vulnerable to the teacher and the environment, and this meeting in the space of vulnerability brings a quality of intimacy to the relationship.  In this intimate space of communication, many lessons are being transmitted.  These are lessons of culture, values, how we are as people interacting, assumptions about human nature and society, and perhaps most importantly, how to relate with that feeling of vulnerability itself.  Knowingly or not, through our example, we are modelling and teaching how to be as human beings.  This is the inner curriculum, and although it is probably more important than the outer curriculum of academics in shaping the character of individuals and influencing the direction of society, it goes largely unacknowledged in the realm of education.

This is why “teaching” is questionable.  If we acknowledge the influence of the inner curriculum, teaching without intentionally examining and developing it is a failure to acknowledge the true influence of education.  It’s unclear what we and the whole environment are actually transmitting, though it most predictably defaults to the status quo.

On the other hand, there is something unsettlingly presumptuous about the notion of intentionally shaping the “character” and fundamental outlook of students.  What credentials do we have to do so?  What training have we gone through, and who agrees on the intended outcomes?