The Theories We Hold About Who We Are Influence How We Act: The Milgram Experiments

My high school students often asked: If it’s true that humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?

 

One scientific experiment greatly influenced, for decades, how many people thought about this question. This is the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was asked to play a teacher to help educate another person, the “student,” learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” would give him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer.

 

The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white-coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later drop over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections at times; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was, in fact, an actor; the shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.

 

It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But, according to author and researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority. If she is correct, this drastically changes how we might understand the experiment.

 

The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over, the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed, and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings let alone allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.

 

A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. They were then given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects felt such compassion for the other person they volunteered to take on their pain.

 

What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act.

 

I would question or refine that interpretation. The psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of the environment or context. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation.

 

Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly and not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail, one thought about the subjective experience of another person, can allow us to identify with them and act compassionately toward them.

 

Maybe one conclusion from these experiments, as well as one answer to the student’s original question, is that we are such social beings that how we feel about ourselves is tied to how we feel about others. Our very sense of self is inextricably tied to how others relate to us. What we think is right is tied to the situation we are in. Thus, compassion is natural to us and can be developed and strengthened—or undermined—by the way our social situation (including school community) is structured. What we define as humane or appropriate behavior differs greatly by how we define what is human.

 

And whatever propensity for evil we experience is related to our theories of who we are and who others are. For example, when we are taught to believe we are a totally distinct self, independent and isolated from others and our world, with a personality that persists from situation to situation, we perpetuate a distorted view of who we are. We make possible a distorted and hurtful way of acting in the world, a way that makes all sorts of horrors possible.

 

**Also, you might be interested in a recent NPR, Invisibilia, program called “The Personality Myth,” which added another and very interesting perspective to the questions raised in this post.

The Roots of What Distorts Our Thinking and Hurts Us: One Buddhist View of Evolution

Is it possible that the root of what distorts our thinking and what clarifies it, what hurts us and what might save us, are the same?

 

Over three million years ago a human-like species came down from the trees to live on African savannas. Anthropologists speculate the species was forced from the trees by environmental factors, but that is not clear. It is clear that they were relatively puny compared with the carnivores of the time and thus vulnerable. How did they survive? Maybe the ability to stand relatively upright and look off into the distance was extremely helpful. They learned the importance of cooperation, without which our species would have faltered or died out. They learned how to use their hands in new ways. They could hunt together, share food, and also signal to each other if good food or a threat was nearby. The engine of this complex cooperation was communication via language.

 

We physically evolved in ways to support these traits. For example, our hands reshaped into more delicate instruments capable of a precision grip. Our jaws became smaller, so we could speak a greater variety of sounds, but we needed tools to tear into some foods. Our brains grew in size and then complexity, neurons folding under and over each other, increasing the number of possible connections between brain cells. The bigger brain meant human babies had to be born before their brains were fully formed, which meant a longer period of dependency and vulnerability and a stronger need for care and loving attention. Yet, it also led to an increased ability to learn and adapt. The brain grew to be extremely social.

 

To be so social, the human brain developed a default position. When we’re not focused on a task, our brain switches into a social mode of thinking. This mode includes several abilities important to being human. For example, we can create simulations in our mind of other beings as individuals and what they think and feel. This also allows us to imagine all our memories and experiences as belonging to one distinct individual we call Me. We can distance ourselves from the present to inhabit other times and places. We can fly across continents in our imaginations, visualize implications of our actions or how to create things never seen before. We can imagine what might bring pleasure or pain, go wrong or right, how people might respond to what we say or do, or if they might like us.

 

But as James Kingsland, in Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, (a great book, by the way) makes clear, we pay a price for this default mode of the brain. We can also see this in the violence of headline news. What we consider our greatest gifts can also be a source of our greatest destructiveness and suffering. The ability to leave the present, leave behind the reality of sense experience, can cause us to get lost in and obsess over our mental creations. We can spend a good part of our lives wandering in this default realm.

 

Our languages allow a great depth of detail to be added to our mental wandering and fantasies, making them enticing substitutions for reality. We can replace the real people standing before us with mental simulations not much different from characters created in a novel. Or we can do the same to ourselves, imagining we are awful people or monsters or that other people think us monsters. A delusion is the imagination turned up high and projected onto the reality before us. Paranoia is fear enhanced by distance and delusion. Creativity has always been the ability to imagine what doesn’t now exist so it could be made possible. Therefore, it can lead to wondrous visions and achievements, but also is never very far from mental illness.

 

Kingsland imagines hooking the Buddha up to our newest technology in order to discover how his brain might have worked to turn off the Default Mode Network (DMN) and end the ruminations and suffering the network can cause. For example, he describes recent experiments which show how meditation practices that develop a deeply focused attention can switch the brain from the default mode and its concern for how everything relates to one’s self, to a more objective, selfless attention created by what’s called the Task Positive Network. When we feel the sense of flow or being “in the zone,” this network is fired up and the DMN is turned down. Those engaged in meditative practice report and demonstrate a greater clarity of perception, a sense of well-being and less delusion about others, than people not so engaged, especially those who spend a good deal of time wandering in the DMN. They can switch more readily and appropriately from one network to another.

 

You might think of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” change leading to an improved species—but scientists point out this improvement is in terms of being better fitted for a specific environment. Our physical and social environment has changed greatly over the last one hundred thousand or so years. We adapted to fit in with groups of maybe 150 individuals, surrounded not by human built structures, but raw nature and many other mammalian species. In a way, our social environment has changed more quickly than our physical bodies could adapt to it.

 

So, as Kingsland points out, it shouldn’t surprise us that evolution might have burdened us with so many ills. But it also provided potential solutions. We have the relaxation response, which can turn off the fight-flight-freeze response and allow us to relax once danger or a tense situation is over. We have other-oriented networks and deeply focused modes of attention to counter the Default Mode Network. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to use meditative and other practices to learn how to switch more smoothly from one network to another. We can learn how to replace delusion with increased clarity, selfishness and complacency with love, hate and prejudice with compassion, and thus understand better what we need to do in any situation.

 

*I wrote and scheduled this post before all the deaths of last week. If I wrote this today, I would be much more emotional.

To Hear, First Listen

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing. I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality.

 

So today, when he brought up the topic, I just listened, sometimes repeating back to him his own words, merely empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions. When you feel heard by others, you are more likely to listen to yourself. I don’t want this anecdote to be taken as a warning to never give advice or never point out to others lines of reasoning they might have missed. It is only a suggestion to listen carefully for projection, especially when fear and its close relatives, worry, anxiety and depression, are involved. And to listen carefully to notice your own response to anger.

 

A similar process can happen in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, or all human beings are machines, because they fear a life without love, have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their lives are meaningless.

 

And when such meaningful moments arise in a class, do not put them off because they are not in the curriculum or not in your lesson plan. Because they are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and the classroom is one place this can occur. Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason.

 

Students ask questions, we all ask questions, because we glimpse a deeper reality and thus know the answers we have now are unsatisfying or incomplete. One reason we get angry is we realize there is something crucial we are denied or can’t understand. We feel we are in the dark because we know what light is. What a good teacher does is point students to their own inner light.

 

No emotion exists by itself without other feelings, sensations and thoughts trailing behind it. Love is only as strong as our ability to tolerate vulnerability and face the fear of loss and hurt. Joy pushes back against fear, happiness against sadness. We learn when we acknowledge our mistakes and our lack of knowledge—and we accept that we must make mistakes in order to succeed. We must actually take in and notice what is truly there, both in us and in what surrounds us, even our fear and anger, in order to learn. Without this openness and engagement there is little learning.

 

To get answers, you must feel your own feelings and hear your own thoughts. Only if you listen can you hear.

 

**After writing this, I read the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing book, The Art of Communicating. To study deep listening, practice mindfulness and enjoy this book. Almost everything I say, and so much more, is inside it. He says: “When you can truly come home to yourself and listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.” (35) “To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.” (15)

The Metaphor of Life as a Journey

When I was young, I had a distinct feeling that my life was to a large extent planned out for me. I knew the outline of this plan but not the details. There was a distinct schedule that I had to keep. At first, I thought the schedule was created by my parents, but it was much bigger than them.

 

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in the book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, discuss how we use metaphor to structure our perceptions. One complex metaphor is of life as a journey, like a train trip with a timetable and destinations. You have expectations and assumptions. You imagine that to have a meaningful life you need goals and a plan and you need to stick to it.

 

And this journey is tied to a concept and identification of self as a traveler, the hero, saint or sinner on the journey. But this “self” transcends “me.” It is a cultural artifact, embedded in a cultural story in which this journey of a self comes alive. We imagine this self is who we are. Thus we might think we are the way others see us, or we think we are the persona or face we live for others. We think we are this traveler identified by cultural destinations like school, marriage, job. This self is a cultural identity as much as a personal one.

 

We do the same with understanding our own mind and experience. We have this cultural metaphor that mind is the same as the brain or somehow lives in the brain. Maybe we imagine the mind travels in the brain like a passenger on a train, some in first class, some in coach, and we imagine this is just the state of nature, not the state of cultural metaphor.

 

So when I felt the urge to rebel and couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from college to job, to support myself in a way I found ethical and meaningful, I could no longer stay on schedule. I panicked. I felt a sense of dread. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find a way to make a living. I wasn’t just a traveler who had missed his train. My very sense of self seemed to dissolve. The underside of the life-as-a-journey metaphor was exposed. When before I was “on track” I was now “off track.” I was “lost.” I had fallen off the train. Confusion was not an acknowledged train stop.

 

But after falling off the train, I eventually began to see the metaphor as a metaphor. I began to see the implications. If love, success and retirement were the big destinations on the train route, then wasn’t birth the first stop and death the last? The existential shook up the cultural. There was a whole universe of moments I was missing by focusing on destinations instead of feeling the motion of the train and the colors, scents, relationships of all the beings riding along with me.

 

My mind is not a passenger riding my brain. It is the whole landscape of meaning in which I come alive. It is embedded not only in a body and a culture, but a universe. So, if one way to understand our lives is with metaphor, what is the metaphor we want to live? What story or poem do we want to write with our life? And we need to re-write the cultural story to include the “gap years,” time to “find yourself” or time to step off the train and ride a camel on the silk road. Time to value restructuring society instead of just fitting in.

Who Are We Humans?

I was fascinated a few weeks ago when I heard the news of the discovery of a new human ancestor, an extinct hominid named Homo naledi. I guess my interest was peaked partly because I used to teach about human evolution in a history class, and mostly because I never stopped being interested in anthropology and the broader question of “Who are we humans?”

 

The remains of Homo naledi were discovered in a cave in South Africa, in a great cache of bones. It is now thought to have been a burial site, since the bodies seemed to have been placed in a very difficult to reach cave. The males of the species stood about 5 feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds, and their skulls were slightly bigger than Australopithecines (the first upright walking hominid) and smaller than Homo erectus (the first hominid to leave Africa), and about half the size of modern humans. The discovery adds knowledge and also raises great questions about human ancestry. For example, just a few years ago it was thought that Neanderthal was the first hominid species to bury its dead. The Neanderthal lived from about 400,000 years ago to 39,000. This find would contradict that theory and push back the use of rituals and burials possibly 3 million years.

 

The discovery was also a personal reminder that my theories and knowledge are always partial. Although I know that everything changes, know that life itself is change, I still get surprised when a theory or understanding I hold must be let go. When I taught history, I did not expect that the “facts” I discussed would soon be altered. How do you teach knowing that everything you teach might change at any time? How do you understand anything knowing that the details, and theories based on those details, might change at any time? What a great question to pose to a class.

 

A great way to start any history class (or one in biology, human cultures, or a class on the literature of identity) is by asking this central question of anthropology: “What makes us human?” If you don’t have a grounding in the basics of humanness, how can you understand, for example, historical cause and effect? The laws of cause and effect in a group of baboons operate slightly differently than in a group of bonobo chimps (the species arguably closest to our own). Certainly, I have heard debates about politics, for example, where some speakers sound like they’re talking about baboons, others like bonobos, neither about humans. If you think humans are like baboons, you also use teaching methods created for baboons. In fact, I think many of the proposals for holding teachers accountable were formulated by mistaking humans for baboons.

 

One of the great characteristics of the human brain is its adaptability. Humans live in and have adapted to enormously different conditions. When I studied psychology in college in the 1960s, it was thought that the brain stops growing and new neurons stop being created after adolescence. Contemporary neuroscience disagrees. There’s the concept of neuroplasticity or the constantly changing nature of the brain, as well as neurogenesis, or the ability to produce new brain cells. But the ability to adapt and to change obviously has its limits, partly due to biology, partly due to attitude, conditioning and experience. For example, the hippocampus, part of the emotion center of the brain, is responsible for neurogenesis and creating new brain pathways. It is very sensitive to trauma and stress and to how these two are interpreted. If stress is habitual, the hippocampus can shrink  and slow neurogenesis. If stress is seen as occasional and as something to learn from, it is very different from thinking it unnatural and a result of a deficit in your character. What we think is true has tremendous influence on what we create to be true.

 

Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson quotes a native American saying in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Science of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom: “In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.” Which one will you feed? Feed with your ideas and speech as well as your actions? Which one will our society feed in our systems of educating our youth? Which one will you as a teacher feed in your classroom, or you as a parent or child feed in your homes? How will you answer the question, in your life, “Who are we humans?”

How Can You Discuss Controversial Subjects In Schools, Like Religion?

I recently published a blog on why religion needs to be discussed respectfully and openly in schools. Now, the question is how (hopefully) this can be done.

 

People often assume they know what religion is, but in actuality there are many different conceptions and definitions of it. So, to begin the discussion, ask: What is religion? What is it for you? For many, it is a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things or beings (Emile Durkheim), or the worship of God or a deity. To others, it concerns whatever is the deepest value in your life. The roots go back to a word for obligation or reverence. An older root is religare, re means back, again, anew; ligare (as in ligament) bind or tie. So, religion is to “bind back”. Bind back to what? To God? The universe? Yourself? To purpose or meaning? To full awareness? To your community? How is being religious different from being spiritual, if at all? Is it necessary to have a belief system or a God to be a religion?

 

What you teach must be adapted to where you teach, who your students are, and who you are. If you are in a community where parents and the school administration would vehemently oppose such discussions, instead of discussing religion, discuss related philosophical and psychological questions that students think are important. My students often chose to discuss why be empathetic or how to live a meaningful life, what love is, and mind.  And, many ethical questions, like: Why is there violence and how should I respond to it? On what basis can I make ethical choices? How do I humanize even those who disagree with me?

 

Then you need to ask yourself what your intent is in discussing religion. Is it to push a specific belief system? Is it to increase understanding of the diversity of religious or spiritual viewpoints? Is it to help students better understand themselves and their world? Are you committed and open to learning about several religions and studying philosophical methods? What is your story of religion? The first person to question is you. What are your values? Beliefs? Questions? Would you feel comfortable sharing these with students?

 

If you think you can discuss religion, how do you do it? Since religion is so important in so many people’s lives, you must obviously be sensitive, respectful, open and empathetic. People tend to strike out when their core beliefs are threatened. So you must be strong, ready to protect students, and real. You must model empathy so students can learn to do the same, both to people of different religions or no religion and in the face of new ideas. You need to present ideas and questions, not dictate answers.

 

What is the history of religion? If you believe the earth and human history begins 6000 years ago with Adam and Eve, maybe the question ends there. But if you think the evidence for the age of the earth being billions of years old is reliable, and that humans evolved into what we are now, this is a very interesting question. You need to discuss what constitutes evidence and what is a theory and a fact versus an opinion. There is evidence that even Neanderthal had some kind of religion. Shamanic, animistic and then polytheistic religions all appeared before monotheistic religion (as we know it). There are myths from around the world–Greek, Norse, African, Japanese, etc. which are filled with religious content and purpose.

 

So, if cultures throughout history had a religion of some kind, why? Why is religion so ubiquitous? What purposes does it serve? I mentioned in an earlier blog that one answer people give is that religions provide answers, often comforting answers to difficult or uncomfortable questions. I argued that this is a partial answer, at best.

 

David Loy, a Buddhist philosopher, speaks of two major purposes religion fulfills. The first is that it provides a social canopy. The second is transformation.  We have already begun to describe the social canopy, which many people think is the entirety of religion. Picture a canopy. It shields us. In Loy’s analysis, it consists of the reassuring answers mentioned earlier, ones which tell us what is real or true, now and even beyond death. It tells us how to live, what’s important. Some of my students thought religion was the glue holding a culture together. It ties humans in a community of shared meanings and practices. When social and political institutions fall apart or fail to provide needed support services, religions often step in to fill that need. Of course, many think the religious also have undermined cultural cohesion at times; one recent example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and Arkansas. One question to ask and carefully study is: what happens if you are religious and think the canopy is falling or being taken away?

 

The second purpose is transformation. Transformation might help answer another question about religion: would religion have continued if its only purpose was to provide the social canopy?  All religions that I can think of talk about individuals transformed in some way, by God, grace, insight, a journey, experience or some practice such as a ritual or meditation. There is Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Mirabai, etc. Whether these figures are also God, a prophet, an awakened individual or a saint, they are important or central to a religion. What exactly ‘transformation’ means needs to be analyzed and discussed. It might involve a change of ethical behavior, or how you are with others, your compassion. It might involve understanding or wisdom. It might involve a deepening of awareness or how you experience life. It might involve all three or more. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called it “self-actualization,” Carl Jung “individuation.” It can involve learning how to end suffering. A big question is: can the social canopy interfere with transformation?

 

I recommend studying the science of empathy and compassion. Discuss what thinking means and how to do it clearly and critically. How do you know what’s right to do and true? You might discuss the various meanings of logos and mythos. You might discuss framing metaphors, and the role of stories in thinking. What is the role of doubt and questioning, as well as revelation, belief and faith? What do these all mean? Carefully differentiate self-doubt, or doubt in your ability to think, from having faith in yourself to doubt, question, analyze, and empathize with other people’s answers as well as your own.

 

Here are a few of the books I have used. I have left out books that are fabulous but speak of only one religion. Always try to provide different viewpoints on each topic or question you discuss. I would suggest reading select chapters from the following.

Karen Armstrong’s books, particularly The Case for God. This is a profound book about God and religion, in the past as well as in today’s world. It has insightful analyses of faith and belief and how our understanding of these has changed over time.

Philosopher Philip Novak wrote The World’s Wisdom, a collection of short excerpts from the spiritual writings of many religions.

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions provides a comparison of religious doctrines, philosophy, history and practices. Although students find it a bit dry, it is a great resource and has been used for decades in comparative religion classes.

Ken Wilber’s exciting synthesis, No Boundary, explores both a philosophical and psychological analysis of religious experience.

 

To provide artistic and emotional insight and some fun, and to stimulate students to come up with their own syntheses, add books such as:

Roger Housden’s collection: Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation.

Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield’s collection: Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from Around the World.

 

**Photo: Goreme Open Air Museum, Turkey. Church carved into rock.

The Good, The True, and The Beautiful

I love studying ancient civilizations. It takes me back to the roots of being human, when we were a younger species discovering our powers. And maybe it’s easier to see truths about ourselves when there were fewer of us and we lived in smaller groups.

 

The Golden Age Athenians certainly taught us a great deal, about abuses of power and colonial aggression as well as the love of wisdom and the creation of beauty. The philosopher Plato, for example, talked about possible links between the good, the true, and the beautiful. I find this fascinating. I certainly think the link offers great material for teachers. Howard Gardner pointed out, in a book from 2011, teaching the good, the true, and the beautiful is a wonderful framework for an education. Here’s my position on these three virtues.

 

The good: what does ‘good’ mean? There are so many meanings of ‘good.’ There’s a “good sandwich,” or “a good feeling.”  There are ethical “goods” like a “good person” or a “good act” and maybe “a good life.” ‘Good’ has to do with value. Inquiring into what we value and why, and what is ethical and why, makes for exciting teaching.

 

The true: Most of our teaching in schools is about defining or hopefully having students uncover what is true, uncover what ‘true’ means. Is a truth eternal or for the moment? Universally applicable or situational? Can we ever fully state all the conditions that make a truth true? It is true, for example, that this rose I hold in my hand is red, now. But is it red to a colorblind person? Or at night? Even in this relatively simple case, the question is more complex than it seems.

 

And what link, if any, is there between the good and the true? Does the argument, competition is ‘good’ or morally benevolent because humans are (supposedly) naturally competitive, a ‘good’ or sound argument if the supposed facts are true?

 

And the beautiful: What makes something beautiful? Is beauty all in the eyes of the “beholder?” And if so, what does that mean? Beauty is not just for the artist, English major, or fashion designer. Formulas or proofs in math can be beautiful. A relationship can be beautiful.

 

Viewing natural beauty can be healing. Sarah Warber and Katherine N. Irvine have researched how people recovering in hospital rooms with a view heal quicker. Workers in a room with windows to a natural scene report higher work satisfaction. Is this equally true with created beauty? Do humans suffer when deprived of beauty? If so, do we call it an illness, or a lack of skill? Can people be taught to see beauty?

 

I think we can be taught to better perceive beauty. One way to do it is by developing sensitivity through immersion.  The philosopher and Ph.D. in psychology, Jean Huston, said, in a workshop I attended, something like immersing yourself in poetry, for example, makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. This is one reason why eliminating poetry from the Common Core or cutting back on the arts in schools is detrimental to education.

 

The second way to teach beauty is to teach mindfulness and empathy. To feel empathy is to feel kinship, relationship. It is to recognize that another being senses, feels, thinks in some way like you do. It readies us for the beautiful as well as for anything else. The ability to open one’s heart and mind and clearly observe what’s happening in a situation or a relationship helps us to do the same with a work of art or scene in nature.

 

One year, my wife and I visited Greece. We had a cave-room in a hotel on the island of Santorini looking down on the caldera, an area that almost 3600 years ago was a live volcano and now is mostly filled by the Mediterranean. A large sailboat was making its way from the caldera to the larger sea. It was nearing sunset, and the view was so beautiful, I felt like I was in a movie. I felt each moment was eternal, as complete in-itself as could be imagined. The beautiful calls forth in us a sense of life being full and meaningful, maybe good and true. Maybe, whole. The Navajo, if I understand it correctly, have a word ‘Ho’zho,’ meaning beauty, also “harmony, happiness, health, and balance.” To “walk in beauty” is to walk in balance and peace.

 

I think that it would be a worthy achievement to graduate students who have this sensitivity to beauty or the whole of life, to what is good, ethical, and true. To “walk in beauty.”

 

 

*Photo: By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (View from Fira  Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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An Interview on Out of Bounds

I was recently interviewed by Tish Pearlman, for the local NPR program Out of Bounds. Tish was an incisive and sensitive interviewer. I greatly appreciated how she heard and spoke to me. She started by asking how I became a teacher. I talked about this topic in an earlier blog. But in thinking about this question with Tish, I came to insights I didn’t realize before.

 

I went to college from 1965-1969, the heart of the sixties. It was a time of great upheaval, pain, challenge, but also meaning. There were many protest demonstrations. The idea of an involved citizenry demanding not only peace and justice but a meaningful life was, for many,  just in the bloodstream of the times. So when I had to think about a profession, that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to keep my ideals alive in my professional life.

 

And at first, teaching was not my primary choice. I had had some good-to-great teachers in public school, even more in college (even more since college). But public schools themselves were not inspiring to me. I did not at first appreciate what my schools had given me. Not until I was in the Peace Corps and actually taught.

 

I also didn’t have patience with myself. I thought I could be a success right away. Success meant standing out in some way, or having some label I could apply to myself, like an explorer, or a writer, poet, actor, director—the arts were the first area to stand out to me as meaningful. I really had no other idea of what I really wanted to do. I had no idea what success meant. What does it mean to be a success? For me, now, it’s not about having a lot of money or recognition. You could be successful with a project, but to be a success with your life, you first have to live for a while. And when you do live for more than three or four decades, everything, I think, shifts. It’s no longer money or fame that are important, it’s moments. Not just great moments that you could reflect back on, but how you have learned to live a moment. It’s not so much what you do, although that is important. It’s how.

 

But what makes a moment full and meaningful? I think it is the quality of presence and caring, what you can take in, what you feel touched by, the depth of your connection to others and this world. And your ability to act in ways guided by that care. So in the interview, I said I turned to teaching because I wanted a full and meaningful life, but there was so much more in that statement than I first thought.

 

I also didn’t realize that what I was feeling in the 60’s was the remains of my adolescence. The drive for meaning, to test and expand boundaries, to be courageous, creative and engage with the world, as Daniel Siegel and others have pointed out, is central to adolescence. And my ability to feel this drive as a teacher enabled my teaching, enabled me to bring that meaning into the classroom.

 

So ask your students these questions. What does success mean to you? What do you want the individual moments of your life to feel like? What do you want your relationships to be like? How do you want to influence your world?

 

 

 

Have a great Thanksgiving. I might take a vacation for the holiday but will return.

 

Here is the information for the interview:

The Out of Bounds Radio Show with Tish Pearlman

AIR DATES:

Sat Nov 29 at 3:30 pm: WEOS-FM (90.3 & 89.5 Geneva region)

Live Stream: WEOS.org

 Sun Nov 30 at 11:30am: WSKG-FM 89.3 Binghamton, 90.9 Ithaca 91.7 Cooperstown/Oneonta,

91.1 Corning/Elmira, 88.7 Hornell/Alfred) Live Stream: Wskg.org

 

*Photo: South_Bend_Voice_-_2014_People’s_Climate_March_crowd_with_banner.jpg

 

Teaching With Questions: Should I Tell the Truth?

Should you always try to tell the truth? Such essential moral questions liven up a class. Imagine student engagement and responses when you ask this question in a classroom.

 

One student, let’s call him Dylan, responds: “What is the truth?”

Can you say more? I’m not sure if  you are diverting us from the question or saying the question can’t be answered.

Dylan: “Ok; maybe it’s a diversion. But I also mean it. My truth is not always your truth.”

Then you’re asking an awfully big question. For now, let’s refer to your own truth.  Can you know what that is?

Another student, Carlotta, jumps in: “He’s asking about lies. You know your own lies.”

Dylan: “But what’s a lie? Sometimes I don’t know when I’m lying. What’s a lie isn’t any easier to know then what’s true.”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student, Sage, replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is opposite of the truth.”

Carlotta: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale.”

I agree. I think they depend on each other. By ‘truth,’ in this case, do we mean something we think of as real?  If so, why not tell the truth?

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What happens if you don’t tell the truth?

Dylan: “Nothing happens, unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Carlotta: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

Sage: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being; it’s a relationship. Speech is not just self-expression. And it’s always in a context, in a situation. When you speak, you create both a sense of whom you’re speaking to and a sense of who’s speaking. Without that sense of yourself and of the other person, you can’t say anything. Even when you’re out in the woods, by yourself, and you scream just to scream, you have others in mind that you’re screaming at—or for. Words emerge from formulating yourself in a particular situation. So, if you lie, what are you saying about yourself?

 

Part of the central teaching in Buddhism is the Eight-Fold Path to ending suffering. The steps in the path are right view, thought or intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are divided into three categories: wisdom/understanding, ethics, and meditation. Speech follows intent or thought and is the first step under ethics. Ethics has to do with how you act, how you live your life, how you influence others. In Buddhism, it is made clear that how you speak influences not only others but yourself. There is not only an ethical component to speech, but a way towards awakening, enlightenment or, in modern terms, mental health. I think this is a tremendously useful approach. Depending on your intention, for example, whether you lie to help others or you do it to advance yourself at the cost of others, when speech is a lie, suffering is the result.

 

How do you suffer when you lie? Sage and Carlotta said it. When you lie, you create a fictional self that is weak, “off” or wrong, lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? Does the lie make it easier to hurt both yourself and others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community?

 

So, what kind of speech leads to the end of suffering? To answer that question, you must feel what’s true in yourself. Speech that recognizes what’s true in you and others leads to the end of suffering. When you’re open and fully acknowledge who you are, how does that feel? And what else ends suffering? How does it feel when you’re kind? When I’m open and kind, I feel strong, because I feel capable of taking in whatever I’m facing. As I format how I relate to others, I form how I feel about my own life. So the speech that ends suffering is kind and open, compassionate and loving. I think that such speech is also what turns a cold classroom into a welcoming community.

Beginnings: How Do We Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are.  When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.