The attacks in Brussels shake my mind. I read the details of the attacks, 35 dead in two locations, of explosions from suicide bombs, of nails embedded in the bombs, and imagine the feeling of nails striking me. What do these attackers feel? Are they too wrapped up in their doctrines to feel the pain of others? Does the pain of the people of Belgium and other nations somehow alleviate their own pain? And what do our leaders say and feel? Do they think that fueling anger, fear and hatred will stop the violence?


It doesn’t. The pain continues. The attacks continue. The “ventilation fallacy” in psychology says “venting” anger does not alleviate it. You might imagine if you just expressed and let loose your anger, the pain of it will be lessened, but it only increases. More dimensions of pain are added to the original emotion. The consequences of the angry outburst, the people you hurt, the guilt is added to the original feeling. There is a gigantic world of possibility between unrestrained expression and suppression. When the emotion expressed is hate, the consequences of expression are in a different league altogether than anger and they spiral out in wider and more chaotic circles.


When I hear news of such awful violence, I easily feel the social network and the goodness and beauty of the world are falling apart. Maybe you feel the same. It is too easy to hide away in fear or to let the news of all the attacks numb you to what is happening. But the horror of each attack is not diminished with a new one.  When children are faced with the news of such attacks, what do you, as a parent, teacher, or friend do? I wrote a blog about this in November, following the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali. About the need for learning how to be strong in mind and body so as to not meet hate with hate and ignorance, but with understanding, compassion, a critical intellect and a readiness for appropriate action. I would add to what I said earlier the need for a critical inquiry into the force of communion and relationship that makes a community and society possible. When students say there is so much hate, ask them about what they enjoy most in their life. If they love music, ask them about all the people who made the music they hear on their ipod possible. If they love food, ask about all the people who had to work together to make their lunch. Ask them about what makes a class or a friendship work. Ask them what they find beautiful.


But even more, educate students about mindful action. They can write to children in Brussel’s schools, as well as in other schools in their area. They can do community service, learn about the effects of inequity and abuse, study the frustration, anxiety and anger in their own communities and learn steps to be taken to improve the social-political network. When faced with fear and hate, they can learn how to recognize the love and cooperation that makes their lives possible. They need to feel the connection they have not only to the victims but to all humans. Instead of giving in to the forces of distortion and destruction, they need to understand that without relationship, no society or community is possible.

Testing For Social-Emotional Skills?

A trend I find encouraging in schools is consciously teaching social-emotional skills. This is often, but not always, accompanied by mindfulness education, or teaching how to be aware of your emotional and thought processes moment-by-moment. So, guess what administrators and politicians want to do with these programs? According to an article by Kate Zernike in the New York Times, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students Emotional Skills,” they want to use standardized tests to assess students in these programs. I mean, such tests have proven so beneficial with measuring other forms of learning and promoting learning in general, why not test a student’s “grit?”


No! Despite the fact that there are many indicators that demonstrate the value of social-emotional learning and mindfulness training in the classroom, all such testing will do is undermine the learning. Testing means teaching to the test. It is the test that indicates whether the standards or indicators of learning have been met. As Zernike asks in her article, how do you incorporate into a standardized test indicators of emotional awareness? Patience? Kindness?


Standardized testing motivates students to do well largely through fear of a bad grade. If they don’t pass, students might not move on in grade or complete high school, or their teacher might get a bad evaluation. Fear can undermine any form of learning, so it’s particularly perverse to use it to assess how well students understand their own emotional responses.


But wouldn’t a test motivate students to learn “grit” or hardiness in the face of fear? First, you can’t reduce emotional intelligence to having “grit.” Grit is one emotional trait that is very helpful in certain contexts but can be destructive in other contexts. As educator Alfie Kohn pointed out in a critique of “grit,” students need to question if the task they are being asked to persist at completing is worth the effort. Stick-to-itiveness and persistence is only valuable when combined with knowing how to prioritize what should be pursued and with empathy for the implications and consequences of a pursuit. It needs inner awareness of one’s motivation and the ability to critically examine the task itself.


Second, social-emotional learning and mindfulness do help students face fear more productively. But such learning does not happen through fear of punishment or a concern with how others assess your skills. To look within, as emotional intelligence requires, means finding your own intrinsic motivation to do so. If you are overly focused on how others assess you, as often happens with standardized testing, you will never learn to accurately perceive what is within you. You will always look in the wrong place. You look at yourself as you imagine others see you, not as felt by yourself.


As Zernike points out, in education, what is tested is what is valued. As things stand in the educational establishment, only if students are tested in a subject will it be valued. But this is the problem, not the solution.


Many people exercising power and influence over public education in this country, despite all the protests over recent years, think of tests and the simple numbers they generate as the tool for assessment, and they use it to nail down students and teachers. They have what appears to be a learning disability, or rigidity in thinking, as despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate that standardized testing promotes learning, they persist in their behavior. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it the law of the instrument. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail.” Tests generate numbers that can be used to rank students, but just because you have a number doesn’t mean that the number signifies anything. Without such proof, test scores are an illusion of relevance.


You need numbers and other data to evaluate the effectiveness of these new programs. So, instead of tests look at drop out rates. Look at attendance. Look at student projects. Look at reduced rates of violence in the classroom. Look at the joyfulness of students. But don’t try to bury emotional learning in irrelevant, if not destructive, test scores.

The Mythology of Politics

I think the act of choosing a representative or President or any political leader is an amazingly interesting and complex psychological act. Think about it. You’re choosing someone “to speak for you” or “represent you” and act in your interest, to be who you can’t be.


Back in the birth places of democracy, whether it was native American or Athenian or elsewhere, you represented yourself. Citizens voted directly on policies, although even in the height of Athenian democracy, there were still political leaders and not all residents could vote. Women, for example, had little to no political power. Representative democracy is a compromise between monarchy and direct democracy. A President is partly a King, partly a servant.


I am not a scholar of Carl Jung and do not agree with all the elements of his psychological theories, but still find them helpful. He talked about archetypes or psychological predispositions to perceive the world in certain patterns and to represent those patterns in images. These patterns are seen in myths, literature, relationships, even religion. The movie Star Wars, for example, very consciously picks up on archetypal mythical and religious imagery, the “force” as the Tao or spirit, the battle of good against evil.


Jung also described how we deal with qualities in ourselves that our culture defines as inappropriate to our gender. These qualities do not just disappear but form a more hidden or unconscious identity or image of ourselves. (Jung called these projections an anima or animus.) When we fall in love, we project onto the loved one this unconscious image fashioned out of all that we have denied in ourselves in relation to gender. This creates a “fascination” or attraction. The person appears to us as our “soul-mate.” But to have a real and lasting relationship, we have to take back the projected qualities and claim them for ourselves. We can’t be who another person expects us to be; we can’t expect our lover to live solely to fulfill our needs.


How you perceive any leader is influenced by the light cast by projected archetypal patterns and expectations. The President or Senator you perceive is a projection of you, your yearnings and possibly your denied power and needs, onto the political stage. Because of these projections it is very difficult to understand who any political figure really is.


The politician becomes an actor in a play scripted by the unconscious needs of citizens. We talk about political theatre. It really is theatre and, of course, the popular media, other corporate interests and wealthy donors, play this up for their own profit. The mythical or religious dimension just adds to it. Drama itself emerged from religious ritual and maintained a religious meaning for a time even after modern drama began to develop. The early dramas were enacted myths or stories, about death and the afterlife, about gods and goddesses. The Greeks used masks in their early plays, to represent different personalities or genders. Other cultures used masks to represent the power of a god or spirit or to take part in the story of creation. This is not just putting on a costume. It is putting on a different identity, at times an identity of a mythical or spiritual being. This helps explain why followers of a political candidate can be almost as devoted to their candidate as followers of a religious doctrine or leader.


Our political leaders put on the mask fashioned out of who they think we citizens want them to be. They get us to act out a drama with them as the star. But this political theatre can be deadly serious. Our environment, our health care, our wages, the possibility of being treated justly, the lives of ourselves and of all living beings on the planet are at stake. It is not just Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who plays a role and seems to think he is the King he portrays. All of the politicians and all of us can get caught up in the drama. We need to own our projections, let go of the “fascination” and not imagine any leader is a savior.  As much as possible, we need to keep for ourselves the power to act, to think critically about any candidate or policy, and we need to remember all humans are our neighbors.


*Photo of amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey.

Education as Adventure

As a child, I dreamed of being an adventurer. My parents traveled every year to different places and countries, and this stimulated my imagination. So, for me college was not just a time to learn a profession or for intellectual study. It was an opportunity for the possibilities of life to reveal themselves and blossom. It was a time to take chances, to discover who I am and the type of life I could lead.


I celebrated my nineteenth birthday in London. I had decided I would spend four months traveling, mostly hitch-hiking through Europe, with few things pre-planned except the time and place of arrival and departure. I had to depend on myself, alone, to a degree I never had before. And this was 1966, before such traveling was common. The first night, I panicked. What had I done? Here I was in Europe where I knew no one for thousands of miles. The only way I was able to fall asleep that night was by promising myself I would call my parents the next morning.


The next morning, I went to a café for breakfast. It was relatively sunny for London. To make a call back then, you had to wait on a line for a public phone with an overseas extension. As I was waiting, I realized—if I was desperate enough to call home my first full day in Europe, I could be courageous enough to befriend a stranger. So I left the line, walked up to a stranger who looked like someone I could talk to, and did just that. We became good friends for a few days and I didn’t call home. I sent a postcard.


I think all of us have this yearning to grow, to know we can dare to engage life, to know what calls to us and be able to respond openly to it. And this is what education can be. Each teacher can ask him or herself how learning in their particular subject can be more of an adventure and excite students to learn. This is not just about taking students on trips out of the classroom, although that can obviously be a stimulating way to learn. Nor is this simply a content question. It is not just asking what books or issues or questions might students find stimulating, although these are important. It is also a pedagogical one: what makes any study stimulating and meaningful? What forms of study support a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn?


Having some choice and sense of control in what you study is one factor. The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, examines the “process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” By documenting the link between achieving optimal experiences and happiness, it gives us clues to motivating and improving learning. Make learning a challenge, something demanding your full concentration, but not so challenging you can’t handle it. Have clear goals with immediate feedback. In some way, involve other people in the work. Get so immersed that you step out of time. While I was in Europe, I stepped out of thoughts of the future and my life schedule, of high school to college to job, and was immersed in now. I think optimal learning often involves working on a skill that you yearn to develop but which you doubt you have.


Another way to do this is to ask: What are the emotional and intellectual needs of my specific students? Teaching to the personal and developmental needs of children not only provides necessary cognitive tools but helps them feel recognized and valued. Educator and author Kieran Egan elucidates different kinds of cognitive tools and ways of understanding the world, from the somatic (physical), mythic, and romantic, to the philosophical and ironic. It is important that children develop the cognitive tools appropriate to their stage of development as fully as they can. Two to eight year olds might see the world in terms of mythic struggles of good versus evil. Structuring lessons in terms of such binary opposites will make learning more digestible and exciting. Children from eight to fifteen look for self-definition, detail, standing out. They want to know the limits of experience. Structuring lessons with stories of romance, wonder, and awe, rebelling from the old and breaking free from dependence makes education come alive to them.


Analyze what makes learning an adventure for you so you can make learning more exciting for your students. Or, if you’re not a teacher, consider how to conceptualize your work or anything you do as an adventure, so each moment becomes an opportunity to make life more meaningful.