School and Soul

I hope Fran doesn’t mind that I’ve shared her words here, in full. I’ve had this on a Word doc that someone shared with me, and I want to be sure I have it saved online as well. It’s worth reading if you haven’t seen it.



Is School Good for the Soul?
By Fran Norris Scoble

In his challenging and provocative book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer makes the following observation: “If we want to develop and deepen the capacity for connectedness at the heart of good teaching, we must understand – and resist – the perverse but powerful draw of the ‘disconnected’ life.” By “the disconnected life,” Palmer means the failure to ground our work in authentic connections to the self, to others, and to our own deep values, settling instead for the comfort of objective technique and methods that distance us from the very values that could give our work deeper meaning. He goes on to describe his idea of connectedness this way. “The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”

In conversations with independent school heads, administrators and teachers, I find deep agreement with the need for courage on behalf of the values of connectedness espoused by Palmer. But this only begs the questions: Why do we so often fail to have the courage of our convictions? And at what cost?

One way that the academic culture discourages us from living connected lives lies in the very school structure itself. Unconsciously, over time, we begin to accept the belief that the primary purpose of school is to convey conventional wisdom and objective knowledge, not to provoke new ways of seeing. The following passage from Thomas Moore’s book, The Education of the Heart, speaks powerfully to this issue: “To be educated, a person doesn’t have to know much or be informed, but he or she does have to have been exposed vulnerably to the transformative events of an engaged human life. One of the great problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated.”

How do we connect so fully with our work and experience in school that we are invigorated and renewed; that our deepest selves are “called out” and not stifled. How do we make our work, to use a phrase, “soul satisfying”?

In her poem, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver says this:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.

Oliver is speaking of living our lives from the deep well of our truest selves.

I believe there are systemic problems built into the way we “do” school that make schools places that are not good for the soul, so that schools foster arrogance, indifference, and fear and create time structures that leave us both exhausted and frustrated.

The problem of arrogance arises from a culture that makes being right the highest value. In a sense, our epistemology becomes normative. The quest to be right produces arrogance, but the quest for truth results in humility. In general, schools are better at training us to be right than at encouraging us to seek truth. Hence, our schools can produce arrogance as a by-product of success rather than humility. Our values are derived from, and reinforce, a linear, convergent epistemology. This should raise concerns about what we are teaching students about success.

In his book, The Children’s Machine, Seymour Papert, a professor at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and inventor of Logo computer language, addresses the issue of a flawed theory of knowledge that is perpetuated by schools – in their curriculum, in their pedagogy, and in their structures. He states, “It had been obvious to me for a long time that one of the major difficulties in school subjects…is that School insists on the student being precisely right.” The flaw, Papert argues, is that School conveys to students the mistaken idea that being right is not only the most important thing – it is the only thing.

Thus, Papert contends, we must balance the approach that has dominated schools for over a hundred years: “the epistemology of absolutism.” To balance the epistemology of absolutism, Papert recommends “the epistemology of managed vagueness.”

The author, Harriet Doerr, spoke these words in a commencement address: “Here are these graduates, each one expecting to succeed, being advised by an 86-year-old survivor who still hasn’t discovered what success is. I understand small successes: when the souffle really rises, when the new shoe really fits, but I don’t understand a whole person who has lived a whole life, being regarded by one and all as a success. But as to the separate successes that light up our private sky like Roman candles, I believe they can burst upon us when least expected…”

The daily journey of school requires commitment and patience. Small successes deserve our recognition and attention because they are the essential components of growth and genuine accomplishment. In order to recognize the ordinary, we must be deeply attuned to the students we teach and seek to know their spiritual dimensions.

The second barrier to the soul’s work in school is indifference. Through a kind of daily attrition, in what almost seems a conspiracy against intimacy or attuned relationships, school wears down our capacity to really see, to be fully present and to pay attention. In how many classes is no one really paying attention? What is really happening right under our noses every day that we miss? Do those things that need our attention most become inconveniences? As David Whyte observes in his book, The Heart Aroused, “Preservation of the soul means giving up our wish, in the over-scheduled workplace, for immunity from the unscheduled meeting with sorrow and hardship.” I am not talking here about tragedy or high drama, but ordinary heartbreak. Surely, the intervention of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, powerfully illustrates the importance of turning our deepest attention to an “unscheduled meeting with sorrow.” There are also small losses and tragedies every day: broken dreams, abandoned ideals, broken relationships, small treacheries. What David Levine calls in this poem, “Ordinary Heartbreak”:

And the little girl who didn’t want her hair cut,
But long ago learned successfully how not to say
What it is she wants,
Who, even at this minute cannot quite grasp
her shock and grief,
Is getting her hair cut. “For convenience,” her mother put it.
The long waves gone that had been evidence at night,
When loosened from their clasp,
She might secretly be a princess.

Rather than cry out, she grips her own wrist
And looks to her mother in the mirror.
But her mother is too polite, or too reserved,
So the girl herself takes up indifference,
While pain follows a hidden channel to a deep place
Almost unknown in her,
Convinced as she is, that her own emotions are not the ones
her life depends on,
She shifts her gaze from her mother’s face
Back to the haircut now,
So steadily as if this short-haired child were someone else.

Being fully present to our whole experience requires that we acknowledge these ordinary heartbreaks, and that we recognize the price they exact from us. We have to make ourselves vulnerable again, as vulnerable as the children we serve and teach.

True education is the liberation of capacities and possibilities. Liberating education does not deal solely with fact – it deals, as John Dewey wrote, “in something which comes to be, in a certain kind of growth, in consequences rather than antecedents.” Subordinating teachers and students to external, quantifiable outcomes is anti-intellectual, anti-story, and the antithesis of critical thinking. Philosopher and theorist Maxine Greene raises these penetrating questions: “What is left for us then, in this positivist, media-dominated, and self-centered time? How, with so much acquiescence and so much thoughtlessness around us, are we to open people to the power of possibility? How, given the emphasis on preparing the young for a society of high technology, are we to move them to perceive alternatives, to look at things as if they could be otherwise? And why? To what ends?” These bedrock questions, not bubbles on an answer sheet, are the real issues that should define us as educators.

The third problem is fear: particularly fear of failure and fear of change. It seems poignantly paradoxical to use the language of risk-taking in communities where failure is the greatest calamity that can occur! Yet, the soul thrives on failure. Those things that surprise and dishearten us may carry our deepest lessons. Beyond that, our capacity for real joy in our work is tied to our capacity to embrace loss and defeat. Failure, disappointment, and the shock of the unexpected all challenge our creativity and our ability to improvise in the territory where the map runs out. How does fear of failure translate into the culture of the school? How does it square with our proud statements that we encourage students to take risks? How is risk conceivable as ambitious parents increasingly are unwilling to see a single blot on their child’s record? Why do we hear so much about stress in school? The word “stress” should be written into our mission statements, it comes up so often. Much of the stress experienced in schools is linked directly to the unspoken fear of failure and the exaggeration of the imagined consequences of failure. Let’s face it: school is a contrivance of human invention, so all of the stress related to school is, in some sense, arbitrary – maybe, even, artificial.

Perhaps one of the deadliest elements of school is the dulling effect on the soul of the rigid structuring of time in school. In his collection of essays titled An Offering of Uncles, Robert Farrar Capon discusses two Greek words for time: chronos and kairos.

Chronos is the way we tell time and put things in orderly sequence and from which we derive “chronology” and “chronicle.” Chronos tells us if we are “on time” or “late.” It tells us that it’s “time” to go on to the next thing.

Kairos, although it has no English equivalent, refers to what we might call “high” time, opportunity, or a meaningful moment. This is the soul’s time. Chronos answers the question “What time is it?” Kairos answers the question, “What is time for?” Here is where we often miss the boat in school. Do we teach (by implication anyway) that the people with the fullest chronologies are the most successful? In our obsession with schedules and bells and calendars and daytimers and plans, we have failed to examine our chronologies for meaning. We think that chronos is absolute and meaning is relative, but perhaps the opposite is true.

It matters far less that we know what time class starts than that we know why we gather and how we are changed because we do. Our little discreet boxes of time are probably the most debilitating aspect of school for the soul. Our souls do not live in boxes – of any kind. Poet Wendell Berry speaks to the problem this way:

Now more than ever you can be
Generous toward each day
That comes, young, to disappear
Forever, and yet remain
Unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
Not to give yourself away.

Having identified four barriers to the soul’s work in school, let’s turn our attention to possible remedies for the problem. What are ways to make school good for our souls?

Being fully awake and present means finding a home for the soul in our communities. When we speak of indifference as a barrier to the soul’s work, it becomes clear that being fully present to our daily experiences requires new vision and new awareness. To wake up takes the total effort we can muster.

The very busy-ness of school itself has a dulling effect on the soul. Deep awakening more likely occurs through silence and quiet. Silence is a very scarce commodity in schools and rarely is one praised in school for the quality of silence. Silence may be connected to a willingness not to have easy answers. Silence also makes space for the imagination – a function of the soul. Poet John Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.” In a real sense, Keats reminds us that the imagination teaches us how we belong to the world. The imagination may be shut down in a relentlessly empirical environment that leaves no space for intuition.

This raises a second possibility for creating a home for the soul in schools. All of Western cultural tradition reflects a primary interior struggle: the essential aloneness of the individual coupled with a wish to be part of some larger corporate body. A major attraction of school is that it is grounded in relationship. This element prevents our equating education simplistically with information. The learning community itself can carry unifying meaning. In the simplicity of relationships and the demanding nature of familiarity in intimate space, there is the grounding for a deeper understanding of ourselves and of what we care about. The school can function as small towns have done for centuries. Thus, the school itself becomes the unifying metaphor that forms the basis for the re-visioning of our work.

In a passage from The Good Society, Robert Bellah wrote: “By imagining a world in which individuals can be autonomous not only from institutions but from each other, we have forgotten that autonomy, valuable as it is in itself, is only one virtue among others and that without such virtues as responsibility and care, which can be exercised only through institutions, autonomy itself becomes…an empty form without substance.”

What Bellah reminds us is that we have the potential to be a powerful, soul-enhancing influence because of the clarity of our values and the intimacy of our communities. The relationship between the individuals and our communities is reciprocal: we simultaneously shape our institutions and are, in turn, shaped by them.

Finally, we must learn the soul’s lessons and listen to the soul’s voice. This is the point of these lines from Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things”…

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute…
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…

Turning again to Parker Palmer, we read this from The Courage to Teach: “So we come full circle, to the place where this book began…to the power within each of us that in communion with powers beyond ourselves, co-creates the world, for better or worse. The poet Rumi says: ‘If you are here unfaithfully with us,/you’re causing terrible damage.’ The evidence of his claim is all around us: when we are unfaithful to the inward teacher and to the community of truth, we do lamentable damage to ourselves, to our students, and to the great things of the world that our knowledge holds in trust. But Rumi would surely agree that the converse is equally true. If you are here faithfully with us, you are bringing abundant blessing. It is a blessing known to generations of students whose lives have been transformed by those who had the courage to teach…”

It is important to remember that every independent school began with a group of people who had an exciting idea and the courage to act upon it. Every school was founded in passion by people on fire for an idea. But somehow, our houses have become too small. This is our challenge: to take action from our deepest imagination, to bring our full selves to bear on the work at hand, and to transform these school houses into arenas for our souls’ work.

Fran Norris Scoble is head of Westridge School (California).