The Direction

One morning, a few weeks ago, I found the students sitting quietly, some of them face down on their desks. “Good morning!” I shouted in an exaggeratedly jubilant tone. They smiled but I could tell they were all tired, even more so than they usually were.

That morning, we were told to speak to the students about homework and organisation anyway, so I thought I’d find out what they had done the day before, between going home and coming back to school that morning. What had happened, or what had not happened, for them to come to school with seemingly no energy or enthusiasm to speak of?

I should say that school starts at 7am here, and many of the students go to bed around 11pm, if not later, so a level of tiredness is expected – but they were usually keen to tell me how tired they were, and liked to brag about how late they went to bed. This particular morning, they were just quiet.

We went through five of the students’ days on the board, wrote it up in a table.

“I got home at two-thirty and sat on the sofa for about an hour.”

“What did you do for a whole hour?”

“Nothing, just on my phone.”

They all had similar stories to tell. They went home and had a brief period of getting themselves settled. Most then had a nap, followed by food. Then it was homework, seasoned with chatting to friends on the phone and social media-ing. This particular evening they had all had a few more pieces of homework than they usually did, and an assessment to prepare for.

Then one of them said something that stuck with me for a few days now.

“It’s boring because it never ends until we are done with school forever. There’s no time to actually think about anything. Like, what’s the point of everything?

It looks more dramatic seeing it written down, and but the part in italics once again reminded me of what mainstream schooling does to children. It educates them primarily in the art of doing what you’re told, in dealing with awkward and unwanted social situations, and teaches them to snitch on their friends to get closer to those who are powerful.

What the student in question declared, was more than just what she saw as a lack of meaning, it was a general lack of direction. And why should she have a sense of direction, when none of the adults around her seem to? At least that’s what it looks like, because no one is talking about it. What’s the point of it all?

Searching for research on ‘lack of direction’ among teenagers and its effects on their mental and emotional state, I found that the concept as a whole is defined almost entirely in professional terms. Direction, is seen as career – knowing what you want to be when you grow up is seen as having direction in your life.

The issue with that is of course, that what you do for a living, or what your passion is in life in terms of hobbies, is only acceptable as a direction until you reach it – then what? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, passions which are worldly are never really fulfilled, they morph and twist into new ones, always left wanting, and inevitably haunted by the dark cloud of impermanence of life. Everyone knows this, it’s not a hidden wisdom, but most choose to ignore it, because “what else am I supposed to do?”

In a religious life, direction is fundamental and central. Before all else, our belief puts us on a path. In Islam, the path is referred to in the five daily prayers and in the opening verses of the Quran; ‘the straight path’. Each one of these prayers is directed to Mecca, regardless of where you are in the world. Direction is set in physical practice, because direction is set for you in spirit. In the Bible there are several references to God’s path, laid out for us to walk through; ‘You make known to me the path of life’ – and our job is to walk it.

If we could remind children of their direction, the true direction of their lives – the one they are on regardless of grades and homework, regardless of how they are judged by institutions and adults who are themselves lost – I could perhaps have had a more meaningful conversation then, in that classroom.

“You know, it’s normal to be lost, not knowing why we do what we do? For you it must seem like most of your day is already decided by us, we tell you what to do, and none of it is really that meaningful. But to me, I get my sense of direction from somewhere else.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is two parts to all of us, this is what I believe anyway. One part is the bodily part, and that part studies, works, practices, learns to do things better, but that part is always confused, like you are now. It asks ‘whats the point?’. And it’s a good question. We study and learn, but soon our minds grow weak anyway, we start forgetting. We train and practice how to do certain things, but soon our muscles can’t handle the tasks we spent so long perfecting. What’s the point?

But then there is another part, the part that is focused on a higher purpose, one that is directed towards a higher goal…”

In a secular zeitgeist, a conversation like the one above seems overly emotional. “That escalated fast…” someone might comment. That’s how far we are currently from a world where the divine is present in our public life, to bring it in seems absurd. I didn’t actually say the above, what I said was something more suitable for a teacher.

“…There’s no time to actually think about anything. Like, what’s the point of everything?

“The point is for you to learn to organise yourselves. I bet you had these homework tasks for a while now, and you left most of them until the last minute. Am I right?”

Of course I was right, but that’s yet another opportunity lost. And off they went to their Geography class for their assessment on renewable resources.

Spirituality and Education – the spiritual classroom (Part 3)

What would a spiritual classroom look like? The first and most obvious difference between a truly spiritual classroom and the secular one is the role of the teacher, at least in theory.

The spiritual classroom follows one of the central tenets of traditional knowledge: the notion that a true teacher is a reminder or a guide. For Christians, humans are created in God’s image and are endowed with the gift of freedom, and the power to know God and to love Him, in Islam the message of Prophet Mohammad, the Quran, was a reminder of what we already knew but had forgotten. Kierkegaard writes on this when he describes Socratic theory of learning. Here Kierkegaard, like the Islamic notion of Truth as a reminder, assumes that the student already knows the truth and is reminded of it or pushed towards locating it. Here we are finally fulfilling the dreams of those who advocate a child-centered approach to teaching, where the teacher is the facilitator.

In fact, in the spiritual classroom the teacher isn’t much of a teacher at all but another student, or in Kierkegaard’s metaphor a midwife “who helps the student give birth for (and to) herself”. This notion of midwife does not underestimate the knowledge or wisdom of the teacher, on the contrary, when the teacher is a student of knowledge rather than a giver of truth, learning is bound to be more dynamic.

It is however a way to reinforce, just as it was to Socrates, that a midwife is the highest form of relationship a human being can have with another – a concept which in the spiritual paradigm is not difficult to grasp. Interestingly, when the Truth is admitted as extra-personal, as it is in a spiritual classroom, true reflection can take place and truth becomes something that transforms rather than something that confirms.

The teacher as a reminder fundamentally changes the relationship between student and the classroom. Usually, it is the student who is the variable in the equation; it is they who have to change to try and fit into the rigid school system, not the other way around. In a spiritual classroom, the student is central, the purpose, and the goal of everything. As a teacher, I myself have found myself complaining about students being ‘off task’, some even inform parents of this characteristic in their child.

However, we could also ask: what is the task that we are expecting children to do? Is it really a task worth staying on? Could it be that the task is not worthwhile?  Or is that precisely it: Are we demanding that the child learns to do things they do not want to do and things they know will not be useful? The spiritual classroom will break out of the paradox of an educational system that is fundamentally relativist and secular, but which, ironically, demands that students see classrooms as places of worship, and to see us, the teachers, as prophets.

Many teachers expect that students sit and listen, and that the only valuable education is one which maintains the teacher’s authority. Others criticize this teaching method, and advocate an interactive approach. Nevertheless, the teacher, whether called a facilitator or not, is in practice still a teacher, and once the carefully planned interactive lesson is over the students must listen for bells, follow time-tables they had no role in deciding, forced to be segregated according to age-groups and ask before they may use the toilet – all of which returns to the relationship between teacher and pupil that we set out to counteract.

Contemporary mainstream schooling is not primarily designed for children. The school day is prolonged to aid working parents, the very organisation of it reflects the factory model. In the words of John Taylor Gatto,

“school has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but a spectacular job of turning our children into children.”

It is as the latter proclaims rightfully, the great tragedy of modern education that school isn’t for or about children, but built around the interest of others. Jackson’s notion of the hidden curriculum revealed the same. Schools primarily were aimed at teaching children to cope with delays, deny their desires, deal with social distraction, develop contradictory allegiances between teacher and peers and come to terms with unequal power relations.

In the end, the relationship between teacher and student is a microcosm of what relationships we imagine between people in the public sphere – and that is fundamentally based on what role we imagine for ourselves on this planet.