For the educational experience and the elevation of the human being to his top potential.
A few years ago I came across a friend I haven’t seen in a long time. After we updated each other on our whereabouts, he asked me if I would come to visit his aging father who remembered me fondly and who frequently asked about me. I was glad to meet again with a lively lover of life who immediately asked about my profession. When I answered “Education” he frowned and asked with pain: “when the time comes, will it prevail”? I did not understand what he meant, so I began describing what I do, emphasizing that it wasn’t just about exams. He interrupted my words, repeating the same question: “when the time comes, will it prevail”? The interruption and his painful expression made it clear that he did not refer to the formal education of children, but to something beyond. Something, that he, as a Holocaust survivor recognized and experienced as “The Human Spirit”, be it present or absent.
This article holds a suggestion for educating the Human Spirit on the basis of ancient philosophy, in a way that can prevail when the time comes. It is not about achieving standards or various skills, but it does not contradict them, because the pursue of academic achievements should not be opposed to education for humane values. It is our belief that the reconciliation of values and standards can carry significant outcomes to education. In the words of rabbi Kook, one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the 20th century, “The love for people should be kept alive in the heart and soul, the love of any human, and the love of all nations, the aspiration for their elevation and prevalence, both spiritual and material” (Kasher & Namdar, 1994 ). In other words, in order to recognize the human spirit, there is first a need to achieve a synthesis that lies above interpersonal and interdisciplinary distinctions, a synthesis that will not separate spirit from matter, similar from different, far from near; a synthesis, that aims for prevalence and elevation. Philosophy, whose final goal in human life, according to Plato, is not an outcome but an ongoing process, requires transformation. Williams, (1998) wrote that a man will be able to change his life, not by investigating the changes that need to be made, but through dialectics on matters such as the Metaphysics of non-being, which need to be carried out not for achieving higher Moral conclusion but for the purpose of Doing Things Right. These words take us back to “’when the time comes” for the Human Spirit to Prevail, a time that is not bound to a specific historical moment, but is relevant for any moment in our human daily lives.
So, if there is something we can call “The Human Spirit” whose goal is “To Do Things Right”, it is important that we know what kind of nourishment it needs, and how to nurture it to become strong and durable in moments of testing.
Since the Pre-Socratics, Philosophy was related to the Education of the Human spirit. As Pierre Hadot (1995) writes, philosophy has the practicalities and the theories that are concerned with one of the basic demands of Greek mentality – the will to educate and to shape. His book, What is ancient Philosophy, presents philosophy, above all, as a choice of a way of life and only then as a spiritual practice whose goal is to strengthen the primal choice. Hadot, one of the most celebrated historians for the research of ancient philosophy, professor emeritus from the College du France, is aware that the use of the term “spiritual” may be controversial, but he insists on using it. He says that none of the other adjectives such as “psychic”, “Moral”, “Ethical”, “Intellectual”, “Of Thought” or “Of Spirit” can cover all the aspects of reality which he wishes to describe. The common grounds to any spiritual practice, he says, is that it is meant to create a change in the practitioner.
So what are these spiritual practices, and can they be relevant to Education today?
Pierre Hadot describes some of them in another book of his, “Philosophy as a Way of Life”. We bring them here with some practical examples from Early Childhood education in Israel. Although these events were not carried out under the categories through which I present them, I seek to show they are related to spiritual practices.
Learn how to Live. Following the Hellenistic and Roman Schools, Philosophy is not a collection of ideas but a practice in the Art of Living. The Philosophical action is situated not only in the cognition but in the “Self” and “Being”. Hadot mentions various exercises including attention, listening, deep study, self-control, reading, reflecting, remembering good things and fulfillment of duties, learning Physics and developing the imagination.
One practical example for this principle is a “Thanking Circle” in one of the preschools in Israel. Towards the end of the school day, children are seated in a circle, where they are encouraged to thank one of their friends. The rule is that no child can be mentioned more than once in a specific circle. I was moved to listen to 5-6 year old children giving thanks for true friendship, for help they received from a friend, for enjoyable play with a friend, etc. One girl gave thanks to her friend who prepared a holiday basket for her, because her mother gave birth to a baby and could not do it. This simple practice gives space and raises awareness to attention, listening and reflection, remembering good things and sharing.
Learn the Socratic Dialogue. Hadot refers to dialogue, not in the sense of debate, and not for the purpose of teaching and learning, but for creating a space for discourse that allows for mutual spiritual practice. During the practice, participants exercise “Know Thyself”; their attention, listening and self control are put to the test; they get the opportunity to hear themselves and to hear others, to develop their thought and ways of expression; to change, to adopt a new perspective, to challenge attitudes and certainties.
The following event illustrates an experience that did not come to a successful end, but the children and the teacher learned a lot in the process.
The children showed much interest in ants they saw in the garden, so the teacher decided to buy an ants habitat so they can observe and follow up on the ants activity. The habitat was constructed according to the instructions, ants were collected, and sugar water and bread crumbs were put inside. After one day, all the ants died. The children were very disappointed. During the next day they read the instructions again and repeated the procedures, but once again the ants died. The children asked: “Why is this not working”? “Why do the ants die”? They raised various assumptions but had to rule them all out: “Maybe we did not follow the instructions”? “But we checked ourselves, twice” “Maybe we did not leave them enough food”? “Yes, we did. The food is still there” “Maybe they didn’t have enough air”? “Yes, there is! This ants habitat has special holes for air” One child said: “This habitat is not right for them; it’s inside a classroom and made of plastic. They are used to being out. Nature is their home. They need their real home”. All the children agreed to continue observing ants in their natural surroundings. This simple dialogue provides us with several insights that the children have:
1. It seems that the children comprehend that the right thing (or their success) is not that they will construct an ants habitat, but that ants will be able to live in a habitat. The fact that the ants died is proof that the action was not successful.
2. When an action is not successful, it is important to repeat it and check why? Was there inaccuracy? Missing a detail or a stage? This is important to do through identifying and isolating variables.
3. Ants are living things that need water, food and air.
4. Ants are living things that are adapted to their natural surroundings, which is earth. That is why it is best to study them in their natural surroundings.
The children who participated in the dialogue got a chance to test their attention, listening and self-control; they could hear themselves and listen to others, adopt a new perspective and verify or rule out assumptions. They did not reach a conclusion why the artificial habitat did not work, and they did not extend to conclude that no artificial habitat will ever be good for any ants. But in their humble conclusion there is a foundation of empathy and solidarity upon which the teacher can continue to design educational experiences in other areas.
In another preschool, an upset, crying 5 year old girl came to the teacher to complain about a child that hit her. The teacher asked the girl to go call the boy to come and discuss what happened. The little boy came, blushing and embarrassed. The teacher asked the complaining girl to begin telling what happened.
“He came to me and pushed me, and I fell”, she said.
“And how did you feel”? Asked the teacher, giving the girl an opportunity to process and express, not only the sequence of events but also her feelings about it. After the child answered, the teacher asked the boy, “What was your intention”? Apparently, he wanted to play with her, but she did not understand him and therefore ignored him. When he ran out of gestures to express his attention, he pushed her, to get her attention. This mediated dialogue was not intended to blame or to punish. The girl was surprised to find out that he wanted to play with her. The boy received feedback that his means of communication were not clear. Each one of them extended his view of himself and of reality.
Learn to Die. This is a scary title but a true quote. It carries too many negative, decadent, contemporary interpretations. However, its relevance to education, for me, lies in the meaning of “Not by All Means”, or “Not at All Costs”. For example, not to try to gain social acceptance, intellectual achievement or economic profit, at the cost of principles and values. It is about learning to let die passions that may lead to betrayal of the human spirit. In education, it can be expressed by maintaining principles and no-collection of any debts. This may seem relevant especially for adolescence, when the individual identity is established both along with, and contrary to, society. Nevertheless, we find it to be relevant to preschool children as well.
Every teacher and parent knows the passionate fire which is lit when two individuals want the same thing at the same time. This “Thing” may be a toy, a book, or a fair share – if one child thinks that the other got “The Bigger Half”. Most commonly, this fire is fed by angry claims, such as “Mine”, or “Now”! We know that adolescents may turn to pleasing the opponent even at the cost of self trampling. However, parents as well may compromise values and principles, out of a passion to please their children.
Experienced teachers invest in discipline, procedures and norms of action, during the first months of the school year. When the space for action, movement, discourse and being is well defined, it is easier for young children to navigate, conduct themselves, and transform instincts to honorable, cultural behavior.
Learn to Read. Reading the texts of ancient philosophers nurtures the perspective that was described earlier, and directs our attention to the daily expressions of these ideas. We forgot how to read, Hadot writes, how to stop, how to free ourselves from worry, how to come back to ourselves, how to let go of our search for sublimation and originality, and we need all that to be able to reflect and allow the text to speak to our hearts. This is spiritual practice, and maybe the hardest one of all. Goethe is mentioned saying “ordinary people have no idea how much time and effort is needed to learn how to read. I have 80 years of practice and I still cannot say I have reached the goal”.
The spiritual nutrition lies beyond the analytical brain, in Myth, Symbol and Ceremony. They hold the ethics, the values and the prototypes that are the foundations of culture. Education in their light allows for connection with heritage and with a long chain of people, values and decisions. They carry on the memory of the family, the tribe, the nation and the humane beyond religion, race and nation. Without them – Mankind will be reduced to intelligent beasts. Myths tell us about Men and Women who are not perfect, but who aim for perfection. Those who listen to Myths can identify with the hero and find in their hearts an echo to his or her integrity, bravery, diligence and persistence. Education of the human spirit is about the empowerment of this echo, and development of the ability to live according to values.
The spiritual practices Pierre Hadot suggests are not limited to any discipline. They have almost every needed component for developing a deep and meaningful educational process, between teacher and children and between children themselves. They can nurture cognitive skills as well as identity, culture, master-disciple relations, interpersonal and social relations. They combine “Know Thyself” alongside with knowing the other, through the experience of our being one humanity. Alexander Barzel wrote, “Freedom exists only in relations… A man has no choice but to act in the world with visible or invisible partnerships… Solidarity is needed at the level of consciousness… ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ needs to be understood, not as you love yourself, but, your neighbor, who is like yourself. What connects you is solidarity” (at Kasher & Namdar, 1994).
I wish to conclude with a story I overheard on the radio while I was driving.
A few years ago, an old man was declared “Righteous among the Nations” for hiding Jews on his farm during World War II. A small ceremony was held for him in a small town in the USA, and a reporter was sent to interview him. The reporter asked him, what made him do what he did while risking his life and his family. The old man seemed confused, and the reporter assumed it’s because he was very old, or maybe he doesn’t hear well, or does not understand her English. After she repeated the question slowly and clearly, he replied “I don’t understand the question, what else could I have done”?
I am aware of the risk I take in concluding with such a story that sends us back to the larger fatal testing time of humanity with which I started. We must not forget, that most testing moments for our right to be called “human”, are small, fameless and frequent. They are easy to be missed, there are no photographers, and no honors are given. Maybe that is why it is so difficult to humbly and truly live them out.
Fernand Schwartz writes, “There is a need today of Man who can bring to Harmony the opposites he finds in himself and in others, more than of experts in any of the disciplines. There is a need of a Man who can combine new elements into his consciousness without conflict between old and new. This Man may be called ‘Integral’ or ‘Pluralistic’. The Integral Man will be able to deal with life without wearing armor, which is nothing but a disguise of his inner fragility. To reach that there is a need for a change in attitude, from exclusion and fragmentation to integration and harmonization”. Ancient philosophy is relevant to the educational experience and it is a method to assist any human in fulfilling their potential, not only for the individual’s benefit, but for the promotion of society as a whole.
Love on the scale (Amor Sapientiae): wood inlay of the choir of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, Giovan Francesco Capoferri’s work on designs by Lorenzo Lotto. Love is standing on a weighing scale in perfect balance, with outstretched wings rising upwards. Three flames symbolize the sacred fire of purification. The inscription at the bottom, Nosce te ipsum (“know thyself”) is the Socratic motto that invites to seek wisdom in themselves. Wikipedia.