Four or Five Sacred Trees

My Educational Philosophy

(for Jennifer, Matt, Rebecca, and Natalie)

My educational philosophy is informed by at least four influential streams:

  • the centrality of communication;
  • the ideals of a liberal education;
  • the effects of information technology; and
  • the value of disciplined introspection.

These influences evolve together in a process of mutual interdependence.  I think of them as something like trees growing with intertwining branches and rhizomatic root structures, a glen of birches—self-organizing, adaptive, beautiful.  As the resident forester, I know there is really only one tree, but it is helpful to talk about each of its parts as though they were discrete and independent.

aldous huxley

Cover of aldous huxley

Communication. Writing, speaking, non-verbals—they are the sine qua non of the educational experience, the “the ground of being,” to borrow from Huxley, and so much a part of what we do and who we are that it is often taken for granted—even sometimes by those who teach writing and speech.  Awareness of its power, however, is vital to the development of students’ sense of owning their learning experience, an extremely important goal for me.

As an introduction to the power of human communication, I like to encourage my students to eavesdrop on the conversation of tables and chairs—an empty classroom, I point out, is in fact a very talkative place.  The topic of conversation is always the same; it is about power, authority, and ownership of the learning process.  What, I might ask, is being said by chairs that all face a table at the “front” of the room as opposed to encircling one, large, central table?  Through discussion, my students discover that communication is such a fundamental part of learning that the very environment is imbued with it.  Inextricably woven into this communicative fabric, we really have no hope of escape.  But when we become aware of, and sensitive to, the preexisting conversation, we enjoy an opportunity to raise new topics and steer the communicative universe in new, unexplored directions.

Try it sometime.  Instead of taking a chair, lie down on the floor and write something.  You may be amazed at the surge of originality that surfaces in your notebook.

Liberal arts ideals.  Faculties have often done little to support their own cause, and lack practice in explaining its value to others.  I therefore believe it is important regularly to return to primary purposes, to keep the ideals of broad-mindedness, openness, and admiration for the prospect of life-long learning aglow in the classroom.  I do this in different ways.  Sometimes, after topical discussion or a small lecture, I will invite students to consider why we’ve spent our time as we have.  Such meta-learning puts students in the role of the teacher, giving them a sense of ownership in the learning experience.  It reminds them that our educational integrity is sourced beyond tests, grades, pleasing instructors, and even, possibly, personal interest.  The ultimate claim of the liberal arts, to put it in a nutshell, is an effort to develop character.  Those ideals distinguish the educated mind from the trained mind.  A personality that operates from an informed, integrated, and moral awareness is empowered to think creatively, to innovate, and to produce changes that credibly benefit the human condition.

Information Technologies.  In our time, we have been vastly benefited by the democratizing forces of information technologies.  Free, abundant supplies of knowledge and opportunities to learn have liberated us in obvious ways, but they also have crippled us.  We are now, in some sense, not in the age of information, but in the age of distraction, a consequence of informational over-abundance and the increasing rate of informational obsolescence.  The daily imperative to “catch up” with the production and flow of information is robbing us of the time we might have spent in thoughtful reflection, without which we cannot cultivate our powers of discernment.  My sense is that we leaving ourselves in a default (and vulnerable) state of gullibility and fragmentation, in which all claims are granted a kind of cheap equality and validity.

As educators, we have surely noticed the erosion of quality in our national conversation.  We’re overrun by rash claims, logical fallacies, and willful ignorance.  Re-focusing student attention on the development of discernment is crucial.  Discernment is partly a matter of critical thinking, of course, but it also includes healthy doses of intuition and forbearance.  I encourage my students to use their guts as well as their heads, to never ignore their emotional responses to things, or allow the denigration of their emotional intelligences.  The antidote to our contemporary fragmentation is to educate to the irreducible wholeness of being.

Introspection.  We are all witness to (and likely victims of) an epidemic of stress, anxiety, indecisiveness, and the inability to prioritize—the fruits of unchecked distraction and a hypertrophied emphasis on being visibly productive.  What will be are our chances of success if we try to learn with a distracted, frantic, or hopeless attitude?

For me, a deliberate practice of introspection or meditation can restore us to a centered, confident, and open-minded sense of being.  I give time in class to the silent art of sitting still and allowing the mind settle, to slow down, to recover from over-stimulation as the best means we have for coping with the burdens of living in an increasingly complicated, vastly intertwined, and environmentally degraded world.  It is gratifying to know that meditation rooms are being opened on many campuses in response to a need we all share.

Finally, it’s important for me to assert that these elements, my four sacred trees, are a reduction of my living reality.  No sensitive teacher strolls into a classroom with the idea of fulfilling a fixed philosophy.  We meet our students in a series of immediate, subtle, ambiguous, and complex moments—and we ineluctably respond to what we perceive, regardless of what we conceive.  If, then, there were a fifth tree growing in my philosophy, it would be something like acceptance.  It would, I’m sure, be something like love.

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