Education is Our Most Powerful Tool for a Better World
As a kid at school in the early 1960’s I loved nature. No surprise then that I was drawn to the study of ecology, looking at the relationships that living organisms have with their surrounding environment. I went on to read Botany at University. There I went into the beech woods and dug up the roots of the trees, with their sheaths of fungi around them, and took them back to the lab for study. I mashed them up, boiled them, analyzed the enzymes and chemicals, came to further understand the symbiotic relationship between the tree roots and the fungi; how each received benefit from the other. I wrote a thesis and obtained my doctorate. But something big was missing. Nature is not just about chemicals. It has a soul!
Later, as I explored the Yosemite National Park and the Giant Redwoods, in California, hiked the UK’s Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales and tramped the Burren in Eire, I found that soul. I came to discover and feel that spiritual attachment to such a wonderful and varied world, and a great respect for its complexities. How can we truly preserve this beautiful earth on which we live, stop trashing it, and understand the need for sustainable management of its finite resources, unless we feel this spiritual connection with nature? And where better to start than with giving our youngsters a more holistic education.
Last week I watched a little girl sitting on a bench, swinging her legs aimlessly. She was bashing and breaking the beautiful flowers in the hedge in front of her. She was bored. And this was a deliberate act of vandalism. It hurt something inside me to watch her.
I visited the tiny island of Herm not very long ago, a Channel Island community just off the coast of France, where life of necessity is simple. There are no cars or bikes, although the local farmers can use tractors and quad bikes to get around! There I watched the children playing outside, gloriously free and dirty and happy, using what nature has given them, the trees and bushes and grass and flowers, and their own abilities to run and hide and shout and climb trees, to be themselves. There was not an adult in sight. But they were not bored, and they clearly had a respect for the natural life around them as they played. There was no savage mindless destruction there. They were a part of nature, not in competition with it.
I recall the vision held by environmentalist Alastair McIntosh in his wonderful book Soil and Soul for a spiritually rich and holistic education for our children. He yearns for a life-long curriculum of organic food and biodiversity, nurturing a respect for all sentient beings, learning about sustainable energy alternatives, and developing healing skills which incorporate not only the most advanced scientific methods but also the spiritual healing principles, of poetry and story. In his vision there would be the study of conflict resolution and how to eliminate the causes of war. But the kids would also have fun and play in tree houses.
I share this vision with McIntosh. And I know we are not alone.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his book Ancient Wisdom Modern World: Ethics for the New Millenniumstresses that education ‘constitutes one of our most powerful weapons in our quest to bring about a better, more peaceful, world.’ He emphasizes the need to open children’s eyes to the needs and rights of others, so that their actions have a universal dimension, and they develop their ‘natural feelings of empathy so that they come to have a sense of responsibility towards others.’ This is all about holistic education, and essential in this process is an education steeped in learning respect for the natural world around us. That is where our spirituality can be found and nurtured.
Sadly too many children are disconnected now from nature, living as they often do in over crowded towns and cities. I was lucky; I was brought up on a farm. But we owe it to our kids to help them find this connection with nature by whatever means possible. There is even a condition called “Nature-deficit disorder” coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woodswhere hehighlights the dangers of this disconnection. By giving our kids the opportunities to make spiritual connection with the natural world around them we start them on a holisticeducational journey of spiritual discovery and growth, developing their bodies, minds and spirit, as they learn how to become fully human.
Regrettably the purpose of education as seen in most of our traditional schools is to train people for jobs, rather than to be the rounded and spiritually grounded citizens of tomorrow. “Academic rigor” has become today’s buzz phrase for schools. As a result the system becomes shackled by the needs of exams and syllabuses and league tables and the latent spirituality of the young person becomes neglected; and if it is not nurtured it withers away and rampant materialism and reductionism are ready on the sidelines to fill the vacuum and take a hold on the young person’s life.
Happily there are schools that are bucking the trend. The fast growing network of Waldorf schools, for example, are based on the views of Rudolf Steiner, who saw the danger of education being driven more by the economic needs of society than the interests of the child. The holistic education within a Waldorf school “provides a detailed, richly artistic curriculum that responds to and enhances the child’s developmental phases, from early childhood through high school; cultivates social and emotional intelligence; and connects children to nature.”
I believe that educating our young people in the ways of spirit and respect and love, within a truly holistic education, will be the world’s most powerful healing force. This becomes ever more urgent as the forces of rampant materialism and militant atheism have a different agenda that I fear is proving harmful for the future health and happiness of our world.
So we need to target our kids. They are our future. We fail them if we do not ensure they are brought up with sound moral and ethical values; we fail them if we do not teach them a sense of right from wrong, fail to show them the importance of tolerance and love and compassion for all, fail to connect them with nature and fail to nurture their spirituality, all in all fail to give them a thoroughly holistic education.
May it come to pass sooner rather than later that many more of our schools come to be judged not only on their position in academic league tables but on how successfully they turn out well rounded, happy, respectful, empathic and spiritual citizens.
Make no mistake. The future of our world depends on it.