By Nancy Monson
“Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever.” —Gandhi
Have you ever asked yourself what you would do or how you would be if you were going to die tomorrow? I’ve thought about it, and hope I would take a deep and inward account of myself, as well as my appreciation and love for life. And if I knew that I was going to live forever, I would want to know as much as possible about how this world works, and master many skills to both enhance my own life and serve humanity and the planet. This is what education should and could be – to teach children how to learn with incredible depth and mastery and develop the self knowledge to live consciously.
This goal means balancing the inner and outer development of children.
Most of education is focused on skills – which is the outer development. We want children to master math, reading, writing, science (AND the arts, languages, physical and life skills) to promote the development of their gifts and choose their own path in order to serve this world we all live in. It can be extremely hard to choose your life work without mastering the necessary skills. However, the over focus on mental acquisition of information evaluated by standardized testing is deadening the love of learning in many children, which more and more parents are recognizing. Learning is personal! Kids have to connect to the subject, and good grades and high test scores don’t help them connect. The love of learning is developed in children by how engaged, challenged and meaningful the learning is for them. There is no learning without meaning. We remember what is meaningful to us and forget almost everything else. Research is now confirming that, for scholastic educational system to produce the learning results we demand, the students MUST feel passion and emotion about what they are learning.
Inner development is what we can’t see happening in a child – but we can feel it if we are mindful. Inner is how we feel, think, learn, sense and experience both inside ourselves and the world. When skill learning touches our inner world, that opens the meaning circuits for real (not rote) learning to happen. While most education focuses on cramming in more information, balance requires time to explore and assimilate the inner experience to create personal understanding. This is the crucial difference between learning that promotes information or deeper knowledge and mastery.
What does inner development look like in education? A school that teaches mindfulness practices such as quiet time, meditation, contemplative reflection; regularly takes children into nature; honors children’s feelings with time for personal discussions and includes support to navigate friendship on a regular weekly basis. Children need teachers to ask questions and listen to answers, to share with them, to create a safe community environment where differences are accepted and success and failure are both valued. This builds a deep sense of self that can’t be so easily shaken by the inevitable challenges of life. This is an education that nurtures the inner life of the child and brings their development back into balance.
I know that what parents most want for their children is happiness. But what is happiness? The right kind of education, while encouraging the learning of skills, should accomplish something of far greater importance. Learning should help us to understand the full process of life and becoming a conscious human being. What we learn isn’t just so we can be successful and make money, it’s how we can ultimately serve. Balanced inner and outer development lead a person intrinsically towards service. I went to Russia to visit an amazing school and the Director there told me that the highest aim of education is service. In the words of Albert Schweitzer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
American culture has become very unbalanced, and our schools are a reflection of that. With the over emphasis on skill learning and technology at the expense of the arts and development of physical capacities, the lack of attention on teaching life skills including health, and the almost complete absence of focus on the spiritual or inner aspects of their very beings, children and the adults they become are living unbalanced lives. The result are the illnesses of this culture: health problems, depression, divorce, violence, selfishness, greed and materialism. For this to change we have to balance the inner and outer development of children, but also find small ways to model this ourselves. Usually, this means tending to our inner lives such as taking walks or going camping, meditating, talking about our real feelings, reading poetry, spending quiet time reflecting inwardly, doing hobbies that bring us joy and tending to our physical well being. No adult can teach a child balance unless they are working to create balance in their own life.