I live in a world that is so normal to me that I forget that even most educated people don’t live in this world. I rarely watch television: I don’t watch sports, news, political debates or campaigns, advertising, celebrity gossip, or reality shows. I do flip through channels occasionally when I am in a hotel and discover that all of the hundreds of channels in multiple languages are pretty much the same, and turn it off. Although I watch news headlines and read articles on content that interests me, I’m not saturated in the emotional, visceral content that is transmitted over televisions. I’m always shocked when decent people expose their children to hours of broadcast television per day; for me it is almost as shocking as if the family was injecting heroin into their veins together at dinner time, and yet most American families seem to live this way (averaging 3-4 hours per day).
With all schools and all parents my first recommendation is to limit electronic addictions (tv, video games, computer games, gameboys, ipods, Facebook, cell phones, etc. – as they say in the plane, anything with an on/off switch). In addition, of course, healthy diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep. Before we can begin to create a conscious culture we need to have functional bodies, minds, and spirits.
From there it is actually quite simple: Let’s be conscious of our interactions with each other, what we intend, how we act, and what the impact of our actions are on others. The very first step is for adults to model this behavior. When I’m leading a group of young people in a Socratic discussion, I am acutely tuned in not only to the intellectual content, but also to the social/emotional/spiritual aspects of the interactions – this is why I am so vibrantly alive while leading such conversations. Conversely, teachers who are emotionally reactive are not, on balance, good teachers (I once recommended to a school director that he fire a teacher because, although she had won awards, and was conscientious, prepared, and talented in many ways, she was emotionally reactive, bursting out angrily at students, despite years of coaching by the director in an attempt to eliminate the behavior).
Once we adults are in control of our own behavior and are capable of perceiving the state of the children around us, the next step is to work to orchestrate the environment, the behavior, and the awareness of the children so as to increase the extent to which the children themselves are capable of being conscious of their own behavior on others. This is a sophisticated process that I can’t elaborate here; that said clearly Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio, and my Socratic Practice are all in different ways educational practices in which such an intention, to consciously create a better culture, exists.
At some schools it is more successful and at others less. Doing it well requires real mastery at the classroom level and, for a school as a whole to do it well, real mastery at the level of the school leader. Creating a conscious culture successfully both in classrooms and at schools is one of the great undeveloped art forms of humanity.
Because most people have not observed such an art form in practice, many are skeptical that it exists. I will not try to persuade them here that it does. But hypothetically anyone should be able to understand how as an adult, and even more so as a child, we are formed by every act of attention or inattention that is given to us. Each time someone speaks to us or doesn’t speak to us; each time the glance at us or don’t glance at us; each time they touch us or they don’t touch us; and so on.
Observe yourself in a room full of people and note the impact you feel when people laugh at your jokes, or don’t; when they appear interested in you, or aren’t; when they ask you questions about your life, or don’t, and so forth. Or consider the impact on your confidence as a risk taker when you try to do something a bit different and you are laughed at; or shamed; or ignored; or attacked.
It is a simple truism that although we are born with genetic predispositions, we are also powerfully formed by the thousands of interactions, subtle and gross, that we have with each other in the world every day. I think it should not be controversial to suggest that most children do not find that their capacities are optimally nurtured by their environment from birth through adulthood.
But suppose, hypothetically, that it is possible for groups of adults to learn how to improve the human-to-human environment that they provide to children as well as the human-to-human environment that the children provide to each other. Suppose children who attended these schools had a moment-to-moment experience that was dramatically better for them in every human dimension than is the moment-to-moment experience at their previous schools. Parents would perceive that their children were happier and healthier. As the children became adolescents, parents would perceive them to be more confident, more mature human beings who made better decisions than did their peers.
Presumably, if parents were free to identify the best schools for their children, many mothers, in particular, would send their children to these schools. If these schools also provided excellent academics, then many fathers would support the children going to these schools (Sorry about the stereotypes, but having interviewed many hundreds of prospective parents for such schools, the mothers almost always find the more human environment very appealing, and the fathers are almost always concerned that this not come at the expense of the academics).
The IT revolution occurred because of many hundreds of thousands of technological innovations. The vast majority of them were tweaks to previous technologies rather than fundamental breakthroughs. We enjoy the fruits of technology today in part due to the breakthroughs of a few geniuses but also due to the invisible and unsung work of many thousands of engineers working to deadline to make this or that tiny component a bit better than that of the competitors.
Ideally we would have a steadily growing education industry in which millions of educators worked for competing visionary companies, each of which was trying to produce an ever more optimal environment for human development – physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, for the next generation of young human beings. In such a world, millions of increasingly conscious educators would become ever more sophisticated artists creating ever more subtle symphonies of behaviors that resulted in new generations of healthier, happier human beings.
For me, the logic of this vision is so clear and compelling, whenever I see particular campaigns against television, obesity, bullying, addiction, consumerism, gang violence, rape and sexual abuse, etc. I always sympathize with the cause – and think that most of the time the proposed solutions will do relatively little to improve the situation.
Why don’t we get to work on a deep solution?