Our Socratic Oath
The Aim of Education and the Role of School
Who is driving what goes on in schools, and toward what interests? Are educational reforms intended to regain our competitive edge in the world? to keep our jobs from going to foreigners? to serve the needs of corporate America?
These questions seem important as we consider a course for American education. The debates, however, are ancillary to the core purpose of education. So, if we are feeling a little lost, perhaps Maggie Doyne’s story can bring us back to our center.
Maggie awoke one morning at the age of eighteen with the profound fear that after 13 years of school “I knew very little about myself and what I wanted in my life.” School taught her some kinds of knowledge but nothing of “the inside sort of things.” She decided to postpone college and get herself out into the world. In the course of the next five years she discovered other worlds and peoples, depths of human suffering and joy she didn’t know existed, and in the process she built an orphanage and a school for 200 children and “…got my passion back to live and to learn and to be human on this earth.”
She says, “I was lucky that I woke up with that when I was 18.”
For this educator Maggie’s story is not so much about Maggie doing good but about Maggie engaging her genius in the education of her character. For this is our core business; i.e. to lead each character out into the world to function creatively, effectively and gracefully within it. (For more of Maggie’s story watch the video athttp://vimeo.com/15991500.)
Genius is the voice of character—something each of us has rather than something that a few of us could become if we practiced for 10,000 hours. In ancient Rome genius was the guiding spirit in each person. When educators partner up with a child’s genius, we create the conditions for self-actualization.
But self-actualization is not the end game (as I once thought when studying Abraham Maslow) but a quality of experience that each of us can have at any moment in time. Maggie seems to have spent the last five years in continual self-actualization.
Watching Maggie talk about the last five years of her life puts talk of the social, political, economic and moral purposes of education into perspective, and reminds us that we are in the business of growing self-confident learners who have a sense of their own mission in the world and who can merge their desires with the needs and wants of others.
Children come to us expecting school to be real life, not some holding pattern in preparation for real work. In May, when I have asked kindergartners what they are looking forward to in first grade they almost always say: “homework.” How is it we let them down, so often? There is no need for school to be some sort of purgatory they have to pass through before they can get on with their central question: “Who am I in the world?” We can make it our business right away.
For best results engage genius. When the genius is engaged light comes into the eyes and work proceeds with abandon almost oblivious to issues of strength and weakness.
Building children’s character for character’s sake not only addresses this need, but will probably also result in all the outcomes imagined by those who see our children as a product. Young people who are leaders and creative thinkers will find their way to fill the positions required by our nation and the world. Self-directed, self-disciplined people will lead themselves into occupations that serve public interests, and also be able to change when the marketplace changes.
Happiness, success, winning, and achievement are not what we should wish for our children but rather the grit to live in life’s tensions—the confidence to learn from conflict, mistakes, disappointment, failure, loneliness and losing. When a person is fully herself, she is also harmonizing herself with her environment. The fulfillment of Maggie includes her constructive impact on the environment. This is the essence of integrity—wholeness that includes what is good for self as well as others.
The education profession needs a Socratic Oath. Here’s my proposal for one: I will watch for, believe in, notice, love and engage the genius of those in my charge. If this were our Socratic Oath, we would send young people into the world who a) keep America competitive, b) help to strengthen the local community and the global economy, c) supply good workers for the work force, d) further the cause of democracy, and e) maximize students’ chances of getting into the next appropriate level of academia.
My dream is that all parents, teachers and all those responsible for children would take the Socratic Oath, that they would let nothing (not standardized tests, curricula, school district policies and procedures, the anxiety of other adults, their own fear of failure, etc) …nothing get in the way of holding true to that oath, and that no child in the world were without an adult who has taken the oath on their behalf.