I once attended a staff meeting where a very powerful video dealing with childhood trauma was shown. The video featured several stories involving high-level child abuse. All of the people in the room were visibly moved by the stories.
I too was deeply moved but couldn’t escape the feeling that the video was part of a deeper problem with American education. The stories were all about high-level types of intense trauma such as that caused by sexual molestation, physical, and intense verbal and emotional abuse.
Because of this, the video supported the idea that the main effects of trauma created problems in American schools are related to forms of severe abuse. I believe this is probably not the truth; I think the traumas causing the biggest problems in American schools are more of the garden-variety type. I have come to believe that it is the ordinary, everyday, smaller types of traumatic experience that cause our children to opt out of an educational system that has supposedly been designed to help them become better people.
Along a similar line, psychologist James Hillman, writing in the The Soul’s Code states that the definition of child abuse should include the damage that schools and psychologists do when forcing gifted and talented kids to act against their true desires and self manifestation.
Hillman points out a statistic from the book Cradles of Eminence, a study of the early years of four hundred famous modern personalities, wherein it shows that sixty percent of these famous people had negative feelings toward schooling, though not necessarily toward learning.
Upon reading this alarming statistic, it is impossible not to ask the question: are schools traumatizing our young? Are they not doing enough to offset the effects trauma? Hillman is not the only scholar to suggest that this. Einstein’s famous saying “ Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one has learned in school,” bears a powerful witness to the sentiment.
This in no way denigrates the value of educators, or the importance of school, it does, however, create a mandate that we as a society should at least examine the evidence that seems to imply that a lot of our judgment and priorities are often wrong.
When so many intelligent and highly creative individuals (Gandhi, Edison, Picasso, Einstein, etc.) attest to the belief that schools are better at suffocating genius than developing it, it’s apparent that it might be time for us rethink schools.
Books like Hillman’s and Cradles of Eminence should be required reading for those who develop educational policy. In a more perfect world, that is one less concerned with what's going on with the Kardashians, these books would also be among the required reading for anyone voting on educational issues.
My own perspective on the problem of trauma changed once I read the book The Divine Code of Life by Dr. Kazuo Murakami, a Nobel Prize winning bio geneticist. During this period, I learned a couple of facts that altered the way I looked at life itself. The first was that humans are hard-wired to be the best version of our selves. Dr. Murakami also argues that it is possible to keep the switch on to access our better DNA. This argument has been bolstered by recent discoveries that we are capable of altering our DNA for the better.
Dr. Murakami believes that certain mental and emotional factors can transform our genetic make-up and turn on the genes that are necessary for success and also serve to turn off bad genes. This has led me to believe that this helps to explain the purpose of human existence: we are meant to be the best version of ourselves.
A question immediately arises, if this is the case, why are so many of us not doing this? The answer, strangely enough, came to me while I was sitting in a local Wal-Mart. I had gone there to buy toiletries and left with a whole different outlook on life.
What I saw there was obesity, lots and lots of obesity. It made me remember that one of the first tools that humans develop as a psychic defense is “oral gratification”, and that way too many Americans eat to satiate hungers that will never be satisfied by food.
This in turn led me to believe that most, if not all, people have been traumatized in one-way or another. I immediately grasped this type of trauma as being a smaller trauma, knowing even then that no trauma is actually small. I later began to use the term everyday trauma instead.
"I immediately grasped this type of trauma as being a smaller trauma, knowing even then that no trauma is actually small."
It only takes one time watching your parents go at it like cats and dogs before you lose the ground beneath your feet. It only takes the death of one loved one, even of a pet, before you must come to grips with how to handle the knowledge of death. It only takes one rejection by a girl, one unkind word by a teacher, or one scolding by an angry parent before someone could start emotionally deviating from the straight and narrow path.
I surmised that if this is probably true about the denizens of a local Wal-Mart that it is also true about many of my students, particularly the ones who seem less than interested about being the best that they could be.
There is a metaphor that I use to explain what I discovered. Let’s say you come home to a 21rst century house. When you walk in the door, you can push a button, and the house transforms: your dinner cooked and served, your clothes are washed, your floors vacuumed, and your walls turn into a television.
It doesn’t make sense to come in sit down and not have anything work the way that it is supposed to because you failed to muster the act of will to push the button that set the whole thing in motion. It is more than foolish to sit there and eat take-out when all you have to do is push a damn button. Without the simple act of will, nothing gets done.
Without will, nothing can ever be learned. We have the wiring. Why don’t we have the will? I have since read many books, articles, and studies that have supported and added to what I had intuited that day at the Wal-Mart.
One study, for example, stated that kids nowadays are being traumatized by modern life. When you think about how fifty years of studies about the negative effects of television have gone virtually unheeded, it doesn’t take much to realize the demands upon our focus required for keeping up with the changes of the digital age have probably greatly exacerbated many of the unresolved issues of the Twentieth Century education.
In addition to the social changes created by the rapid pace of technological change, we have also been dealing with the largely unrecognized effects of secularism resulting from over four hundred years of Newtonian determinism.
I greatly appreciate what science and empirical thinking has done to make life better. I merely refer to the failure of modern educational thinking to accept the deeply seated need to conceive and believe in a larger purpose of life other than simply material gratification.
The hidden effect of emphasizing scientific method and reason with a commensurate lack of understanding of the needs that people have for a greater sense of purpose has undermined the efforts of many a dogged reformer to alleviate the Twentieth Century malaise that settled upon public education after the forced removal of most spiritual values from our schools.
At my own school, for example, we have had many, many discussions about how to get the kids to read, and all of these discussions usually boil down to us stressing how they are going to need reading to land better jobs in the future.
Although well intentioned, the people who think this way are an unwitting part of the problem because of their failure to recognize that by getting rid of every vestige of acknowledging a bigger perspective, you have also removed a purpose for living that goes somewhat beyond eating, having sex, defecating, sleeping, and dying.
Hillman refers to it as the need to instruct students in “the art of seeing,” and points out that overly rationalized minds prefer the view of the chasm to the idea of a bridge that would connect our material reality to our spiritual needs. He further states, “The great task of a life-sustaining culture, then, is to keep the invisibles attached, the gods smiling and pleased: to invite them to remain by propitiations and rituals.”
People desire meaning. As American educator and writer John Taylor Gatto points out in his insightful attack on America’s public schools Dumbing Us Down, “ Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek. “ He further states that because of the current obsession with facts, data, and details, “the age old human search for meaning lies well concealed.”
Many, will reject this line of reasoning, and refer to it as a bunch of superstitious nonsense, nevertheless, there is a lot of emerging scientific support for the idea, and let’s not forget the many discoveries in quantum physics which have been around a while, and have pretty much called into question the image of the Newtonian butterfly devouring universe.
Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist has developed a thought provoking argument in his book The Master and His Emissary. McGilchrist argues that as humans become ever more analytical and left-brain dominated, they tend to lose understanding of the big picture, or purpose of things. Ultimately, as many argue, this leads society into becoming more obsessed with facts and data for which they have no longer have a need or purpose.
Those critics who favor a more tangible argument are directed to the multitude of studies showing how the narrowing down of our children’s vision toward ever shrinking digital screens seems to be accompanied by a commensurate loss of their ability to focus on tasks. They understand less, they retain less, and they are losing the ability to feel empathy.
In line with the argument that McGilchrist makes are studies which reveal that our kids are also losing the ability to read longer passages and the related ability to immerse themselves in their reading. The scanning process which has the taken the place of slower, deeper reading reduces comprehension and the ability to see the big picture.
I believe that it is because our kids are not so naïve that they fail to pick up on the big weakness of modern culture as it is currently being sold; it is pointless. If we continue to advance the idea that man is nothing more impotent piece of carbon and water, than we should not be overly surprised by the fact that our kids are often less than excited about what the future has to offer, especially the part that involves reading and math.
There is nothing more revealing of the barren nature of American culture than the 24 hours a day blathering of sport’s programming involving talking heads whose sole function in life is to distract us from the fact that we are all mortal and will one day die. This is equally true of movies that exist only to satisfy our urges to commit vicarious murders, fulfill fantasies of revenge, and to blow stuff up.
And nothing is more indicative of the general lack of knowledge of the American educational establishment than the lackluster curriculums they push that fail to engage our kids even though these programs cross every t and dot every i as laid out by the incompetent lot more commonly known as educational experts.
The bottom line is that we are never going to be successful in our quest to fix the problems of American education if all we do is attach it to the idea of material success, or attach it to meaningless social gestures that often do more harm than good. We have to attach it something larger than wealth creation and jobs; we must use the power of education to help all of our young people to fully become the unique individuals that they were always meant to be.
We have to make our kids buy into the idea that their fundamental purpose in life is finish at a better place than where they started.