Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A True Education

Education is not just acquisition of knowledge.  It is also the development of a temperament that reacts to adversity and confusion with reflective, deliberate calm – optimistically and confidently seeking resolution to seemingly intractable problems.  A truly educated person understands that wisdom proceeds in stages and that a deeper understanding of a subject is always preceded by a period of turmoil and discombobulation. 

Thomas Kuhn, who popularized the idea of “paradigm shifts” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions posited that science does not proceed as a linear accumulation of knowledge.  Rather, theories are developed that answer pertinent questions to an acceptable degree of reliability and accurateness.  If the majority of scientists use this theory consistently over time, then it becomes a paradigm – or the normal way of approaching a given subject.

Over the course of time however, questions may start to arise that cannot be answered by the dominant paradigm and the scientific community is thrown into a period of confusion and discord until someone offers a new way of looking at things.  This sets the stage for the development of a new paradigm – Einstein’s revolutionary theories of relativity resolving intractable problems in the world of Physics being a good example of this dynamic.

Accordingly, we have not truly educated our children until we have helped them develop an ability to stay calm and devise new ways of doing things when their little worlds fall apart.

For example, many children struggle greatly with the transition from kindergarten to the first grade when the world of unlimited play, singing, and naps is suddenly replaced by sitting at desks, didactic instruction, and evaluation of their work.  For reasons beyond their understanding they now need to produce – and produce well.  Similarly, teenagers coping with the rigors of puberty have to learn how to relate to and use their bodies all over again.  Newly married couples have to radically alter their lifestyles to accommodate the fact that they are (at least emotionally) attached to each other 24/7.  First-time parents have to figure out how to function without sleep – or even consistent personal hygiene.  Career changes, physical injuries, coping with the death of loved ones can all destroy our normal ways of doing things – leaving us to “pick up the pieces” and somehow move on.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that this cycle of destruction and rebirth is not something to get worried or depressed about, rather it is just the way of the universe – in fact, even G-d has experienced it.  The universe we live in is not the first created by G-d.  Rather, it was “built on the ruins” of a previous universe – the destruction of the original universe is known as shevirat ha-keilim (the breaking of the vessels).  This is how it happened.

The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that reality is composed of ten fundamental qualities – or aspects – called sefirot (singular, sefirah).  These sefirot form the structure, or body, of the macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic person (Please see my earlier post, Ego Without Conceit, for a more detailed description).  Originally, these sefirot were distinct components unrelated and unattached to each other.  When G-d released light into the universe in order to give it life the majority of the sefirot where unable to contain this energy and shattered, creating innumerable “sparks” or glowing “shards” of destruction.  Immediately, a new universe was created using these sparks as “building material.”  This time however, the sefirot were woven together in a mutually reinforcing web.  Therefore, when G-d sent the light into the second structure in order to give it life the sefirot held, with each sefirah receiving support and strength from the others.   However, there were some sparks that were unable to be incorporated into this new system because they contained too much of the original aspect of separateness and exclusivity.  These sparks remain to this day and are the source of divisiveness and conflict in our world – generating what is commonly referred to as evil.  

When we feel parts of our own lives falling apart and disintegrating we must know that we are just following in the ways of creation.  It is a sign that our normal ways of doing things are no longer working and that they need to be destroyed in order to transcend into a higher mode.

For example, I recently fainted in a public speaking situation.  While this was very traumatic and embarrassing for me, it has spurred on a reassessment of how I’m living my life and has been an impetus for many healthy changes that were long overdue.  One of the changes is that I am moving away from absolute self-reliance and learning how to seek help and support from those around me – exactly paralleling the fundamental improvement to G-d’s second universe!  I can honestly say that I would not be adapting in this way had I not fainted.  

We must all approach difficult situations that break apart our cherished routines as opportunities for growth.  This will, in turn, allow us to instill this attitude and ability in our children – truly educating them and preparing them for life.

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