The Coronavirus is a Stark Reminder We Are One Global Family

The Coronavirus is a Stark Reminder We Are One Global Family

What a difference a month makes.  The whole world is reacting to a pandemic of a previously unknown virus.  It’s an emergency on a global scale, dominating every news cycle. It’s the subject of conversations over coffee counters at 7-11 in the mornings and at local water holes in the evenings.  Our lives are being disrupted.  You can see concern and worry etched on people’s faces.

Is this a new phenomenon? Of course not, because the world has faced many devastating outbreaks of disease in human history, including the Black Death in the 1300’s, the flu pandemic of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1956-58 and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic of 2005-2012  – to name a few.  The pandemics of the past have killed hundreds of millions, shaped history, shifted population demographics and influenced art, music, literature and theater, leaving an indelible imprint on our collective psyche.

Is this why the Coronavirus seems so suddenly terrifying – because the trauma of such a widespread disease is embedded in the ancient part of our brains and triggers fears of vulnerability, helplessness and fear? Or had we lulled ourselves into the illusion that such a pandemic is not possible in the era of modern medicine? And why is our reaction to this so much more visceral and vocal than our reaction to let’s say the crisis of climate change?  Is it because the virus pandemic is less abstract, more personal, more immediate?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is certain: when it comes to a potentially massive catastrophe like this, national boundaries will not protect us.  Nor will wealth or status make us immune.  Humans from all social strata and from every corner of the planet are faced with the same humbling thought – that at the moment our best protection from contagion is hand sanitizer, incessant hand washing, medical masks and the avoidance of physical contact with others or even our own faces.

So here we are all at once in the same boat, and for some of us we are literally in the same boat – stuck on a cruise ship in quarantine and dealing with an even greater degree of confusion and hysteria.  We are coming face to face with our human frailty and at the same time with our fundamental oneness.  Regardless of religion, political affiliation or mindset we are now starkly being reminded that we are all – every one of us – Homo Sapiens, the species to which all modern humans belong (and the only member of the genus Homo that is not extinct).

It’s a reality check of epic proportions, at a time when it’s become so convenient to retreat into the comfort of online echo chambers that validate and amplify our viewpoints and make us comfortable designating others, whether consciously or not, as less civilized, less intelligent or less moral than we are. We’ve become adept at “othering”, as we stridently advocate for the positions we are passionate about.  We’ve succumbed to the false narrative that social media is a forum of ideas, whereas in reality it is all too often a platform for venting our frustrations and anger, or for spewing hatred.

The Coronavirus outbreak is a harsh refresher of Humanity 101 – the most basic of courses.  It teaches that we all share identical DNA and the same genes, cells, and microbes.  On the macro level we share a common heritage as humans,  Humanity 101 teaches that collectively we will shape our destiny on planet earth, for better or for worse.  As it is said from long ago, we will live together or we will die together.  Faced so immediately and directly with our own fragility as a species, others become brothers (and sisters), who are dealing with the same set of dangerous and scary circumstances as we are.  The barriers we’ve erected, whether physical or mental, between us as members of the human family, melt away as we face an existential crisis like the one we currently face.

Our illusions of separateness disappear in the light of the new realities we are confronting, which may be old realities that we have long forgotten.  We will no doubt survive this latest onslaught upon our collective well-being, but not without great pain and tragedy.  The bigger question is what will we learn from this experience?  Will it jumpstart a new era of international cooperation, the development of new commonly agreed upon protocols for safety, more efficient sharing of information across borders, the creation of more robust yet localized health delivery systems and clinics, or the innovation of new medicines at prices that everyday people can afford?

Hope springs eternal, and hope is what we cling to now.  At dark times like these, let us hope that a vaccine is developed sooner than later.  Let us hope that we can resist the “survival of the fittest” mentality that humans have descended to in pandemics past; that we can hold and support each other as we feel stress and fear.  And at the same time let us hope for a new dawn – a renewed awareness of our interconnectedness – which could light our pathway toward a future of greater harmony and better collaboration.

 

 

 

 

Education Needs a Radical Change

  Education Needs a Radical Change

After recently watching a film about the life of Jane Goodall, and then reading a recent interview with her, I was struck by her stark observations regarding the state of our planet – in terms of climate change, the disappearance of species, the destruction of forests, the melting glaciers, the pollution of the oceans, the desperate plight of refugees – and the fundamental question about us as humans that all these developments raise.  Jane Goodall said, “The crazy thing is the biggest difference between us, chimps and other creatures is the explosive development of the intellect. So how come the most intellectual creature ever to walk the planet is destroying its only home” She goes on to say, we’re putting economic development ahead of protection of the environment. We’re forgetting we are part of the natural world. We depend on it. And we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction, because of all the pollution and harm that we’ve done, and we don’t seem to realize that if we go carrying on as though we can have unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources, it’s going to be us extinct as well.”

As a life-long educator and founder of Oneness-Family Montessori School, watching Jane’s life story and listening to her current assessment of the state of our planet, made it clearer to me than ever that our current educational systems are not evolving fast enough to teach students the skills they will need to begin to reverse the damage we have caused.  Our educational approaches are not empowering young people to be able to respond and adapt to the unprecedented rate of change we as a species are experiencing.

I am NOT saying that exceptional work isn’t being in programs at many schools and universities across America.  Indeed I know so many institutions, departments and initiatives that are trying so hard to address our global challenges by getting young people informed and engaged.  What I AM saying is that based upon observable facts that we read about and watch on the news every day, from the fires in the Amazon and Australia to the melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, we are not succeeding in fostering the kind of leaders – and enough of them – to harness all the good ideas and channel them in productive directions for positive change.

What is missing?  For a while this was an elusive question for me.  However, based upon recent conversations with colleagues who are collaborating with me to create a new Responsive Leadership and Global Studies Program, I have begun to get more clues about the answer – or answers.  And these answers begin to take shape first by looking back at the wisdom of indigenous peoples past and present, specifically their wholistic perspective of looking at ourselves and our natural world as one interconnected and integrated whole.

This is a perspective that scientists across the globe everywhere share, and it is one central to the philosophy of many progressive churches and temples.  However it is not a perspective that is generally taught as a primary focus in schools – except in Montessori schools.  Generally, school is still very much a place that is seen as preparation for career and job, rather than a foundation for life as a citizen.  As a result, the energy is around testing, standards and extrinsic measures such as scores and placement etc.  There is much less energy around the process of learning, the individual needs and passions of the learner and intrinsic indicators such as relationship and well-being.

Rarely is the “machinery” of the educational system challenged because rarely is the purpose of learning questioned.  If the purpose of learning is ultimately to bring us into healthier and more balanced relationship with ourselves, with others and with our fellow creatures on the planet, then we are not succeeding – at least not succeeding fast enough.  In Montessori schools children are taught from the youngest ages about the big picture, the integrated whole we are all a part of, and the interrelationships that exist throughout nature and indeed across the cosmos.  Maria Montessori called this the Cosmic Curriculum.

Montessori’s Cosmic Curriculum is much less airy fairy and much more practical than it might sound.  Maria Montessori herself was a scientist, and her voluminous notes documenting her daily observations of children would have made Jane Goodall proud.  Montessori developed a way of teaching the wholistic approach, called the Five Great Lessons, which encapsulated the Origin of the Universe, the Coming of Life on Earth, the Development of Humans and the Stories of Language and Math.  These overarching stories created a paradigm for teaching our human story, always reminding students that we are pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

The results of Montessori’s half-century of research led her to many seminal realizations, including this one:  “Here is an essential principle of education: to teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationships between things it to bring knowledge.” Two recent student stories from Oneness-Family Montessori High School, which I founded three years ago, gave me insight about the profound value of teaching about our relationships with the natural world.

Recently 11th grader Aya Reeves made a five-minute film based about the 500 or so species of frogs and salamanders that are at risk of extinction due to the spread of a mysterious fungus worldwide.  Encouraged by her teacher Blake Hocker, Aya’s film is both an information piece about the global plight of amphibians as well as a call to action.  However the film’s effectiveness is in its expression of Aya’s heart-felt love of these unique and beautiful creatures and her sadness at the prospect that we could lose them. The depth of her feeling about the frogs and salamanders shines through.

Meanwhile, 9th grader Allie Bluestein is participating in Project FeederWatch from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – observing and documenting the birds she sees on a daily basis.  Inspired by her teacher Alex Koch, Allie and her classmates built bird houses, and installed them along with bird feeders and a bird bath in the woods outside their classroom, creating a haven for a wide variety of birds.  Recently Allie joined bird watchers around the world for the Great Backyard Bird Count – a one day project where watchers could see in real time the number and types of birds observed on every continent.

In both of these cases – the students have learned scientific / mathematical concepts and skills that would be integral to any career in science later on.  Just as importantly however, they have been building a deeper relationship with the natural world, based upon their growing love for the animals and birds they are learning about.  And whether it be the crisis facing the frogs and salamanders, or the dramatic decline in bird populations worldwide over the past 20 years, Aya and Allie are both addressing global problems in hands-on, practical and responsive (not just theoretical) ways.

These anecdotes, which I observed first hand, leave me hopeful for our future.  I saw the passion and exuberance in the eyes of Aya and Allie as they worked on their projects and I felt buoyed,  like we are on the right track. I saw and felt hope.  I know that Montessori schools across the country and indeed the globe are fostering in students this deeper sense of kinship with our fellow citizens and creatures on this planet Earth.  It is not as if Montessori education has all the answers – that would be silly – but Montessori provides a clear pathway forward founded on a perspective that we are each integral members of the human family and that our primary mission is to be conscious stewards of the world we have inherited.

It is clear that students like Aya and Allie, and so many more in Montessori schools everywhere, will follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall.  Indeed, they already are!

 

What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

Two totally unrelated events of the past week converged unexpectedly for me and led me to some deep introspection.

First came the college cheating scandal, where wealthy and influential parents, including CEO’s, two Hollywood actresses and a legendary fashion designer, schemed to get their children into universities through fraud, bribes and lies.  According to court records, parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and to falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to some of the country’s elite universities, including UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown.

Then came the news that 49 people, worshippers in the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, were brutally gunned down by a 28-year-old Australian man  who expressed white supremacist ideology,  who posted a racist manifesto online and who streamed live video of the horrific events on Facebook.  It was the worst act of violence in the country in nearly three decades and was, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

There is still much to learn about the college cheating scandal.  What is clear though is the lengths parents were willing to go – and the money they were willing to spend –  help their children illegally gain entrance to college. To me however, this scandal is merely the most recent and extreme symptom of an ailment deep in our psyche as parents and educators across America.

As an educator for nearly 35 years, 30 of which I have served as head of school in one of the country’s most competitive private school markets, I have seen the steady rise of anxiety around readiness, SAT and ACT scores, and the college application process in general.  Though I’m not a psychologist, I can say that from my vantage point it has become a mass hysteria –  a national crisis documented poignantly in films such as Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman as well as in books such as The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins.  The questions begin as early as preschool: “What do you think is the best pathway for my child to get into an Ivy League school?”  “What is the average SAT score of your graduates?”  “How many hours of homework do your elementary students do?”.  And so on.

Testing and test scores have become the penultimate goal of school.  Getting into the “best” schools occupies a significant amount or our psychic space.  We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how our child will “stack up”, whether he or she will “make the grade”,  or if they will “be able to compete.” And whether we would admit it or not, the high schools and colleges our children attend often become status symbols as much as the cars we drive or the clubs we attend.  Meanwhile, our stress becomes our children’s stress, exacerbated by the college prep and entrance process; it has all become one insidious and dangerous cycle, contributing to epidemic rates of clinical anxiety & depression. And along the way we have totally lost sight of the meaning and purpose of education, perhaps because we’ve lost track of our own moral and spiritual compass.

Our greatest thinkers and visionaries –  from the ancient Greeks through the renaissance to modern times – saw a deeper meaning and higher purpose for education.  Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Michelangelo could have been talking about a human being as much as a piece of art when he said, “Every block of stone of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”.  According to Maria Montessori, education was intended to be a “preparation for life” and a means for the person to “discover himself”.  More recently the Dalai Lama talked about the “inner values” that should be taught to counterbalance the emphasis on the “material values” which pervade our society.

What does this have to do with the tragedy in New Zealand?  As with so many countries around the world, the USA has seen a dramatic rise in the number of hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 954 hate groups in 2017 – up from 917 documented in 2016.  According to a March 15, 2019 CBS report, the FBI has bout 900 active domestic terrorism cases that include cases tied to white supremacists. The USA has seen a rise in violence by white supremacists, including the murders of 11 people at a Pittsburgh Synagogue last fall.  There was also a deadly clash at a white national rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the murders of nine people at the church in Charleston in 2015 and the deaths of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Gun violence takes young lives each and every day in cities across America.

In this climate of extreme violence, political figures stoke fear and anger to their advantage, while the internet has become a forum for expressions of the most vile and debased ideas and perspectives. We as adults, like our more vulnerable children, are left trying to tread water in the turbulent storm of traumatic images and reports that fill our television and computer screens, the emotional scars of which we have not even begun to understand.  We are overwhelmed by it all,  and left wondering what have we become and where we are going.  But maybe the better questions are, who do we want to be and what do we most want for our children?

To answer to these questions will require us to do a major reset, to pause and deeply reflect upon the hyper focus we have created on test scores and the insane competition around college readiness, where students feel that they have to take AP classes to be competitive and that even a 4.0 GPA is not high enough to stand out.  Not only is this path destructive for everyone involved, it is far, far removed from the actual meaning and purpose of education. I have informally asked parents in many different forums over the years what they most wish for when they think of their child’s future, and the most common answer is that in the end they just want their children to be happy. Simple as that right? Well not so much anymore.

If we truly want our children to be happy, then we must contemplate and co-create learning environments that balance cutting edge academic classes with courses that foster personal well-being and community.  We have to incorporate opportunities for students to experience cultures and religions beyond their own neighborhoods in order to broaden their understanding and expand their comfort zone.  We should encourage community service activities that help build empathy and human connection.  We can foster forums for dialogue on race and gender so that students feel safe expressing who they are and learn to listen to other perspectives.

In the big picture, in addition to our academic goals, we should strive to instill inner values such as courage, compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness and respect ( to name a few)  – and to imbue our students with the belief that a life well-lived is one in service to something bigger than one’s own self–interest.  And no, the aim is not to nurture naïve and passive lambs that will inevitably get devoured by the wolves of the real world.  If we must choose an animal metaphor, let’s help create lions of the human spirit who are discovering themselves as human beings, who are passionate about contributing their gifts to the betterment of the world, and who won’t shrink from the immense and daunting challenges we face as nation and a world.  Because whether they become leaders in the traditional sense or not, the moral fiber our children carry within them will impact those around them, whatever sphere of life they may eventually be in.

To bring this conversation full circle, the triumph of love over hate is ultimately a struggle in the human heart.  The journey to overcome ignorance, bigotry, prejudice and injustice begins with the choice of what we value as parents and educators.  As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  The path toward creating a more harmonious and peaceful world is educating a new generation of self-aware, inspired and broad-minded leaders.  In order to renew our commitment to those goals it’s time to reexamine ourselves.  It may mean we have to let go of some things we thought were important, but things that we know are not truly what life is all about in the end.  For hatred to be stemmed and ultimately overcome, we need capacities of the heart as much as new ways of thinking.  It’s a long journey, but as they say, it begins with a single step.

 

 

 

 

 

Soul Space

Water ripples - sunset

Soul Space

We find our soul-space by the clues

We’ve left before, and enter with a leap,

Like a pebble dropping into the placid lake,

Suddenly we are at the center of waves rippling

Beyond the humdrum of the day to day

Toward possibilities we haven’t imagined.

Our breath spreads silently outward

From still awareness in the deep pool of being;

In our soul-space we are for a moment

The center of the universe unfolding,

We are both the origin of our seeking

And the destination we seek.

Before the waves disappear back to their source,

We carefully place a few words, like buoys,

Where we splashed into joyful abandon,

So we can know the way to return.

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