Teaching What Matters

Teaching What Matters

When I was in graduate school, I was fascinated by a play by Eugene Ionesco called The -Lesson. In it a young woman studies for the total doctorate, but she has a problem. She can add perfectly but can’t subtract. The teacher gets so upset by her failure to learn that eventually, he attacks her with a knife.

In school we learn how to add. We learn more and more facts, study more subjects, and acquire more diplomas and degrees. We learn enough to become a success at work and add more money to our bank accounts. But like the woman in the play, we are not good at subtraction. We don’t learn how to live with one person in a marriage or how to lose our freedom as we bring up our children. We don’t learn how to deal with jealousy and envy, emotions that afflict us when we don’t have what we want. We don’t learn how to deal with failures and setbacks and losses. We don’t learn what to do when our health is in the minus column. We don’t learn about the ultimate subtraction—death.

There are many aspects of ordinary life that apparently we believe we can accomplish naturally, unconsciously. It’s interesting that these things—marriage, illness, child-raising, depression, mortality—are fairly major concerns. Then why are these important items missing from the school curriculum? All signs indicate that we are not doing well in these areas, and yet major writers and artists have written about them, dramatized them, reflected on them, and written a vast quantity of music about them. There is much to study and to learn.

Maybe the problem is that we think of education as the dispensing of commodities, rather than ideas and values and elements of character. We want to train our children to get good jobs and make enough money to be comfortable. We want them to develop useful skills, not skills that will humanize them and turn them into cultured persons. We don’t see education as having to do with whether their marriages hold, their children grow up happy, or their spiritual and emotional potentialities find fulfillment. We have lost sight of the total doctorate.

Counseling psychologists know a lot about relationships and emotions, and hospice workers could give good lessons in dying and caring for the dying. There are many books on work, creativity, and vocation. But we leave all of this important material to chance or to workshops outside established educational structures. I would like to see children start learning, from the earliest grades, how to deal with strong emotions, how to make good relationships, and how to navigate sickness and change.

There’s no room in the curriculum, they will say. Yet I’m sure there are ways to make room. We could teach more intensely. We could offer more hands-on, in situ experience. Children could learn through apprenticeship. We could have less repetition and therefore more room for the education of the heart.

For example, I often write about mythology in my books. Schooled in the writings of C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman, I find mythology to be a rich source of insight into human experience. When I lecture about it, people often tell me wistfully that they studied mythology in school but never thought it was relevant to their lives. I’d call that a missed opportunity.

The same could be said of studies in literature, art history, and even math. You just have to probe beneath the surface to find personal meaning in anything that you study. Without proselytizing or forcing their view and values, teachers could help students explore the basic issues of meaning and emotion in any subject. Students could deepen their vision and their relationship with the human community.

In Ionesco’s play, the professor’s knife symbolizes the aggression that often emerges when we teach children. Maybe that aggression has a negative effect because it comes out of a vacuum of values, an educational environment where deep, human learning has no place. In a more visionary setting, this natural aggression could turn into a vigorous style of study and exploration that would be worth the hours spent and calling followed. Maybe if we taught the things that really matter, if we aimed at the total doctorate, we parents and teachers would be passionate in our love of the subject and love of our children.

Thomas Moore’s new book is A Life’s Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do (Random House, February 2008). See

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