Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 2/26/2003 10:36 AM
Random Thought: Spirituality: My Ninth Word In My Dictionary of Good Teaching

I did things in reverse this morning. Drank coffee in the pre-dawn dark and then walked at dawn. Don't particularly know why. I guess I just felt like doing something different and see what it would feel like after a decade of doing it the other way. I'm going back to the pre-dawn walking.

Anyway, picture this: It's about 5:00 a.m. I was lingering, feeling lonely since my Susan is still in Charlotte, being still, observing, sitting by the fish pond in the 45 degree chill of the pre-dawn morning. Wisps of steam rose like swamp gas from my mellowing freshly brewed coffee. I was swaying to and fro on the glider thinking about the rippling impact Lacy has had beyond this campus. She certainly still is touching me. I had been taken back to that class as I was reading a book last night that spoke of the renown geneticist and Nobelist, Barbara McClintock. She was a very precise empirical observer and analytical thinker who studied DNA in corn. And yet, she said that in great science you have to somehow have to have "a feeling for the organism." She said that she learned to be involved with and nudge up to the kernel, "lean into it," and "think like corn." She used her combined reason and intuition in a way that led to breakthrough scientific discoveries. As I read that passage, the image came to mind of Michaelangelo listening to the life in that cracked, supposedly useless block of marble speaking to him as he chiseled out the David. These thoughts mingled with the contents of two juxtaposing e-mails I had opened about hour earlier which were in response to my Random Thought about Lacy. One was an inviting "well, it's been a while; I'm waiting for another word" e-mail from Kenny. The other was an uncomplimentary one from a professor who accused me of being a "pathogenic New Age Typhoid Mary."

My thoughts turned to the dark sky. It was turning into the purple of a fading bruise. Smudges of reds, oranges, gold, blues, whites appeared. Their richness began to deepen. That wonder of color was promising herald of the coming of a greater and life-sustaining light. That light broke through, finally, as the awesome disk of the sun inched above the horizon and turned the trees into spidery silhouettes. And the power and subtlety of what I now saw came into full view. The spiritual power became evident. I felt myself slipping out of my head and mind and into my heart and spirit. It's a feeling of overwhelming astonishment, of affectionate beauty, of childlike surprise, of great humility, and of a reverent touch by the spirit of life. And, as I got up to take my walk, I thought how so many of us get this same feeling when we're walking through a forest, strolling along a beach, meandering in a meadow, floating on a calm sea. And yet, how is it that so few of us get this same feeling when we stroll across our campus or walk into a classroom.

You know the questions we don't know how to answer tend to be the questions that get under our skin. I stumbled on and over such a question last week. At the end of Monday class, after we had finished presenting the "Bruce Springstein" project, a student asked me if spirituality belonged in education in response to my comment that every community "caught the spirit" of the project.

All this on the very day I had opened my report from my particular Strategic Planning Committee to the University Planning Council with something to the effect, "Let's get spiritual." I almost felt as if I was sounding like Alanis Morisette.

As I walked in the early daylight, all this converged on a word for Kenney like wagon spokes into a hub. It is a very much maligned word in the intellectual world of academia: spirituality.

Now, what did I mean when I told the Council I was going to get spiritual. I'm not sure. Spirituality is so ethereal. It's like an accordion that can be stretched to be inclusive and compressed to be excluding. I'm not sure what the members of the Council thought. I certainly wasn't going to turn my collar around, turn the dais into a pulpit, and give them a fist-banging, fire and brimstone sermon. And, I certainly wasn't going to sit down, cross my legs, touch fingers, and hum a meditating chant. I wouldn't fault them if they thought I would. So many of us intellectuals are so into our "objective" heads, we don't like that word. We restrict our understanding of it to a withdrawn monasticism, to a non-rational or irrational mysticism, to an otherworldliness, to something called New Age, to contemplation or meditation, to the conjuring occult, or to just old-time religion. Many, such as that uncollegeal professor, feel that it just doesn't have a proper place on our campuses, fearing it has some pathological effect on academic intellectual matters. It is as if to speak of spirituality in academia would be a violation of the First Amendment of an Academic Bill of Rights that requires a separation of head and heart.

Nevertheless, during the past decade I have come to the conclusion spirituality is a good word to associate with education no less than rationality. For me spirituality is what I'll call a "heart-knowledge." It is kind of gentleness and humility and compassion and respect. For me, spirituality is my juice in the battery without which I would be sitting in the parking lot going nowhere. It is my sense of wonderment and beauty. It's the energizing and guiding "why" to my "how" and "what." It is my sense of meaning and purpose. It does seem senseless to commit yourself to doing something without some view of why you're doing it and what it's value may be. After all, what I do each day has to be the embodiment of what I value most deeply. It has to be renewed each day; it has to be in front of me each day; it has to behind me prodding each day; it has to offer an awareness of purpose. It's the expression of my deepest held values; it is that sense of higher purpose that guides my daily life; it is that which guides my thoughts, directs my actions and creates my world. It is that which poses questions: Who am I? Where am I going? How will I get there? What is the picture of the future I wish to create? How do I want to act? What do I believe in? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to graduate? What is the meaning and purpose of it all? What makes all the work worthwhile?

The answers won't come in a Damascus moment bathed in light with some voice unfolding in a divine vision. The answers are not events. They are a journey, an experience, an on-going and never-ending process that you have to work at each day if you want it to work out. I have to spend a lot of time alone asking myself some tough questions. It's hard. It's about being honest. It's about what really matters. It's about why I am looking and asking in the first place. It's about whether I am prepared to see and listen. For some, it will be looking heavenward; for others it will be like looking into the bowels of hell; for still others it will be a feeling of serenity; for even others it will be a painful and uncomfortable headache. All this is all very important because we become what we think about, how we think about, and how we see things and others. It is that Talmudic adage that we do not see things as they are but we see things as we are. It is important because without meaning, what we do--information gathering, discovery, information transmission--is shallow and unimportant.

I remember when I first was confronted with the reality that I was swimming amid the dangerous rocks in the shallows. When I first heard my inner voice on that October morning in 1991, the first painful realization was that I was in a disguised rut placed there by fear, weakened self-confidence, low self-esteems, and a strong sense of failure. Then, slowly it hit me what I should be doing. And, I have since struggled to do, not by leaps and bounds, but in small steps--small continuing steps. In spite of how I felt at that moment, I discovered that I was more tenacious than I thought. I discovered my abilities, concentrated on repairing the worst things in me, and focused also on building the best qualities in me. It was like molting and shedding the old skin of "what's wrong with me" to wearing a new skin of a "what's right about me." I slowly stopped wrongly focusing my wrongs and slowly rightly began to build my rights. I redeployed by abilities that I always knew I had had: creativity and imagination. I began to develop abilities and attitudes which I didn't realize I had: compassion, passion, love, kindness, sympathy, empathy, authenticity, honesty, respect, patience.

Educating people is more than filling a void. It's more than merely offering a stack of information. It's more than merely developing analytical skills. Education is about nurturing potential. It is about strengthening strengths and helping students overcome their weaknesses. It about focusing on human strength and virtue as well as on academic rigor. We need to help students learn how to live as well as how to make a living. It doesn't take much to see, if you're looking, that there are human strengths that act in both realms, that act as breakwaters against the storms of life: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, confidence, self-esteem, belief, hope, honesty, perseverance, commitment, respect, kindness, to name a few. A student who has people skills and communication skills, who has faith in and hope for him- or- herself is less at risk for failure.

And, whatever that spirituality is, it cannot, it must not, be lost or rationalized away in the expediency of the accountable and assessing and quantifying moment. It is, after all, the blueprint of what is most important to us. If you believe in compassion, kindness, selflessness, sensitivity, aliveness, enthusiasm, patience, respect, exuberance, finding purpose, meaningfulness, risk-taking, uniqueness, awareness, amazement, respect, hope, honesty, love, faith, and serving you have to practice them daily. Wherever you go and whatever you do and whenever you do, they should be there. Spirituality is a wakefullness, an inspiration, a breathing of life, a sharpening, a deepening, a broadening and an exercising of these deeply-held beliefs. It is what I call an "abundant mentality." It may be what Martin Seligman would call "positive psychology." It may be what Norman Vincent Peale called "the power of positive thinking." That's why I have subtitled the two published collections of RANDOM THOUGHTS "The Humanity of Teaching" and "Teaching From The Heart," and have subtitled the two forthcoming volumes: "Teaching With Love" and "Teaching With Passion. Spirituality by any other name....

In any event, spirituality is the deepest of pedagogies. There's no mystery to it. I realized that, as I wrote in the introduction to the forthcoming fourth volume of published Random Thoughts, "It is not a lecture that makes the difference. It is not another assignment of a research paper that makes the difference. It is not another book read that makes the difference. I am convinced that real teaching and sticky learning develops from a much broader place than a subject. What makes the difference is engaging hearts for a meaningful future. Students will change when they are emotionally engaged and committed." As the adage goes: students may not remember what you say; they may not remember what you did; they will vividly remember how you made them feel.

Among the stuff hanging from one of the ledges of my computer desk is this a quote. "The best thing for being sad is learning. That is the only thing that never fails....That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting," Merlin tells young Arthur in Theodore White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. And yet, so often on our campuses, what passes for learning saddens, frightens, diminishes, disrespects. Grading, standardizing, the herding of students from room to room, sorting out, labeling, the extraordinary influence of business leaders in what goes on in our classrooms doesn't infuse a vibrancy on our campuses. It is an imposition of a mechanistic, social discipline, social efficiency that fosters a mindless competition rather than a sense of connection and community. Some more hard questions: Why has the life in such words as "education," "teaching," "learning" been sucked out? Why are those words and the things they point to as spiritless as "grades," "GPA," and "SAT?" Why have students had their child-like curiosity and love of learning stripped from them by the very process that is supposed to enhance those gifts? Why is education so often death-dealing rather than life-giving? Why is education more synonymous with suffocation than with resuscitation? Why is education, contrary to its meaning, thought more as a stuffing in than a calling forth? Why do students graduate with an escaping sense of "whew, it's finally over" than with an expectant sense of commencement? Look around. Too many students have their natural gifts of curiosity, daring, adventure, love of learning taken away from them by the very process that supposed to accentuate and stimulate them.

If we are going to talk of spirituality, I think we have to take into account six realities. First, each student is a very complicated and complex individual person with more interlacing and interacting lives than the one-dimensional label "student" allows. Second, each student's thinking and feeling and way of relating to the things and others in the world is unique and changes over time. Third, no one learns the same thing on the same day at the same rate. Fourth, the aim of education is to cultivate a multicity of meaningful relationships and a sense of community, to learn how to live and play out the many roles we each have and not just how to earn a living. Fifth, you can't reduce education to a single technique or to standardization. And finally, each student is a sacred human being, a "work" of beauty and wonder, a piece of the future, worthy of and commanding our respect.

I think a teacher who intertwines a spirituality with hard academics is one who is not just knowledgeable. He or she abides by these five principles, is at peace with him- or herself, whose life goals are not built around material success, who has deep personal integrity, who has an inner calm, and who often seems completely at home on the beach, in the woods and fields, as well in the classroom. People who have a sense of spiritual peace tend to smile, feel compassion, notice others, and enjoy the moment. They lose interest in conflict, and they don't worry. They are self-centered. They have a sense of service. And, they are resonating.

And the students? It's not different. Don't forget, as Daniel Goleman would remind us in his PRIMAL LEADERSHIP, when people--and that includes us--feel good, they work at their best. Good spirits, good work. Being noticed has a better chance of yielding notable work. Upbeat spirits lubricate mental and physical activity and performance. The more the Lacys are optimistic about themselves, the more creative, the more imaginative, the more helpful, the more accomplishing they have a chancing of being. It's common sense.

Spirituality is like a contagious yawn. I have found from my own experience that the depth of one's spirituality--a reflective life, attention to balance, an authentic self, a deep sense of service to others, a feeling of something greater than oneself, optimism and hopefulness, not only affirm the value of these experience--it rubs off and is a significant factor in students' and teachers' growth and well-being.

Ah, were we to be educators like the once often maligned Barbara McClintock--before she was awarded the Nobel Prize--as she was once described: to know there are mysteries, to know where the mysteries are, to be a mystic who does not mystify.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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