21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.

***

As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

Once in a blue moon: thoughts on death and the hereafter

It’s a clear, warm night, breezy and calm with a languorous quality to the air.  A night for strolling arm in arm along the surging beach; a night for hiking to the top of the mountain to gaze out at the moonlit landscape below.

It’s a blue moon night, the second full moon of the month–a rare occurrence, like a leap year, that feels like a gift of cosmic significance.

Such a night makes me want to take a chance and send out into the world some ideas that I have been holding close, not daring to share for fear of—of what?  Being scoffed at or ignored, I suppose.

But once in a blue moon, it’s important to reach beyond those fears and write from the heart.

So here it is.

***

On this quiet, moonlit night, I am thinking about death.

Every near-death experience describes a peaceful opening up to the light in the seconds after death—a state of rapture, a sense of leaving the body with all its frailties behind and moving into a new state of consciousness.

If death is just a transition into a different relation to matter and spiritual consciousness, then it is not something to be afraid of.  It is a change, but not a negative one, except to the extent that we remain attached to those we love and our dear, familiar places.

No other being on the planet frets so over death as does humankind.  All others simply pass, unworried, into the next stage of existence, whatever it may be.

If there is no reason to fear or worry about our individual deaths, then maybe there is no reason to fear or worry about the coming planetary cataclysm.

All of us living beings on the planet now will simply transition into whatever comes next, as we have many many times before in our cosmic journey from stardust to our current terrestrial physical forms.

Even the fear that we have of destroying our planet to such an extent that it will become unlivable is not tenable.  I don’t believe we could do such a thorough job of destruction as to make the environment completely and irrevocably toxic.

It may take millennia, but eventually, as it has in the past, the Earth will regenerate and give birth to new life forms.

And we, because we are part and parcel of this ecological sphere, will be part of those too.

Just as now we “remember” our past as sea creatures through the saltiness of our blood and the way we are able to swim underwater in our mother’s wombs, we will in some way retain the traces of our time as humans on the planet.

Hopefully the traits that have proven so destructive and psychotic will not persist: our violence, our fears and insecurities, our short-sightedness, our competitiveness, our greed.

It is possible that we are now living through a blue moon period of a much greater magnitude than just one lunar cycle.

Once in a blue moon, a dominant species—like the dinosaurs—collapses.  It is our fortune, for better or worse, to be living through this rare epoch, the last days of a closing era—and unlike the dinosaurs, to be conscious of what is taking place as it happens.

Of course, once in a blue moon, too, a species is able to pull back from the brink of extinction and keep going a while longer.

 ***

On this blue moon evening, I pay loving homage to the white hydrangeas glowing in the dusky interlude between sunset and moonrise.  The perky round sunflowers, the curly purple kale standing stiff and tall in my garden, the pulsing background chorus of crickets—I gather them round in a loving embrace and give thanks for this quiet blue moment, however long it may last.

Seeking balance in a bipolar holiday season

I have felt quite bipolar this Christmas season.

On the one hand, I have been going through all the familiar routines and patterns that I have observed at this time of year since earliest childhood: the planning, the extra shopping and cooking, the merry-making with friends and family, the sharing of gifts, especially for the children.  This is the way my parents always celebrated the winter solstice–not with any religious context, but simply as a festive time to light candles and keep a warm hearth against the winter dark and chill, bringing friends and family into the circle of friendship and good cheer, and exchanging gifts almost as a way of symbolizing the abundance accomplished in the previous year, and hoped for in the future.

On the other hand, I can’t escape the awareness of how well this playbook suits the capitalist economic model, which is relentlessly undermining the very abundance it seeks to enshrine, by pushing both the social system and the environment so hard that both are threatened with collapse.

The social conditioning that has made Christmas such a huge secular orgy of buying and exchanging gifts is very hard to break. If you don’t participate, you castigate yourself as a Scrooge, a boring wet blanket.  And you get depressed, too, because everyone else seems to be celebrating and having fun, while you–through your own perverse insistence on non-conformance–are off in a corner, worrying about the end of the world.

Yesterday, after opening presents by the tree and eating a cheery holiday brunch, my kids and I went for a long walk up the mountain that I can see from my front porch, the one over which the sun rises every morning.  Almost at our destination, we came through a narrow ravine in which several huge, craggy, beautifully colored boulders were scattered.

One presented one of those  classic overhangs that we know were used as sheltered campsites by indigenous hunters for millennia before the arrival of the Europeans.  Others were balanced with amazing precision, creating deep caves that we dared not explore in this season of hibernating bears.

There was an unmistakeable sense of age in that gathering of stones. Squinting my eyes, I could imagine the great glacier that had retreated down the mountainside, gouging out the flat ravine through which we now walked, and leaving the huge boulders scattered in its wake.  I could also imagine an even earlier time, when the rocks had been home to myriads of fish, with giant squid sleeping in the caves, instead of snoring bears.  Those great rocks have seen so much earthly history, standing majestically on their mountainside, unmoved by the shallower destinies of the flora and fauna that root on them or pass them by.

For a moment, putting my hand on the cold rough stone, my inner turmoil was calmed by a strong apprehension of the longer view of life on Earth.

It’s true that our current way of life, complete with its winking strings of colored lights powered by huge, dirty, out-of-sight mines, will not persist much longer.  Not with 7 billion people ravaging the globe like a swarm of ravenous locusts.

But these ancient stones have seen upheavals far more intense than what is currently on the horizon.  They have survived as silent witnesses to many cycles of destruction and regeneration.  They will be there, still silently bearing witness, after homo sapiens has become just another level on the fossil record of the planet.

There is strange comfort in this.

I still have every intention of trying to save our species–and so many other current inhabitants of Earth–by advocating for a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and a shift from a civilization based on endless competitive growth to one based on collaborative stewardship of a steady state economy and a healthy, fully bio-diverse ecosystem. In my second half of life, this is the cause to which I will dedicate myself, second only to seeing through my job as a parent and giving my kids as strong a start as possible with which to face our uncertain future.

But somehow it helps to stave off despair, knowing that no matter how badly we may fail as a species, the planet will endure, and find new ways of prospering, new ways of combining the building blocks of creation into wondrous, miraculously beautiful and clever forms.

That knowledge forms a peaceful ledge on which to perch, between the bipolar swings of the season.  You’ll find me on this perch for the next week or so, quietly collecting my energy and my will for the struggles ahead.

 

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