Sunday 1 October 2017

Vital Education (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 2 Autumn 2017

At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean. (Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

By Andrew Porter

It would be fun to be light and breezy about the topic of education, but it seems an increasingly stiff breeze confronts us, with battleship gray clouds to windward. While some in response merely button up their jacket to the chin, others are setting about putting in a reef, and taking another look at the chart. The education world presents to us the sky in two directions, one the dark squall line of bad sailing in one direction, and the bright blue sky off in the other direction. On our boat in the middle, we consider the ideal blue out there to leeward and are not at all sure the squall will slide by us. We share thoughts about it with our boat-mates.

We like the idea and fact of education because it offers lavish expansion. We sense only the elasticity of the current lineaments, but foresee that it may, this decade or this century, show itself to be a good water-field for sailing instead of a very poor one. It may reveal itself of such expansion that our ignorance finally comes to light. 

Education in theory offers power to our potency. Full potency, as the germination of seeds teaches us, is in the living—a joining of the actual and potential. We learn from the green, organic world that potentiality and actuality never live in separate camps, nor separate tents, and if in separate but close bodies, well, there’s a lot of potential there.

What is it we shall call this singularity, this complete and thorough integration? We currently call it life, which we imagine as a kind of replete vitality, burgeoning and strong, delicate and assured. Inside becomes outside, outside becomes inside—and structures and timely processes, in the growth toward maturity, hold. What is this astonishing dance with resilience and reason, this sobriety with such elastic abandon? Life would not be life without continual potential. And education is meant mainly for performing this ceremony between the actual and potential.

The reason Finnish schools have become a model of sanity, balance, and education done right is that they pay attention to body, mind, and spirit. They do not let any of the three wander off and be left to its own devices. The ideas behind these schools and others like them are about the whole person, the whole teacher, and the whole community.

This wholeness suggests that fullness might come from education. How we might creatively craft it seems like an old question, but it is fresh as can be. What other models do we have that might serve to guide us in good directions?

 A Polynesian navigator sailing with Captain Cook could tell, at any given time and thousands of miles away, what direction Tahiti was. Such a traditional navigator, practicing his skills in the modern day—2500 miles away from Tahiti—says to those who would learn from him on the canoe: keep the vision of the island in your mind—if you lose that, you are lost. As he utilizes the stars and waves and sun and color of the sky, he conceives of pointing the canoe in a certain direction and bringing the island to the canoe. The parallels—or pontoons—to our lives and our voyages, whatever longitudinal position we are in, are obvious.

Polynesian wayfinding has a corollary in the navigation of education, which, we might say, also ‘involves navigating on the open ocean without sextant, compass, clock, radio reports, or satellite reports’. (According to Education, for teacher and student, is non-instrument navigation, and the preparation is not for the current materialistic world, but for some depth of life. Are we developing the skill to navigate life, with its vast reaches of water and its beautiful small islands, by natural means? What are the parameters of this wayfinding? This is the perennial question.

‘The wayfinder depends on observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea. Wayfinding was used for thousands of years before the invention of European navigational instruments.’

Has education gotten to the point of sincerely believing that the dome overhead will provide the most significant answers? Does our philosophy of education need to consult something, or will it always be adamant that it will rely on the non-natural? Is it only a question of memorising where the stars come up and where they go down?
‘The star path also reads the flight path of birds and the direction of waves.’
We read ourselves into the environment in the process.

 In life as in canoe voyaging, ‘you cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are. You only know where you are (in this kind of navigation) by memorizing where you sailed from. That means constant observation’. Mau, master non-instrument navigator as well as mentor and teacher, says you must compact ‘every time you change course, every time you slow down’ into a mental construct that allows and creates a continuity with integrity. You may be even now in the ‘box’, among a shield of islands, from which Tahiti is only 170–180 miles away.

Latitude matters. What will tell you? The stars. Education should awaken us to see them.
‘How do you tell direction? We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun when it is low down on the horizon. Mau Piailug has names for how wide the sun appears, and for the different colors of the sun path on the water”. And sunrise, as they say, is the most important part of the day. "At sunrise you start to look at the slope of the ocean—the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from.’ 
To his young students, Mau  says, ‘Everything you need to see is in the ocean, but it will take you twenty more years to see it.’ One student says that Mau ‘can be inside the hull of the canoe and just feel the different wave patterns as they come to the canoe, and he can tell the canoe's direction lying down inside the hull of the canoe. I can't do that.’

Education, as a reflection of the world, too often foists the non-natural on us, even as a goal, but we are all students — are we open to better outcomes? In the course of life, do we know the signs? Birds, at dawn, go ‘about 130 miles out… but when the sun goes down, [they] will rise up from the water so [they] can see, and will go straight back to land… The flight of the bird is the bearing of the island.’ 

Mau, correcting a student’s course north to the opposite direction, south, says to ‘wait one hour and you will find the island you are looking for’. After an hour, Mau ‘gets up on the rail of the canoe and says, “The island is right there”.’
‘And we all stood up and we climbed the mast and everything and we just couldn't see it. Vision is not so much about what you do—but how you do it. It is experience. Mau had seen in the beak of a bird a little fish. He knew that the birds were nesting, and they were taking food back before they fed themselves.’

Education, perhaps, is like being a loggerhead turtle hatchling, under the cover of sargassum, growing and learning. What is all this development for? we might ask. For holistic and intellectual development, we say, to prepare young people for all aspects of life—the working world, the culture, society, and individual interests. But to the extent education is meant to prepare them for society, I still ask: you mean the current mode of society or for an imagined society vastly improved, on the other side of a revolution? Isn't education the crux of the conceptions that would underpin going far beyond current society, which would surely be a Tahiti?

Present conditions in the world proclaim they are master, and we are serving slaves. Things as they are assert their claim to adamancy and dominance. But we must, to break our subservience, have the last word with them, as well as words with them before. Education, from whatever end it is engaged in, is worse than substandard if it is not such a chrysalis. Education should be a process of becoming more discerning, at current society's expense — more savvy to connect only with the world as fully vitalized by nature and by the fullest, most ethical forms of humanity. If we shirk responsibility on this issue our education fails appallingly.

Imagine preparing students for an improved world that doesn't, by most standards, exist — how wonderful! Butterflies flutter and live by innate powers; we must summon ours, yet with a similar naturalness. I want to be principally educated in the depths to which nature is illuminative about my best self, and how collective selves fit into that. It is a rich and far-reaching field of study. Present conditions — some tawdry, convoluted, lifeless, some wrong, ugly, and unawake — wither and desiccate in such learning.

You may agree that education is too vested and invested in society. Education’s particular duty is not only to be a retreat and respite from vicious, ignorant, or inertial societal ways, but an entire denunciation and demolition of them. It may be, however, that the prominent voice is: ‘Society is a mess and we know it. Nobody expects it to be redeemed, but we will deal with it the way it is. It's downright annoying, I know, but we've gone well past trying to change it for the better; our motto is: deal with it or get out of it.’

Education can properly do neither. Education that lives up to its name is a radical idea that does not ‘deal with’ society and its foibles any more than does a splendid, singular individual whose shadow society, later, partly becomes. Education also cannot retreat completely from society, but must articulate society's complete renovation, which is, on the scale from mild reform to radical revolution, four-fifths of the way to the latter. 

If education, then, is to guide us and free us, let it be for what we wish we did find, and will, because of the thoroughgoing sincerity of our wish. This aspiration may involve comedy or tragedy, but the process of education rightly involves renewal and regeneration of high aspiration grounded in nature’s potency. 

There is nothing more important in education than educating young people in what power properly is. It is to exercise freedom through the power of rightful wishing. Power is not, as some would have it, making everything conform to your life; rather, power is making your life conform to everything real, sound, and natural. Education has the chance to teach us that if the world knew what power is, it would be saved. The current forfeiture of power is sad and even terrifying. If education were geared to this one life-lesson, that a tool is best when power is equal between you and it, between human and nature, between freedom and order, everything efficacious would flow from it.

But as it is, the realm of education seems to feel itself largely powerless.

 Are the great majority of schools, we might ask, educating students away from their proper education? Education today is not a Shaolin temple, with master and pupil talking about the ripples on the water to learn intimately about flow and constancy and the exigencies of life. But isn’t education capable of riding youthful wonder better, of lighting a view of, say, environmentally responsible living, and thereby being a revolutionary force? 

Plato says in the Laws:
‘Education is the way to produce good men, and, once produced, such men will live nobly…’ 
– but I feel a slight chill in the spine, caused by fear and hope, when I read him say:

‘When [education] takes a false turn which permits of correction, we should, one and all, devote the energy of a lifetime to its amendment.’ 

How shall we assess the current schemes of amendment; do educators at all levels retain the ability to see what a true turn would be? Education can be started afresh, even, or most particularly, for ourselves. What else but the Good in some form is the end which children’s education seeks to fulfill in phases? What else could we possibly allow to be the means? 

What is all the education worth if you cannot recognise the good? Is education to make us savvy to the fact that there are competing goods? Are the long-extended roots and branches of the good outside the curriculum? Then education is outside itself.

 Education should not be afraid go to the roots of what it is hoping to inculcate. It should ask the big and basic questions: What is the end we seek? Do we distinguish between a straight-cut ditch and a meandering stream? What is the capacity of a human, and for what? Where and when students — which we all are — will receive beneficent influences is hard to reason out. We know the general scope of productive influences but we tend not to know where they will alight upon us. Look how students have different interests and bents at different ages. Has their wonder become lost?

The great force of intuition, as Emerson says, is too quickly channeled into tuition. How can a sound first instinct change properly in the process of learning and experience, and how can further experience suggest a new intuition?

 An ideal education, perhaps, says:
‘Follow your early intimations. Spend time on the suggestions of your wonder. Time and life, like fruit, are perishable. Appreciate the day with those early insights. Let your imagination play with its newly-sprung intimations, and run with their morning aspect. Let them lead you. Strengthen your legs in walking with them, and feel the flexible vitality of life.’

As education seeks to stimulate and extend natural development, it can have, as an objective for its students, wonder as a state of being. Wonder tends to see equally well within and without, and sacrifices neither the material nor spiritual. Wonder is nixed at too great a cost. And the most educated will tell you that learning tends to happen most powerfully in the various legitimate ways of being glad to be alive. This wonderment engenders the capacity for being further clued in to the richness of life, that amalgam of innocence and experience. One is not able to be fully glad to be alive without intellectual honing, familiarity with value, and realisation of connection. 

A colleague at school told me his opinion that kids are winding up not sufficiently educated. Alienation, lack of values, and unconcern for reality are, alarmingly, on the increase. What happens to the richness of life in this? Can the necessary and desirable aspects of living be deepened in a ‘dumb’ education system? For instance, if it is crucial that we alter education to guide people in living much more ecological lives, in tune with the health of the planet, don’t we need to start with vision and passion? What will bring about a series of curricula to vastly improve our relationship with the Earth? If we believe with Henry David Thoreau that ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the world’, how shall we understand or assimilate to that capitalised term?

Becoming in tune with reality, near and far, is perennially the boiling away of a number of illusions. The fullness and freedom of life depends on education, crucial in refining what is best to learn. A more sustainable, organic, and ecological life presents itself to the wise as highly desirable; how is education adept at crafting this both practically and theoretically? Education is an expeditious way to get to the most savored moments. Life seems to indicate that it wants to see itself in its most salubrious and complete form.

A former academic dean told me she said to a student that the purpose of education is neither to go to college nor to get a job, but to deal with life when a safe falls on your head or you have a withering disease. I added that education has great meaning not just in bad circumstances but in good ones too. If, without education, I said, you can only go to one-tenth the depth of happiness and understanding, you are as bad off as if you can't cope. 

Education at its best makes you glad that your capacities are taxed to be equal to what it illuminates. Greater savvy in distinguishing between what will be good and what will not be good is worth the price of admission. A safe falling on your head is only the half of it. What about when the safe of truth falls three feet from your head into the soft sand, and opens to reveal ingots of potential happiness, diamonds of ready understanding, and emeralds of latent life? That is when education, properly called, wells up and out into being, achieving equilibrium with goodness. 

So education is Janus-faced, looking to the dark gray sky to windward and to the cerulean blue to leeward. An ease of the sheets will send us more toward the lofty lighter end of things. Then there is one face, sunset-lit, letting the storm clouds, perchance, slide by. When the stars come out and the sky is clear, that face will front light still, reflecting the sparkle aloft in its own orbs, dreaming of tomorrow’s compelling breeze.

Andrew Porter is an experienced educator in the United States, and has taught English in both private and public schools.

Address for correspondence: Andrew Porter <>


  1. Agree with you Porter. A better education system helps to spread new ideas and allows a true development of mind, no matter what the age is Scholarships, cultural events, educational trips etc are things to make the learning healthy and interesting.

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