Bright Futures

When I was about twenty, a girlfriend asked me if I was a pessimist or an optimist. Being that I was sensitive and a little melodramatic, I had recently decided that wisdom’s highest expression was a kind of informed despair. Despite this, I thought for a moment and replied, “I’m an optimist.”

If I were a pessimist, I don’t think I’d ever get anything done. I have a friend who worked very hard a number of years ago to transform education. He succeeded on a very small scale, but obviously things in the classroom still remain essentially as they were 150 years ago. Whenever he talks about education now, his ideas are always forward-looking and refreshing, but it is unlikely he will ever be a part of changing education because he has become a pessimist. People, he has come to believe, are rotten and stupid and narrow and hopeless – not all of them, but somewhere in the last twenty years the scales were tipped for the worse.

I make a point not to talk to him about education now. I think of him whenever I listen to people like James Bach or Sir Ken Robinson discuss how we learn. Much of what these men are saying now my friend has been saying since the 60’s, but these two men, and many other men and women like them, are optimistic. Which is to say they remain committed to the idea that humanity can—and indeed must—evolve. Change may be slow, but it is inevitable, and it is never corrosive, at least not in the long run.

I’ve heard it said that pessimism is a sign of intelligence. This may be so, but it is only a sign of intelligence unmoored from wisdom. Wisdom is always an expression of life’s unshakable balance. Do not argue for the balance; as with the balance you find on a tightrope, you can only feel it—there is no evidence for this balance beyond you standing tall. Pessimism and despair are nothing more than the mind’s cry for help. Life, whether we complain about it or not, moves ever forward. The optimist accepts this and assumes the future is some place he’d like to be, since that is where he is headed; the pessimist has decided that any future his mind cannot predict is not a future he wants any part of.

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A Beautiful Exchange

Today’s Daily Minute has Sir Ken Robinson talking about writers and money. This is a topic I have visited a number of times on this page, and for good reason. Robinson makes the point that the writers he knows write not specifically for the money but simply to write.

Sometimes, however, this advice can sound like a kind of sour grapes. That is, “I don’t know how to make any money writing so I don’t really care about the money but boy do I wish I could make some more money writing.” Robinson, however, goes on to say that he has also known many people who have made a lot of money and many of them are still searching for meaning in their lives.

I spent many, many years making money by doing things that I by no means despised, but never came close to loving. There is a natural enough cycle to life where for a certain number of years merely being able to earn any kind of living and buy your own groceries and pay your own rent and maybe even buy your own car provides a certain satisfaction: Look, I can survive on my own in the world. But this satisfaction can wear thin, sometimes early in our working years, sometimes later, but nearly always. The exchange of time for money in this way begins to take on the sour reek of prostitution.

Emily Dickenson was supposed to have viewed selling her poetry as “auctioning her soul.” I love Dickenson, but I think she had it all wrong. Most books are written first for the pleasure of the writer, but selling this work, in a way, has everything to do with validating the soul. To be paid money for what you love to do, for what you would do whether you were paid to do it or not, is a beautiful exchange. To me, it is life exactly as it was meant to be led.

There can be a strange, Calvinist guilt that might accompany receiving a check for doing work you love, because the work might not feel like work. But the old work, the work you needed to do but didn’t necessarily want to do, that should by no means be our standard of honest living. That is the antithesis of earning what we call an honest living. Saying what do not want to say, doing what you do not want to do—these are all lies of a sort. Honesty is the expression of truth, which for all of us is the expression of ourselves, which extends from how we greet our neighbors to how we earn our living.

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Teach Them Well

I have featured a number of authors lately – Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, James Bach – and might be interviewing another (an eleven year-old writing/teaching prodigy, but we shall see) who deal in one way or another with education. Until I had children, my own thoughts about education could be boiled down to: get through it and then get on with real life because you’re going to have to teach yourself everything you really want to learn anyway.

I continue to feel that way, more or less, but the fact remains school dominates our early life, returns again once we have children, and maybe a third time with grandchildren. In my own life, my sister is a devoted public school teacher, and my father-in-law started two experimental schools in the 70s (School One and A.L.P., for you Rhode Islanders).

But why is Author interested in education? Because in the end every writer, just as every person, is a teacher and a student. What we call education or a school system is us wrangling—officially—over what it means to be human. At some point, students—and particularly child students—will ask, “Why do I have to do this?” This is an entirely legitimate question, and our answers, from, “Because I said so,” to, “Because it’s what we do,” to, “I don’t know,” reveal to us our current view of life, sometimes buried beneath useless habitual thinking.

I sometimes think of my characters as students in this way. They ask me, “Why do I have to go talk to the king?” Because I said so isn’t going to work. Those characters, just like our children, want to be themselves, and so I have to find the real reason my hero would go to the king. This search for the character’s self is the joy and challenge of writing.

The same is true of teaching. All we are ever teaching is how to be ourselves. Strange to think because every route toward the self is different, but the route is never the point. That the route exists is the point. I’ve known good teachers and I’ve known bad teachers and all the good teachers share one thing in common: a knowledge that life is interesting and meaningful. Without that understanding, you can never teach anything, you can only share your misery and hope your students reject you emphatically enough to wake you from your nightmare.

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A Simple Recipe

One of the many perks of this job is the people I get to meet. When I saw a Youtube video of Ken Robinson speaking at the TED Conference, I thought, “I’d love to meet him some day.” That day came on a rainy afternoon in January, and I was not disappointed.

There is nothing quite so reassuring as being around someone who is doing what he loves to do. In Ken’s case, what he loves to do is to talk about people doing what they love to do, which is what I love to talk about as well. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of disagreement in the room. If you haven’t had a chance to watch his interview, I encourage you to do so.

If I had a recipe for peace on earth, it would be this: everyone do what they love to do. Sounds simple, I know, but the best solutions usually are. Whenever I am around people like Ken I understand that you are always safest near the people who are the happiest, and the people who are the happiest are the ones who are doing what they love. It is an endless cycle of contentment.

The trouble always comes when we think we can’t do what we love to do. Sometimes we think other people are keeping us from doing what we love to do. Sometimes we think we could be happy if only the government would spend less money or more money. Sometimes we think we could be happy if only our husband or wife would finally show us they love us as much as they say they love us. The list goes on.

I have narrowed my list of people standing between me and what I love to do, and he frequently occupies the chair in which I now write this blog. Yet I love to write this blog, and so, for the moment anyway, He—the insidious He, the vampire He—has left the room. Oh, how simple it is. Peace is never the result of winning a battle with your fears or your enemies or your government, peace is the result of seeing there was never a battle to be fought in the first place.

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