Bringing Wisdom Back To Education
Note: this is very heavily edited due to it's length.
The theme that I've been asked to speak to is wisdom. E.F. Schumacher, the great British economist, says "We are far too clever today to survive without wisdom." There is so much evidence at our fingertips, especially around the ecological crisis and the youth crisis that points to how we have lost touch with wisdom. I think we have essentially lost touch with wisdom because our educational systems and our political, economic, and even religious systems during this modern era, ran from wisdom into the lap of knowledge.
A number of years ago I was invited to give a series of talks at a university and I was told "You can give four talks... we'll give you the title for the first, the others you make up your own titles." I said "Okay, what's the first title?" They said, "Wisdom and the University." Well, I have to tell you, I sweated and sweated over that talk. I couldn't create a talk. So an hour before I was to speak I took a hot bath. I said, "Maybe a revelation will come to me in the bath tub." And the revelation came, and it said, "Tell the truth." I thought "That's pretty simple." So there I was in front of an audience of about 300 faculty and students and this was my opening line. I said, "Frankly, talking about wisdom in the university today is a bit like talking about chastity in a brothel." I tell you, the audience moved.
I wish I could say that things have changed a lot since then. But I don't feel they have. I've worked in academia for 25 years; I've kept a foot in there and a foot in the church, a pretty masochistic vocation I have chosen — because I believe essentially in both. I believe in the spiritual experience that learning is, and the power when it connects to wisdom, and I also believe in the potential of religion to recover its real task which is to teach spirituality.
The university was invented in the 12th Century... The West was rediscovering the cosmos. What "university" meant was this: "A place to find your place in the universe."... Today you go to university and you find your place in sociology, or art, or economics, or business, or history, or science; that's due to the Newtonian Revolution. That's due to the modern world set where we've been taught that the universe itself is really built on little pieces. The university today is far more indebted to the mistaken and disproved Newtonian physics of the modern era than it is to its original inspiration which was embedded in wisdom.
Lester Brown, of the World Watch Institute, who collects data on the state of the earth says that today every living system on Earth is in decline. Every living system on Earth is in decline. We're destroying 27,000 species a year. This is the greatest rate of destruction on this planet in 60 million years; the greatest destruction of species since the dinosaurs. At the rate that we are going, in 50 years... that means when you young students are grandparents there will be no species. That is the direction in which we are headed.
Now remember that the opposite of wisdom is folly, and we are headed in a direction of folly. No being would want to foul its nest in the ways in which we are fouling ours or to bring down the other species with which we are so interdependent, not only for food and clothing and shelter and shade and energy, but we are also interdependent with those species for their beauty. They feed our hearts and our souls and our music and our poetry and our dance and our ritual. To think that the path we are on in 50 years will leave us utterly lonely and indeed incapable of survival is really something to mediate on because it is a question of wisdom.
We have been developing powers around knowledge for three-hundred years. Unfortunately, our universities are still essentially knowledge directed. I call them "knowledge factories." What we need today are wisdom schools, especially for the young who, of course, will bear the burden and are bearing the burden of the ecological destruction that is all around us. In California alone one out of three children are living in poverty, the highest percentage of anyplace in the nation. There is not less money in this country; it is being hoarded by fewer and fewer people. Fewer and fewer people are making decisions.
These are some of the realities of the time in which we live; the facts of life of our time. It is a time for not taking for granted. We cannot take health for granted anymore. We can't take healthy soil, forest air, water, ozone, for granted anymore. The reason we can't is that our civilization, so addicted to knowledge, has fled from wisdom. Knowledge is very, very powerful. If it is not tempered and contoured by greater visions, like justice, compassion, beauty, grace and thinking of the next generation and the seven generations to come — then indeed, it is dangerous. Unfortunately, many of our educational systems in the West are still very dangerous places.
So what are some of the elements of wisdom that can help us to redeem not only education but our professions as well? When you look at our work world today -- when you look at law, religion, economics, and education, what you realize is we separated learning from education, we separated justice from law, we separated stewardship from commerce. And where does this separation begin? It begins at the university. What do lawyers, bankers, business people, theologians and so forth, all have in common? Most of them pass through the university. The university is like a funnel that unfortunately has damaged the heart and the conscience of our people, because it has sought knowledge at the expense of wisdom...
In the West we don't believe something until science puts its stamp of approval on it as a rule. Yansh was one of the first scientists to come out of the closet as a mystic, as so many are doing today. He was saying, "What I am talking about from my scientific research, that there's mind in the universe is what the mystics have understood for centuries – eons. Now we can bring it together and it will enter our everyday life."
Our souls have shrunk during this modern era. Education and religion have often gone along with the shrinking. In the seventeenth century scientists concluded these believer types can be dangerous. In fact they said, "We better work out some kind of truce. We'll take the universe. You religious people, you take the soul." And, that's what happened. Scientists set out and discovered the power of the universe -- atomic power and other powers. But without a conscience, without wisdom. That's why we've had the destruction and the wars -- including the war against nature that we've had, right up through today. Religion meanwhile, took the soul and became more and more introspective, rendered it punier and punier. The good news is that scientists themselves are bringing the psyche and cosmos together again. When mysticism and science come together you have an explosion of cosmology and you have new energy. And wisdom can happen again.
Wisdom is not just about knowledge, it's about love. ... Because knowledge alone does not teach you gratitude, reverence, a sense of the sacred -- only wisdom teaches those things. Hildegard von Bingen of the twelfth century wrote that, "If humanity breaks the web of justice, of creation, the web of justice that is all creation, then God's justice is to punish humanity." God is not up in the sky punishing us, but because we have part of a web of justice, if we break that relationship with the rest of creation, creation itself will wreak it's havoc on our species, which is what is happening.
When you fall in love, everything is affected. Your whole way of seeing the world is affected. Falling in love is not just about falling in love with another two-legged one. We need to fall in love with the forest and the soil and the water and the animals and the birds and poetry and music and the children that are to come and are to come and are to come. We have to make broader this experience of falling in love. And what a moment to do this because life itself is so jeopardized. Antoine Artaud, a French playwright who wrote in the 30's said, "It is right that from time to time, cataclysms occur that compel us to return to nature. That is to rediscover life." A very prophetic sentence. I can't imagine a sentence that applies more to the moment in which we live. A cataclysm is all around us; it's in the ecological disaster; it's in the despair among the young. It's in the despair among inner city people and other unemployed. It's in despair in the developing countries. It's in our prisons.
We're still clinging to models of education from Europe of the modern era, that are not working for young people today and certainly not for inner-city people. I'll tell you how to reinvent education. You reinvent it with ceremony, with ritual, with art and creativity. This is the ancient way to teach people. This is how indigenous people all over the world taught their young people, for tens of thousands of years. Why? Because you can't tell cosmology through books alone and lectures alone. The heart has to be opened up...
One of the lies of the modern era, and you still get it in academia, is that knowledge is value free. Don't tell me that building a nuclear bomb is value free. Don't tell me that creating machines that can tear down rain forests in a day that it takes nature 10,000 years to create is value free. Nothing humans do is value free. Nothing we give birth to is value free. We have to critique what we give birth to with a mirror of justice and of compassion. That's the test to put to our work and to our creativity.
Lester Brown, of the World Watch Institute, says that what we need is an environment revolution, comparable to the industrial revolution of 200 years ago or the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago. This is not a time for business as usual, religion as usual, education as usual, politics as usual. We have 10 years left. His data suggests that after 10 more years on the path we're on, we will not be able to undo the damage we are doing as a species to this planet and therefore to ourselves. He said, "I'm convinced the number one obstacle to bringing about the environmental revolution is human inertia." ...
Your energy is going to come from your awareness of beauty. It is when you fall in love with the rain forests that you will dedicate your life to defending them. Or when you fall in love with young people who are hurting that you will commit to them, to that work of compassion.
Nothing is more natural than wanting to celebrate together, wanting to laugh and to sing, because when our hearts are purified we see the world this way, we are blessed by everything and everything we look upon is blessed. It is that experience of blessing that is at the heart of all wisdom. That is what is needed at this moment in history. So I invite all of you to mediate on this: ask what can you do, given your gift, your talent, your know how, your connections, your role in life. What can you do to contribute to the environmental revolution to move our species from folly to wisdom?
The Celtic poet, W. B. Yeats says that "education is not about filling a pail, but about lighting a fire." It is the fire that each of you is here to set on the earth. Wherever you are destined to study, to work, to relate, to be citizens, to return, to infiltrate.
Relate with persons different from yourself. Whites with blacks, blacks with whites and Asians, young with older and vice versa; women with men and men with women, gays with straights; Christian with other-than-Christian; all of us with beings more than human. In this way community happens of a wider sort -- the tribal impulse that is in all is tamed somewhat. Tribalism is both a strength and a weakness. Pluralism is a moral imperative of our time and places. Diversity is our richness.
The only proof of good teaching, good education will be the news that three years from now and five years from now you will have not grown cynical in the struggle, but strong, that you have not let sadness overtake you; that you keep your heart and your mind green and moist and juicy; and that you are always learning; and continually in trouble. May the Spirit accompany you on your journey. Keep your passion for learning alive. May you be lit fires wherever you are, wherever you find yourselves studying and working, may the conflagration accompany you!
This essay is edited from a speech given by Matthew Fox at UCLA in the 1990's. Fox, a former Dominican priest, is the founder and director of the University of Creation Spirituality (now part of Naropa University) and the author of Reinventing Work, among others.