Monday, July 12, 2021

Ancient Wisdom

Victorian novelist George Eliot insisted, against the "science" of her era, that if science could see freedom, it would be evident in the mind's ability to alter itself. The mind "is not cut in marble -- it is not something solid or unalterable," but rather as "active as phosphorus," engaged in a continual process of becoming. She was writing about this 150 years ago, a phenomenon that scientists have only recently confirmed and named as neurogenesis. Neuroscience did not "discover" anything, nor did Eliot for that matter. It is ancient wisdom that can be found in the mythologies and stories of Homo sapiens around the world.

Today, scientists are breathlessly telling us that we've been wrong for so long: emotions are not products of the brain, but rather the body. Our feelings are actually rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our insides. Furthermore, these material feelings are an essential element of the thinking process. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells us, "The mind is embodied . . . not just embrained." Of course, this is exactly what poet Walt Whitman was writing about when he wrote "I sing the body electric," again more than a century ahead of the science, but also behind the ancient wisdom.

These aren't exceptions. It's very rare for a scientist to "discover" something that hasn't already been discovered by methods other than the scientific one. Much of what makes our science is simply modern humans planting their flags on territory that is already occupied by ancient wisdom. When colonizers first encountered the farming practices of native farmers on the contentment of what we today call North America, they perceived them as lazy: they didn't bother to till the soil, they didn't plant single crops in straight rows, they left potentially productive fields fallow, they never harvested the entire crop. Today we see that the modern farming methods introduced by Westerners have destroyed and depleted our farmland, which now requires increasing applications of chemicals in the form of fertilizer and insecticides in a vicious cycle. Scientists are only now, four centuries later, coming around to understanding that the Native American approach was the only sustainable one and are now, desperately, trying to persuade farmers around the world to go back to the old ways. 

Only now are scientists "discovering" that food is medicine.

Only now are scientists "discovering" that our fate is tied up with fate of the planet.

Only now are scientists "discovering" that we are not somehow special, but rather equal partners in the web of life.

Scientists still haven't "discovered" the essential nature of such vital forces as energy, consciousness, and spirit. These things are not unknowns, but rather ground that has already been covered by the ancient stories.

Science is one method for knowing. It has the virtue of being replicable. It is an attempt to identify "truth" as it exists for all humans. It is a process of taking things apart to see how they work. It is obviously a fruitful avenue for understanding our world, but it can only address those things that are replicable. It can only find truths that are universal. It can only examine those things that can be taken apart. It is a method that has come to dominate our educational systems, while adults, equipped with out-of-date science (because the latest knowledge is always still in laboratories), seek to "teach" this narrow, Johnny-come-lately curriculum of "facts" to the ignorant savages who are, naturally, resistant to being colonized.

The scientific method as applied to education creates the sort of hierarchy that simply isn't found in nature. It requires separating ourselves from the world to view it from the outside, an entirely unnatural perspective. Its pride in "discovery" causes us to dismiss everything that came before. Indeed, the history of colonization is one of actively destroying any wisdom that is not approved by science.

Of course, science has its place in human knowledge, but the evidence is clear: wisdom is at least equally found in art, in storytelling, in emotion, and in connection. These are the real teachers because they teach without the hierarchy and detachment of direct instruction. They "teach" from within the web of life, which is the only natural place for humans.

The longer I've worked with young children, the more I've come to understand that there is very little we can "teach" people. We can provide example, we can offer counsel, we can nurture, protect, and provide, but we really can't teach anything, not in the sense dictated by science. That's because we are designed to learn through connection, not data or information. It is the connections we make and our experience of those connections that teach us pretty much everything worth knowing.

This is the ancient wisdom. It comes to us through the Duwamish and Ojibwe and Tlingit. It comes to us through the Māori and the 400 some peoples we today refer to as Australian Aboriginals. It comes to us through the Maasai, Berbers, and Pygmies of the African continent and the Tibetans, Bhils, and Hmong of Asia. It is ancient wisdom that has probably lived within us since before we evolved into Homo sapiens

It is wisdom we acquired, not from taking the bird's eye view, not from dismantling, but rather from connecting with what we today call "nature." Science has caused us to forget how to learn from nature, even as our children are born knowing it. We see it as they strive, from their first breath, to connect, through play, with anything and everything. We see it in the breathtaking rapidity with which they learn impossibly complex things like how to walk and talk and understand their world. 

Nature doesn't instruct: it connects. It communicates with us by its being. Connection is how we learn about what it is, what it does, what it can give us, and what it requires from us. That's the part that science cannot see. We may be capable of learning through instruction, data, or information, but none of it will ever make any sense unless we start and end with connection.

For the past couple decades, when I look back on my journey as an educator, it is one of connection with the "ignorant savages" we call children. They are born knowing nothing of science, but they know everything about what the rest of us have forgotten. They know that the imperative is to connect. That is why they snuggle into our laps. It is why they roll in the grass. It is why they delight in a shadow or twig or the wind in their hair. This is education. This is ancient wisdom.

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