Tuesday, August 24, 2021

"Our Only True Wealth And Salvation"

I would guess that if we were to survey the entire adult population with the question, "What is the purpose of education?" a sizable percentage, if not the majority, would put vocational training somewhere near the top of the list. It's an answer we hear on the lips of elected officials and policymakers of all political stripes, who always, when education is the topic, evoke those mythological "jobs of tomorrow" or the jingoism of "out-educating the Chinese." It's an answer that says our children must be made to serve the economy rather than the other way around. It's an answer that tells us that we are to be okay with teaching our youngest citizens that they must learn to be obedient, docile, and willing to sell the best of themselves for money.

Anyone who has read here long has heard this from me before. When I'm asked to consider the purpose of education, my answer is to provide children with the skills, habits, and attitudes of a good citizen, which is to say someone with the critical thinking skills, the autonomy, the compassion, and the wisdom to assume a robust and meaningful role in our grand project of democratic self governance. And the very best citizens are those who have come alive. As Howard Thurman put it:

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

I've lately been making a study of Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg's short essay "The Little Virtues," one of the most concise, challenging, and brilliant parenting texts I've ever come across. 

"What is a human being's vocation but the highest expression of his love of life? . . . A vocation, an ardent exclusive passion for something in which there is no prospect of money, the consciousness of being able to love this thing more than anything else . . . A vocation is man's only true wealth and salvation."

The word "vocation" isn't her word, but rather her translator, but I enjoy its use in this context. It turns the conventional concept of vocation as "job" on its head. This is the sort of vocational training I can get behind. Ultimately, it is the only honorable goal any of us should have for children, or for any of our fellow human beings for that matter. It means that we are not there to direct them. It means that our role is to make it possible for others to explore, to test, and to pursue their own unique source of wealth and salvation.

The world needs people who have come alive.

Ginzburg's advice to parents is to more or less to get out of their way, to help them when they need it, but to not obsess over them or worry too much if they seem stuck in their journey. Her view of school is that it ought not be too terribly important; that we may offer children a collection of "tools" they can use should they need them, but the work of discovering their vocation is their's and their's alone. Only they can know what is needed. 

Ginzburg advises:

"This is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them (our children) some kind of help in their search for a vocation -- to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life."

The world needs people who have come alive. How many of us can say we are alive? Hopefully, most of us have our moments. And perhaps it is enough to come alive through our children, at least when they are very young. I know this is the case for many parents. It was certainly true for me, but as our daughter grew older, it became clear that to live through her, or anyone else, is a kind of suffocation. Ginzburg suggests that our proper role is to be close, but not too close, because the process of discovering one's vocation can only take place in a world apart from one's parents.

Ginzburg's essay does not specifically discuss the role of teachers, but every one of us knows that we best serve children when we do so with an ardent and exclusive passion. Likewise, we all know that no one can do more harm to children than a teacher whose flame has burned out. Our job as early childhood educators is a difficult one. It is so mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding that to do it without love, to serve without passion, is impossible. Children need and deserve teachers who have found their vocation.

This is an exceedingly high bar, made even higher by a society that does not know or understand what it means to be educated, let alone, to come alive; a society that increasingly views a person's ability to earn money as their highest purpose. It's a miracle, indeed, that so many of us are nevertheless aflame with our vocation, yet here we are, despite it all, despite the achey knees and exhaustion doing exactly what children most need from us.

The news today is that our profession is in crisis. For too long, society has counted on our passion, but between the pandemic and the corrosive meddling of those who would insist that our schools churn out workers to stand along their assembly lines or sit in their cubicles, more and more of us are burning out. And when the passion is gone, all that's left is a low paying, low status job. 

From where I sit, there are two ways forward. The first is to dramatically increase what early childhood educators are paid. At least this would incentivize people to stay in the profession, but at what cost? Do any of us really believe that our youngest citizens are served by adults motivated primarily by money? Of course not. The better way forward, the only way forward, is to set us free to come alive in our vocation. This means, of course, that they must learn to trust us, to respect us, and to know that teachers who are free to love and serve their vocation are exactly what every child needs. I'm asking a lot, I know. It's a transformation that seems impossible in light of where we are today, but to seek anything less is to raise another generation that knows nothing of "true wealth and salvation."

Love of life can be the only goal and love of life begets a love of life.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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