“Quiet! Listen and sit down!” I cringe as I walk past Mr. Smith’s math room. His voice can be heard from at least three classrooms away. It has a grating pitch, and reminds me of finger nails scratching down a blackboard. I feel sorry for him. He is one of those tortured veteran teachers who should have changed careers long ago.
Further down the hallway I pass Miss Jones English class. As I peek in every head is down, busily working. I feel a pang of jealousy as I remember the principal’s praise for Miss Jones in the last staff meeting, “She keeps her students engaged from bell-to-bell.” His tone had an admonishing ring to it. Miss Jones was tough and ruled with an iron fist. In her classes it was her way or the highway.
I turned a corner and bumped into a stranger. He appeared neat and intelligent. He looked out of place in our school. He viewed me dispassionately through his fine-rimmed glasses. “Hi my name is Lawrence Carroll, can I help you?” The stranger replied, “Dewey, John Dewey. Do you have a moment to speak?” A small electric shock went up my arm as we shook hands. I thought to myself “John Dewey? I thought you were dead.” The stranger replied “No. I am not dead. I appear from time-to-time, but as you can see and hear, I am very much here and now.” Can you really read minds I thought? Apologetically he said “Yes, that’s part of the package when you move on from this life.”
I looked around self-consciously and wondered if I was losing my mind. After all this man, arguably the greatest educational reformer of all time had been dead for sixty years! John matter-of-factly said “I appear to teachers and students from time to time to find out what is going on in schools.” He looked down at the floor and sighed. He seemed sad.
“You know I wanted education to be alive and meaningful for kids and teachers. I had such a vision. Education was so dull and flat when I grew up. It lacked spirit, meaning and dignity. It was such a sterile, anti-life institution. Did you know it was modeled after the Prussian military system? Their system was designed to crush the will of the youth?” My eyes bulged in shock. “True.” he said, “To tell you the truth, as I look around these hallways things don’t look much different.”
“John”, I said, “your insights into education are amazing.” Hmmm I thought. Should I have said, “Were amazing?” Talking to someone from the past can get confusing. “Remember when you said:
‘were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked?’”
John’s eyes lit up. His gaze captivated me. “Yes, of course I do! What do you know about that?” he asked passionately.
I paused. I looked furtively at this iconic legend, embarrassed to tell him what was on my mind. “Don’t worry.” He said, “I want to know. Your opinion is important!” I forgot he could read minds.
“Well” I stammered, “Your theories were idealistic. They assumed that teachers could adopt a mind-set independent of the status-quo in which they lived.”
“Mmm. That’s true but I did make it clear that this would not happen overnight. I warned it would take time.”
“True John” I ventured, “But you underestimated what that takes. Philosophers, like you, are misfits. You don’t fit in with society and society doesn’t accept you readily. Look what happened to Socrates.”
John looked down. He was silent for a long time. Finally he asked, “Where do we go from here?”
“Well John, I have discovered that meditation has a profound effect on the way students can learn at school.”
“Of course it does. We’ve known that since Aristotle!” he retorted impatiently. I looked around self-consciously in case he was disturbing Miss Jones’ class. “Fuck Miss Jones” John boomed authoritatively, “This is way more important than what she is doing with her kids.” I agreed but couldn’t help feeling awkward. I shuffled John into the near-by empty staff room.
“But John, when you say meditation, it is not the same as what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” he asked curiously.
“Well”, I felt uncertain again, “We in the west tend to meditate on dogma. It is an exercise of reason. Meditation is influenced, as you know, by the Greco-Roman traditions. The wise men – philosophers - who created maxims or postulates, to both liberate and confine their students’ reasoning.”
“Of course, how else could it work” John scoffed.
“Well”, I continued to venture, “While I studied and practiced meditations from the Eastern traditions I discovered an important distinction.”
John looked unblinkingly at me. He was listening with such an intensity I started to feel a burning sensation around my cheeks. “Go on” he commanded.
“In the East the meditations are not directed toward anything in particular. In fact they are directed at nothing in particular. At first it is confusing because we have so many ideas, beliefs and assumptions about what that means. One of the most challenging requirements for this is to let go of even the most profound insights!”
“But” interrupted John, “that is exactly what the School of Skepticism was all about. The Skeptics refused to accept anything in order to transcend the traps of a closed mind.”
“True John, unfortunately the Skeptic meditations confined their students to a rigid dogma. Similarly the Cynics, Aristotelians, Epicureans and Stoics did the same.
John gasped. The frown on his face started to dissolve. He visibly relaxed. His eyes widened and glowed like burning coals. He was GETTING IT! He understood what I was doing with my own students.
He asked, “How do your students respond to this?” His question was rhetorical. But I answered anyway.
Now it was my turn to become passionate. “John, you wont believe this but the students love it! They become peaceful and at ease. No small matter these days! They express greater tolerance amongst themselves. They think more clearly! They are willing to ask questions. It is a teacher’s dream.” I paused before going on. “John, your theories were overly-influenced by psychology. When my students meditate they naturally start to see how their thinking and emotions affect them. We then explore how to manage .…”
“Mmmm. This is really a foundation for metacognition and freeing emotional intelligence, isn’t it?” he interrupted. “Absolutely” I smiled back, John starting dancing. He was delighted. “Eureka! I can see how this could be the foundation for education to come alive and have meaning. If people get this then I can see they will start to get my work at last.”
I looked at the joyful apparition before me and knew deep in my heart that introducing meditation into schools had come of age.
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"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports