The missive below was sent to my colleagues at Point Arena Community Charter School in Calfiornia, U.S.A. They are preparing to blend their theme for the year (Mythology, Magic and Mystery) with the curriculum. Parents will also be made privy to the email.
Perhaps this will help.
A society that begins by denying the soul’s longing cannot possibly satisfy it. High grades, parent satisfaction, increased funding for schools and “success” in society means nothing without the soul being treated as sacred.
My classroom will be a sacred place. A sanctuary from society, for the most part, as it is. It’s not that we won’t adequately deal with the self-serving parameters imposed by the Department of Education. We will in fine fashion. But we will blend appropriate skepticism and unpopular action into that mix.
Initiation — so important to so many indigenous groups — is blended with healthy mythology and rites of passage. Our American rites of passage socialize children into consumer lifestyles and gender roles. Boys begin to mute their emotional expression around age five, while girls do so around twelve. Such initiation is traumatic. First through gender and later through race, American boys confront the Other. By resisting it, they learn the restrained self-mastery of middle-class masculinity. They also learn that competition is America’s primary value, and that consumerism is the emblem of success. Kids grow up thinking they don’t have to die before being reborn as men, that purchase and consumption will suffice. [The italicized words are elaborated on, of course, in Joseph Campbell’s works and in the incomparable MADNESS AT THE GATES OF THE CITY: THE MYTH OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Barry Spector, a work I’m plagiarizing here, in part.]
Our initiations are class-based. Middle-class youth experience conventional celebrations such as bar mitzvahs, debutant cotillions and beauty pageants. These ceremonies are all rituals of confirmation rather than transformation. And there is no risk involved whatsoever… as is the case with Baptism these days. Ancient rituals can be employed without a participating child feeling fundamentally different, let alone transformed.
If our children do not experience transformation — and radical transformation at that — they will simply grow up and continue to compound ignorance with ignorance. And there’s nothing sadder or more dangerous than an ignorant American these days.
Permit me to take a break of sorts by quoting e.e. cummings:
“children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew….”
I said “break”… but, truth be told, the excerpt from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/anyone-lived-pretty-how-town is quite germane for our purposes here. That is, children are in touch with their soul’s song before we mess with them.
Our ceremonies lack another critical factor. One reason for the decline of the religious vocation is the possibility of breaking one’s vows and leaving the priesthood. Such reversibility deprives the choice of its radically transformative character. Clearly, this is also true of marriage.
Fraternity initiations can seem quite realistic. But they typically allow boys to remain boys while cementing future business and political unions. In these ceremonies of entitlement, their elite group identity excludes the vast majority of their own social class, let alone the rest of humanity.
Public education, writes Noam Chomsky, is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. In political terms, “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehensive — it becomes unconscious and reflexive — that you just don’t think certain things… that are threatening to power interests. In psychological terms, America is deeply influenced by its heritage of Puritanism. This has left a residue of moralistic education that teaches and schools through denial, both of the wisdom of the body as well as of the intimate needs for initiation and purpose. It is more concerned with restrictions on behavior and speech than on hearing what may be emerging from a young person’s soul.
Since tribal societies valued ALL their young men, their initiations were communal and usually mandatory. The dangers were real, but all were encouraged to complete the transition. By contrast, the primary function of our advanced degrees, professional licensing exams and corporate promotion is to choose who will succeed, not to ensure that all will.
O bailan todos o no baile nadie.
In business, academics and sports*, definitions of success and masculinity require the failure of others. Thus, money and consumer goods, rather than wisdom mark successfully socialized men and women, for the most part.
*Dwight Eisenhower said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.” Well, now that’s as true for women as men.
My students and I (and my colleagues and the students’ loved ones and other members of the Point Arena community in California) will be planting the seeds for ending war on the planet. We will continue to play sports, but following a fresh paradigm in doing so, and embracing something other than The Myth of American Innocence.
Special Final Note: Racism rules the headlines these days. [Pause.] One cannot put an end to racism if one is engaged in bombing, sanctioning, starving or immiserating people of color overseas routinely. Oh yes, the U.S. Military is, arguably, also the greatest single polluter on the planet.
Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at email@example.com. He recommends a recent posting of his as a decent companion piece to this article.