Education for Simple Living

Education for Simple Living


            Simple living involves knowing how to live well in time. It involves knowing what is important in life, and knowing how to appreciate that which is given to us, be it another person, or a spring day. It involves becoming centered and often independent of the judgments of others.

            It is clear that our schools do not equip children to live lives of simplicity and to resist the hectic, frenetic, alternatives to which they are pulled. One might say that such is not the job of the schools; that this is the work of the family or of religious education. But the idea that the schools can somehow be neutral between different ways to live is a myth. It rests on thinking of schools as abstractions, rather than as real-life places that children attend for seven or eight hours a day, for twelve or sixteen or twenty years.

            So much of what goes on is schools is instrumental, so much of it is directed at equipping students to succeed or at least to find their place within our socio-economic order, that schools inevitably are transmission belts for the values and perspectives that sustain the dominant way of life.

            In our competitive social world where there is a powerful semi-consensus on what success means and a limited number of successful life-places, parents look to their child's school years and school performance as decisive factors in determining how he or she will fare "in life." And the schools, aware of the key role that they play in society's central game, see themselves in a similar fashion. Thus how can it be otherwise than that the entire schooling experience, including that part which occurs within the home, will both implicitly and explicitly endorse the central terms of that competition. In particular, what is affirmed is the dominant conception of the good life that is operative within the social competition.

            Yet at the same time what happens in schools is complex and multi-dimensional. And insofar as people break free from opulence versions of the American Dream and find their way back to the simple living version of that dream, it is often things that happened in school that enables them to shift direction. 

            Rather than lambasting schools, it is useful then to  consider those things that sometimes happen in schools that do contribute to a person's ability to form a life of graceful simplicity.

            From this perspective, here are some of the best things schools can accomplish:

A love of books.

             I put this first for several reasons. If one loves books, if one loves to read, if in a family, people read to each other -- then a foundation has already been laid for a simple life of great pleasure, at little expense. Entering into this world, provided that one has learned to love what is within it, and has developed the appreciative skills required to fully participate in it -- is to have the key to the central repository of human wealth.

             Reading good books can serve as the central emblem of a life of simplicity. If one wants to look for a single operative criterion of whether or not schools are succeeding or failing in their central task (as understood from the perspective of the simple life) then look to whether or not a love of reading has been developed.

 An aesthetic sensibility.

             The presence and appreciation of beauty is central to the good life. Schools at their best offer an alternative to the larger society, as intentionally crafted environments designed to affect the development of children in beneficial ways that will not be forthcoming from the general social environment. Thus, within a culture in which there is limited beauty and limited aesthetic sensibility, it becomes especially important for the school to focus on beauty and creativity.

             For some, schools are the first and perhaps only place where children are exposed to the finest in art, music, sculpture and poetry. Yet as we all know, exposure and the development of an aesthetic sensibility are not one and the same. Often enough such appreciation courses can be deadly -- and it remains a central challenge to educators to master their craft in this area.

 An ability to create things of beauty

             Central to the development of an aesthetic sensibility is the development of one's own creative abilities. Within the broad rubric of arts and crafts, ranging from fine arts and music to carpentry and even cooking, it is not asking too much of schools to require that all students emerge having attained some degree of excellence in at least one form of creative endeavor.

             Being able to produce something of beauty is among the greatest of capabilities. With it one can always contribute to the richness of the lives of others; with it one can always be deserving of the esteem and respect of others; with it one can always undertake activities of unique joyousness; with it one is provided with something of a vaccine against a shoddy materialism and instead becomes a participant in the development of a general economic demand for things of beauty and thus a participant in the central mechanism that will enrich our entire society.

             The choice of school curriculum is always a matter of trade-offs -- there is only so much time in the school day. And if I am urging something as contrary to current practice as preparing skilled artists, or wood workers, or cooks -- then what in the school curriculum would I cut back on in order to expand the development of creative capabilities?

              This is an extremely difficult question to answer. My own view is that we have swung too far in the direction of what stared as an effort to keep up with the Soviets when Sputnik was launched in the 1960's, and what we emphasize today in the effort to stay a technological step ahead of the Japanese. If I had to choose between giving greater emphasis to math and science or greater emphasis to the arts and humanities, I would choose the latter. To those that worry about international competitiveness, it is worth considering that for the overwhelming bulk of the population, marginal differences in their scientific and mathematical prowess may make little difference in determining whether or not American science and engineering makes cutting edge breakthroughs.

             The broader point here is not these specifics. It is simply that when you ask the average parent what they wish for their children in life, they mostly say that they want them to be happy. If we accept this as legitimate, even if not complete, the central question that faces us is whether we believe that happiness is to be attained through successfully navigating our existing socio-economic competition, or whether we believe it is to be found in better equipping children to find happiness in a qualitatively rich form of simple living.

            What is telling of our need to approach these questions together, politically, is that all too often we can see the limitations of the existing framework, but not be prepared to send our own children down any path other than the ones most conventionally understood as leading to success. In part this may be a lack of courage, but in part it emerges from the genuine concern that the price may be too high for our children if as isolated individuals, we and they break with the mainstream.