What Is Love?

Love is generally considered the most desired experience, the most fulfilling feeling.  Yet it is not love that compels us.  It is the yearning for love that compels us, a yearning that springs from the perception of love denied.  We can see this yearning most clearly in the transparent hunger of children, but the hunger for love may be behind all the veils the “mature” human being has learned to draw across it.  The desire to experience love is a core human motive.

Perhaps in the pursuit of wealth is the hidden hope of possessing love, in the pursuit of fame and prestige is the hope of inspiring love, in the pursuit of power is the hope of compelling love.  Plausibly, we arouse guilt to demand love, we charm and manipulate to steal love.  We seek love in the union of bodies, in making others idols of our desire, in attempts to enhance the attractiveness of our bodies and personalities.  We sacrifice in the hope we may thus be worthy of love.

But what is love?  Is love not one of the greatest enigmas of life?  Love is held to be joy, beauty, inspiration, the song of the heart.  Love is also thought of as heartache, unquenchable yearning, pain of loss, obsession, and temptation.  Love, it seems, is complicated.

The world we perceive is complex, and our feelings seem to reflect this complexity.   Love therefore has many meanings, names, and apparent manifestations.  Compassion, lust, caring, obsession, appreciation, longing, attraction, infatuation and idolization can arguably be considered expressions of love.  Such words, it is thought, but reflect human experience, therefore it is experience that belies the simplicity and unmitigated boon of love.  Unconditional love—love unblemished by judgment—seems a practical absurdity.  In the complexity of love we see corruption and dimmed hope of fulfillment, in the simplicity of pure love we see an impossible ideal, a superhuman morality.

Such an understanding of love places chains on our hearts and our hopes.  Only love that is simple, pure, and free of pain can yield the fruits of joy and peace we seek.  The truth of love cannot contain contradictions, the goodness of love cannot inflict fear and pain, the beauty of love cannot inspire loathing.  If the hope of fulfillment lies in love, we either hope in vain or we are mistaken about the nature of love.

Love is not an understanding, it is a feeling, an experience.  Unfortunately, it is a folk wisdom that feelings are not amenable to conscious choice; the mind and the heart can, and often do, choose differently according to this wisdom.  The mind may find the concept of love attractive and desire to attain the experience, but the mind, we believe, cannot teach the heart to feel.  What then of an ideal of love if the heart cannot or will not experience it?  How do we reap the fruit of the mind’s purpose if the seeds refuse to sprout in the heart?

If love is an involuntary response, we are condemned to dependence and victimhood.  If love is involuntary, so also are fear, anger, hatred, despair, jealousy, and greed.  We would be the slaves rather than the masters of our feelings, and fulfillment would be a vain hope.

The belief in involuntary feelings is based on the belief in involuntary perceptions, for we see feelings as responses to what we perceive.  The belief renders us victims of a world beyond our control.  Worse, it tells us we have no power to choose how we feel about our perceptions.  We cannot choose our perceptions in order to change our feelings, and we cannot choose our feelings to change our perceptions.  Thus we see ourselves imprisoned by both the world and our own natures.  A sense of futility cannot help but arise from the belief that, even if we could successfully negotiate with the world around us, we are powerless to negotiate with ourselves.  Thus the path to fulfillment seems blocked.  Love may beckon, but we have not the strength to follow.

An even greater obstacle than our lack of confidence in our ability to experience love is our fear of it.  Love is associated with pain, weakness, and vulnerability.  Some seek emotional safety in avoiding love.  A predominant counsel of many deemed wise is that fear is surer, distrust more prudent as a defense against the darkness in the hearts of others.  Love is an irresponsible luxury of the naive in a world where power rules, they teach. To those who so believe, the world seems to bear daily witness.

The beliefs that pain is inherent to love, that we are powerless to choose love, that love renders us vulnerable, speak more to our confusion about the nature of love than our experience of it.  Love is the deepest yearning of our hearts, but the yearning stems from a perceived lack that does not exist.  We look for rain from a capricious sky to slake our thirst while we stand beside a well overflowing with the sweet water of our hearts.  Love is our very essence, we must but remove the veils to our awareness of our power to experience it at will.  The mind that chooses love need not teach the heart to express its very nature any more than the earth must teach the sun to rise.

Fear is the denial of our heart’s purpose, the antithesis of fulfillment.  What wisdom renders the denial of fulfillment stronger and more prudent than the essence of fulfillment?  There is no strength in the denial of our purpose, no weakness in seeking it.  Love is the key to as much freedom, security, joy, and peace we may attain in this world.  Fear is a prison of pain, insecurity, and longing we inflict on ourselves.  Fear is infliction, not protection.  True wisdom reveals there is no strength in fear nor weakness in love.

The Nature of Love

Consider what love feels like, the experience of loving someone or something.  I do not speak of the heartache and longing born of the perception of love denied or absent; that is the yearning for love, not the experience.  Think rather of those moments when you simply enjoy someone or something for what they are, rather than for what you wish them to be or what you expect them to give you.  For example, the enjoyment of a sunset, a flower, and the song of a bird need not be conditioned by your demands and expectations; your enjoyment is greater when it is accepted without condition.  You may bask in the glow of a smile, or a grandmother showing affection to her grandchildren, or the simple joy of children at play without further demand.  The laugh of a child, the peace of a meadow, the affectionate teasing of a friend can be enjoyed as gifts of the moment, gifts we give ourselves by “allowing” our appreciation of them. The stronger feelings we associate with “special” others like family and friends include love when we simply appreciate and delight in our experience of them rather than perceiving them through the lenses of our preferences for who they should be and how they should behave.

We do not love whom and what we wish to change, for in the desire they change is the lack of acceptance of who and what they are.  Love enjoys what is without the conditions judgment places on our joy.  And joy is the point.  The unburdened joys of the moment are clues to what love is shorn of the emotions with which we usually condition the experience.

There are many words we can use to express the enjoyment of someone or something—appreciation, gratitude, fond regard, admiration, warmth, celebration—but they are only dim reflections of what the true experience of love is.  Love undimmed by the shadows of fear is pure joy.  It is delight in the truth, beauty, and goodness we perceive beyond what our eyes can see and ears can hear.  We behold what we hold most dear in whom and what we love, and in the loving we experience what we hold most dear.  Joy is the best word we have to express the feeling.  But the reward of experiencing love is even greater than what the word joy seems to promise.  Joy undimmed contains no sorrow, pain, fear, anger, jealousy, or need.  It sees no wrong to be righted or provision to be made.  Love undimmed perceives no need or lack, places no condition on the future, issues no call for completion, is unconstrained by fear.  Joy without fear, lack, or condition yields peace.  Joy and peace are the essence of fulfillment.  Thus the true experience of love is the experience of fulfillment.

Those rare moments when the burdens of the past and worry for the future fade in the quiet enjoyment of the moment hint at what the true experience of love must be.  The roiling clouds of thoughts and emotions part for a moment to yield a ray of sunshine that brings a warm and peaceful memory of a sun long forgotten.  Here the mind rests, laying down the urge to do and basking in the reflection of being.  In the acceptance of what is, love is different from emotion, which is a feeling that motivates one to seek and do, in other words, to change what is.  All motivations therefore reflect a judgment of dissatisfaction with what is.  Sufficient unto itself, love is the quintessential expression of contentment.  Love is therefore more a state of being than an emotion.

When we long for another, miss them, become obsessed with them, suffer the pain of rejection by them, it is not love we experience.  The yearning for love is obviously not the experience, for the yearning springs from the perception of love denied.  The acceptance and appreciation of another is not expressed in pain and sorrow.  When we think of another with an ache in our hearts, or with the darkness of grief, or with the sickness of jealousy, we experience neither an aspect nor an effect of love.  These emotions do not accept and appreciate, they are judgments of lack inspiring fear.  Love and fear are opposites, as are contentment and need; they cannot be combined in the same feeling.  The one must preclude the other.  Though the pain or fear of loss of one we love seems a necessary consequence of loving them, this belief is founded on a perception of lack that must be filled from without.  This fundamental misperception about the nature and source of love is the illusory mountain that stands between us and fulfillment.

We confuse love with what we might call wanting.  To want is to judge the possession of someone or something as necessary to our purpose, to the feeling we wish to experience.  We hold what we want as necessary to evoke this feeling.  Wanting is therefore a judgment of lack requiring access to that which is wanted to achieve the desired experience.  While love is its own fulfillment, perceiving no lack, wanting creates idols we believe we must possess to achieve the experience we wish.  We must ever fear the world will not only fail to yield our wishes, but will also rob us of the idols we believe we already possess.  Wanting thus makes us dependent on the world to yield what we value, inspiring fear of lack, disappointment, and loss.  Wanting is founded on fear, not love, therefore to want necessarily precludes fulfillment.

The experience of love, and thus fulfillment, lies in the love we express, or give, rather than what is usually meant by love we receive, which cannot be directly experienced short of sharing the mind of another.  The significance of this cannot be exaggerated, for it would utterly transform our lives and our world if it were understood and believed.  It implies the love we give is its own reward; the more we love, the more joy and peace we experience.  Since we are the source of this love, we do not, and by the nature of the experience cannot, depend on circumstance or the presence and behavior of others to experience its blessings.

So much of our lives is devoted to gaining love from others, the assertion that the giving is the receiving may seem contrary to experience.  Yet this unity is entailed in the nature and source of the experience of love.  This unity can be expressed in several ways.  The giving of love is the receiving of the experience.  When we see through the eyes of love, love is what we see.  Who shines the light of love on others will see its reflection in the perception of love returned.  The opposite is also true; who sees the world with fear perceives a fearful world.  Yet love goes beyond the reflection of our feelings toward what we see; the acceptance of love implies an acceptance of ourselves that removes the barriers to believing we are worthy of love.  We bestow on ourselves what we bestow on others, and their worthiness to be loved must reveal ours as well.  The acceptance of love opens the door to the awareness we are loved, which sensory perception in itself can never yield.  It is the nature of perception to conform to our state of mind, and who loves will perceive the love in the hearts of others as well.  In perception as well as reality, nothing attracts love like love itself.

Since we experience love by giving it, love cannot be selfless.  Our concept of self derives from our experience.  We can know ourselves only through experience, and since we give it the meaning it holds for us, we are in a fundamental sense the authors of what we experience.  Indeed, we are what we experience in the same sense that beauty resides in the eyes of the beholder.  Experience is both the expression and reflection of self.  When we judge our experience, we accept part of it as an expression of self and reject the rest as separate and wanting.  When we accept and enjoy our experience, we place no limitations on our expression of self.  Love therefore is an extension of self rather than selflessness.  Love does indeed transcend the ego, but the ego is but a limited concept of self; love extends the perception of self beyond the limits the ego would maintain.  Who and what we love is accepted in the experience of self, allowing us to feel a sense of oneness with the loved.  Love encompasses all within its purview in our awareness of who and what we are.

It is common to say “my heart goes out to you” when we feel sorry for someone.  Love is not a sharing of pain, but the heart of one who loves does “go out” in a sense.  In a smile, a gesture, a meadow, a painting, a snowflake, a summer storm, we perceive a call to our heart to come forth and be one with the perception.  But it is not the perception that calls.  Rather the heart sees a shadowed reflection of its own love.  The heart is the author of the beauty, humor, poignancy, wonder, peace, and power it experiences.  The heart is the author of the feelings seemingly called forth and is the cause of the association of feeling and perception.  In the feeling of joy associated with a perception, the heart becomes what it loves.  The heart therefore “goes out” to embrace what it loves as itself.  Of course, the heart is the self, the heart is you and I shorn of our ego concepts of self.  Love is therefore an extension rather than a denial of self.

Love is creative dominion over experience.  But for the belief our environment has dominion over our feelings, we would recognize the joy inherent to our constant—though mostly subconscious—creation of experience.  The joy of love springs from the freedom and power of creation as well as the appreciation of the experience we create.  Love is the freedom to experience what we would feel, for it places no conditions we ourselves cannot fulfill.  Love places no tethers of demand on our perceptions, creates no dependencies.  The freedom to create experience is necessary to the joy of love.  In dominion over what we would feel, we have the ultimate freedom, the ultimate power, the greatest joy, and the true purpose of creation.  Which is but another way to say love is fulfillment.

The purview of love cannot be limited and love remain what it is.  Just as placing conditions on what is must deny the experience of love, selectivity in whom and what we choose to love must deny it as well.  If the experience of love is joy and contentment with what is, to leave part of what is perceived outside of love’s acceptance must deny the experience altogether.  If part of what is experienced is found wanting, the experience as a whole is necessarily found wanting.  Whom and what we exclude from love we give the power to rob our joy and peace.  We have judged them lacking and capable of setting limits to our experience of love.  Our judgment seemingly gives them the power to disturb our peace, for whatever remains outside the circle of our unconditional acceptance ever threatens to thwart our purpose, to diminish our well-being.  We therefore experience lack, limitation, and threat despite an attitude of acceptance of part of what we experience.  And if anything is judged separate and wanting, nothing is unconditionally exempt from such judgment.  Even who and what we accept and enjoy can later be judged the enemy of our joy and peace, for if we see the power to deny our love in any part of our experience, we must fear this power in every part.  Thus, where judgment is, the true experience of love is not.

The implication is that love must be unconditional to be experienced.  Unconditional acceptance is inherent to the nature of love; love must be pure and unlimited or it is not love.  Unconditional love is the only true love.  This sheds a different light than traditional interpretations of what Jesus taught about love.  Love God, your neighbor, even your enemy, he said.  He taught unconditional love.  But if such love is the very essence of fulfillment, Jesus taught not a condition to be met, a duty to be accomplished, in order to prove our worthiness to enter heaven. If love is fulfillment, it is neither a sacrifice nor a superhuman task—it is heaven.  Unconditional love is the greatest joy, peace, and freedom we can attain in life on earth or beyond it.  Thus the love Jesus taught is hardly selfless sacrifice and duty.  Unconditional love is not the price of salvation—it is salvation.

Unconditional love is love without condition, which means we must cease to judge whom and what we behold to experience it.  Herein lies the “sacrifice,” the “impossible” task, for judgment seems as natural and inherent to life as breathing.  Our lives are saturated with judgment.  Making distinctions, discriminating values, setting conditions, and pronouncing the sins and errors of others seem the very fabric of our lives.  Indeed, without judgment, one might ask, how could we determine and avoid threats and make those decisions that seem necessary to our well-being?  Does not the world dictate judgment as a condition of physical survival and well-being?

The answer is two-fold.  First, as long as we believe in the reality of our perceptions we cannot avoid making distinctions, but we need not judge them good or bad, worthy of love or not.  We may distinguish among the partners of our experience to dance the dance of life, but we gain nothing from judging the relative merits of our partners if our purpose is to enjoy the dance.  Second, we can look beyond the superficial forms we distinguish to understand that the essence, the enduring reality of existence and purpose beyond the reach of our senses, is one.

Either whom or what we love must cease to exist with every change of form, or their true existence lies beyond form.  The changeless beyond the ever-changing forms of our perception is the true “object” of enduring love.  Only in the changeless can the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness find their ultimate expression.  And those qualities of “humanness” that attract us—humor, kindness, spontaneity, gentleness, warmth, vibrancy—must either pass from existence with the passing of their physical expression, or endure in something beyond.

It is this “something beyond,” this many-faceted diamond of life’s expression, that draws us in our appreciation of art, music, and drama.  It is this heart of life’s expression that fascinates and moves us in the stories of the human drama.  The facets of the sparkling heart of life show many faces, but they all express one heart.  It can be found in nature, in animals, in the mundane objects and situations with which we populate our lives.  It can be found in the smiles and tears of our loved ones.  And it can be found behind the faces of those whom we condemn, despise, and fear.  The unchanging, eternal heart of life cannot fail to be expressed in all life, nor can it cease to exist with acts of murder and cruelty.  Our judgments of sin and evil add layers of veil to our eyes, but our blindness does not extinguish the light of the heart’s essence.  If judgment had this power, the heart of life would have long since ceased to shine.  Despite judgment of everyone and everything we perceive, the awareness of the heart of life endures to inspire all hopes and promise all that makes life worth living.

The heart of life cannot lie behind some perceptions and not others.  Either the unchanging reality of existence lies behind all form, or there is no unchanging reality of existence.  Judgment of reality can but act as a veil to reality; judgment of form has no basis in reality.  Judgment therefore benefits neither the pursuit of truth nor the dance with form.  On the contrary, from the perspective of our pursuit of fulfillment, judgment is a most impractical habit.

Judgment is a pattern of thinking that reflects the main purpose of ego: the maintenance of the perception of separation, difference, and specialness.  Judgment thus inherently reflects the perception of vulnerability and lack, and must incur fear as surely as love offers joy and peace.  And what can the separation from the unity of all life mean but death?  Further, one cannot judge some facets of the diamond of life’s expression inferior to others without devaluing the diamond as a whole.  The ego must keep our focus on the ephemeral, for the rationality of its position evaporates like mist in the sun from the perspectives of both our highest purpose and the unchanging reality of the heart of life.

Our escape from hell to heaven requires we relinquish judgment.  The means to relinquish judgment is to look beyond ephemeral and superficial form to the changeless, shining heart of life beyond.  We must “forgive” the changeless heart of life of the reality of the ephemeral expressions we perceive, thus removing our need to judge the sins of such expressions.  Forgiveness is thus not an undeserved boon to the guilty to prove our goodness, but rather a removal of the veils of judgment to allow the free expression of our hearts.  The eternal heart of wonder beyond all we perceive makes the relinquishment of judgment and unconditional love possible.  In the wonder of life’s ever-changing expression we find the joy of creation, in its changelessness we find the peace of perfect safety in a love that never falters.  No perception need dictate our judgment when we know the unchanging heart of life shines within all we perceive.

Yet it is not an easy task to relinquish judgment. It requires a change in our pattern of thinking which, though it lies within our power to change, is reinforced with the habit and inertia of all our years on earth as well as the behavior and beliefs of almost everyone we meet.  Only one thing can hold us to the unity, clarity, and purity of purpose required: the conviction that the prize is worth far more than what we lose in relinquishing judgment.  There can be no doubt of the value of the prize when we realize it is the purest expression of our being.

The first mountain range to cross on the journey to love is the belief that most of what we experience is imposed by an external, objective reality separate and independent from our preferences.  This is the foundational belief on which fear and judgment are built.  Without this belief, fear and judgment make no sense.  This belief is also the source of our seeming dependence on the world for the experience of love.  To find the pass over this range, we must gain a better perspective of the nature and source of experience.

The Heart of Experience

We tend to think of experience as images, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.  We believe experience is formed from the messages our senses relay to our minds.  Even if we concede these messages must be screened and assigned meaning and value according to our preexisting purposes, most believe they report the objective existence of the world we perceive and form the core of the experience our purpose interprets and shapes.  Most believe what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch necessarily provides the raw material of experience to which a sane mind is constrained to select an appropriate emotional response.

Yet the insight that feeling is the expression of the meaning and value of experience, indeed is the essence of experience, gives pause to this belief.  Feeling is the core of experience, the treasure we seek in trying to arrange what we prefer to experience.  Sights, sounds, and smells have no meaning shorn of the feelings we attach to them.  Even considered solely as sources of information about our environment, the value of such information derives from our purpose.  The experience of feeling is both the goal and expression of purpose, the goal and expression of consciousness.  Underlying all we pursue is the experience of a feeling conceptualized by such words as fulfillment, happiness, love, joy, peace, satisfaction, fun, pleasure, feelings of power and importance, even fear and pain for those who choose punishment from a sense of guilt.  Feeling is the core of experience without which experience would be no more than meaningless, empty form.

Feelings do not reside in, are not created by, and are not dictated by the messages of the senses.  The messages of the senses cannot of themselves form experience; we can and do experience feelings independent of such messages.  Though the images of thoughts and dreams may seem more vague and insubstantial, the feelings we associate with them can be every bit as intense and vivid as those associated with sensory perception.  And if feelings were dictated by sensory perception, how could we explain the fact that the same messages are routinely met with widely varying emotions?  The same image can be associated with love, hate, compassion, anger, indifference, and fear, not only by different people, but by the same person at different times.

The focus of experience is devoted primarily to thoughts and the emotions that accompany them.  A much smaller focus of our experience is devoted to immediate awareness of the messages of our senses.  We tend to form these messages into the elastic thoughts we use to relive and edit the past, wish and plan for the future, and conjure and justify our feelings toward others.  And all but the most automatic of responses to these messages spring from ideas we have formed and meanings we have projected.  We are far more involved in forming experiences than the belief in sensory dependence admits.

Though the experience of feelings does not depend on sensory perception, it remains reasonable to believe perception evokes an involuntary emotional response.   After all, perception usually seems to elicit feeling; our daily pursuits witness to this belief.  In terms closer to our topic, love seems to depend on someone or something calling it forth.  Common sense counsels that love requires a perceived “object.” If true, love is at least partially dependent on the world without.

The belief that love is a response to sensory perceptions implies there is some attribute or pattern of attributes we see in another person, an animal, a place, or an object that calls forth our love.  The fact we can love an idea hints that the key to love need not necessarily reside outside us, but let us simplify the discussion by limiting love to what we feel for another person.  The fact we love some people to varying degrees and not others implies there are some attributes and behaviors, perhaps even circumstances such as family relationship that unlock our hearts while others do not.  The design of the lock may lie within us, but only keys of corresponding shape in the world outside will release it.  Being external, these keys presumably exist independent of our wishes.

The physical manifestations to which love supposedly responds vary widely among beholders.  Not only physical attributes, but also the attributes of character, personality, talents, and skills we perceive vary widely and are valued differently by any two people.  The appreciation of such attributes by the same beholder can vary as well according to mood, circumstance, past experience, emotional maturity, or factors beyond rational explanation.

Perhaps the evidence most inconsistent with the belief that love is a response to external attributes is the ephemeral nature of such attributes.  Physical appearances change, but love can persist.  Manifestations of personality and character are often like a kaleidoscope, though love can remain steadfast.  Bodies die, but the love for those we associate with the body can endure.  Conversely, we speak of “falling out of love” due not to a manifest change in those we love, but to our own “change of heart.” If love is a response to the attributes of what we perceive, the objects of our love are not only moving targets, they are changing targets.  And the same attributes that supposedly evoked love can later fail to do so.  What does this say about the relationship between love and the objects of our perception?

We can perceive others but not experience them in more than a very superficial sense.  What we experience is sensory data filtered, interpreted and assigned value by preexisting criteria—a code of preference, so to speak—that we ourselves have formed around our purpose.  We cannot directly experience the essence of another person, which is what they experience, what they feel and perceive, through our physical senses.  We can only form an idea of the person from the self-interpreted messages of our senses.  And this idea, this collection of thoughts and images imbued with feeling, is ever-changing.  Our feelings are creatively engaged in both forming the idea and expressing it to achieve the total experience.  The fact that perceptions are influenced by our moods hints at this process.

Physical manifestations reveal little of the larger and deeper reality of another “self” we perceive separate from our own.  It is like having only the evidence of a mirror to determine what we ourselves feel and think.  There is, of course, a vast difference between seeing manifestations of feelings and experiencing them.  It is the difference between form and essence.  Love of another person is therefore either love of the superficial manifestations of that person rather than their essential being, or love of the idea we have formed of the person based on the projection of our own experience of self.  Projection is necessary in the latter case for we have only our own experience of selfhood to surmise what lies beyond the physical manifestations of others.  What they feel, what they desire, the reality they perceive—in other words their experience of self that constitutes selfhood—can only be interpreted from what we feel, desire, and perceive.  Absence our own experience, we would have no basis for understanding what it means to feel, desire, and perceive.  Likewise, we can but give our own meaning to the words and behaviors of others.  Our experience of selfhood is thus the source of our understanding of the selfhood of others.  What we love in others must be drawn from the well of our own experiences.

Unless love of others is solely attraction to the superficial manifestations of physical form, the “objects” of our love are our interpretations of the reality of their selfhood.  In other words, we love the interpretation of another we ourselves have formed from our own experience.  Such is the case, at least unless our knowing of another transcends the limits of physical perception.

The apparent independence of love from its purported cause calls the love-as-response assumption into question.  It indicates emotional experience is determined by the perceiver rather than the perceived.  The ability to experience love independent of sensory perception shows that external attributes are not necessary to the experience of love, which implies love can be chosen.

Yet it is not enough to realize we are not slaves to our perceptions; we must reclaim the power we have given them to evoke our feelings.  We have made idols of our perceptions, but the power we have given these idols cannot truly leave its source.  Herein lies our hope for fulfillment.

We learn as children to invest sensory perceptions with meaning, which seems to give them the power to evoke the experience of feelings.  We thus turn our perceptions into symbols or idols we believe are necessary to experience what we wish.  Bodies, things, and circumstances become something akin to voodoo dolls we use to conjure the feelings we desire.  To possess them becomes the purpose we place between the experience we wish and the wish itself, thus obscuring our real goal and confusing form for essence.  We thus abdicate the power we invest in the idols we ourselves created and make ourselves dependent on them for the feelings we would experience.

We yearn for love because we believe it lies outside us, always eluding our grasp.  Uncertain what love is and how to attain it, we seek to inspire, threaten, entice, trick, and charm others to give us the love for which we yearn.  But the evidence of our senses is constantly subject to change and doubt, is ever insufficient to the experience of love.  A smile, a hug, a caress: these are but sensory perceptions we assume—or hope—indicate the love of another.  The love they may indicate cannot be experienced through our senses, however, for we can only experience them through the feelings inherent to the meaning we give these gestures.  There is no hope such evidence could ever fulfill our yearning, for they do not in themselves entail the experience of love.  We project the power we see in our idols, for our senses can but inform us of ephemeral physical forms; the meanings that entail feelings are supplied by us.

Though the possession of idols can never yield the essence they represent, we seldom cease to pursue them.  Despite endless failures to fulfill, we continue our pursuit of pleasures, people identified as bodies, possessions, power, prestige, victories, and revenge through disappointment after disappointment, hoping perhaps there is some magic quantity or quality that will finally yield fulfillment.  For some, persistence is motivated by their belief that the only real experiences are those derived from their physical senses.  They therefore see no alternative to seeking fulfillment in the world they perceive around them.  Others know some solace can be found in concepts and ideals, but they render their ideals idols by holding their satisfaction hostage to the insistence their ideals must be manifest to be made real and be truly enjoyed.

All idols must fail to bring joy and peace, for the need of idols implies the denial of the experience of love, which knows no need.  Idols are the symbols of wanting.  In making them the objects of wanting, we fundamentally delude ourselves as to the source and nature of experience as well as love.  Experience is formed in our minds, and what we see without is but a mirror of our minds.  Like a mirror, our senses reveal only a reflection of form, not the reality behind it.  When we seek our happiness without, we confuse reflections for what they reflect, form for the essence we seek.

The essence we seek—the experience of love—is necessarily the love we feel.  The deepest wisdom of the ages assures us that love is the very core of our being.  The experience of love requires we but remove the barriers to the awareness of what already exists within us.  Were this understood and believed, it would change our lives and change our world.

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TEDx Talk: Happiness Education

Happiness Education:

TEDx Talk, Wilmington, Delaware, August 6 2014

 

Link: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Happiness-Education-%7C-Anthony-A;search%3Ahappiness%20education

 

Empowering students’ pursuit of happiness should be the explicit primary purpose of education.  This is the most moral purpose of education, and the most in keeping with our democratic ideals, because it treats our children as ends in themselves, as beings of innate worth, by serving their deepest personal aspiration first and foremost rather than using them for the purposes of the state.

Aristotle said that happiness is the only “self-sufficient” end, for all we do is for the sake of happiness while we seek happiness for its own sake.  Happiness is the deepest human aspiration. There’s no consensus on what happiness is and how to get it, but it is useful to simply acknowledge that happiness is a highly desirable feeling.  It is useful because it highlights the importance of feelings.

The subjective quality of our lives is the quality of our feelings.  The personal value of any experience in the moment we are experiencing it is what we feel about it.  Think about it.  No feeling, no caring; caring implies feeling.  It is the heart that bestows experiential value, not the cold reasoning of the mind.  Ultimately, the value of education is what it contributes to the aspirations of a human heart.  I grossly understate the case when I say little we do in our schools is designed with this insight in mind.

But what if it were?  What if we took feelings—took happiness—seriously in our schools?  Would it make a difference to the quality of children’s lives?  It would make a big difference if we understood empowering the pursuit of happiness in terms of enhancing students’ ability to feel better than otherwise from moment to moment as well as the long run.  Can schools do this?  Yes!  Schools have done this.

I see five main components of such a curriculum: inner awareness, social awareness, mental practices to feel better, expression and engagement, and inquiry.

Inner awareness—or mindfulness—is the foundation of a happiness pedagogy.  Awareness of feelings turns them into matters of choice rather than unconscious reactions.  You have to be aware of feelings to decide what you prefer to feel.   You also have to learn to be aware of the connection between what you are thinking and what you are feeling in order to manage feelings.   Feelings are not directly responses to our perceptions; they are responses to our interpretations, our judgments, of our perceptions.  The art of managing feelings is essentially the art of managing judgments.

Another benefit of inner awareness—mindfulness—is that when you consciously observe what you’re feeling, you reduce the power of your emotions to control you.  You gain some emotional independence.  And awareness of feelings introduces an intrinsic motive—an internal reward–to be kind, generous and helpful, to treat others well.  It feels good to do good.  It feels good to think well of others.  The opposite is also true.  In the accounting of the heart, how you treat others and how you judge them is instant karma.  You immediately reap what you sow.  With inner awareness, kids would repeatedly experience this.  It would transform the teaching of values in our schools.

A related aspect of a happiness pedagogy is social awareness.  Social and emotional learning has been taught in tens of thousands of schools for several decades.  One of the techniques used is to have students talk about their feelings, to describe how they feel in the present or felt at some time in the past.  Hearing others talk about their feelings makes a child more aware of his or her own feelings.  And it opens the door to empathy and understanding by shining light on the inner lives of others.  Children will learn to appreciate others more and fear them less, which will enrich their relationships.

Children should learn mental practices to feel better.  Mindfulness is the most effective practice to get off a train of negative thoughts and stop gnawing the bones of the past and worrying about the future and to smell the roses of the present moment.  Visualization of a calming place or situation can provide immediate relief from stress or distress.  Gaining perspective by standing back to see the larger picture can turn the mountain of your present problem into a speed bump on the road of life.  Practicing gratitude and forgiveness puts you in a positive state of mind and a positive state of feeling.

Expression and engagement is feeling by doing.  Kids should have more opportunities to feel the joy of creative expression in school, opportunities to engage in creative activities just for the fun of it.  Through inner awareness, kids would discover what they most enjoy doing, they would discover where their passion lies.

Engagement focuses on what students do outside the classroom.  It might include an assignment to perform random acts of kindness or to engage in a service project. I would emphasize engagement with nature.  I think this is missing in the lives of many children.

Systematic and ongoing inquiry into the fundamental value questions of life should be the academic heart of a happiness curriculum. Such questions include: “How should I live?,” “What is the Good life?,” and “What is the social good?”  “What is happiness, love, freedom, and justice?” A great deal of research shows that turning learning into a quest to answer an open-ended question—a question without a definite answer—is a more engaging and effective way to teach critical and creative skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills.  It is also a superior way to get students to gain and retain knowledge.  More importantly, though, inquiry into the fundamental questions of life would shine the light of the examined life on the important decisions they will make.

What outcomes can we expect from a happiness curriculum?  Students would gain greater awareness of what they’re really looking for in all they do.  They would have a deeper sense of purpose.  They would gain the ability to find mental shelter in the stress and storms of life.  They would be aware that a deeper peace and joy are possible.  They would be more aware of where their passions lie.  They would better understand themselves and others, which would enrich their relationships.  They would be aware of how good it feels to be kind, generous and helpful, which would also enrich their relationships.  They would have the light of the examined life to illumine their paths in life.  And the fruits of such an education would be immediate; children would not have to wait until they’re grown up to taste the fruits of their education.  If improving the quality of children’s lives is our aim, these are among the most important outcomes of education.

But would a happiness curriculum have a snowball’s chance of being implemented in our schools?  I address this question in my book Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness.  The short answer is that various components of a happiness curriculum have already been implemented in some schools to some extent.  And a lot of people and organizations are pushing happiness as the main purpose of education.  The makings of a movement are in place.

But the cause of happiness education will succeed or fail on its moral appeal.  All the great social causes of the past—the cause of freedom and equality, the ending of slavery, the emancipation of women, the extension of human and civil rights—prevailed over ferocious resistance because they appealed to people’s better angels.  They appealed to a higher morality than the status quo.

I chose the title Educating Angels for my book in order to introduce the core moral argument: If we thought our children had the worth of angels, we would more likely honor their worth by serving their deepest aspiration first and foremost rather than using them largely as means to serve the national economy.

Whether or not our children are angels, they are miracles of the universe.  Their worth is beyond our calculation, and certainly beyond their mere usefulness to society.  If we can improve their chances for lasting happiness in our schools, if we can improve the moment-to-moment quality of their lives, how could we refuse to do so?  To so refuse would betray our children, our ideals, and our own hearts.

More and more people will hear this, and the happiness education movement will grow.  One day happiness education will be part of the debate on the future of our schools.  And one day it will win the debate.  Awakened hearts shall not forever be denied.

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Teaching Values By Fostering Appreciation

How we regard and treat others is the practical heart of morality. Treating others well is the common attribute of favored virtues, preferred values, moral codes, and systems of ethics. Behavior that benefits others is the practical expectation of most of what we deem moral and ethical, good and right, fair and just. We may find it difficult to definitively determine what behavior best benefits others, either generally or in specific cases, or to even agree on the meaning of “benefit,” but to more effectively motivate children to well-intentioned behavior—behavior meant to benefit others as one understands it—could be considered a success of profound practical consequence.

We fall far short of this aim when we appeal to fear, which is often the case with traditional “character” education. Fear is the underlying motive for heeding the inhibitions and impulsions we succeed in implanting in children, and fear is not really compatible with benevolent inclination. Exhortations to care about injustice, suffering, and the environment may elicit the natural sympathy of those already inclined to it and win the overt agreement of those disposed to meet authoritative expectations, but they are unlikely to plant any seeds of benevolence.

Teaching values by trying to improve students’ ethical reasoning may make students more aware of the connection between moral behavior and self interest, but does not go much beyond that. Contrary to presumption, reason alone does not supply its own volitional force. As Jonathan Haidt points out, “Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards.” (2006, 165) Motive is a function of emotions, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind.

Motives to Treat Others Well

I propose a simple classification of the normative motives that favor treating others well: those based on the fears born of the perceived insufficiencies of ego, and a more speculative category of motives based on a particular understanding of love, which are plausibly non-ego based.

Fear of contravening normative prohibitions or failing to meet social expectations of appropriate behavior is deeply inculcated in most of us. “Don’t” is a constantly recurring refrain of childhood, as is “You should.” Such admonitions are sometimes reinforced with physical and/or emotional punishments, which continue with the sanctions of law and the reactions of our fellows into adulthood. Normative inhibitions tend to be deeply embedded and most of us cannot easily violate them, or even think about it, without incurring considerable fear. Of course, fear is considered necessary to socialization. The inhibitions implanted in our childhood mostly steer us away from harming others, and they can make us anxious to avoid failing to respond to others’ needs to some extent. Fear is thought a more reliable motive and easier to inspire and reinforce than more positive motives. Even parents who would rather not instill fear in their children face many an occasion where appeals to reason, affection, and justice are not reasonable alternatives.

But however useful fear may be to render children fit for society, it carries considerable baggage as a motivation to treat others well. Fear contracts and darkens awareness, something we can physically feel in the associated tension of our bodies. Fear is one of the more painful emotions. It distorts perception of reality and inhibits reasoning, which are among the reasons fear is favored by those who would motivate prejudice, hatred, and violence. Fear also lends itself to anger, which may be a psychological means of dealing with fear. There is a mountain of evidence that fear and anger are harmful to physical and mental health. It is a cause of self-destructive behavior. Importantly in light of our present concern with motives for treating others well, fear is an emotion of aversion, which makes it incompatible with such feelings of attraction as sympathy, compassion, appreciation, and love. It tends to block or inhibit the sense of connection with others that naturally inclines us to kindness and benevolence.

We may not be consciously aware of the fear bound into the inhibitions and impulsions we learned as children. Our responses are often virtually automatic, so the general effects of fear may not seem to come into play. But however unconscious the fear at the core of inhibitions and impulsions, it does not incline us to treat others well for their own sake.

Fear is also involved in guilt. Guilt is a very unpleasant feeling and a powerful motivator, though fear of guilt is what keeps us on the straight and narrow. Many find guilt useful in governing people’s behavior. They believe guilt justly punishes transgressions even when the perpetrator avoids other punishments. And trying to manipulate people by making them feel guilty is ubiquitous in human relationships. But there is a close relationship between guilt and fear, and guilt shares most of the liabilities of fear. Guilt can be quite debilitating when one is consumed with it, and it is quite destructive of self esteem, which many believe is necessary to extend esteem to others. It is commonly held that how one feels about oneself greatly influences how one feels about everyone else. Indeed, guilt tends to be projected, probably as a means to cope. The self-condemned sinner is apt to see the sin in others as well. It is not a reach to suspect that guilt lurks in much of the condemnation, outrage, and attack that plagues our relationships and societies.

We also heed normative admonitions and expectations out of more or less calculated self interest. The threat of punishment obviously appeals to fear, but treating others well can also arise from intent to advance self-interest. I refer here to what I call the Strategic Golden Rule: Do unto others because it is the best way to get them to do unto you. Fear plays a less obvious role in motivating people to treat others well in order to serve their own material interests. But the desire to advance such interests implies a need born of perceived lack or insufficiency, which entails fear at some level of consciousness.

The same is true of serving emotional needs. Normative satisfactions are among the more positive motives for treating others well. By treating others well, we likely hope to gain the approbation of others, and even in the absence of such approbation, we may hope to strengthen our self esteem by feeling good about ourselves. The need for approbation and building self esteem implies a lack we seek to fill, for if we felt no lack of self worth we would have no motive to seek either external or internal validation. Filling this lack can yield a pleasurable feeling called satisfaction. For most people, such satisfaction is unequivocally among the preferable, or pleasurable, feelings.

But it has some relative deficiencies. For one, it arises from easing an insufficiency of self worth that is never long sated. Insecurity is an inherent characteristic of ego. No matter how self confident someone driven to seek power, fame, acclaim, and all else that glitters in the eyes of the ego may seem, the need to seek these things speaks to a deep insecurity of self that requires constant validation to appease. The self sufficient are not driven. The emotional need for external validation of worth tends to be insatiable—it can never be satisfied for long because the sense of insufficient worth from which it rises remains and is ever freshly provoked. The sense of insufficiency can be momentarily lulled, but it always wakens to attenuate and extinguish every satisfaction the ego demands. And every ego gratification is haunted by the certainty that the barbs of emotional need will return. Unfortunately for our happiness, every satisfaction in which the ego plays a role—and it is seldom completely absent—is contaminated by the underlying fear inherent to the premise for its existence.

The satisfaction of approval also shares a property of most satisfactions: it requires the preceding pain of perceived lack of approval or fear of it. No hunger, no sating. Without the contrast of discomfort, awareness of comfort recedes. Without the need for validation, the approval of others does not inspire the satisfaction of filling a need. This at least partly explains why satisfactions “habituate” or recede from awareness. The satisfaction of desire requires dissatisfaction, because desire entails dissatisfaction with present experience; with no desire to satisfy, satisfaction of desire is unavailable.

Some normative satisfactions are not so clearly associated with the ego’s need for approval. There can be a certain pleasure in obeying rules, performing rituals, and keeping traditions for their own sakes. There can be pleasure in being virtuous for the sake of virtue. There is relative pleasure in cognitive coherence with what one believes, especially when contrasted to the fear and confusion engendered by cognitive dissonance of acting contrary to one’s beliefs. Guilt arises from the dissonance of behavior and belief. Avoiding guilt may not be pleasurable in itself, but it paves the way for preferred feelings. People can find satisfaction in coloring within the lines, so to speak. They reap normative satisfactions in performing rituals and keeping traditions, perhaps because they endow them with higher purpose and meaning.

Whatever the source, pleasure in heeding rules, commandments, rituals, and traditions as such is not, strictly speaking, a motive to treat others well for their own sake. Heeding normative strictures may serve the interests of others, but when the attending satisfaction is based more on the heeding than the serving, it falls short of benevolence. Another deficiency of the satisfactions of heeding normative strictures and traditions for their own sake is that it can all too easily turn into resentment and condemnation of those who do not heed them. The satisfaction of obeying what one believes is God’s will, obeying the law as a normative imperative, practicing virtues to feed one’s sense of personal integrity, or heeding tradition as an emotional balm all too easily give way to anger and resentment when God’s will, laws, virtues, and traditions are flouted.

And such judgment is not reserved for others. Guilt lurks to punish the laxity of those who seek satisfaction in obedience to stricture, probably more cruelly than those who place less store in such fidelity. It may be that the greater the satisfaction, the greater the guilt from succumbing to temptation. Such is the treachery of ego.

We may not have exhausted the motives to treat others well born of the insecurities of ego, but let us turn to motives that plausibly have a different source. Some philosophers held that normative satisfactions are natural responses to virtuous acts, that they are almost instinctive. Some believe the satisfactions of virtue are affective tokens of grace from God or the natural expression of spirit. Or the brain may have a mechanism for creating a feeling of pleasure for consonance between action and belief. Proponents of natural law presumed a basic inclination of human nature to virtue that is inherently rewarding, and, in assuming virtue contributes to “win-win” situations, there are evolutionary explanations as well. (Wright, 2001)

Many agree with Schopenhauer that compassion is the prime moral motive. Compassion may be thought an aspect of a virtually instinctual sympathy with others that inclines us to not only share their pain, but their joy and mirth as well. Compassion and sympathy imply a felt connection with others that does not necessarily involve the fears and needs born of the sense of separation that defines the ego. We need not insist on this to make a useful distinction between motives that aim primarily at meeting our own needs and those that incline us to serve others.

Compassion is commonly understood as sensitivity to the pain of others, implying a sharing of the pain of others to some extent. Compassion seems a relatively selfless motive to serve others as it does not in itself seem to serve a selfish interest. Sharing pain is painful, and even a mild sensitivity to the distress of others suggests affective discomfort. And compassion lends itself to guilt when we fail to act as we believe we ought. As morally laudable and socially necessary compassion is, it is not in itself an intrinsically enjoyable feeling. The affective rewards we associate with compassion seem to lie in acting to alleviate the distress of others in some way, which, in addition to normative satisfactions, promises relief from the distress of our own sympathy.

Unfortunately, we can also seek relief from the distress of our sympathy by seeing those who elicit our compassion as victims of callous or malicious perpetrators. When convinced of injustice, our compassion renders us the victims in a sense, which may explain why compassion so easily incites our indignation and calls forth a desire for vengeance. When we see or hear of people who are poor, hungry, disadvantaged, or abused, we may find some relief from our pangs of compassion by diverting them into righteous anger aimed at those we hold responsible for such suffering. Though it seems an inherently benevolent impulse, compassion in itself does not save us from the ills of condemning judgment unless it includes perpetrators as well as victims.

Judging others ill entails an inescapable affective price. Anger and its underlying fear attend such judgment. This follows from the insight that emotions are responses to the judgments our thoughts entail. This is an enormously important insight, for it points to a major cause of unhappiness. It points as well to a plausible condition for intrinsically rewarding moral motives: they must neither entail nor invite judging others ill. This observation may not sit well with those who believe that judging the sin of others is morally obligatory, but it is backed both by reason and the testimony of people trained in inner awareness.

Fostering Appreciation

It is said that doing good feels good, and, with sufficient awareness of feelings, it is easy to experience the truth of this. Thinking well of others gives rise to lighter, more expansive feelings and thinking ill evokes darker, more constricting feelings. We unavoidably reap what we sow in terms of our judgments. If we could experientially demonstrate this, we could tap into a potent, self-reinforcing motive for moral behavior that has been relatively neglected. This would require training students in inner awareness, particularly in awareness of feelings and the thoughts that evoke them. Such awareness is best attained through the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is essentially nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This can be achieved by means of various techniques—focus on a particular present experience like breathing or a “meta-awareness” of all that transpires within and without, for example. Mindfulness can be focused on feelings and their associated thoughts, and can include experimenting with thinking well and ill to demonstrate their affective consequences. But mindfulness is also the doorway to the Now where the fears of ego disappear and a peaceful joy thought to come from awareness of our essential being shines through. Practicing mindfulness is thus a way to experience the incomparably desirable affective rewards of escaping the fears of ego.

Fortunately, there are international initiatives to teach mindfulness in schools. Organizations such as Innerkids are dedicated to training teachers in the art, and highly useful guides are proliferating. Among recent additions are The Mindful Child by Susan Greenland (2010) and Child’s Mind by Christopher Willard (2010). Deborah Shoeberlein’s Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (2009) is excellent.

We should also address the conceptual barriers to the appreciation of others. What we believe about others determines how we see them, and how we see them determines how we feel about them. Though fear may inhibit us from objectively harming others, our treatment of them will fall far short of benevolence if we see them through fearful eyes. If we can change the cognitive filters that determine how students judge and therefore feel about people, we can foster a more appreciative regard.

Students should therefore be led on ever more extensive explorations of anger, grievance, resentment and associated feelings on the one hand and feelings of appreciation on the other. They should learn to recognize and analyze their judgments both experientially and conceptually. For example, they can be asked to pick a target of their anger, try to identify the apparent causes by noting what they feel when they think about different aspects of the person, and attempt to understand the motives of the person by imagining themselves in the person’s shoes and recalling when they acted similarly and why.

Finding the motives of others in one’s own heart is a good way to gain perspective and, hopefully, sympathy. It is among the various ways to temper rationalizations and mitigate the pangs of judgment. It is a way to become aware of the attitudinal lens through which we see others and learn to adjust it. We know a change in attitude can change both our perceptions and the responses of our hearts. A little change in perspective can change someone we regard with aversion into an inspiration of compassion. A new realization about someone can overturn current judgment and open new venues of understanding. Prejudice dissipates with the gaze of understanding, superficial images of people transform with the evidence of unsuspected depths.

Comfort with similarity and discomfort with difference is a clear predisposition of human beings, and it constitutes an emotional barrier to evoking feelings of appreciation. One means to lower the barrier is to strengthen students’ recognition of the similarities of human hearts and the human experience. It is easier to appreciate others when we recognize ourselves in them, because it is easier to understand them. Some aspects of common educational practice help promote such recognition. The shared environment of classrooms and the interaction that is encouraged there provide opportunities for broadening and deepening mutual understanding to some extent. The experience of education as a shared endeavor serves this end as well, though this is lost when competition is emphasized. Content that reflects recurring themes of the human story and shared conditions of the human experience may be thought to contribute to an understanding of what we have in common.

Hearing other students talk about their feelings and associated thoughts tends to lead to a realization of just how much one’s own inner experience accords with the inner experiences of others. Consciously bringing the inner dimension of experiences into the open to share with others can bring a real revelation. A student’s core motives become clearer the more he or she hears them described by others, for core motives are among the most universally shared aspects of the human condition. Our understanding of others is necessarily based on our own experiences, and the discovery of how similar our inner experiences are with those of others can deeply resonate.

A number of initiatives that aim to improve students’ views of each other and therefore their relationships have been implemented in schools with considerable success. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, has helped bring “social and emotional learning” (SEL) programs to tens of thousands of schools. (Lantieri & Goleman, 2008) SEL emphasizes techniques based on mindful inner awareness.

Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” inspired another promising initiative aimed at developing peaceful, compassionate relationships. The core methods of what practitioners call “relationship based teaching and learning” involve awareness and expression of feelings and needs that promotes understanding and reduces the sources of conflict. (Hart & Hodson, 2004) The program emphasizes awareness of the affective rewards of freely giving and receiving according to the particular talents of each student. Both the ends and means of the project are well-suited to fostering appreciation of others through understanding, recognition of what we all hold in common, and awareness of the rewards of the heart.

Promising means to harness the moral attitudes and behaviors of children to the motives of their hearts are ready to hand. Giving them a prominent place in schools would greatly improve the effectiveness of values education. A tall order, perhaps, but the stakes are exceedingly high. The lifelong quality of children’s lives and the health of the societies they inhabit as adults may well depend on it.

REFERENCES

Greenland, Susan K. (2010) The Mindful Child, New York: Free Press.

Haidt, Jonathan (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom New York: Basic Books, 165.

Hart, Sura and Victoria Kindle Hodson, 2004, The Compassionate Classroom: Relationship Based Teaching and Learning, Encinitas, California: PuddleDancer Press.

Lantieri, Linda and Daniel Goleman, 2008, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True.

Schoeberlein, Deborah and Suki Sheth (2009) Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything, Somerville, Massachussetts: Wisdom Publications.

Willard, Christopher, 2010, Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed, Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.

Wright, Robert, 2001, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Vintage.

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Happiness Is a Feeling

Saying happiness is a feeling may seem too obvious to need saying, but it does. Quite a few people either flatly disagree or insist the observation is only partly true. Some agree with Aristotle that “eudaimonia,” translated as happiness, is a quality of a virtuous life as a whole. The modern philosopher Julia Annas rejects the idea that happiness is subjective—a “smiley-face feeling”—in favor of the notion that it is a more objective quality of how a life is lived, particularly in terms of worthy achievement.

Many contemporary thinkers prefer well-being and flourishing to the word happiness. These concepts do not necessarily deny feelings are an aspect of happiness, but they encompass broader conditions of life than “mere” affect. Well-being includes presumably appropriate assessments of the objective conditions of one’s life as well as feelings. David Sosa prefers “flourishing” because it is not simply about feeling good, it is about “accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments.” Harry Brighouse says, “flourishing is a richer property than happiness, sensitive to many more features of a person’s life than just her inner states.” Alex Michalos contends we should not consider people happy because they feel good no matter what the circumstances; they should feel good “because the objectively measurable conditions of their lives merit a positive assessment.”

The objections to happiness as a feeling are mostly normative. They are based to some extent on value judgments of what the sources of happiness ought to be. They are also based on what the sources are objectively presumed to be. They tend to ignore the nature of the moment-to-moment experience of eudaimonia, well-being and flourishing. This is rather curious given that direct experience is only of a present moment.

The word happiness is meant to characterize a feeling in common parlance, either the most desirable feeling or one in the category of desirable feelings. I believe the common understanding is not only more accurate in terms of direct experience; it is also more fruitful in identifying the keys to the experience.

Imagine life without feelings. You would be aware of the information detected by your senses. You could reason. You could draw conclusions about the nature of what you perceive and about cause-and-effect relationships. But you wouldn’t care about what you were experiencing. Caring implies feeling. You would have no motive to prefer one experience over another, for motive implies an inner force that moves us, a force entailed in emotion. You would have no motive to seek alternative experiences. Your experiences would have no experiential value.

The subjective value of experience lies in feelings. As Robert Solomon puts it, “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.” This is in keeping with the affective theory of value. It differs from the emotive theory of value associated with such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume only in making a distinction between emotive and non-emotive feelings. Emotive feelings—fear, anger, desire, boredom, etc.—move us to seek a preferable feeling. Non-emotive feelings—joy, peace, love—are at least temporarily sufficient unto themselves; we want to keep feeling them and are therefore not moved to change what we are experiencing. Feelings in general are called affect, which includes both types.

We usually refer to value in its positive sense, which in this context is what we prefer to experience rather than what we dislike or loathe. The desire to feel better than we do at present is the core motive force of our lives. The attainment of a desired feeling is our real target in all we pursue. What we really seek in relationships, possessions, circumstances, ideals, entertainment and all else that glitters in our mind’s eye is a feeling we hope the objects of our desire will evoke.

The value of experience must be found in actual experience rather than concepts. The present moment is the only dimension of time we directly experience. Memories and imaginings may seem to extend experience into the past and future, but remembering and imagining, and whatever benefits or burdens they bring to an experience, necessarily occur in the now. For all that troubles us about feelings—as ephemeral, fickle, unpleasant, and uncontrollable they often seem—they are nonetheless the core subjective assessment of value, positive or negative, of the only experiential dimension of time.

We experience life one moment at a time, not all at once, so life as a whole is a conceptual construct beyond direct experience. Concepts of happiness as an assessment of the quality of life as a whole neglect the essential nature of experience, and therefore do not capture the essence of experiential value.

The concepts of well-being and flourishing also include temporal dimensions and qualities of life beyond immediate experience. Well-being is usually thought to include health, rewarding relationships, meaningful work and engagement, security, pleasing circumstances, etc. For the most part, those who prefer the term agree the value of these conditions is subjectively rather than objectively determined. Though the meaning varies, flourishing generally includes what are considered more objective assessments such as worthwhile accomplishments, contributions to society, admirable pursuits and lifestyles, status and esteem.

But if the present moment is the only temporal dimension of experience, we must ask how well-being and flourishing are experienced in the now. If not as a feeling, then how? To say “state of mind” offers no illumination; feelings in a broad sense are not only inherent attributes of mental states, they entail the value of such states. Without reference to feelings, well-being and flourishing are not experientially descriptive and do not identify the nature of experiential value. They may encompass plausible sources of feelings, but remain vague at best about the nature of the associated feelings.

External conditions and achievements influence what we feel, of course, but what we feel is the point. Whatever the causal relationship between the conditions of our lives and our feelings, feelings constitute the subjective quality of our lives. The causes of feelings are the means, not the end. So why not use more descriptive words for desirable feelings—happiness, joy, contentment, satisfaction, peace, etc.?

One might respond that the value of the concepts of a virtuous life, well-being and flourishing lies in identifying more conducive—and normatively appropriate—contexts or sources of feelings. One might consider this more fruitful than focusing directly on the chimera of feelings per se. This view is mistaken.

Directly engaging the question of feelings is far more likely to lead to deeper insight into the nature of what we seek and where we are most likely to find it. Inquiry into the nature and sources of feelings also greatly improves our chances of discovering the means to feel as we choose, or at least to feel better than otherwise. Before presuming the sources of happiness, we must first gain some clarity about its nature: what feeling or feelings do we prefer? Only then can we fruitfully inquire into the means of experiencing the feelings we desire.

Serious, open-minded inquiry into the causes of feelings leads to the insight that internal factors are far more important than external in determining what we feel. Our feelings are not direct responses to the raw data of our senses; they are responses to our interpretations—our judgments—of perceptions. Aside from instinctual programming, feelings are not automatic responses. Nor are the judgments our thoughts entail. We can determine, or at least influence, what we feel by managing our thoughts. This is the basis of cognitive therapy. This realization reveals both the source of feelings and the key to feeling as we choose.

Inner awareness of feelings and the thoughts that cause them is far more important to happiness than arranging external conditions. Such awareness is necessary to identify what feelings are most desirable, and it is necessary to observe and therefore manage thoughts and patterns of thought.

Rather than downplaying feelings, we should acknowledge their supreme value in the subjective quality of our lives. Then we should seek clarity about what we prefer to feel and the means to feel it. We would then stand a far better chance of aligning the affect-impoverished priorities of our minds with the deeper aspirations of our hearts. The first step is to acknowledge that happiness is a feeling.

Sources of quotes (numbered in order of appearance):

1. Julia Annas, “Happiness As Achievement” in Cahn and Vitrano, Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy, pp. 238-244.

2. David Sosa, “The Spoils of Happiness” The New York Times: Opinionator, October 6, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/the-spoils-of-happiness/.

3. Alex C. Michalos, “Education, Happiness and Wellbeing,” a paper prepared for the International Conference on “Is happiness measurable and what do those measures mean for public policy?” at Rome, 2-3 April 2007. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/22/25/ 38303200.pdf on September 21, 2009.

4. Harry Brighouse, On Education, Taylor & Francis, Kindle edition, 2007, acquired June 8, 2008 from Amazon.com. Location 709.

5. Robert C. Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 1993) p. 71.

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The Vital Heart of Liberal Education

What is the value of liberal education?  The most insightful answer is found in the foremost theory of subjective value in the history of philosophy.  Aristotle’s observation that happiness is the only “self-sufficient” end, for all we do is for the sake of happiness, echoes in the writings of thinkers through the ages. As the core human aspiration, happiness is the primary subjective good of the good life as well as the good society.

Many defenders of the liberal arts stress social rather than personal value.  The social value of liberal education is in preparing students for the heightened cognitive demands of modern jobs for the sake of the national economy, for responsible and active citizenship for the sake of democracy, for enriching the national culture, for furthering the cause of truth and socially useful knowledge, and so forth. 

Without doubt, liberal education addresses vital needs of complex modern societies.  But giving priority to these needs over personal aspirations treats students more as means to social ends than as ends in themselves. This is not just morally dubious; it is dangerous.  Dedicating the education of young citizens to making them useful to the purposes of the state disregards their intrinsic value and thereby weakens the obligation of the state to respect human dignity.  It encourages the propensity of those entrusted with power to consider citizens as servants rather than the other way around.  And it is shortsighted.  The welfare of society consists of the welfare of the individuals that comprise it; the interests of society are better served by giving priority to the personal empowerment of citizens.  As Dewey says, “Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (1980, 5)

Most answers to the question of the personal value of liberal education may imply the end of happiness, but few make it explicit.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that the concept of happiness is deemed too ambiguous.  The meaning varies from person to person.  In my experience, most people tend to think of happiness in terms of what they think causes it rather than what it is.  Happiness is virtue, the contemplative life, success, money, a good marriage, health, living in a sunny locale, a promotion, retirement, a new kitchen floor, or, in the Beatles’ song, a warm gun.

Though some disagree, I think the common understanding that happiness is a feeling is the most useful. I hold to the affective theory of value, which differs from the emotive theory of value only in making a distinction between emotions that move us to seek preferable feelings and non-emotive feelings that we prefer to keep feeling.  According to this theory, the core subjective value of any experience is entailed in feeling. Remove feeling from an experience and you are left with a robotic awareness of sensory data and perhaps a sentient acknowledgement of cause and effect without a motive to seek experience, to care about what you are experiencing, or to establish a preference among experiences.  As Robert Solomon says, “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.” (1993, 71)

            The usual meaning of value is what we desire, appreciate, or find useful to our purposes. We usually do not speak of value in regard to what we loathe or do not care about. To value usually means to hold in positive regard. It is in this sense that feeling is the treasure we seek in experience; we seek preferable feelings. We are moved to gain a feeling preferable to what we are presently feeling, and experiencing the feeling at which we aim is the reward of attainment. The objects of our pursuits may be people, possessions, circumstances, expressions of love and esteem, truth, and all else that glitters in the eyes of our minds, but the experiential value of attaining these things lies in the feelings we hope they will evoke.  Feelings are both the motive force and target of all our striving.

            To speak of value without consequence to the human heart is to speak of value without consequence to human experience.  It is the heart that bestows experiential value, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind. The subjective quality of our lives is the quality of our feelings.  Thus the ultimate value of everything we teach in schools is what it contributes to the aspirations of a human heart to experience what it yearns to feel.   

As commonly understood, the word happiness is used to describe either the most desirable feeling or the category of preferred feelings.  The most vitally meaningful answer to the question of the value of liberal education is what it contributes to each student’s experience of happiness in terms of what he or she prefers to feel. 

Contemporary defenders of the liberal arts tend to stress their personal value in terms of getting better jobs and making more money in the 21st century global economy.  Most likely this is due to the current market and political pressures squeezing these disciplines, especially the humanities.  I suspect, or perhaps just hope, most educators still believe they are more importantly the best preparation for life in general.  But making a compelling case for the non-economic value of liberal education is hindered by lack of clarity about what it contributes to the non-economic dimensions of life.    

The purpose of liberal education is variously described as helping students attain “a meaningful and satisfying life,” “human flourishing,” “insight into the meaning of life,” the “immortality of wisdom,” the “art of living a good life,” “self realization,” “self knowledge,” “joy in creative expression and knowledge,” understanding the “significance of what [one] does,” “consummatory appreciations,” the ability to “change the meaning of experience,” and “the possession of our powers.” “If a person’s life is to be sufficient and satisfying” Philip Phenix contends, “he needs above all to enjoy intrinsically worthwhile experiences and not only instrumental preparatory ones.” (1967)

What do these attainments contribute to the actual moment-to-moment experience of life?  Without reference to the summative end of happiness, the answer remains vague.  Let us therefore ask what a liberal education might contribute to students’ pursuit of happiness.  Here we must confront the realization that little we teach at any level of education is directly aimed at students’ hearts.  This is a failure of profound consequence.  Still, the liberal arts disciplines are comparatively amenable to serving the aims of the heart.  

The liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, explore the aesthetic dimension of experience. They can enhance what Alfred North Whitehead called “aesthetic apprehension.” Dewey said, “aesthetic formulation reveals and enhances the meaning of experience.” (2007, 166) Music, art, and literature are not the only subjects that open the door to aesthetic pleasures, of course. The appreciation of profound and clever ideas and formulations, the satisfactions of intellectual problem-solving, the wonder of new vistas of beauty, the fascination of the human drama, the grip of poignant moments, all the varied fruits of mind that sweeten our affective experiences and inform our pursuit of happiness are native to liberal arts subjects. 

The world in which we subjectively live is the world of which we are aware, and the liberal arts expand students’ awareness of the world and potentially deepen their understanding of themselves and others.  The advantages of greater awareness of the world seem obvious in common understandings of advantage.  It increases opportunities for “aesthetic apprehension” and conceptual appreciations, of course.  Beyond this, such awareness reasonably improves our ability to navigate the world to achieve what we desire.  It expands our awareness of choices and therefore our freedom.  It enhances our understanding of consequences, and therefore our discernment in choosing.  Awareness of the world can afford greater insight into what we are, what we seek, and what is worth seeking.  By extension, this enhances our understanding of others.  A liberal education offers insight into the human condition and, importantly, it encourages self-reflection, which may yield the riper fruits of the examined life.  

But greater external efficacy, freedom, and self-understanding are not direct causes of the feelings we seek.  They are no doubt conducive conditions, but are not sufficient causes.  Our feelings are responses to our judgments of outer and inner experiences.  Our judgments of experiences—the meaning we give them in terms of how we perceive they might affect our purposes—determine what we feel, not the raw data of our perceptions. The contribution of a liberal education to students’ ability to feel as they choose ultimately lies in what it contributes to their ability to determine the meaning they give their experiences. This is more important than the ability to determine their experiences—the usual focus in the pursuit of happiness.  This realization rather complicates the assessment of the personal value of liberal education.

The knowledge and understanding the liberal arts provide naturally influence the meaning students’ give their experiences to some extent.  Knowing and understanding history, literature, philosophy, physical and social sciences, music, art, etc., offers ample context and content for meaning.  What is usually missing, though, is the nurturing of awareness of the connection between the tenor of the meaning one bestows (positive or negative) and the tenor of his or her feelings.  Positive meaning yields positive feelings, and vice-versa. Combined with the realization that meaning is indeed subjectively chosen and bestowed rather than objectively mandated, this awareness is key to the ability to feel as one chooses.

 Our beliefs, lessons of experience, and immediate desires shape our judgments of experiences.  Education informs all of these, but for the most part only indirectly in a hit-or-miss fashion.  This need not be the case, though.  If we could orient the teaching of the liberal arts to a more conscious, integrative attempt to provide the cognitive wherewithal to enhance students’ ability to feel as they choose—a practical understanding of empowering their pursuit of happiness—we would greatly enhance the value of liberal education.

Students should be prepared with core insights into the human condition and with exercises in inner awareness.  They should arrive at a conceptual understanding of the importance of feelings through considering both philosophical insights and scientific evidence.  Students should experience the importance of feelings through conscious, nonjudgmental observation of feelings.  This is called inner mindfulness.  Learning and practicing mindfulness is fundamental to all else, for it heightens awareness of feelings, provides a basis for deciding preferences among them, and experientially demonstrates the connection between judgments and feelings. 

Experience is the best teacher, and mindfulness would afford students far greater awareness of the experiential lessons of the heart.  It would also make them more aware of the immediate affective fruits of learning these lessons, which would greatly strengthen the intrinsic motive to learn. 

The arts and practice of inner awareness are taught in some schools, but they are obviously missing from most core curricula.  At present, education is oriented almost exclusively toward external experience. Yet, the meaning of experience and the feelings that entail the value of experience are internally bestowed.  The value of all knowledge and skills is determined within.  Slighting inner awareness is a far more consequential failure of contemporary education than the failure of schools to adequately prepare students for jobs in the 21st century global economy.

Fortunately, internal experience is a natural dimension of interest and inquiry for liberal arts subjects.  They reveal not only the terrains of social conditions and relationships, but also the varied landscapes of hearts and minds.  But to make sense of any of this, these courses of study must also point to what human beings have in common.  Psychology obviously focuses on shared aspects of internal experience, but a student cannot truly understand history, literature, the social sciences, the arts, philosophy, etc., without understanding the universal dimensions of internal human experience.

Students must understand what moves people, what they feel, to make sense of any course of study that explores the dimensions of the human condition, experience, and aspiration—the natural purview of the liberal arts.  To reach such understanding, they must draw from the well of their own inner experiences.  How else would they know what anger, fear, love, and joy feel like to others?  This is among the many compelling reasons students should be taught the arts and skills of inner awareness.  This would make the study of any liberal discipline more meaningful and effective.

Armed with insight into the human condition and inner awareness, students would be better able to determine the subjective meaning of all they learn with the purpose of their hearts in mind.  What and how they are taught should also be adapted to this purpose.  The focus of history, for example, might become what insights can be gleaned from the story of the conditions and events of human striving for happiness.  Such insights should be the aim of studying literature, the sciences, the arts, and philosophy. 

If liberal education is to lead to meaningful freedom, it must broaden students’ awareness of choices, inform their discernment in choosing, and enhance their ability to realize what they choose to experience. The methods of philosophical inquiry are tailor-made for these attainments. 

Philosophical inquiry involves an attempt to answer an open-ended question rather than master a body of knowledge per se.  Such inquiry calls for exploring different answers to the question by examining assumptions, implications, evidence, and logic.  It allows for examining the affective implications of adopting a specific answer to the question at hand.  Questions of value are at the heart of all disciplines, and such questions are philosophical in nature.  All liberal disciplines are characterized by controversy and by contending perspectives on matters of knowledge, theory, scope, and value.  The analysis of alternative perspectives found in philosophical inquiry has a natural home in these courses of study.

All liberal disciplines are but different windows on the same core questions of the human condition, experience, aspiration, and the nature of reality that conditions these dimensions of life. The methods of philosophical inquiry—in particular the methods of “communal inquiry”—are therefore not just suited to the study of all disciplines; they should be a core pedagogical approach in each of them.  Not only is this approach a superior way to teach the vaunted job-related skills of liberal arts—critical thinking, written and oral communication, individual and group problem-solving, social awareness, creativity, thinking outside the box, persuasion, etc.—the focus on finding an answer to an overriding question is a more effective way to motivate learning.

  Ultimately, the relevance and value of every discipline is determined by what it contributes to students’ prospects for experiencing happiness as each sees it.  The question of happiness should therefore be the common focus of inquiry in all liberal disciplines.  The core value of liberal education should be the focus of core curricula.  Empowering the pursuit of happiness should be the foremost integrative principle of integrative education.  I am convinced that dedicating education to serve this purpose would rejuvenate the entire enterprise to the benefit of all concerned: students, educators, parents, and society at large. 

By making the case—and experientially demonstrating—that the liberal arts can build students’ ability to feel as they choose, thus empowering their pursuit of happiness, we would establish the supreme value of liberal education.  That which enhances the experiential quality of life in all its dimensions is far more meaningful and practical than merely enhancing students’ job and earning prospects. In the main theory of value through the ages, there is no more important outcome.  Once the overriding importance of this outcome is acknowledged, we can dedicate our efforts to making the liberal arts even more vital to the hearts of our students.        

 

 

References

 

Dewey, J. 1980. The School and Society. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

 

Solomon, R.C. 1993. The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.

 

Phenix, P.H. 1967. “Liberal learning and the Practice of Freedom,” retrieved May 26, 2009 from www.religon-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2533.

 

Dewey, J. 2007. Democracy and Education. Teddington, Great Britain: The Echo Library.

 

 

 

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Moral Motive

For the most part, the approaches employed in our schools to teach favored values and virtues are motivationally weak. They do not reflect much depth of understanding of what motivates moral behavior. Approaches that mostly appeal to reason implausibly presume that reason supplies its own motive. Those that aim to implant morality by assertion, threat, and extrinsic reward primarily appeal to fear and guilt. Even those approaches meant to elicit the natural sympathy of students appeal to fear as well. Fear, guilt, and even the normative satisfactions born of ego are the least desirable motives in terms of improving children’s regard and treatment of others.

How we regard and treat others is the practical heart of morality. Treating others well is the common attribute of favored virtues, preferred values, moral codes, and systems of ethics. Behavior that benefits others is the practical expectation of most of what we deem moral and ethical, good and right, fair and just. We may find it difficult to definitively determine what behavior best benefits others, either generally or in specific cases, or to even agree on the meaning of “benefit,” but to more effectively motivate children to well-intentioned behavior—behavior meant to benefit others as one understands it—could be considered a success of great practical consequence.

We fall short of this aim when we appeal to fear, which is often the case with traditional “character” education. Fear is the underlying motive for heeding the inhibitions and impulsions we succeed in implanting in children, and fear is not really compatible with benevolent inclination. Exhortations to care about injustice, suffering, and the environment may elicit the natural sympathy of those already inclined to it and win the overt agreement of those disposed to meet authoritative expectations, but there is little evidence that they are effective in changing hearts and minds. Exhortation does not seem to awaken new motives or build on preexisting ones.

Neither does the approach of simply making students aware of injustice, suffering, and problems. Teaching values by trying to improve students’ ethical reasoning may make students more aware of the connection between moral behavior and self interest, but does not go much beyond that. Contrary to presumption, reason alone does not supply its own volitional force. As Jonathan Haidt points out, “Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards.” (2006) Motive is a function of the heart, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind.

This proposition is based on several core insights. The first is that feelings in a general sense are both the wellsprings and the target of motive. Emotions move us to seek preferable experiences, and the subjective essence or value we seek in a prospective experience is a preferable feeling. We can distinguish between emotions such as anger, fear, desire, and boredom that entail dissatisfaction with present experience and states of mind such as joy, contentment, satisfaction, and peace that are at least temporarily sufficient unto themselves. The former are the wellsprings of motive—they move us to seek something other than what we are presently feeling—and the latter are the core experiential value we are moved to attain—a feeling we at least temporarily wish to keep feeling. I include both types of affective experience in a broad sense of the word feeling.

Remove feeling in this broad sense from an experience and we can presume one is left with a robotic awareness of sensory data and perhaps a sentient acknowledgement of cause and effect without a motive to seek experience, to care about what one is experiencing, or to establish any preference among experiences. As for the sensory aspects of experience, sensory perceptions have no experiential value shorn of the feelings that arise in response to our interpretation of perceptions. Even considered solely as sources of information about our environment, the value of such information derives from a purpose we are moved to pursue and, as just asserted, feeling in a broad sense is both the motive force and the target of human purpose. Survival, capability, and opportunity serve such purpose, but they are the necessary conditions of attaining the affective experience we seek, not the attainment as such.

A second core insight is that feelings are responses to the judgments entailed in our interpretations of experiences and in our thoughts. We may have a more or less automatic response to perceived danger or someone or something we associate with strong feelings in the past, but even these involve interpretation at some level of consciousness. Once aroused, feelings also influence what we think, of course. Mood can keep us on a self-reinforcing train of positive or negative thoughts. Yet there is no doubt that the judgments entailed in our thoughts are the main source of most feelings, though some contend that the most desirable feelings—peace, joy, and love—are inherent to an awareness of being beyond thought.

If we combine these two insights—desire for a preferable feeling moves us and the judgments of our thoughts are a primary source of feelings—we have the foundation for a potentially transformative understanding of moral motive.

Motives to Treat Others Well

As with all else we pursue, we tend to have mixed motives for doing good unto others, or for doing what we consider good period. If we are to discover the motives best suited to the purposes of moral education, we must sort them out. But feelings are often so entangled it is difficult to separate them, making it hard to identify and compare feelings. Mixed motives obscure the relative merits and desirability of unalloyed feelings. Think, for example, of all the negative baggage the word love carries because of its association with fear, anger, sorrow, infatuation, lust, etc. Still, a great deal rides on our ability to identify prominent motives for normative behavior and to compare their relative merits.

I propose a simple classification of the normative motives that favor treating others well: those based on the fears born of the perceived insufficiencies of ego, and a more speculative category of motives based on a particular understanding of love, which are plausibly non-ego based.

Fear of contravening normative prohibitions or failing to meet social expectations of appropriate behavior is deeply inculcated in most of us. “Don’t” is a constantly recurring refrain of childhood, as is “You should.” Such admonitions are sometimes reinforced with physical and/or emotional punishments, which continue with the sanctions of law and the reactions of our fellows into adulthood. Normative inhibitions tend to be deeply embedded and most of us cannot easily violate them, or even think about it, without incurring considerable fear. Of course, fear is considered necessary to socialization. The inhibitions implanted in our childhood mostly steer us away from harming others, and they can make us anxious to avoid failing to respond to others’ needs to some extent. Fear is thought a more reliable motive and easier to inspire and reinforce than more positive motives. Even parents who would rather not instill fear in their children face many an occasion where appeals to reason, affection, and justice are not reasonable alternatives.

But however useful fear may be to render children fit for society, it carries considerable baggage as a motivation to treat others well. Fear contracts and darkens awareness, something we can physically feel in the associated tension of our bodies. Fear is one of the more painful emotions. It distorts perception of reality and inhibits reasoning, which are among the reasons fear is favored by those who would motivate prejudice, hatred, and violence. Fear also lends itself to anger, which may be a psychological means of dealing with fear. There is a mountain of evidence that fear and anger are harmful to physical and mental health. It is a cause of self-destructive behavior. Importantly in light of our present concern with motives for treating others well, fear is an emotion of aversion, which makes it incompatible with such feelings of attraction as sympathy, compassion, appreciation, and love. It tends to block or inhibit the sense of connection with others that naturally inclines us to kindness and benevolence.

We may not be consciously aware of the fear bound into the inhibitions and impulsions we learned as children. Our responses are often virtually automatic, so the general effects of fear may not seem to come into play. But however unconscious the fear at the core of inhibitions and impulsions, it does not incline us to treat others well for their own sake.

Fear is also involved in guilt. Guilt is a very unpleasant feeling and a powerful motivator, though fear of guilt is what keeps us on the straight and narrow. Many find guilt useful in governing people’s behavior. They believe guilt justly punishes transgressions even when the perpetrator avoids other punishments. And trying to manipulate people by making them feel guilty is ubiquitous in human relationships. But there is a close relationship between guilt and fear, and guilt shares most of the liabilities of fear. Guilt can be quite debilitating when one is consumed with it, and it is quite destructive of self esteem, which many believe is necessary to extend esteem to others. It is commonly held that how one feels about oneself greatly influences how one feels about everyone else. Indeed, guilt tends to be projected, probably as a means to cope. The self-condemned sinner is apt to see the sin in others as well. It is not a reach to suspect that guilt lurks in much of the condemnation, outrage, and attack that plagues our relationships and societies.

We also heed normative admonitions and expectations out of more or less calculated self interest. The threat of punishment obviously appeals to fear, but treating others well can also arise from intent to advance self interest. I refer here to what I call the Strategic Golden Rule: Do unto others because it is the best way to get them to do unto you. Fear plays a less obvious role in motivating people to treat others well in order to serve their own material interests. But the desire to advance such interests implies a need born of perceived lack or insufficiency, which entails fear at some level of consciousness.

The same is true of serving emotional needs. Normative satisfactions are among the more positive motives for treating others well. By treating others well, we likely hope to gain the approbation of others, and even in the absence of such approbation, we may hope to strengthen our self esteem by feeling good about ourselves. The need for approbation and building self esteem implies a lack we seek to fill, for if we felt no lack of self worth we would have no motive to seek either external or internal validation. Filling this lack can yield a pleasurable feeling called satisfaction. For most people, such satisfaction is unequivocally among the preferable, or pleasurable, feelings.

But it has some relative deficiencies. For one, it arises from easing an insufficiency of self worth that is never long sated. Insecurity is an inherent characteristic of ego. No matter how self confident someone driven to seek power, fame, acclaim, and all else that glitters in the eyes of the ego may seem, the need to seek these things speaks to a deep insecurity of self that requires constant validation to appease. The self sufficient are not driven. The emotional need for external validation of worth tends to be insatiable—it can never be satisfied for long because the sense of insufficient worth from which it rises remains and is ever freshly provoked. The sense of insufficiency can be momentarily lulled, but it always wakens to attenuate and extinguish every satisfaction the ego demands. And every ego gratification is haunted by the certainty that the barbs of emotional need will return. Unfortunately for our happiness, every satisfaction in which the ego plays a role—and it is seldom completely absent—is contaminated by the underlying fear inherent to the premise for its existence.

The satisfaction of approval also shares a property of most satisfactions: it requires the preceding pain of perceived lack of approval or fear of it. No hunger, no sating. Without the contrast of discomfort, awareness of comfort recedes. Without the need for validation, the approval of others does not inspire the satisfaction of filling a need. This at least partly explains why satisfactions “habituate” or recede from awareness. The satisfaction of desire requires dissatisfaction, because desire entails dissatisfaction with present experience; with no desire to satisfy, satisfaction of desire is unavailable.

Some normative satisfactions are not so clearly associated with the ego’s need for approval. There can be a certain pleasure in obeying rules, performing rituals, and keeping traditions for their own sakes. There can be pleasure in being virtuous for the sake of virtue. There is relative pleasure in cognitive coherence with what one believes, especially when contrasted to the fear and confusion engendered by cognitive dissonance of acting contrary to one’s beliefs. Guilt arises from the dissonance of behavior and belief. Avoiding guilt may not be pleasurable in itself, but it paves the way for preferred feelings. People can find satisfaction in coloring within the lines, so to speak. They reap normative satisfactions in performing rituals and keeping traditions, perhaps because they endow them with higher purpose and meaning.

Whatever the source, pleasure in heeding rules, commandments, rituals, and traditions as such is not, strictly speaking, a motive to treat others well for their own sake. Heeding normative strictures may serve the interests of others, but when the attending satisfaction is based more on the heeding than the serving, it falls short of benevolence. Another deficiency of the satisfactions of heeding normative strictures and traditions for their own sake is that it can all too easily turn into resentment and condemnation of those who do not heed them. The satisfaction of obeying what one believes is God’s will, obeying the law as a normative imperative, practicing virtues to feed one’s sense of personal integrity, or heeding tradition as an emotional balm all too easily give way to anger and resentment when God’s will, laws, virtues, and traditions are flouted.

And such judgment is not reserved for others. Guilt lurks to punish the laxity of those who seek satisfaction in obedience to stricture, probably more cruelly than those who place less store in such fidelity. It may be that the greater the satisfaction, the greater the guilt from succumbing to temptation. Such is the treachery of ego.

We may not have exhausted the motives to treat others well born of the insecurities of ego, but let us turn to motives that plausibly have a different source. Some philosophers held that normative satisfactions are natural responses to virtuous acts, that they are almost instinctive. Some believe the satisfactions of virtue are affective tokens of grace from God or the natural expression of spirit. Or the brain may have a mechanism for creating a feeling of pleasure for consonance between action and belief. Proponents of natural law presumed a basic inclination of human nature to virtue that is inherently rewarding, and, in assuming virtue contributes to “win-win” situations, there are evolutionary explanations as well. (Wright, 2001)

Many agree with Schopenhauer that compassion is the prime moral motive. Compassion may be thought an aspect of a virtually instinctual sympathy with others that inclines us to not only share their pain, but their joy and mirth as well. Compassion and sympathy imply a felt connection with others that does not necessarily involve the fears and needs born of the sense of separation that defines the ego. We need not insist on this to make a useful distinction between motives that aim primarily at meeting our own needs and those that incline us to serve others.

Compassion is commonly understood as sensitivity to the pain of others, implying a sharing of the pain of others to some extent. Compassion seems a relatively selfless motive to serve others as it does not in itself seem to serve a selfish interest. Sharing pain is painful, and even a mild sensitivity to the distress of others suggests affective discomfort. And compassion lends itself to guilt when we fail to act as we believe we ought. As morally laudable and socially necessary as compassion is, it is not in itself an intrinsically enjoyable feeling. The affective rewards we associate with compassion seem to lie in acting to alleviate the distress of others in some way, which, in addition to normative satisfactions, promises relief from the distress of our sympathy.

Unfortunately, we can also seek relief from the distress of our sympathy by seeing those who elicit our compassion as victims of callous or malicious perpetrators. When convinced of injustice, our compassion renders us the victims in a sense, which may explain why compassion so easily incites our indignation and calls forth a desire for vengeance. When we see or hear of people who are poor, hungry, disadvantaged, or abused, we may find some relief from our pangs of compassion by diverting them into righteous anger aimed at those we hold responsible for such suffering. Though it seems an inherently benevolent impulse, compassion in itself does not save us from the ills of condemning judgment unless it includes perpetrators as well as victims.

Judging others ill entails an inescapable affective price. Anger and its underlying fear attend such judgment. This follows from the insight that emotions are responses to the judgments our thoughts entail. This is an enormously important insight, for it points to a major cause of unhappiness. It points as well to a plausible condition for intrinsically rewarding moral motives: they must neither entail nor invite judging others ill. This observation may not sit well with those who believe that judging the sin of others is morally obligatory, but it is backed both by reason and the testimony of people trained in inner awareness.

If there are intrinsically rewarding feelings associated with treating others well, we have reason to suspect they involve the sense of connection that gives rise to compassion. We know this sense of connection can be the source of great joy, but must we pay for our joy with the coin of pain? Is pain inherent to moral motive? To answer to this question, we must look deeply into our hearts.

Love

If we were all angels, perhaps we would have no need for laws and moral commandments, no need of admonishments and punishments, no need for the pangs of guilt or the shared pain of compassion to move us to treat others well. Benevolent behavior would flow naturally from our angelic hearts. We can only speculate about angels, but many claim to have experienced a blissful state of peace, joy, and love in which only pure, unselfish benevolence can be expressed. Benevolent behavior is not the source of the bliss according to advanced practitioners of inner awareness; rather such behavior is simply its natural expression. If so, this source of benevolence is beyond motive, for one in this state is not moved to seek a preferable feeling. Rather they are but moved to express the sufficiency they feel, if they are moved at all.

Advanced Buddhist practitioners, people considered to be enlightened by many, mystics through the ages, and wisdom traditions hold that this state of mind is not learned. They teach that it already exists within us obscured by identification with our ego concept of self and the emotions that attend this identification. Bliss and benevolence is held to be inherent to the essence of what we truly are behind the veils of ego, and awareness of this but awaits our discovery once we pierce the veils. In this state, the perceptual walls of separation vanish to be replaced by recognition of the connection of all existence. Self now includes all aspects of experience, all we experience is the experience of Self. This state has various names, but here I call it the agape state of mind, for this Greek biblical word is translated as an accepting, inclusive, unconditional, and blissful love reportedly at the heart of this state of awareness.

Such a state of mind, if it exists, may seem beyond the reach of all but a rare few, but it suggests a direction to look to discern the nature and possible source of highly desirable feelings without the deficiencies of ego satisfactions, without the need of desire born of a sense of lack to precede them and revive them when they habituate. We need not presume a transcendental nature of reality to illumine our search; clarity about the experiential attributes of love suffices to illumine some supremely useful insights.

Consider the essence of the experience we call love, the pure experience of love without the mixture of emotions associated with the yearning for it. Such yearning arises from the perception of lack, of love denied or threatened, not the experience as such.

What does love pure and simple feel like? Of course, to describe a feeling we are forced to use words for other feelings: expansive, connected, fond, captivated, attuned, joyful, fulfilled, worshipful, electrified, obsessed, etc. I propose that the best descriptive word for the feeling of love is joy, the joy of enjoying or appreciating someone or something as they are, rather than for what we wish them to be or what we expect to get from them. We do not love whom and what we wish to change, for in the desire they change is the lack of acceptance of who and what they are. Love enjoys what is without the conditions judgment places on our joy. And it is not love we feel when we see others as means to fill a perceived lack. Fear is the underlying emotion of need. When attraction inspires the desire to possess, it inhibits the appreciation of love.

Appreciation implies the feeling of valuing, which entails enjoying someone or something. Joy likely comes closest to depicting what valuing feels like. Yet the joy of love is different than the energized joy associated with being granted a sudden wish, for example. In love’s acceptance of what is, it harbors no sorrow, pain, fear, anger, or jealousy. It sees no wrong to be righted or provision to be made. Love pure and simple acknowledges no need or lack, places no condition on the future, issues no call for completion, is uncontaminated by fear. The absence of all sources of fear and disturbance yields peace.

Perhaps you can remember moments of peaceful joy when you basked in warm affection for others, or were captured by the beauty of a sunset or landscape, or simply appreciated the experience of the moment relatively unbothered by doubts and fears. What you felt in those moments plausibly comes closest to what deserves to be called the essence of love, the uncontaminated experience of love. Those rare moments when the burdens of the past and worry for the future fade in the quiet enjoyment of the moment hint at what the true experience of love may be. The roiling clouds of thoughts and emotions part for a moment to yield a ray of sunshine. Here the mind rests, laying down the urge to do and basking in the reflection of being.

The source of this experience is not found in the expressions of what others feel for you, but rather the love you feel. You are the source of the essential experience of love. The experience lies in the love you feel, or give, rather than what is usually meant by love you receive. The love you give is its own reward; the more you love, the more joy and peace you experience. Since you are the source of this love, you do not, and by the nature of the experience cannot, depend on circumstance or the presence and behavior of others to experience its blessings.

Many hold that love is an involuntary response to the attributes of someone or something, and is therefore largely dependent on what the world presents us. But the foregoing notion of love is more in keeping with the understanding that love is inherent to what we are, that when we ease the fears and lower the defenses of ego, we naturally extend loving kindness to those we behold, and thereby bring the innate peaceful joy hidden in our hearts to awareness. Whether the source of this propensity is Being, the grace of God, or a disposition encoded in our genes through evolution, there is a great deal of at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is indeed a general attribute of the human condition. Thus the higher aspirations of our hearts may be best fulfilled by learning to lower the barriers to awareness of what we are beyond ego.

Of course, what we essentially are cannot be completely hidden; it must shine through the cracks of the ego’s defenses and provide the initial force of volition, however distorted and unrecognizable fear may render it. Our natural sympathy, for example, likely originates in the innate love of our being. That this sympathy brings pain as well as joy suggests contamination by fear. Without training in inner awareness, it may be difficult to tell which moral motives arise from identification with ego and which may be expressions of our innate loving kindness, but there is one sure indicator: peace is missing in all motives born of ego.

One can acknowledge that the expression of innate peaceful joy would incline us to regard and treat others kindly, but doubt it would inspire sufficient ardor to take on the problems and injustices that beset humanity, or even those that beset one’s immediate neighbors. Indeed, when one finds the source of happiness within, and learns that the experience of happiness precludes judgment and attack, they are unlikely to fight for justice and to be certain that the problems of the world are best solved by changing external conditions. When the shared pain of compassion moves us to alleviate the pain of others by reducing the perceived external sources of their distress, we validate the fear that may obscure the surest, likely only, source of peaceful joy. Perhaps our fellows would be better served by showing them per example the joy hidden within them.

Gandhi did not “fight” injustice; he brought it to glaring awareness so it could not be ignored, and by his example bade both perpetrator and victim to look within. Seeing our judgments staring back in the mirror of self reflection can bring a change of heart. A change of heart brings a change of consciousness, and Gandhi was clear that there are no true and lasting solutions to our problems short of such a change. I personally know people who ease the pain of others by expressing a warm and sincere joy. They speak of loving people, even those they have just met. Perhaps you know such people as well. At any rate, I believe that the innate appreciative love within us has a better claim to being a source of moral behavior than the pain of fear and anger.

I therefore submit that the aim of teaching values should be to lower the barriers to our children’s awareness of the love they harbor. This begins, I believe, by helping them experience the affective blessings of such awareness.

Fostering Appreciation

It is said that doing good feels good, and, with sufficient awareness of feelings, it is easy to experience the truth of this. But the feelings that attend the doing have less to do with the act itself than with the impulse to do it. If it is motivated by a sense of obligation, expectation, calculation, or guilt, then ego motives are the impulse and ego emotions the harvest. If the act is the expression of appreciative joy, then joy is both the impulse and the reward.

The peaceful joy of the love at the core of our being may be an exception, but all other feelings are responses to our interpretations of perception and the judgments our thoughts entail, which yield our intent. Thinking well of others gives rise to lighter, more expansive feelings and thinking ill evokes darker, more constricting feelings. We unavoidably reap what we sow in terms of our judgments. If we could experientially demonstrate this, we could tap into a potent, self-reinforcing motive for moral behavior that has been relatively neglected. This would require training students in inner awareness, particularly in awareness of feelings and the thoughts that evoke them. As I shortly explain, such awareness is best attained through the practice of mindfulness.

But ego satisfactions, with their underlying fear, consequent impermanence, and susceptibility to judgment, will likely be among the feelings interpreted as “good.” If we are to tap the purer, less deficient, and more intrinsically rewarding feelings that lead to the natural expression of benevolence, we must help students lower their ego defenses.

Mindfulness lends itself to this aim as well. Mindfulness is essentially nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This can be achieved by means of various techniques—focus on a particular present experience like breathing or a “meta-awareness” of all that transpires within and without, for example. Mindfulness can be focused on feelings and their associated thoughts, and can include experimenting with thinking well and ill to demonstrate their affective consequences. But mindfulness is also the doorway to the Now where the fears of ego disappear and a peaceful joy thought to come from awareness of our essential being shines through. Practicing mindfulness is thus a way to experience the incomparably desirable affective rewards of escaping the fears of ego.

Fortunately, there are international initiatives to teach mindfulness in schools. Organizations such as Innerkids are dedicated to training teachers in the art, and highly useful guides are proliferating. Among recent additions are The Mindful Child by Susan Greenland (2010) and Child’s Mind by Christopher Willard (2010). Deborah Shoeberlein’s Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (2009) is excellent.

We should also address the conceptual barriers to the appreciation of others. What we believe about others determines how we see them, and how we see them determines how we feel about them. Though fear may inhibit us from objectively harming others, our treatment of them will fall far short of benevolence if we see them through fearful eyes. If we can change the cognitive filters that determine how students judge and therefore feel about people, we can foster a more appreciative regard.

Students should therefore be led on ever more extensive explorations of anger, grievance, resentment and associated feelings on the one hand and feelings of appreciation on the other. They should learn to recognize and analyze their judgments both experientially and conceptually. For example, they can be asked to pick a target of their anger, try to identify the apparent causes by noting what they feel when they think about different aspects of the person, and attempt to understand the motives of the person by imagining themselves in the person’s shoes and recalling when they acted similarly and why.

Finding the motives of others in one’s own heart is a good way to gain perspective and, hopefully, sympathy. It is among the various ways to temper rationalizations and mitigate the pangs of judgment. It is a way to become aware of the attitudinal lens through which we see others and learn to adjust it. We know a change in attitude can change both our perceptions and the responses of our hearts. A little change in perspective can change someone we regard with aversion into an inspiration of compassion. A new realization about someone can overturn current judgment and open new venues of understanding. Prejudice dissipates with the gaze of understanding, superficial images of people transform with the evidence of unsuspected depths.

Comfort with similarity and discomfort with difference is a clear predisposition of human beings, and it constitutes an emotional barrier to evoking feelings of appreciation. One means to lower the barrier is to strengthen students’ recognition of the similarities of human hearts and the human experience. It is easier to appreciate others when we recognize ourselves in them, because it is easier to understand them. Some aspects of common educational practice help promote such recognition. The shared environment of classrooms and the interaction that is encouraged there provide opportunities for broadening and deepening mutual understanding to some extent. The experience of education as a shared endeavor serves this end as well, though this is lost when competition is emphasized. Content that reflects recurring themes of the human story and shared conditions of the human experience may be thought to contribute to an understanding of what we have in common.

Hearing other students talk about their feelings and associated thoughts tends to lead to a realization of just how much one’s own inner experience accords with the inner experiences of others. Consciously bringing the inner dimension of experiences into the open to share with others can bring a real revelation. A student’s core motives become clearer the more he or she hears them described by others, for core motives are among the most universally shared aspects of the human condition. Our understanding of others is necessarily based on our own experiences, and the discovery of how similar our inner experiences are with those of others can deeply resonate.

A number of initiatives that aim to improve students’ views of each other and therefore their relationships have been implemented in schools with considerable success. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, has helped bring “social and emotional learning” (SEL) programs to tens of thousands of schools. (Lantieri & Goleman, 2008) SEL emphasizes techniques based on mindful inner awareness.

Another promising initiative aimed at developing peaceful, compassionate relationships was inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication.” The core methods of what practitioners call “relationship based teaching and learning” involve awareness and expression of feelings and needs that promotes understanding and reduces the sources of conflict. (Hart & Hodson, 2004) The program emphasizes awareness of the affective rewards of freely giving and receiving according to the particular talents of each student. Both the ends and means of the project are well-suited to fostering appreciation of others through understanding, recognition of what we all hold in common, and awareness of the rewards of the heart.

The means of planting the seeds of moral attitudes and behaviors in our children, where they must grow if they are to possess motivational potency, are ready to hand. They would constitute a reorientation of current efforts from external experience to internal, which would constitute a transformation of values education. But the stakes are high for our children, ourselves, and the societies our children will inhabit as adults.


REFERENCES

Greenland, Susan K.,2010, The Mindful Child, New York: Free Press.

Haidt, Jonathan, 2006, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom New York: Basic Books, 165.

Hart, Sura and Victoria Kindle Hodson, 2004, The Compassionate Classroom: Relationship Based Teaching and Learning, Encinitas, California: PuddleDancer Press.

Lantieri, Linda and Daniel Goleman, 2008, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True.

Schoeberlein, Deborah and Suki Sheth (2009) Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything, Somerville, Massachussetts: Wisdom Publications.

Willard, Christopher, 2010, Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed, Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.

Wright, Robert, 2001, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Vintage.

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Educating Citizens

A society that is free cannot educate its children in anything less than freedom. | Steven Harrison

Empowering the pursuit of happiness as each sees it is the primary purpose of education in a liberal democracy. But this mission presumes the vitality of democracy for it is only in such states that the precept that governmental authorities should treat citizens solely as ends and never as means has real prospect of taking root. Modern liberal democracies afford the broadest and most genuine choice of paths to happiness thus far realized in human history. A supporting mission of liberal education is therefore to help meet the requisites of both freedom and democracy by preparing young citizens for adult citizenship.

This is usually thought a matter of teaching civic responsibility, but it is much more than that. Liberal civic education is not merely a means to meet the needs of democracy; it should also be preparation for the exercise of the freedom democracy affords. According to Philip Phenix, “Liberal learning is not only a privilege of free persons and a right within a free society. It is also, thirdly, a source of freedom.”1

Our aim should be to help students attain the riper fruits of freedom and democracy as well as dispose them to meet the requirements.

As with all else we pursue, the motivational roots of freedom and democracy are found in the hearts of citizens. Neither our normative nor our utilitarian appeals have much chance of success if they do not resonate with the aspirations of students’ hearts. Of course, we must also cultivate their minds where the attitudes, understandings, and skills of freedom and democracy must be nurtured. Hearts determine the end we seek, but minds supply the means, and the ends of the heart are often garbled and diverted by the contradictory beliefs of the mind and defeated by its cognitive deficiencies in terms of knowledge, understanding, and skill. Freedom is an illusion unless the mind is free and able.

Before we can discern the best way to educate citizens, we must first be clear about the desired outcomes of civic education. To this end I offer what I believe are the cardinal civic virtues of liberal democracy.

Liberal Civic Virtues

All the preferred characteristics of democratic citizenship are predicated on respect for human dignity. The arguments for tolerance, the acceptance of equality, and commitment to such practical means of liberty as democracy, rule of law, and guaranteed rights either explicitly or implicitly begin with the precept. Preferably a citizen would believe in inherent human worth, but we cannot insist. Mandating belief obviously contradicts freedom. We can, however, expect a citizen to act according to the requirements of respect, for they are the fundamental requirements of freedom. And we should aim further to firming young citizens’ commitment to seeing the requisites of respect for human dignity met by their fellows and their government. As just argued, when such commitment arises from actual appreciation, we reap affective rewards as well as external protection. Fostering appreciation for others is the most promising means to nurture this foundational civic virtue.

The need for tolerance of others and their divergent views is a lesson taught by the daily news. Legal freedom loses its meaning when one must constantly defend it against resentment, hatred, petty social and political obstacles, threat, and, as is prevalent in some countries, violence. Democratic processes are defeated and the public good sacrificed when the possibility of compromise is precluded by intolerance. The reasoned deliberation and open communication required by democratic decision making falls victim to paranoid, demonizing rancor. In so many ways the prevalence of tolerance is a measure of the health of democracy. It is also a measure of the quality of relationships and affective wellbeing.

Liberal democracy is predicated on legal and political equality. Attempts to deny such equality make a mockery of democracy and have often threatened its health or prevented its realization. Acceptance of equality is therefore a core liberal virtue. The current generation of students in most democratic countries is probably more accepting of political and even social equality than previous generations. This may be due in part to efforts made in schools and in the media. Challenges are ever recurring, however, and students remain susceptible to appeals to prejudice that imply that some are or ought to be more equal than others. Shorn of the more primitive rhetoric of previous eras, such appeals remain both pervasive and seductive. The younger generation is more inoculated against crass appeals to racial and ethnic prejudice, but belittling and callous judgments based on presumed social merit, legal status, religious and ideological views, and sexual orientation are still prominently voiced and young people still echo them. They echo in my classroom.

We should therefore not relax our efforts to nurture acceptance of equality. Rather we should reinforce them by trying to engender not only greater understanding of the political and social advantages of equality, but the personal benefits as well. Acceptance of equality is important to personal empowerment, especially in regard to influencing—and even more importantly enjoying—other people. Accepting the equality of others lowers the cognitive barriers to accepting, relating to, engaging, and appreciating others. It removes the cognitive barriers to the full realization of the riches of relationship.

Compassion understood as wishing and being moved to serve the wellbeing of others is implied in most of the virtues of liberal democracy. Leaving aside the issue of the affective experience implied by the word, our empathy for others is a prime motivational source for respecting their dignity, tolerating their differences, and accepting their equality. What we might do to better anchor any of these virtues in the hearts of students would help anchor them all. But such anchoring requires revealing the affective benefits of these virtues, which I believe calls for a more amenable understanding of compassion.

Among the virtues of liberal democracy is commitment to its ideals. We should hope to buttress students’ commitment to freedom, democracy, and justice. I’m not talking about the brittle, unthinking commitment implanted by means of repetitive intoning of ideals without examining their meaning and implications—or worse, the blatant brainwashing techniques such as a daily pledge of allegiance—aimed at instilling blind patriotism that yet plague what passes for civic education in some prominent democracies. Genuine commitment able to withstand challenges and give clarity in the face of ambiguity and competing claims comes from a deep, clear-eyed understanding of the difference freedom, justice, and democracy make in your own life.

Students should arrive at commitment by having considered the dimensions, problems, and ambiguities of democratic ideals. They should understand why these ideals came to inspire such devotion, and why they continue to inspire allegiance in the face of competing ideals and the problems that arise because of our allegiance. It is crucial that students are led to understand the personal relevance of freedom, equality, and democracy through awareness of their daily manifestations in their lives. They should gain an experiential understanding of these ideals, and learn to weigh the benefits against the costs. Only then have we prepared young citizens for commitment based on free and informed choice that honors the spirit of democratic ideals in contrast to the nationalistic brainwashing that betrays this spirit.

Of course, we also seek to infuse students with a commitment to civic responsibility. Democracy depends on the active, willing participation of citizens to maintain the integrity of its processes and meet the needs of society. Voting, jury duty, military service, respect for law and the rights of others, and paying taxes are among the traditional responsibilities of citizens. Willingness to help in times of crisis and community need is a civic responsibility as well. The full expression of the virtue implies more than a willingness to perform duties seen as burdens, though; it calls for a positive valuing of shared purpose and participation in the enterprise of democracy. Such valuing is more likely to develop if they are made aware of the affective benefits of communal participation and service through experiencing these benefits.

It is also important for students to understand that civic responsibilities derive from freedom itself. They should be afforded a much clearer understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility, an understanding based not only on historical evidence, but also on their own experiences. They must repeatedly experience the fact that personal freedom requires accountability for the consequences of exercising free choice. But they should also learn that responsibility is a function of freedom, and should not be divorced from freedom. Coercion robs obligations of their moral character, as many philosophers have argued. It would not be amiss for students to learn to insist that responsibilities be attached to commensurate freedoms, because people in positions of authority tend to be either insufficiently aware of the relationship or are prone to forget it.

An attitude of efficacy is also a civic virtue. Civic engagement is fueled by the expectation that it can make a difference. It helps for students to know that the fruits of engagement are not limited to achieving a specific aim—for example getting someone elected or getting a bill passed—but also what they learn from it, the message of accountability it sends to those in positions of power, and the example of democratic spirit it provides fellow citizens. I tell my students there is nothing I can teach them in class that comes close to what the frustrations of real-world engagement in some cause will teach them, even a relatively small cause like championing a student demand in the face of administrative opposition at the college. Such frustrations will hone skills that will come in handy for the rest of their lives. And if they stick with it, they will have wins among their losses. Experience of efficacy is the sine qua non for developing an attitude of efficacy.

A crucial virtue of liberal citizenship is skepticism in regard to power. Beyond a certain degree of order, there is an inverse relationship between freedom and power, and it has ever been understood that freedom must be constantly defended against the abiding temptation of those in positions of authority to abuse their power. I am not speaking of a judgment of persons here. I am speaking of awareness of an almost universal human foible. A judgment of the worth of others is not implied in the refusal to accept the validity or wisdom of what authorities would have us believe or do. If such acceptance were inherent to appreciating their worth, such appreciation would preclude our freedom and likely our material wellbeing. We are all prone to folly and artifice; power just amplifies its effects. Liberal citizenship requires us to resist the sway and discern the wiles of those in power for the sake of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the general welfare. Though the state is necessary to our protection, our need for protection from our protectors is dire as well.

In a democracy, citizens should never adopt an attitude of subservience to those in authority, should never simply trust that those who wield power know the interests of citizens better than the citizens themselves, and never presume those endowed with authority will give precedence to the interests of the People over their personal interests in the fruits of power. “Respect” as in recognition of a person’s right to decide is due those in positions of authority only to the degree it is necessary for order and addressing common needs. Respect so understood is an obligation to one’s fellow citizens rather than an obligation to those with authoritative positions in government. A wielder of authority has the same claim to respect for their dignity as a human being as everyone else; their office does not afford a greater claim in a society where government is the servant rather than the master of the People.

I belabor the point because there seems to be a great deal of confusion in the minds of citizens of liberal democracies on their responsibility for skepticism, and because so much of what passes for civic education glosses over this vital virtue of democratic citizenship. Democracy is indeed subversive from the standpoint of those entrusted with authority, but democratic authority is granted for the good of the citizens, not their leaders, and neither leaders nor citizens can allow this fact to be forgotten without peril to their freedom and much else they cherish.

The virtue of skepticism regarding authority also serves personal empowerment. Learning how to effectively deal with the myriad forms of authority in society, knowing how to avoid undue sway, is one of the most crucial skills to master on the path to success in many social endeavors. The virtue of skepticism whereby a citizen willingly cooperates with authority for the common good but resists abuse is better suited to the sort of personal integrity that wins respect and trust. And it is requisite to the citizen who would be master of his or her own destiny.

The virtue of skepticism leads to consideration of the cognitive virtues of liberal citizenship as it is obviously allied with the cognitive skill and liberal virtue of critical thinking. Critical thinking is critical in the sense that it requires an initial skepticism toward claims in keeping with the requirements of informed and reasoned independent thinking. It subjects such claims to the rigors of reason: the considered examination of the evidence for a claim, the consistency of its logic, and its relative plausibility and desirability in light of alternative possibilities and claims.

Robert Ennis defines critical thinking more simply as “reasonable, rational thinking that helps us decide what to believe and do.”2 Whether narrowly or loosely defined, critical thinking is inherent to discerning choice. This is obviously a civic virtue when it comes to choosing candidates on a ballot or choosing a party or cause to support. But the discerning choice of religion, career, or lifestyle also has civic implications as well as it captures the essence of the exercise of freedom. We ought to consider the discerning exercise of freedom a civic virtue in its own right.

Developing critical thinking in students also has a defensive aim. In this regard Matthew Lipman observes that, “Insofar as the question of knowledge and belief is concerned, I would say that the role of critical thinking is defensive: to protect us from being coerced or brainwashed into believing what others want us to believe without our having an opportunity to inquire for ourselves.”3 Fortunately, efforts to develop the attitudes and skills of critical thinking have not been lacking in liberal education, though these efforts have proven far less consistent, sustained, and serious than advocates had hoped.4 To my mind, they fall far short of what is necessary to immunize young citizens from the sway of demagogy.

We should more consequently aspire to the virtue of free and open minds. Independence from external claims and demands does not suffice to the realization of freedom. Awareness and reduction of the walls and filters that already exist in one’s mind is necessary as well. Certain and unexamined knowledge and beliefs are the walls and locked doors of the mind. Free minds are free to follow wherever thought and the logic of inquiry may lead them without fearing to transgress the cognitive perimeters of authoritative assertions of fact and appropriate belief. Students should therefore be encouraged to recognize these perimeters and be taught how to transgress them without fear. Open minds are open to the consideration of other perspectives that remove these perimeters or at least render them more porous. As we shall see in the next chapter, cultivating the habit of philosophical inquiry is well suited to freeing and opening minds.

Discerning political choice and effective political engagement require a foundation of civic knowledge and understanding, of course. Students should be well grounded in the what of their political systems—what a former colleague at the Delaware Department of Education calls “factoids”—and it is essential that they also understand these systems in terms of why and how. Understanding implies knowledge of purpose and cause and effect relationships. One might think that, whatever other failings contemporary civic education may exhibit, surely the provision of knowledge and understanding of students’ own political system is not among them. After all, there are subjects and courses devoted to national history and government. And civic knowledge is measured by some accountability tests. But as I have learned to my dismay and regret in my own classes, and as is consistently evidenced by numerous questionnaires, the presumption of a firm foundation of civic knowledge and understanding is woefully mistaken.

Though it is the grist of the mill of discerning political choice and effective political engagement—indeed of the adequate performance of civic duties—civic knowledge and understanding is not enough of a priority in the education systems of the democracies with which I am familiar to move the educational powers that be to take it seriously. There is indeed a great deal of rhetoric and token effort, but the lamentable outcomes do not seem to inspire much interest in a shift in educational priorities.

It is not just the practical matter of the health of democracy at stake here; it is the contributions of civic education to personal empowerment as well. The free exercise of choice is not just a right, it is a skill that must be nurtured and developed. I place the developed skills of freedom among the virtues of liberal citizenship. Much of the foregoing either predicates or entails these skills.

Both political and social efficacy also call for the skills of democracy. These are the skills necessary to collective decision making, public advocacy, staying aware of current political and social issues and developments, effective participation in political parties and civic groups, etc. Such skills facilitate classroom and organizational deliberations. They grease the wheels of social intercourse in innumerable ways. In addressing the reasons for increased interest in engaging students in discussions of controversial issues, Harry Brighouse contends “One is that it is more widely recognized than it once was that citizens have a responsibility not merely to press their own interests, but to deliberate in a more impartial and well-informed manner about issues at stake in public life.”5 Democratic skills also serve personal empowerment by enhancing the effectiveness of a person’s social engagement with family, work, and community.

It is widely recognized that awareness and understanding of one’s own social and political system no longer suffices, though this is often seen more as a matter of economic than civic efficacy. Citizenship remains nation-based, of course, and its responsibilities do not extend beyond borders in the traditional understanding of the word. We the People, after all, refers to a distinct nation that excludes the rest of humanity. Citizenship is therefore associated with nationalism with all its attendant ills and amply demonstrated dangers. We would do well to stress the interconnection and interdependence of peoples. After all, the world in which our students live, work, entertain themselves, and consume is a world in which borders no longer contain the forces that condition their pursuit of happiness. Globalization is a reality despite the pretense of national leaders that our common fate lies in their hands. We would be woefully amiss were we to make no effort to prepare our students for this reality.

An awareness of the global forces that increasingly ignore borders, a recognition that our welfare is connected with those of people around the world, an appreciation of the humanity and shared needs of all peoples, and an understanding of how civic virtues and responsibilities are human virtues and responsibilities upon which the fate of humanity as a whole may depend are aspects of global citizenship. Global awareness is a modern civic virtue. A student possessed of such awareness is both more empowered and more desirable as an employee, as we are repeatedly reminded in the contemporary discourse on educational reform. As the world in which we live is the world of which we are aware, a student with heightened global awareness would also live in a larger, richer world of possibility and aesthetic appreciation. And such a student would have fewer cognitive barriers to relationships with people all over the world as technology has reduced the physical barriers to travel and communication.

The preceding list of virtues does not exhaust all we might aim for in the preparation of our young for adult citizenship, but it suffices for identifying some of the more glaring needs of contemporary civic education and points us toward ways to better prepare and empower our youth for their role as citizens of liberal democracies.

Cultivating Liberal Civic Virtues

I previously suggested some approaches to more effectively nurture the seeds of respect for human dignity in the hearts of children. Greater awareness of the affective fruits of appreciation for others would foster the virtues of tolerance, acceptance of equality, and compassion. My focus here is the other civic virtues we might build on this affective foundation. The base material, if you will, of the remaining attitudinal and cognitive virtues of liberal citizenship is civic knowledge and understanding. I recommend that such knowledge and understanding should be given a higher priority than it currently enjoys. In keeping with a trend in education, though, I would emphasize understanding. The “factoids” of history and government are necessary to understanding, of course, but we can do far more to infuse the facts with meaning by having students seek answers to the questions of why and how.

The question why in regard to social behavior requires us to consider the fundamentals of the human condition and our shared aspirations. Questions regarding human behavior that begin with why invite the consideration of human nature and the wellsprings of the human heart. As it relates to civics, the query is more precisely formulated in the classic question Why do we need community? and the more modern question Why do we consent to be ruled? These questions lead into fertile territory for imagination, insight, and perspective. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and a host of less famous philosophers have all explained the purposes of communities and governance in terms grade school students can understand. These purposes can be imaginatively explored in literature; The Lord of the Flies was once frequently assigned with this end in mind. The Giver is used to introduce some troubling aspects of community and governance. There are even games based on meeting the needs of imaginary societies.

I and other educators use the device of simulations in which students assume roles in imaginary scenarios. I have asked students to imagine they are post-apocalyptic survivors faced with collectively deciding how to meet the needs of survival without the aid of established society and government. They have to collectively decide how to meet economic and security needs and fashion structures and processes of governance.

Real-life illustrations of the need for government and its dangers are easily found in recent and current news. Examples also abound in students’ own lives. They are daily faced with the tensions between freedom and authority in their families, schools, and other venues of interaction with adults. It is here that the abstractions of civic life are animated with the experiences and feelings of students. There are many ways to imaginatively and affectively engage students in exploring the why that affords a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the what and how of political systems.

The questions Why freedom? Why democracy? and Why is democracy better than the alternatives? invite the exploration that leads to deeper understanding and appreciation of the advantages of freedom and rule by, for, and of the People. To my mind, such understanding and appreciation should be considered a core aim of civic education. It is fertile soil for cultivating all the virtues of mature commitment. It affords the commitment of conviction rather than unreflective obedience and parroting. It fosters awareness of the problems and abuses of freedom as well as its promise. And exploring the why of democracy necessarily involves repeated reference to examples of the problem of power—the persistent temptation to abuse power—that is the main reason for the rise of democracy. It would encourage skepticism in regard to power that would serve students well in negotiating the social terrain of their own lives.

A deep understanding of freedom would heighten students’ awareness of the context of their lives, the constraints and opportunities they might otherwise not perceive. An appreciation of freedom would offer affective benefits, for it is the essence of enjoying freedom. Students should engage the questions Why freedom? and Why democracy? throughout their years in school, ever broadening the focus of inquiry as it delves deeper into the common aspirations of the human heart.

The method of posing open-ended questions for communal inquiry directly engages critical thinking as well as the skills necessary for such inquiry.6 As long as the questions are understood to have a number of plausible answers, such questioning avoids the inhibiting effects of authoritative assertions of knowledge. Done well, it would help counteract some of the dispiriting effects of schooling. As Lipman says, “Before long, children become aware that schooling is enervating and dispiriting rather than animating or intellectually provocative.”7 How civics is taught influences the values learned. Palmer observes that,

Students may take a course on democratic values that is full of solid information. But if the teacher does little more than dictate that information and then demand that students memorize and parrot it on tests, they are not learning democratic values. Instead, they are learning to survive as subjects of an autocracy: keep your head down, your mouth shut, and repeat the party line whether or not you understand it or believe it.8

The spirited pursuit of answers to questions that teachers intentionally avoid giving can enliven classrooms. That has been my experience and, as we shall see in the next chapter, it is the experience of many others as well. The quest to answer open-ended questions highlights relevant information and infuses it with meaning. Students find knowledge that helps them solve a problem more interesting than disassociated facts. Such knowledge has more apparent utility than helping students get a better grade on the next test. It is a means to an end they might find intellectually and affectively engaging. I have found it is often the stimulation of communal inquiry itself that motivates the search for answers. Whatever the motive, the communal search for answers to open-ended questions strengthens problem solving skills as well as the skills of freedom. In seeking answers, students increase their awareness of choices and learn how to reach independent, well-considered, and informed conclusions of their own. It fosters free and open minds.

Exploring questions such as What does “the People” mean? How do the citizens of a democratic country manage to make collective decisions? What is the relationship between the People and the government in a democracy? What does “represent” mean? Why do we elect representatives rather than have wise people choose them for us? What do we expect from elected representatives? Why is respect for authority necessary? Why is it conditional? lead to a deepening understanding of why the structures and processes of democracy are what they are. It shows them as devices designed to solve practical problems rather than as mere given facts of government and politics.

A host of other questions should guide students toward a robust and sophisticated understanding of freedom. One might presume that such an understanding is generally considered crucial to the education of free citizens in free societies, but the evidence does not support this presumption. I frequently ask students if they spent much time exploring the concept of freedom in any of their pre-college schooling. Only a rare few remember spending any time at all exploring the concept itself. I have had the opportunity to ask a number of teachers engaged in civic education at various grade levels if they spent much time exploring the concept of freedom. They are usually perplexed at first, but with a little coaching some relate they obliquely address the concept with the examples of history—the War of Independence and slavery, for example—and an occasional discussion of rights. The exploration of freedom is not absent in schools, but I have yet to find it given anything close to the emphasis a robust and effective civic education reasonably demands.

There are likely a number of reasons for this. A robust understanding of freedom probably does not seem as apparently useful as other aims of education, which may explain why the matter is not given much thought. Another reason is the way we teach. The traditional emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding still prevails. Knowledge is authoritatively transmitted rather than offered as grist for the mill of open-ended questions. The students ask questions, the teacher provides answers. Also, the question why is an essentially philosophical question, and philosophical inquiry is not a common—and is even more rarely a formal—pursuit in modern schools.

But still one would expect more than a few isolated voices expressing concern that there is no deep exploration of freedom afforded the future free citizens of free societies. There is a great deal of asserting the value of freedom and its fundamental importance as a national and humanistic ideal, of course, but the deep exploration that leads to the understanding and appreciation necessary for mature conviction is rare. In the words of Harry Brighouse,

While we are aiming to produce good citizenship, we are also aiming to do so legitimately. That means citizenship educators are required to instil, at the appropriate age, habits of sceptical enquiry into their students; inclinations to subject all values and principles, including those on which the state is founded, to rational scrutiny. They should avoid deploying misleading myths in the service of citizenship education.9

It has occurred to me that conviction based on a genuine understanding of freedom and democracy might appear somewhat problematic for those in positions of authority—from teachers to elected officials—especially if it entails a heightened awareness of the need for skepticism in regard to authority. But I do not want to emphasize such suspicions. I wish, rather, to emphasize the personal and social benefits of conviction based on deep consideration of the dimensions, problems, and advantages of freedom and democracy as well as an honest consideration of the alternatives. Such conviction is not guaranteed, of course, because free and serious consideration exposes students to plausible arguments for preferring otherwise. And such conviction would not be based on the simplistic understandings that characterize the platitudes and manipulative appeals of common political discourse.

Yet I am quite confident that most students guided through a multi-year process of critical and comparative analysis, deep philosophical reflection, and heightened awareness born of experience involved in a serious exploration of freedom and democracy would arrive at an appreciation far deeper than the repetition of platitudes and nationalist sentiments and slogans could ever hope to yield. Conviction born of thorough critical investigation is a far more robust and reliable inspiration for civic responsibility than programmed conviction by means of non-reflective processes of socialization that appeal to children’s deep-seated need to belong but bypass their reasoned consideration. The former promises stronger motive, clearer guidance, and greater breadth of vision.

Knowing why one believes as one does affords resilience in the face of challenges and protection from undue sway. And the processes leading to conviction based on understanding exercise some core skills of freedom: investigation, critical analysis, and discerning choice. Of course, the skills of freedom cannot be learned and honed in the classroom alone; they must be practiced in real-life situations.

The Experiential Dimension

If there is an educational assertion beyond reasonable dispute, it is that experience is the best teacher. All the wise advice we try to pass on as parents counts for little until our children experience the consequences of ignoring it. One touch of a hot stove is more effective than a thousand admonitions. All the skills necessary to navigate the complex social terrain of life are acquired and honed through having to use them to realize one’s desires. The knowledge enforced with the emotional impact of success or failure in real-life situations endures while most of the conceptual knowledge taught in classrooms is forgotten. And experience is the corrective to the inevitable holes and flaws of received knowledge.

A child does not learn the responsibilities and skills of freedom if he or she is not allowed to experience freedom. Children learn such responsibility through the gradual extension of the boundaries of autonomy within which they are allowed to make their own decisions and are not buffered from the consequences of their choices. That such boundaries must be judiciously placed to prevent real harm is obvious, but the autonomy within them must be real if they are to learn the lessons experience has to teach.

For example, circles of autonomy can be created by allowing a child or teenager to spend a set portion of their money as they wish, to determine their own free-time activities, or to decorate their space or room as they see fit. They may be given an equal vote in deciding such matters as the destination for a family outing. Autonomy is always limited by considerations of safety and the interests of others, but otherwise parents must allow their children to decide contrary to what they think wise within the circles of autonomy. Paternalism must be curtailed for the pedagogical magic of experience to work.

The principle applies to civic education as well, of course. Students must have circumscribed areas of autonomy where they are free to make meaningful collective decisions. As Nel Nodding advises, “schools should be organized democratically—as places where the best forms of associated living are practiced. Schools are, then, minisocieties in which children learn through practice how to promote their own growth, that of others, and that of the whole society.”10 Schools usually provide some measure of civics-relevant experience. A rare few private schools are actually dedicated to student freedom and democratic governance.11 Most have some form of student government in the United States. Student committees and clubs are usually afforded at least a modicum of autonomy. A few primary and secondary teachers make provision for collective decision making in their classes, and the practice is more prevalent in college. At the college level, community and civic engagement is encouraged or even required.

Yet my experiences as a student and a professor, my experiences as advisor to a number of student organizations, the experiences of my children, my discussions with students regarding their educational experiences, my discussions with student life staff who claim broad knowledge of practices at other institutions, my discussions with primary and secondary teachers, my discussions with colleagues in higher education from other institutions, and what I have read concerning the matter have consistently reinforced my view that something is vitally missing in the experiential dimension of civic education. From what I can gather, it seldom allows for any real autonomy and therefore little genuinely meaningful exercise of democratic skills.

The freedom to make meaningful decisions is almost invariably restricted by close paternalistic control, often manipulated to serve the purposes of those in positions of authority, and not infrequently quashed by arbitrary suppression without even a pretense of due process. I have often had occasion to witness or hear accounts of the pretense of seeking input from students that is for the most part ignored and at times angrily rejected. Perhaps even the pretense might seem comparatively enlightened, but consider what it teaches students. Students learn from the school environment that authoritarian governance is the norm and general preference. All too often, they are subjected to arbitrary, petty tyranny with little recourse from which they no doubt draw the conclusion that such behavior is a prerogative of authority that the ruled are obliged to abide.

From what I have been able to determine, most students graduate and don the rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship with little actual experience of political efficacy, the responsibilities that adhere to the exercise of freedom, and the democratic processes that produce meaningful and binding collective decisions. Most student governments in secondary schools have faculty or administrative advisors who exercise censure or veto over student challenges to school policy, for example. I suspect few school administrations fail to react adversely to open student protest. Strict censorship of protest is endemic to secondary schools and, rather perplexing in light of the tradition of student protest at institutions of higher education, is exercised at many colleges and universities, the “finishing schools of democracy,” as well.

The purview of student government is usually limited to school events and student clubs with some management of budget, though their decisions are ever subject to authoritarian intervention. That the democratic forms of student participation are mostly symbolic without much democratic substance tells students what their adult educators really think about democracy and the importance of civic education. John Taylor Gatto hits a raw nerve when he says,

The lesson of my teaching life is that both the theory and the structure of mass education are fatally flawed; they cannot work to support the democratic logic of our national idea because they are unfaithful to the democratic principle. … Mass education cannot work to produce a fair society because its daily practice is practice in rigged competition, suppression, and intimidation.12

Many people agree with Gatto that this characterizes the practice of public education. Almost everyone I talk to about it at any length has tales to tell. These circumstances do indeed teach practical lessons about the social realities students will face as adults. Most will work in private dictatorships in order to make a living. But the lessons are largely about the authoritarian and paternalistic aspects of social reality and very little about genuine freedom and democracy. Students are steeped in the lessons of authoritarian rule; few have experienced much else in their personal lives. Unless this is balanced with real experience of freedom and meaningful democracy, we are not seriously preparing them to be free citizens with the desire and skill to maintain free societies.

Of course, the autonomy of students is less circumscribed at most universities and many colleges, but my unsystematic research reveals that the experience of genuine democratic independence is curtailed everywhere within the reach of my inquiry.

An expert in academic law who is well-versed in the practices of American colleges and universities told me that appointing a student life administrator to be the advisor to student government is the most common practice. This was the case for the past eight years at my college until both the students and faculty protested the practice. As any observer of bureaucracy knows, people entrusted with even a modicum of bureaucratic authority tend to seek to suppress challenge when possible, extend turf and prerogative, and place self interests above the mission of the organization they serve. The tendency is so prevalent it is called an iron law of bureaucracy. An independent student voice, especially if expressed in public action, can be an acute and frequent source of embarrassment for top administrators. Low-level student life administrators have good cause to worry that the ire of their superiors will fall on them should they refrain from using their authority as SGA advisor to spare their bosses such embarrassment. I can cite a long list of examples from my college.

I have pondered why so few seem to see all this as a blatant betrayal of the civic mission of our schools. Why is it not apparent that young citizens must progressively experience genuine freedom and democracy if we would deepen their understanding and hone their skills of freedom and democracy? But then, as a keen observer of human proclivities, I am not really surprised at the pervasive disregard of the pedagogical value of student autonomy in affairs appropriate to their self governance. It is the same propensity found in government bureaucracies.

That citizens can and should resist what they consider incursions on their interests and liberties by agencies of government is a given in liberal democracy. But it is unlikely that citizens so inclined learned the skills of resistance in school. In an interview with former U.S. Senator Bob Graham of Florida, David Glenn reports “Mr. Graham says that too many Americans have no idea how to organize their neighbors to affect public policy. Even the students he encountered a few years ago during a visiting position at Harvard University, he says, lacked basic knowledge about how to leverage public power.”13 The fact few students are ever afforded hands-on experience with leveraging power of any kind might account for this.

Students are presumably the citizens educational institutions exist to serve, though this fact does not seem to carry much weight in educational practice. Students are at the bottom of the chain of command of school bureaucracies not only in practice but in theory as well. Schools are not democracies and students are not formally accorded even the theoretical right to question mandates from on high. However necessary this may appear in terms of safety and the orderly conduct of pedagogy, to refuse all venues of student resistance to the policies and practices imposed on them emphatically impoverishes their preparation for adult citizenship in free societies.

For the sake of such preparation, students should be afforded democratic venues for genuine input into the making of policy, a plausible prospect of effecting a change in policy, and the means of public protest of measures they find repugnant. They should be taught the means of democratically legitimate, constructive, and effective engagement in the governance of their lives and be afforded the experience necessary to attain the requisite skills. They should be taught that respectful, constructive resistance to what they consider abuse of authority is not only legitimate, but is also a healthy expression of democratic virtue. And they should occasionally experience the efficacy of their efforts to encourage the development of an attitude of democratic efficacy.

If students actually possessed the attitudes and skills of democratic efficacy, the problems of authoritarian overreach would be held in check. But the evidence strongly indicates that students in general do not possess them. Hence it comes as a new realization to even college students when they hear that administrative intrusion into student government and activities is not foreordained by the natural order of school governance. They have been conditioned by prevailing attitudes and practices to believe it is. They have never experienced actual independence from authoritarian intervention and those in positions of authority see no good reason to allow them such experience. The Sixties are indeed dead.

Such attitudes are among the considerable obstacles to changing our educational ways in regard to civic education. At first blush, such a change does not seem particularly difficult to effect. We need only take the forms and means that already exist more seriously. We need but better define the boundaries of existing circles of autonomy and allow more genuine freedom and thereby more meaningful democratic participation. But we would confront not only administrative resistance and student resignation; we would confront the relative lack of recognition of the value of the virtues of liberal citizenship.

Behind the façade of professed preference for democracy a great many people consider it inconvenient and rather subversive in practice. Until concern rises to a sufficient level of potent insistence to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles, we are unlikely to get beyond the rhetoric and pretence that traditionally plague efforts at reform. Still, there is much to gain and little to lose by trying. To this end I offer a more explicit rendition of the direction I believe we should take in regard to the experiential dimension of civic education.

I propose a general rule: the more genuine autonomy we allow and encourage, the better. The more student autonomy we can responsibly honor, the more likely they will learn the lessons of responsibility and gain the skills of dealing with real adult problems. In those areas involving their own governance, genuine autonomy within the boundaries of legitimate school needs and responsibilities is central to promoting the virtues of citizenship and the personal empowerment they afford. Though areas of student autonomy must be bound by necessary rules, rules that primarily serve the convenience of those in authority or, worse, their emotional investment in control, should be challenged and revoked. Paternalistic policies in which we rob students of personal choices and responsibilities in order to protect them from the consequences of their choices are similarly to be reconsidered. We are not truly doing them a favor, are not promoting our mission of empowerment, by robbing them of the lessons of consequences. Beyond the limits of protection from significant harm, paternalism is poison to the aims of civic education.

Administrators, faculty, and students should be perennially reminded that the core function of student government is to represent the interests of students, and that the exercise of this responsibility requires an independent voice as well as independent choice. They are not junior members of the administration. Within the areas of clear student responsibility such as student activities and organizations, student government should be accorded as much autonomy as legally responsible. Student media should be allowed to report real news, for example, even when it is inconvenient to the powers that be, whether school officials or officers of student government. Administrators and teachers should be reminded as well that attempts to manipulate and suppress the legitimate functions of student government and student activities would be viewed as a betrayal of the school’s civic mission as well as a betrayal of the best interests of the students. For this to provide much motivation, of course, there would have to be more than a few lonely voices holding them accountable.

There has been discussion of bringing more democracy into the classroom, though experimentation in this regard seems mostly confined to a few subjects and a handful of teachers at any institution. I do not know how much pedagogical value these efforts presage, but I am convinced that some of the less structured methods of communal inquiry into open-ended questions have great promise for nurturing most of the virtues of liberal citizenship. I agree with Jack Meacham when he says “Specific content on civic engagement and diversity does make a difference. But how we incorporate this content—by modeling the democratic process of discussion, debate, and the search for more informed judgments—is the key to empowering our students to be better citizens in our pluralist American democracy.”14

Since I crossed the line of radical advocacy in proposing that empowering the pursuit of happiness is the main purpos of education, I do not fear to further propose the radical step of better modeling democratic virtues in the democratic governance of educational institutions. I believe the health of the institutions themselves would be served, but, more importantly, the civic mission of these institutions would be better served by students seeing those preaching the virtues of liberal citizenship actually walking their talk.

Of course, the current emphasis on civic engagement in the larger community is necessary as well. There are limits to the experience campus life can afford. The roots of civic virtue must grow outside the hothouse climate of academe if they are to be any use to society at large and to the personal aspirations of students beyond graduation. I but add my voice to much that has already been proposed or is occurring in this regard. I also applaud the measures designed to foster a better sense of global citizenship. I especially believe study abroad while in college should be highly encouraged. I know from experience that there is no substitute for travelling and studying abroad to gain an understanding and appreciation of the world beyond the borders of one’s country. For me it was a lesson in the commonality of human hearts.

I discussed the affective benefits of appreciation, acceptance, and wishing well in Educating Angels. Nurturing these attitudes are therefore personally empowering in regard to the pursuit of happiness. There will be many occasions when students’ commitment to liberal democratic ideals freely and judiciously arrived at will inform their personal aspirations. The cognitive skills they exercise in reaching an understanding of the relative value of the ideals will inform their social engagements and help free and open their minds. They will feel a deeper sense of sharing a worthy purpose with their fellows, which is an affective reward in itself. And their enhanced awareness of the uses and abuses of freedom, democracy, and justice will better inform their choices.

An attitude of efficacy is crucial to civic engagement, and the experience of efficacy is crucial to the attitude. This is among the compelling reasons that students need to experience genuine freedom and meaningful democracy. Civic knowledge will often serve students in life, and the honed skills of freedom and democracy will find their uses in all manner of social endeavors, substantially increasing the prospect of success. In all these ways and more, a more consequent and enlightened civic education will personally empower students as it contributes to the health and vitality of liberal democracy.

NOTES

1. Philip H. Phenix, (originally published in 1967) “Liberal learning and the Practice of Freedom,” retrieved May 26, 2009 from http://www.religon-online.org/showarticle.asp? title=2533
2. Quoted in Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 37
3. Ibid, p. 47
4. Ibid, p. 45
5. Harry Brighouse, “The Role of Philosophical Thinking in Teaching Controversial Issues” in Michael Hand and Carrie Winstanley, eds., Philosophy in Schools, (New York: Continuum, 2009) p. 62.
6. The word “communal” is inspired by the “community of inquiry” methods advocated by Lipman and others.
7. Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education, p. 13.
8. Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, Kindle edition, 2011, Acquired August 24, 2011 from Amazon.com, Location 2743.
9. Harry Brighouse, On Education, Taylor & Francis, Kindle edition, 2007, acquired June 8, 2008 from Amazon.com. Location 1783.
10. Nel Noddings, Philosophy of Education (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2007) p. 39.
11. An example of various efforts at “freedom schools” is The New School in Newark, Delaware where students pretty much spend their time doing what interests them. See Edward L. Kenney, “New School gives students freedom to explore, think” in The Delaware News Journal, April 30, 2008, p. A1.
12. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Gabriole Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 1992) p. 69.
13. David Glenn, “Students Are Poor Citizens, and a Former U.S. Senator Pushes Colleges to Turn That Around” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2009, acquired August 6, 2009: http://chronicle.com/article/Former-US-Senator-Pushes-/47944.
14. Jack Meacham, “Teaching Diversity and Democracy across the Disciplines: Who, What, and How” in Diversity & Democracy, vol. 12, no. 3, Fall 2009, p. 3.

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