Post 3: Mindful Mentorships

Thursday, August, 30, 12 § 1 Comment

Our world cannot support the West’s consumption-based economic systems, to say nothing about the spiritual emptiness they manufacture. Reconstruction of our economic systems desperately calls for experimentation with models of service delivery, product creation, and consumption that more deeply resonate with evolved human values. In Seth’s August 23rd posting, Education and the New Economy, he suggests an apprenticeship model of learning that would partner with professionals who think about a triple bottom line composed of people, profits, and the environment. I would like to push the conversation a little further, and think about what sort of learning environment is needed to help learners think critically about the strengths and ills of culture and economy.

There is certainly a useful logic behind the primary content of most school curricula. Language and writing allows people to develop a shared skill set for communication. History provides a narrative of the processes leading to our current reality. Math is a fundamental logic system that is useful for quantifying our environment, and science uncovers mechanistic ways that physical systems work.

However, these bodies of knowledge provide an insufficient skill set needed to navigate through life, or become responsible co-inhabitants of living ecosystems. Developing skills of deep social inquiry remain notably absent from the core content of most school curricula. While churches provide a potential forum for intellectual probing into moral questions of right and wrong, good or bad, they too often become houses of unquestioned doctrine, in which the rules of behavior become commandments from a book, rather than reasoned outcome guided by one’s own heart, mind, and experiences. As we mature, we become conditioned by our social environments, and most schools simply teach us the skills needed to uphold the status quo. Rarely do we encounter skill sets and experiences that push us to probe beneath our perceived realities.

Our school systems and economy reward competition, dominance, and consumption, all of which run counter to fundamental long-term well being. In and out of school, most of us buy into the fallacy that our lives will be better if only we have more money, more degrees, or more friends. What if skills of cooperation rather than competition, compassion rather than dominance, and inquiry and experimentation rather than acceptance, were guiding behaviors nurtured in schools?

Though some might argue that topics such as ethics or morality should be left to families and churches, I disagree. Young people must develop better skills to make in-depth critical and personal inquiries into themes such as peace, awareness, and service. Just as climate change, species extinction, and ecosystem collapse are symptoms of a dysfunctional economic system, they are also the canaries in the coal mine of our society’s failure to actively look inward, and question the ethical and moral values of our culture.

What I am suggesting is neither radical nor religious. Like Seth, I believe that mentor-based education provides a great adaptive learning model, allowing young people to quickly gain expertise in an area that meets their individual interests, and engage with both society and the economy. However, mentorships must go beyond just learning competence in a skill and sufficiency in the market.  They must be complemented with ongoing debate and investigation regarding how the daily decisions we make, as consumers and producers, impact the rest of our ecosystem. Mentorships must provide opportunity for the naturally inquisitive human mind to come up with alternative ways of running an economy—and even create the space and time for students to implement experiments.

Students could start out in mentorships in their communities, working in a sector that inspires them. They would learn to dissect its operational ethics and environmental sustainability, in addition to learning practical skills. They could then challenge conventional wisdom through experimentation of school-owned or partner businesses, exploring key questions that don’t get asked often enough: How much is enough? What profit margins are tolerable? What makes a living wage? How does a product and service impact other communities and environments? How tightly is the monetary economy driving my quality of life?

Schools would also partner with farms and build on the growing trend of school gardens, allowing learners to experiment with ideas such as subsistence living and gift economies. Group dialogue and quiet contemplation would be critical components, helping develop learners’ abilities to uncover conditioned behavior and gain awareness of cultural values versus human ones.

These ideas need to be further developed. There are a number of schools that implement many aspects of these suggestions, such as experiments in professional mentorships, farming, and mindfulness and critical dialogue. But more learning environments need to be created that will push learners to develop skills of deep critical inquiry while engaged in the real economy, developing the skills and courage to begin to live differently.

Christian Casillas | August 30, 2012

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§ One Response to Post 3: Mindful Mentorships

  • As a follow-on, a few examples may help to illustrate aspects of my line of thinking:
    • Mentorships as adaptive teaching systems
    There are a number of programs that have education systems based on mentorship models of learning. Seth provides a profile in this blog for one of the Big Picture schools, which are good examples of an entire learning model based on mentorships. Closer to home, Paquita Hernandez has created a mentorship program at several charter schools in Santa Fe, where mentorships are now part of their standard curricula, requiring students to do several semesters of mentorships.
    • Experiments in alternative economy
    I am sure that there are some great examples in the US, but I am not aware of any mentorship-based programs in which the students are pushed to question the economy as it is, and experiment in changing it. Far afield, Swaraj University in India (http://www.swarajuniversity.org) is engaged in some interesting experiments in mentorships as well as exploring gift economies. I plan to visit them in the upcoming months and better learn what they are up to… In Nicaragua, FADCANIC has a sustainable agriculture school (http://www.fadcanic.org.ni/?q=node/111), in which students from villages are taught standard curricula, while also learning sustainable farming methods and participate in agricultural research. One goal of the school is to help give students the skills to earn a living farming, and decrease dependence on the increasingly popular agricultural techniques that rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
    • Dialogue
    There are many inspiring educators who have demonstrated the power of learning through dialogue. Notable is the adult educator Paulo Freire, and his critical dialogue and “problem posing” forms of education (the facilitator poses questions to facilitate discussion and critical thinking). Miles Horton’s Highlander Institute (http://highlandercenter.org/) has almost 80 years of engagement with communities facilitating leadership and social change, dialogue being a critical component. Gustavo Esteva’s Universidad de La Tierra, in Oaxaca, and similarly inspired learning programs use convivial learning approaches, creating salons, “la tertulias” in Spanish, where community members meet in public spaces to listen to one another and dialogue about common issues and challenges.
    • Uncovering the conditioning of the mind
    The Freirian approach of dialogue can have transformative potential regarding awareness, especially for disempowered groups, as they come to better understand the mechanisms through which hierarchies of power influence their lives. It seems that many practitioners focus on issues of power. I’m not sure how thoroughly they explore the landscape of the conditioned mind. It is very hard to discern objective realities from societal values – yet so much of what guides us are decisions and passions that originate from values learned from families, churches, social groups, and schools – and manifest in conditioned patterns of behavior. We are, in a very real sense, programmed by our environment. There are extremely powerful learning tools that facilitate perception of a more objective reality. Meditation techniques are effective for training thought to originate from a place of silence, rather than the noisy and conditioned voices that normally occupy our head. There are some programs that introduce very simple meditation and concentration techniques in elementary schools (http://www.mindfulschools.org/ is one example). The Academy for the Love of Learning integrates various techniques of contemplation into their workshops (http://www.aloveoflearning.org/ventana/our_approach). I’d like to know what kind of impacts these programs have, and whether traditional schools would “tolerate” more rigorous programs of creating spaces of silence…

    The late “educator” J. Krishnamurti argued persuasively about the importance of critical inquiry and complementing the “thinking mind” with silence. There are a number of Krishnamurti schools in India (and one in California). I plan to visit some of the schools in India, curious to see what aspects of his educational theories are actually implemented. On the more conventional side, a powerful way to gain insight into the influences of one’s culture, is to step outside of it. There are numerous schools and summer and gap-year programs that provide young people with the opportunity to spend time abroad. Based on my own experiences abroad, I imagine that many of these programs result in a greater awareness of the influence of “American” values.

    – Christian E. Casillas

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