Thursday, June 12, 2008

A recent talk I gave at RMIT

Let me start with a bit of a confession. Many, many years ago, towards the end of my teens, when most young people were planning their futures or looking forward to the next party, I started reading and following people like T. S. Eliot, Rumi, Rilke, Emily Dickenson, Thomas Merton, J.D. Salinger, D. T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau: along with a long list of poets, prophets, matriarchs, patriarchs and a few politicians who hinted that there was a heart to it somewhere, some shared caring and compassion on the way. You might guess that this was in the very depths of the late nineteen-sixties.

Fast forward forty years and I turn out be a “liberal-catholic Anglican”, usually comfortable with my place in that tradition, but also valuing time spent studying the history and phenomenology of religions, living, praying and meditating in Christian monasteries and Buddhist temples, keeping my heart, soul and mind involved in ongoing conversation with Jews, Christians and Muslims, and making sure there’s time for a friendly community of silence with monks, nuns and pilgrims of various traditions and no traditions at all. With that start and that journey it could end in enlightenment, chaplaincy or jail, and most days I feel fortunate to have found a middle path. So, with that background in place, I want to talk a bit about learning, knowledge and wisdom from a multi-cultural and a multi-faith perspective.

It might be simple to posit two categories of education or formation in the modern University and TAFE: trade-skills and life-skills, and that these two areas might illustrate some crucial differences between learning and knowledge.

Trade-skills navigate the swiftly changing stream of information, learning what’s new in arts, crafts and technologies, current input, ideas, opinions, research, visions and revision, paradigm shifts and new possibilities, both software and hardware, trade-skills must try to stay afloat in the rapids of shifting inventions, applications, events which multiply as fast as the media itself in the rush to take in new ideas. This seems to be the necessary model and methodology in getting a global passport for working in the new world, it may be good or bad, but it is certainly a fact.

The problem comes in approaching what the Yale psychiatrist Daniel Levinson called the “Proteus personality”, people trained to respond to all the latest skills, fads and visions, learning to change quickly to meet the present opportunity or crisis, but lacking a critical focus or foundation grounded deeper than the present moment, deeper than the ability to adapt to change. Most chaplains and student life types come to know the look of students or staff, who sit down with a sort of hollow sadness about them and say something like, “My life looks nothing like what I see at the mall or on the web, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me”. It can break your heart, but it can also mark an opportunity for another kind of learning, a place for knowledge.

Perhaps everyone in the university community works with most of this in mind, but Student Life and Student Services primary task is this place: helping RMIT students balance career and degree objectives with all the foundational stuff of real life: balancing those tasks with the world of friends and family, wellness and illness, issues of money and housing, mind, body and spirit, integrating education with the whole person and their larger community of meaning: so that what is learned connects to where we live and move and have our being. So that education and occupation can ripen to be a kind of service in many neighbourhoods, hopefully adding value to the whole human family.

So if the modern mode of learning trade-skills moves us towards being what David Reissman used to call “other directed” persons, then mastering critical life-skills as part of a higher education remind us of the importance of relating our learning to existing structures and communities of meaning that are more “inner directed” and “tradition directed”: connect our new world with older visions that have seen the test of time. And for that we need a more formal affiliation with wisdom, a link to varied visions of wholeness and compassion or to a shy hope in the heart that there may be a heart to it all. And we need to approach this as a whole society as a necessary part of our public education.

You’ve probably guessed this is not a Canadian accent, ‘though at times in the last 8 years I often wish… but one of the things I bring as an Australian citizen who is also a Yank is a strong sense that privatising religion presence does not serve a country well. The American model of officially separating the secular and the sacred does justice to neither; on one hand, delegating issues of public meaning to a secular ideology spawned by capitalism and consumerism, industry and entertainment, without roots in wisdom or compassion; and, on the other hand, bring in a short-hand kind of private piety which demote religious affiliation to a stained glass and sentimental patriotism, a kind of leisure-time activity that justifies greeting cards and pilgrimages to Nashville or worse. I don’t mean to trivialise, these can be pervasive myths that carry much meaning: when I was a boy, the motto for General Electric appliances was “Progress is our most important product” and I still well remember the day when Disneyland opened in 1955.

Both were good products for what they were and both have since gone global. But if this world deserves a deeper vision, perhaps Australia can take a stance in new ways of approaching education, knowledge and wisdom that can make a crucial difference. And so I wonder if there could be an Australian educational process which encourages and incorporates the age-old visions and values of wholeness and holiness alongside the realms of trade-skills and life-skills, integrating learning, knowledge and wisdom in the education of the whole person in a multicultural society? It certainly would not be easy. We have to be extremely careful of both heroism and hubris when it comes to ultimate visions. Mahatma Gandhi once questioned how anyone who thinks they possess truth could be fraternal, could learn from another, and that’s a fair call, For each tradition has unique visions, specific proclamations, that can be strident and exclusive: we all exist in their echoes, and we all hear them still.

Perhaps our wisdom, spiritual and justice traditions can meet in a world of common values, not arguing right belief, not talking theory but in shared practice, walking the walk rather than talking the talk. Perhaps the picture we might strive for is made up more of actions and occasions, times spent together in small ongoing tasks and achievements that make a difference. This is one of the ways we are trying to go with our chaplaincy here; in creating new partnerships and possibilities, with people of different creeds and kinds coming together to share concern and action in areas such as ecology, economics, environmental concerns, working with youth and elders, the hungry and the homeless, areas that can be informed by the ethics and visions of a variety of faith and justice perspectives. All this in the hope that the values shown in working for justice, love and mercy, new communities of care, might in the end make a significant difference in the world we must choose to share.

So, that’s my take on it: that there is a unique opportunity for our own educational institutions in this civil society to open room to honour the wisdom of ages, the poets and prophets, holy and wise ones who speak out of a perception and a discernment both deeper and finer than either the mall or the web can offer. I believe that this could take us to new places, can ground us deep in the present moment under a very wide horizon for both possibilities and compassion, might give us a hope that working together for a more integrated structure of learning, knowledge and wisdom that could open a new possibility for the whole human family.

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