Traditional educational goals have never been under fire more than they are now in the age of the Internet. Cogent arguments have been made that rote learning is pointless. We need only to know where to find information. If so, what exactly should schools be doing? If schools aren’t doing it, is anyone else?
It has been suggested that youngsters should be encouraged to question, to think critically. Everyone should know how to listen and to speak effectively. Schools should promote self-awareness.
They should invite us to explore our passions, set goals, and pursue challenges. They should improve the quality of our lives, fitting us to earn a livelihood and find companionship and joy.
Our American public schools have outdated agendas. As creatures of the state, they enforce obedience to authority and place a premium on the willingness to walk in lock step. Skills, knowledge, and delight in learning are harder to come by. The invitation to challenge authority is rare indeed. Schools in other Western nations are similarly challenged but in ours possibly the most.
One unorthodox center of learning, The School of Life in London, observes that regular schools teach everything except what people most need to know, namely how to live. If you live near London you can take courses, attend sermons and lectures, and even get psychotherapy at the school’s headquarters. Those of us who live beyond commuting distance must content ourselves with the short and pithy YouTube videos ranging from Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person to Plato in the Kitchen. I understand that branches of this school are opening in the States.
In a different sort of school learning environment, as envisioned by Peter Gray and other educators around the world, people would be perpetual students, or “knowmads.” Learning would be not top down, as it mostly is in American schools today, but reciprocal, relationship based, with younger people teaching their elders and vice versa.
The spotlight would be on inquiry, problem solving, and discovery. The learner would call the shots. Formal education would help each child identify and pursue areas of interest, furnishing resources and guidance.
Does education target people individually rather than collectively anywhere in the United States? If not in our schools, what about in the psychotherapist’s consulting room? There the goal is undeniably individual growth and development.
Psychotherapists in private practice around the country are furtively offering custom-tailored lessons, but the practice is scarcely a new invention. Education, like psychotherapy, has really always been about developing individual potential.
Of course managed care does not see psychotherapy in this light. The medical insurance companies feel obligated to pay only for the treatment of illness and certainly not for coaching. Before seeking insurance reimbursement, therapists are required to justify their work in terms of disorders, illness, and dysfunction.
Now, poverty demonstrably promotes many types of genuine illness, mental and otherwise, and sufferers must be treated. A large nonprofit establishment ministers to the misery of socioeconomically challenged Americans in the different states.
Nonetheless the mental health community overall has concerned itself recently more and more not just with sickness but with wellness, including mindfulness, positive thinking, health, and goal setting. Well-being has preventive value, saves money in the long run, and feels good.
It is not such a stretch to translate psychotherapy into education. So-called assessment, diagnosis, and treatment really boil down to listening, building self-awareness, and helping everyone feel a sense of purpose. The therapist focuses not on what people want to stop doing but on what they want to do.
The search is on for constructive new behavior rather than just ways to change the old. Therapists shine the spotlight on the underlying values and passions that fuel each person’s desire to change.
Rather than speak of treatment goals, we are free to talk about a mission statement, which lets people emulate the best athletes when they work to improve their performance.
If you balk at seeing yourself as an Olympian, then imagine (as I have suggested elsewhere) that you have a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Make this race your finest, since this life is your one shot at glory.
A good mission statement will illuminate the reasons for your actions and what you most want for yourself. It will tell you how to make decisions, how to lead your life, and how to set limits, both for yourself and with other people.
It will let you, in the words of Stephen R. Covey, “most happily express and fulfill yourself.” Mission statements also make your goals public along with your commitment to meeting them.
As you draft yours, look most closely at your reasons for changing. Ask yourself, “What happens if I keep doing things the same way? Why is it important to me to do something different?”
Don’t let age or other obstacles hold you back. Consider the following questions, used by the Corporate Athlete program:
■ How do you want to be remembered?
■ How do you want people to describe you?
■ Who do you want to be?
■ Who or what matters most to you?
■ What are your deepest values?
■ How would you define success in your life?
■ What makes your life really worth living?
Also consider writing down the story of your life, from the beginning to right now. The past culminates in today. What have you done so far?
You may discover that your best work consists of feats you never noticed until this moment. If you need inspiration, ask your closest friend for an opinion.
When we edit our life stories, something we do continuously over time, we view ourselves and our challenges in a different light.
You can deliberately step back and write about your journey as a neutral observer. If you do, your perspective will change. You will interpret your circumstances and your actions more dispassionately.
We see any one thing only in relation to something else. We see nothing in isolation.
As Viktor Frankl taught us in Man’s Search for Meaning, changing the context of our stories makes it possible to see the suffering of the past not as interminable but as merely the prelude to better times.