In the video below, Dr. Kerry Howells talks about the way gratitude practices (beginning with acknowledging and repenting of our resentments) are transformative in educational contexts and are at the root of all the other virtues teachers try to cultivate. Everything she says also applies to families. Her notion that it is impossible to fix other people’s problems without an inner attitude of thankfulness reminded me of St. Seraphim of Sarov’s oft quoted words, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
In Part 3 of my interview with Graham Taylor on brain fitness, I talked about educational reform. I pointed out that sometimes our educational efforts are focused so much on content that we neglect to give adequate consideration to the skills that go into being an effective learner. For thousands of years thinkers have been developing techniques of memory and learning, yet modern education tends to neglect these techniques to focus exclusively on content. Here’s one of the points I made about this:
We live in strange times when to think critically about emerging technologies, and to ask difficult questions about how to harness our technologies towards the ends of making us more human, is to invite the criticism of being a Luddite. It should be an axiom of the examined life that as new tools and art forms become available to us, they should be the subject of deep reflection, and that the intellectual life should admit no boundaries to the scope of it’s reflections. Sometimes the willingness to ask questions is more important than the answers we arrive at. But not so in the anti-intellectual climate of today. I am increasingly finding that certain questions are taboo, and that caricatures like “Luddite” and “old fashion” are functioning as substitute for genuine refutation.
Growing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.
From my earlier post “Killing the Imagination (Common Core, Part 3)“:
In cultivating the imagination, great literature helps to keep us free….the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, for it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. The poetry of life, and the sense of wonder that keeps the imagination vivid, fresh and restless, remains the constant enemy in the prosaic utopias that aim to convince citizens that there is nothing beyond this life to live for. Accordingly, for collectivist and totalitarian regimes to truly work, the first books to go must be those that have no obvious functional value in a work-based economy but which feed the imagination, and enable us to see the world in a fresh and wonder-filled light.
In April 2009, British atheist A.N. Wilson shocked the world by announcing that he was returning to the Christian faith. When asked later in an interview what was the worst thing about being faithless, the writer and newspaper columnist replied:
When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. . . . The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story. J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music.
A.N. Wilson is not alone. In his Introduction to the book Does God Exist? Peter Kreeft noted that he personally knows three ex-atheists who were swayed by the argument, “There is the music of Bach, therefore there must be a God.” Of these, Kreeft informed his readers, two are now philosophy professors and one is a monk.
Even the God-hater Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), upon hearing a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, was compelled to admit that “one who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”
Bach would certainly approve, for he once remarked that “music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.” To underscore this point, he wrote the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) at the end of most of his scores.
As a conservative Christian, I used to shy away from the message of self-acceptance, seeing it as mere psychobabble. I was also concerned that too much self-acceptance might stifle personal growth and improvement. Worse, it might even block us from being humble. So I took this concern to a number of pastors, priests, monks, scholars and Christian psychologists throughout the world. What follows below is what they told me.
From my article ‘What Gratitude is Not‘:
“When our pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the pain and hurt happening around us, and even happening to us, what we’re doing is we’re also inadvertently numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, the result is that we’re reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.”
Today marks the beginning of Screen-Free Week, when children throughout the nation are encouraged to unplug from the screen to rediscover the joys of childhood, the richness of relationships, and the adventure of stillness.
In anticipation of Screen-Free Week, I spent some of my weekend reviewing a number of studies on how digital addiction and information overload is re-writing our children’s brains. I summarized some of these studies in my TSM article “The Dangers of Digital Addiction and Information Overload: How I Discovered that Silence is Good for my Brain.”
One piece of research that was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) was that even if you’re not using it, simply being able to see a smartphone hinders a person’s ability to focus on tough tasks. Having a tablet or smart-phone in the room, whether or not one actually uses it, leads to a reduced attention span, poor performance on tasks, especially tasks requiring high levels of attention or cognitive abilities. The mere presence of a smart-phone in the same room also weakens a person’s ability to connect with other people, especially when something meaningful is being discussed.