Honoring the Individual Experience

- Written by Dr. Jenny Finn, Head of School -

Honoring the individual experience is the first step as we try to facilitate a paradigm shift towards sustainable education. In his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, philosopher John O’Donohue says, “each person is the custodian of a completely private, intimate world” (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 40). The inner life is so deeply personal and intimate. No other person on the planet will ever experience life exactly the way we do, and it is detrimental to ignore this rich inner life. Parker Palmer, a pioneer in recovering the heart of education, warns us that “if we don't start getting as concerned about educating that heart, that human inwardness from where work of every sort flows, we are missing the point. We are not educating people for the healing work that the world needs” (Palmer, 2007). Experiencing the sacred is subjective, and sometimes we fear subjectivity and rely on our thinking minds to find a bottom line for the sacred. When my son was in kindergarten, he colored the sky in yellow. His teacher explained to him that the sky is blue and he needed to redraw his picture to depict that fact. My heart sunk as I realized the separation from the imaginative inner life had already begun. He was five. Ken Wilber, father of Integral Theory says, “Global consciousness is not an objective belief that can be taught to anybody...[it is] a subjective transformation in the interior structures” (Wilber, 2000, p. 541). Therefore, subjectivity needs to be valued, not diminished.

How do we value the subjective human experience in a system that sacrifices it for the rational? Sir Ken Robinson, in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative makes a distinction between the rational and natural individualism (Robinson, 2001, p. 157). He says that the philosophy behind rationalism makes two basic assumptions: that “logico-deductive reasoning is the principal way of acquiring knowledge” and that true objective knowledge can be found separate of human emotion and value systems (Robinson, 2001, p. 157). Robinson says that natural individualism makes entirely different assumptions about the individual, which include educating the whole person, affirming that self knowledge is as important as that from the outside world, and valuing the drawing out of a person so that they may become aware of their own unique personality (Robinson, 2001, p. 160). Education, to be sustainable, must acknowledge the individual’s experience, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for the educator. We might want to find a bottom line of truth and knowledge separate from personal experience, but in order to facilitate creativity in a world that needs it, we must honor the subjective experience of one’s inner life. Robinson affirms this, saying, “Each child has inborn, distinctive qualities. Education should provide experiences that will draw out these qualities rather than suppress them with values and ideas of the adult world” (Robinson, 2001, p. 158).

Years ago, I attended a field trip for first graders to an apple orchard. I sat next to Jasmine, a six year old, and, as we bumped along the dirt road, she looked up at me and said, “My mom was deployed this week.” As I looked into her worried eyes, I wondered if this part of her is being honored in the educational system. I wondered if her grieving heart is being tended to like learning her math and writing skills. I am going to go out on a limb and say, probably not. I decided in that moment to let it begin with me, and I reached out to hold her hands. I asked her if we could close our eyes and breathe love into our hearts and send it to her mom in Bosnia. Her eyes widened with excitement at the possibility of connecting with her mom. The next morning, as I dropped my daughter off at school, who came running up to me in the hallway and wrapped her little arms around my waist? Jasmine. We cannot leave her inner life out of her education as it so deeply informed her life in that moment.

Published on July 23rd, 2018

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