As promised, the conclusion to my 2004 article:
"I am a teacher and the school where I teach began as a
Montessori school. One of Montessori’s fundamental tenets is to prepare an
environment that will stimulate the child’s aptitudes and deepest
needs. An inspired Montessori classroom is a joy to observe—the children need
little supervision for they are happily working away with materials that keep
their fingers busy and their minds alert. Whether counting beads, chopping
carrots, building towers or piecing together puzzles, they explore and experiment,
discover causes and effects, enjoy both the sensuality and the practical skills
of their own hands, find out what their own minds and bodies can do working
within the limits of the material world. They are engaged.
Montessori tenet is to provide a rich and varied cornucopia of materials
carefully chosen by adults. That's our job. Another is to let the child choose what to take
from the shelves. That's their job. Montessori believed that each child has an intuitive
blueprint and unspoken knowledge about what he or she needs to be working on.
Though adults sometimes gently guide and suggest, mostly they trust that the
child will follow what feels right at the moment.
But that inner guide can easily be overpowered by influences
outside of the child’s control. Children hungry for sensory involvement and
sensation can be seduced by strangers selling candy and forget to eat their
vegetables. Responsible adults will provide balanced diets on the dinner table,
the classroom shelves and the world at large. But two cardinal truths of the human
experience suggest that this might not always happen.
Adults will not always do responsible things.
Given a choice between walking up the stairs and taking the
escalator, most of us will take the escalator—even on the way to the gym!
Humans come with a built-in foible. Though everything worthy
that we do, think or create comes from a willful effort, there is an alternate
program in the system. Evolutionarily speaking, when we crawled out of the sea
and began the journey from fins to feet, eggs outside the body to eggs inside,
four legs to two legs, each evolutionary advance carried a characteristic of
its former self into its new mutation. For example, our brains. Each new layer
did not replace the former one, but added on to it. Our brain stem is sometimes
called our Reptilian brain because it does what the reptile’s brain does—it
reacts instinctively to the world. This function comes for free—that is to say,
since it is reactionary and instinctive, no effort is needed to bring it into
play. When presented with an alarming stimulus, it is this part of our brain
that reacts with flight or fight.
The next layer is often called the mammalian brain and here
is where the world of emotion enters. Your pet lizard in its cage will mostly
give you the same unchanging stare while the dog at your feet yelps, pleads,
whines or barks according to it mood. And the dog part of our brain does as
well. But humans have yet another layer, the neo-cortex, the place where
conscious thought takes place. Though still connected to—and often at the mercy
of—emotion and instinct, this part of the brain has the greatest plasticity (an
odd word, since most plastic is solid and rigid, but here it means flexibility
and choice). What we experience, what we observe, what we do, what we eat,
read, listen to, all make for the unprecedented uniqueness of the human
species. The pigeon in Taiwan lives pretty much the same life as the pigeon in
San Francisco, but the human beings in each place are made different by their
cultural and personal experiences.
Evolution must be trying to tell us something here. “Human
beings, embrace your uniqueness, enlarge your brain (or rather, connections in
the brain) through conscious effort, bring your instinctive drives up to their
higher counterparts—transform food for the body into food for the soul, sexual
lust for human love, the outer power of conquering others to the inner power of
conquering self. “ Well, that’s easy enough for evolution to say, but we seem
to be having some trouble. And it has a lot to do with the fact that our
neo-cortex gives us the luxury—and terrifying responsibility of— choice.
Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden
has a remarkable passage about this.
Lee, the venerable, wise and eloquent Chinese servant, is discussing a Bible
passage with his neighboring Irish farmer friend, Samuel. One translation of
the passage has Jehovah telling Cain, “Thus shalt rule over him.” “Him” in this
passage is a metaphor for sin. This passage disturbs Lee for it reeks of
predestination. If God had ordained “Thou shalt,” then there is no choice or
effort on the part of Man. Another translation says, “Do thou rule over him.”
This also fails to satisfy Lee, implying that Man need only be obedient, follow
rules, do what authority demands without thinking about the deeper reasons for
why or how. With the help of Chinese scholars and Hebrew rabbis (a sterling
example of the value of multicultural dialogue), they dig deeper and discover
the Hebrew word “timshal,” which translates as “Thou mayest.” Lee says:
“’Thou mayest’ gives a choice. It might be the most
important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right
back on man.”
So back to the Montessori classroom, the hotel room and the
foibles of humankind. Choice carries a responsibility, both personal as to what
we choose to do and social as to what we choose to lay before others. Given a
choice between effortless Reptilian brain activity and conscious neo-cortical
effort, the odds are stacked to the Reptilian side—and all the advertisers and
corporations know it. Put video games as one of the choices in the Montessori
classroom and the materials will lie neglected on the shelves. Equip every
hotel room with a TV and the blank journal will remain unmarked. Put a
fast-food joint in every town, with commercials on every kids show and the slow
pleasures of talk around the home dinner table will suffer. Amp up the volume,
increase the action and the rate of image change, load on the artificial
flavors and the capacity to appreciate subtlety and nuance will diminish. This
is no mere conjecture—it is irrefutable fact.
For those like me who spend sleepless night worrying about
this, there are only two solutions and they are the same in Taiwan, Texas or
Timbuktoo. The first is to take collective action to impose limits, to tether
economic profit-driven freedom to reduce the range of harm. It can be as simple
as Iceland once having one night a week with no television being broadcast or
Sweden prohibiting advertisers to prey on children under 8 years old or a town
in Minnesota deciding to collectively reduce homework, television and
after-school activities to give their children the freedom to play without
imposed structures. All of this has already been done, with noticeable results.
But let’s not stop here. What if hotel associations agreed
to put the TV’s on roll-away carts in closets and blank journals on desks
encouraging submissions to their annual poetry contests? First prize—a week’s
free stay. What if all the children who didn’t watch TV on a given school night
were asked to stand like flight attendants on Eva Air while their classmates
applauded. What if all billboards had the world’s greatest short poems on them?
What if there was one pop music radio station and 10 jazz stations?
The details are incidental. Once a family or school or
neighborhood or culture decides that life is richer when ‘Thou mayest’ is given
some support and institutional structure, the ideas will pour forth. And having
moved amongst people put to sleep by corporate media and people perpetually
awake, I can testify that the effort is well-worth making—the difference is
The second solution—and of course, my no means, exclusive—is
to encourage the wise personal choice, hard as that may be. In my Taiwan hotel
room, I surfed through the 72 channels twice, lingering just long enough at the
soft porn channel to grow disappointed in myself, and finally shut it off and
got to work. But even for someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of self-generated
activity, reflective thought and creative endeavors, I still find it hard to
resist. But that is what choice is—a determination and enough backbone to
resist as appropriate. And of course, there are times when there’s no reason to
resist and plopping down in front of an old movie on TV in a strange hotel room
is just what the soul needs at the moment!
But the fact is that children plugged in early in life to
addictive technologies will have no choice. The corporate psychologists know
this and now the war cry is, “Get ‘em while they’re young!” Studies show that
children hit unawares before three years old become lifelong, loyal product
consumers—that means guaranteed profits for the corporation and a guaranteed
loss of human health and happiness.
H.G Wells once wrote, “We are in a race between education
Education here means directed thought, imaginative dreaming
and skillful making. Catastrophe means capitulating to our lowest
possibilities, giving ourselves over to the dreams (or nightmares) of others.
Corporate mentality did not invent this collective, imposed nightmare—we had
the church and the state before that—but it is certainly where the action is
taking place today. It is armed with enormous money, powerful technologies and
a poisonous mind-set of bottom line profit and constant sensation. Keep hitting
the food-sex-power nerves and the people won’t even notice that they are no
longer themselves. It’s a David and Goliath battle and everyone tells me it’s
hopeless—why fight it? But aren’t these precisely the stories we love? David
slaying Goliath, the turtle winning the race against the hare, the winning
against all odds? And “winning” occurs at many levels—sometimes the effort
alone is a victory.
My sleepless night is suddenly a Taiwan dawn. I flick
through the channels once more, noting that the porn channel is now a 6 am
boxing match—from sex to power without missing a beat. Outside, the trains in
the Metro station begin to flow. Taxis pull up, people start to stream into the
station. They move with a purpose and an intention—the work day has begun and
they are making an effort to contribute. (Or at least to pay the rent.) Behind
the station, the river flows at its steady pace, doing its own kind of work in
its place. Above the river are the Kuan Yin mountains shrouded in mist, peeking
out at the scene in Buddha-like patience. Kuan Yin (Kannon in Japan,
Avalokitesvara in India) is the goddess of compassion. What is she thinking as
she looks down at the frenetic hustle and bustle?
I’ve moved from the bed to the writing desk and here’s
another institutional horror. There’s a huge mirror running it length and
against my better instincts, I look up to see the grizzled old face that has
surprisingly become my own. Phones, mirrors and TV’s, the narcissistic
artifacts of modern life, placed in every available space in every hotel room.
I defy it all, arranging some pillows on the floor and cross
my legs for some Zen meditation, a practice learned in an old boy scout camp in
the San Gabriel mountains, the ultimate practice of removing all distracting
stimuli and sitting face-to-face with one’s primary self, no intermediaries.
Then a shower, breakfast and meet my ride down to Hsin-Yin, ready to teach
through the old uniting technologies of hands on skin and bare feet on wood
floor. 50 teachers with a translator, trying to find a common ground in drums,
recorders, xylophones and our avowed passion to teach children. We indeed are
larger than the electronic tools we use. It’s a marvelous world indeed.”