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  • Writer's pictureJenn Jordan

The Purpose of Education

I've spent years crafting my own value statement as an educator. This is at the core of the dispositions listed in the current Earth School value statement:

Through connection to the natural world and project-based service learning, adolescents and adult guides cultivate dispositions which are:

  • reverent in attitude,

  • discerning in perception,

  • compassionate in feeling,

  • visionary in thought,

  • articulate in expression, and

  • purposeful in action.

I was recently rereading David Foster Wallace's amazing college commencement speech "This is Water" given at Kenyan College in 2005. (There is a video of an edited version by The Glossary, but if you have time I recommend a careful read of the full speech.)

I love this speech because it captures the heart of why I believe so strongly that education isn't just about knowledge, it's about learning to think and learning to learn. In some ways, the dispositions above are my attempt to boil down the essential components for getting away from what David Foster Wallace refers to as our "default setting" -- the mindless frustration we experience when we believe that we are the most important thing in the universe.

Foster Wallace eloquently argues that having the discipline to be purposefully aware of the world around you opens up new freedoms of choice that we don't have when we operate in the default setting. He compares this awareness to a fish being able to say "This is water." It's not something that is intuitive for us, but something that can be learned. If this isn't making sense, it's because I can't explain this better than foster Foster Wallace does himself. His speech is a masterpiece.

But I can explain how I crafted the six dispositions to encapsulate the process that Foster Wallace is recommending. This process begins with reverence in attitude. This comes from exposure to the awe inspiring elements of the universe around us. Next come the skills needed to see that universe clearly and with our hearts: discerning in perception and compassionate in feeling. These three dispositions correspond to the awareness Foster Wallace cultivates with the mantra "This is water."

The next three dispositions are about the next steps that Foster Wallace doesn't talk about explicitly. These are the steps we take as a result of having the freedom to choose. We are able to then use our imagination to construct new, more brilliant futures for ourselves and those around us by being visionary in thought. We communicate our visions clearly to other through articulate expression. And finally we take purposeful action to make the world a better place.

Although I, like Maria Montessori, believe that people are born with not only the possibility, but the inclination, to become our best selves, I also share Foster Wallace's observation that the day-in-day-out world that we live in does not make this easy. Adolescence is the time when we are most open and ready to see the world around us. I'm not saying that the knowledge of this world isn't important, but simply that shouldn't the how we are teaching be at least as important as the what we are teaching. We can't learn everything we need to know in high school; but, what we can learn is how to be life-long learners, how to keep our eyes open to the joy in the universe, and how to take action to make a better world.

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