Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Teacher's Art, by Daisaku Ikeda

I just read the following essay on teachers by the Buddhist philosopher, poet, and educator Daisaku Ikeda. Since all of us are teachers in one way or another, I thought that I'll share his essay here. I hope you enjoy it, and find it to be of some use in your life.

The Teacher's Art
(From an essay series by Daisaku Ikeda first published in the Philippine magazine Mirror in 1998)

I remember being set a project one summer vacation during elementary school. We had to make something at home and bring it with us for the new term. Being clumsy, I couldn't get anything together and had to return to school embarrassed and empty-handed.

When asked what happened to my project, I stammered out that I had forgotten it at home. To my horror, the teacher told me to go home and bring it back right away. I returned home feeling desperate and miserable. Looking around, I saw a bookshelf my older brother had made. I presented this to the teacher, who praised my work and gave me a good grade for it. But, looking back, I am sure that he knew what the real story was.

From one perspective you might say that this teacher was rewarding me for lying, but that is not my view. Through the warm, large-hearted way he embraced me, he communicated to me a very concrete sense of being believed in--really what I needed at that moment. And, of course, I felt deeply ashamed, and vowed never to let such a thing happen again.

I believe that education is what remains long after the content of each specific lesson we were taught has been forgotten. The essence of education is character formation, teaching young people how to live in society and encouraging them to think independently. Study is much more than simply absorbing existing knowledge and techniques, and the ability to memorize and reason is nothing compared to the wisdom, emotional richness and creativity which resides within every human being.

Education that does not teach a sense of values turns people into mere robots filled with data but with no understanding of what it is for. Such soulless, over-competitive schooling makes successful children arrogant, while the less academically bright are left with little self-confidence and a deep fear of failure.

Sadly, education is often used to cultivate people who are useful only to the extent that they fit into various slots in society, and school systems in Japan and many other countries actually prevent children from developing their full potential.

In the race to climb the ladder of scholastic prestige and status, we can easily lose sight of the most important question of all: What is the purpose of learning?

I believe that the genuine goal of education must be the life-long happiness of those who learn. Education should never be subordinated to the demands of national ego, or of corporations searching for profit-generating employees. Human beings, human happiness, must always be the goal and objective.

My own teacher, Josei Toda, often said that the greatest error of modern humanity was that it confused knowledge with wisdom. Knowledge itself is a neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. As history sadly proves, educated monsters can wreak far greater horror that their unschooled brothers. At least seven of the participants at the Wannsee Conference where the Nazis planned the "final solution"--extermination--to the "Jewish problem," had doctoral degrees. It is hard to imagine a greater perversion and debasement of education.

Wisdom, in contrast, always directs us toward happiness. The task of education must be to stimulate and unleash the wisdom that lies dormant in the lives of all young people. This is not a forced process, like pressing something into a preformed mold, but rather drawing out the potential which exists within.

I firmly believe that every young person has the power within him or her to change the world. It is the role of those who teach to believe in that power, to encourage and release it.

The relationship between teacher and pupil can be a vital link through which new horizons are opened up and life develops. To me, the essence of education is this process whereby one person's character inspires another. When teachers become partners in the process of discovery, burning with a passion for truth, the desire to learn will naturally be ignited in their students' hearts. And once children feel that their teachers are genuinely concerned for their individual welfare, they will begin to trust them and open up to them.

It saddens me that now this vital bond between pupil and teacher seems to have been weakened by distrust and misunderstanding. Teachers everywhere struggle with problems of control and discipline, and students resent the fact that they must cram their heads full of knowledge which fails to answer their pressing questions about life, the real world and human relationships.

Teachers who do not understand and care for their students, merely parroting stereotyped answers, cannot possibly satisfy children's curious and sensitive minds. It must never be forgotten that the most important people in a school are its students.

I once heard about a Japanese elementary school teacher who was irritated by a girl in his class who was unable to keep up. He gave up trying to help her after a fellow teacher told him, "Human beings are just like fruit; twenty to thirty percent is always worthless and there's nothing you can do about it."

Then, one day during a break, he noticed the girl playing with a puzzle, trying to put plastic pieces together so they fit into a box. Finally she succeeded and yelled, "I got it!," her face sparkling with a delight he had never seen before. The teacher suddenly felt remorse. How dare he give up on her! Wasn't it his job to make sure that each child walked out of his classroom with the confidence that they could do anything if they really tried?

He discovered that the girl's parents, both graduates of leading universities, were constantly calling her "stupid." The teacher resolved to praise her every day, for every little accomplishment, to wash away the stain of criticism from her heart.

After a year, the girl was transformed. Proceeding at her own pace, she came to experience the joy of learning. The key was her realization that if she made an effort to achieve something, she could do it.

This story shows how the smallest failure can destroy a child's confidence, and the smallest catalyst can trigger growth. It is vital that teachers believe in every child's potential and care about their happiness as human beings.

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