Cultivating Faith, Not Fear, in Humane Education

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Editor's note: We're swamped with some exciting projects (stay tuned!), so please enjoy this repost from 8/13/09.

by Mary Pat Champeau, IHE's Director of Education

I attended Catholic schools for most of my life. We were taught at an early age in Catholic school to accept and respect authority without question. This included the authority of our teachers, parents, adults in general, our government, the Pope, the church, and God. The way we were taught to accept and respect this authority relied largely on fear.

I entered kindergarten in 1962, so for most of my elementary school years corporal punishment was used as a tactic of first resort. Trust me, if you are a second grader and worried about being smacked by Sister Ernestine in front of the whole class, or having your desk toppled with your seat attached -- which will send you sprawling across the floor -- or being paddled behind closed doors by the school principal, your overriding temptation is to behave as well as you can, for as long as you can, on any given day, no matter what is going on in your head, heart, or home.

I myself received my last paddling when I was in eighth grade, already a teenager. I don’t remember the infraction, and I don’t think I was particularly fearful anymore -- just embarrassed both for myself and for the principal who was required to mete out the punishment. I can’t help but think of the Dalai Lama’s instruction that if we see a man kicking a dog, we should feel compassion not just for the dog, but for the man as well. We were all part of a system in that school; we complied with rules not necessarily of our own making. By eighth grade, most of us had learned how to live with fear without letting it define our inner lives -- just our outward behavior.

Since then, I’ve had many experiences that leave me feeling grateful (fear-factor aside) for this education and upbringing. Catholicism gave me what I’ve come to think of as a “vocabulary of faith.” As a young teacher in Niger, West Africa, I was completely comfortable in a devout Muslim country. I understood (without even having to think about it) the ways in which daily prayer, fasting, devotion, self-sacrifice, charity, respect for elders, reverence for sacred places, and a strong ethic of right and wrong guided the lives of my students and their families. I had no trouble keeping Ramadan; it reminded me of Lent. I loved being awakened at dawn by the marabout; his call to prayer was like a hymn. I relished the sight of old women in the market thumbing their worry beads as my own grandmother had prayed the Rosary every day of her life. Later in my teaching career, I felt equally and instantly at home working in other countries and situations where religious life underpinned all else –- other forms of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Animism –- the religion itself didn’t matter to me. It was the kinship I appreciated, the ease with which a common ground could be found.

And so, it might come as no surprise that when I first discovered humane education 16 years ago, I was immediately attracted not only to the subject matter but to the “missionary zeal” of its practitioners. My “vocabulary of faith” worked in my favor yet again as I meditated for the first time at a humane education symposium on what I wanted my epitaph to say. I soon implemented this meditation like a daily prayer. I loved the conscious thought brought to food choices –- not fasting exactly, but mindful choosing of food for the health of our bodies, all species and the planet. I felt drawn to the deep commitment of those around me to create positive, long-lasting change through education. The sacred place was the Earth, our elders the visionaries; and though we try to avoid the duality of “right and wrong,” we know that somewhere in the realm of what’s “right” live the tenets of sustainability and compassion.

I quickly realized, after so many years as a teacher and teacher-trainer, that my own definition of education needed to take a step forward. It wasn’t enough for us and our students to “know” things; we needed to learn how to use the things we knew in service of helping the planet and all her residents thrive. Shouldn’t this be the very purpose of education? And if so, then I propose that we have something to learn from faith-based education, and that something is: FAITH.

As humane educators, we must cultivate a faith in the goodness of humankind to do the right thing once the right thing is clear; to act humanely once we know how; to desire the truth and seek it out. In my opinion, fear has no place is this vision. Although fear might make people comply in the short term, it does not breed passion, creativity, optimism or respect.

I am aware of the ways in which we might subtly use fear to get a point across: “If we don’t do something about global climate change, we will all be underwater soon.” This is a flippant example of how fear can creep into our thinking, our living, our teaching. To my little Catholic schoolgirl ears, this is the same as “If you don’t go to Mass on Sunday, you will end up in Purgatory (or worse).” I might go to Mass, but only to avoid an unpleasant consequence. I would go because I was afraid not to. As soon as the rule is lifted, I will no longer go because I am no longer afraid. This is not to say that global climate change is not an immediate and complex problem that needs to be solved. It is to say that how we provide information and how we educate others to become stewards of the Earth should emanate from a powerful place of joy and excitement within us, not a powerless place of fear.

Humane Education has the chance to lead the way in the field of education with the great lights of curiosity, and critical and creative thinking; reverence, respect, and responsibility. I vote we do so, and we leave the fear in the dark where it belongs, where it won’t be given enough attention to survive into the next generation of learning.

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