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The Danger of Higher Education

Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. Truer words have never been spoken. Education is food and water for the mind. It is a human right. There is very little that can eclipse the importance, at this time in history, of bringing education to those who need it most. Doing so is a major part of the many humanitarian efforts currently taking place all across the globe  those oppressed must be freed; those denied opportunity, provided it. This is the most basic of the problems facing education in our world today. 

For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where it’s provided from an early age on, it is foundational. Education is everything. Our definition of living a ‘decent’ life is based upon our success in our educational institutions. The rudiments are learned at the primary level, they are expounded upon at the secondary, and if you want to earn a good income, develop mastery in a given field, contribute to the greater good of society and gain a deeper understanding of life itself  in whatever vein it is you’ve chosen to pursue  you must then take the path of higher education. 

Along the way, however, numerous systemic problems are found. For the most part, our primary institutions continue to display a perplexing inability  or refusal  to recognize children as children, and allow the all important and incredibly powerful element of ‘play’ its inherent part in the learning process itself, one that would surely catalyze a change capable of ridding our public schools of the ever growing epidemic of 'learning difficulties', as well as the concurrent medications being prescribed nearly ad infinitum. Yet this idea of having to ‘make’ kids learn continues, getting entrenched even more deeply at the secondary level, where the often desperate, prison-like atmosphere teenagers find themselves contained within for years begs some sort of release. While it is by no means the rule, it can be safely asserted that the majority of high schools in the first world remain for many a miasma of quiet frustration, contempt, fear and alienation brought about by the mob-mentality the environment inherently creates. How else could mass-killings continue to take place within their walls? Simply making it through is often a feat in itself. 

Still, there are those who do. Those who who keep their heads down and excel, setting their sights on the promise of better things to come. The lure of higher education and the promises it extols are championed by the world at large. Never mind the crushing financial burden it places on students for years, sometimes decades, to come; never mind the immense pressure it puts on those humans only just arriving at ‘adulthood’ to know their life’s path clearly enough to move confidently forward; never mind the culture shock often experienced when they, who were at the top of their class in high school, find themselves surrounded by a sea of others determined, and often able, to outdo them. No, the institutes of higher learning remain the strongest option for those determined to create a good life for themselves, a future in which their purpose is clearly defined, and in which they will have a much better chance of capturing that ever elusive goal of lasting happiness.

For many, it is one of the most challenging pursuits they’ll ever undertake. Aside from those with certain financial or familial ties, the battle of higher education is one that is hard-fought and hard-earned. The stress and the excess of our colleges and universities are infamous. Again, just making it through is a feat many fail to manage. Those who do are to be commended. 

Once graduated, they set sail into the real world, heads hardened with knowledge, skill-sets clearly defined, grimly determined to 'make it' in a sea thriving with a nearly endless supply of their peers, all of whom are just as like-minded, competitive and hungry as they. It then becomes a matter of carving out their place in society  climbing the ladder, deepening their income flow, making their mark and, for many, starting a family and continuing the tradition. And, while it is entirely possible to do all of these things and retain a joyful disposition, a gratitude for and openness towards life, it is unfortunately rarely the case. This is understandable. The fires of the education system as we’ve created it have cast quite the steely mind. A mind trained in the arts of dissection, in-depth analysis and critical thinking. A mind trained to name, label, categorize, and search tirelessly for faults. It is as it must be  the world demands it. The individual’s survival and ability to thrive in that world depend upon it. No one’s going to help them up  this is exceedingly clear  so they must of course help themselves. And they do so by being as discerning as possible, by being the most calculating mind they can possibly be, by exercising the incredible powers of clinical thought they spent years investing in and battling for. 

And while this of course has its place  it is our ability to reason in such a manner that has freed us, and continues to free us, from the brutish darkness of dogma and superstition  the danger lies in the worldview it creates, in the failure to recognize this finely-tuned mind as the tool that it is, as a servant and not the master. What is missing from the existing model of higher education is the training in how to turn the critical mind on and off, in learning how to use it in one’s given field, and use it well, but allowing it to recede when not needed. 

This is without doubt the greatest danger the edifice of higher education as it's come to be carved out presents. The hard, emotionless, perfectly clinical critical thinking that stands as the penultimate achievement of the long and arduous trek to the top of the education trail can, if not held in place by wider conscious reins, begin to leak into every aspect of life. The faults and the failings of all the individual comes into contact with will then begin to climb from the cracks, begging dissection, compartmentalization and in many cases, condemnation. The resulting and often unconscious corollary is a great constriction of the natural creative energies we all possess  the natural creative energies in which our very humanity is found. This constriction can then result in a terrible stiltedness, a rigidity that may eventually give way to a deeply cynical outlook on all of life. It is tragic. It is a slow and terrible relinquishment of the great, wondrous, limitless creatures we once knew ourselves to be as children, a slow dying of the love of the soul over the fear of the mind. After a certain amount of time it would seem an impossible trap. Such a narrowing of focus  minus any balancing perspective  would keep anyone from giving in to their natural creative energies and the leap into faith it takes to back them up. And when they find themselves in a sea of like-minded people, all doing the same, the task is intensely magnified in its difficulty. The waters in which the child has grown to find themselves are shark-infested. They themselves are one.

And what is often the end result of all of this? Anxiety, unhappiness and depression. The exact opposite of what had been hoped for at the outset. All of the magic, mystery and wonder of life that should have been instilled throughout the process of education has instead been stripped away, commodified and sold to the cold, emotionless visage of life as we’ve created it in exchange for our own survival. An extreme type of 'inner critic' has been created  emotionally devoid and full of endless judgement  and has become the dominating voice in the head, the world it sees as a result robbed of its soul; in many ways, nothing more than a means to an end. An end that never arrives.

And, while the path out of all of this is no small undertaking, there is some good news: there's nothing we need to lose. The development of sharp, discerning minds capable of narrowing the many different aspects of reality down to their finest filaments is of course an absolutely integral ingredient in the on-going pursuit of truth. We've gotten that part right. What's missing is the heart. Without it, we are completely out of balance. Without it, we lack a doorway to the soul that gave birth to all of this longing in the first place; the soul, without which any of these all important matters have any meaning at all.

This, then, is the greatest challenge and ultimate goal of education as a whole  to allow the intuitive, creative, unexplained experience of that soul a place within its walls. To admit more love, more humbleness, more humility, more compassion and more allowance itself to walk within its hallowed halls. To bring a sense of wonder and play back to an institution that has crippled itself with seriousness. The desperate search for an identity through intellect alone  and the deep sense of attachment to that identity that accompanies it — must be relaxed. The heart of academia needs to be warmed. It needs to be invited to sit by the fire of the tribal mind which is only now beginning to cast its heat upon the world once again. Out of this surrender would arise the innate ability to use its incredible powers in service of the earth, as opposed to industry, in service of humanity as one, as opposed to the one within humanity. And out of this would slowly arise the ability to cultivate a garden of education with the ability to heal the world.