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Moral Education

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Jun 05, 2024 | by Lalla Carini

I don't usually comment on things I see on social media, but this one had me. "Who told this child that being an adult is not fun?" I chimed in the comments. "Being an adult is super cool! You get to work on fixing all the problems your parents created when they made you think that it is better to be a child. And you know what is even better than being an adult? Being an older adult. Why? You stop stressing out about the problems that need fixing and go back to enjoying what there is to enjoy in life. Get this child a wise, loving grandma!" I got many likes! Not only that, I got comments from deeply depressed people who expressed a wish that they could be that adult who inspires children to grow up to exercise their freedom and agency.

We can all imagine part two of this theme, an all too common exchange parents have with children. It is where a child says they don't want to be human. Humans are destroying the planet; they are killing other species. Mother Earth would be better off without us. Some might think these conversations are wonderful. The child knows about climate change. However, there is a spreading trend among young adults to identify as fairies, wolves, cats, and other alternatives to the dreaded "humans." Young adults! This is not funny! Instead, one has to ask, Why do we go through the trouble of bringing humans into the world if we don't believe it is a good thing to be human despite all the problems we create?

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander went into a coma after a flying accident. When he came back to life against all odds, he related his near-death experience. He recalled watching planet Earth from outer space and feeling compellingly that the planet's essence is "love." Love is instinct, love is belonging, and love is longing for wholeness. And what about wars? Hunger? Hatred? Displacement? The needless suffering of animals? Global warming? All the suffering on the planet is compounded under the same headline: we humans are searching for wholeness, and that search is called love. Love is the reason to be of all sentient beings. This does not mean we humans are succeeding at pursuing our most satisfying kind of love, but we are trying.

As adults and educators, our job is to communicate a sense of meaning and hope, a love for life and the planet, which will preserve our children's life forces so they can pursue their free destiny. The mother-child exchange above shows an adult who is abdicating her duty. She is worshiping her child's innocence, milking her wisdom, imbibing her forces, and giving nothing in return. The mother is abdicating the role given to her by nature, which is to equip her child for life on this planet.

A sense of meaning and hope, a love for life and 

the planet will preserve our children's life forces 

If I were a dolphin, I would teach my youth the beauty of life as a dolphin. If I were a lioness, I could share with my cubs the joy of feeling the gazelle cease to breathe as I sit on her wounded body. I am neither of these. I am Homo Sapiens, the only species left of the Homo genus. I am at the top of the food chain. I have none of the unique physical gifts that grace other species. I am the least specialized. I am also the slowest at reaching adulthood. Why? What is my gift? It is in the prefrontal cortex. I can imagine. Nature has allowed me to sacrifice all other skills. It has made me dependent on an adult for many years of childhood to give me time to develop my capacity for memory, imagination, logic, and creativity. My advantage is that I can learn from direct experience and from going within to ponder my experiences. One life on Earth might not be enough to develop to my full potential. Generations may be necessary. However, in a single human life, I can evolve more than any other species can. As scared as I may be of my destructive powers, I, Sapiens, have, at this point in the history of our planet, the highest potential of being the steward of all other living organisms on Earth.

Why we don’t dissect frogs 

Our education aims to raise free humans who can impart direction and meaning to their lives. Deep morality is our goal, but a morality out of freedom. The old morality was a list of dos and don'ts. The new morality is the ability to look within and, in freedom, find what is suitable for oneself. How do we accomplish this? We do it in three stages, all different and equally essential: the world is good, the world is beautiful, and the world is true.

In the first stage of "goodness," we gift our young an experience of the world as good. They imitate us, and good habits result. We don't need to explain because when we do, we drain the child's forces; we push them into the head, with disastrous results of nervousness, anxiety, and body-mind disconnect. Instead, we protect the young from needless discussions. We often respond to their musings with a simple, "Mmmm…" We allow them to develop a strong “can do” approach to life. It is very interesting that in order to raise free adults we actually give limited “freedoms” at the start. They naturally do what we do.

In the second stage, from age 7 or 9, we mainly focus on educating the life of feeling. We educate through "beauty". What is beauty? We don't mean a "pretty picture." We teach the children to love what is good, to love animals, plants, mountains, and rivers. We teach them to feel passionately for the wounded gazelle and understand what happens to the lioness when hungry. She needs to run and pounce on the gazelle. We deem it healthy to take the children to the verge of tears in reverence for the gazelle, and for the lion, and for the mystery of their suffering, our suffering.

Is it possible to educate the life of feeling? Aren't feelings this sacred "thing"? Where do they come from? Sometimes, they come from the deep recesses of the psyche, showing a higher wisdom. Other times, they seem to stem straight from the liver, from that piece of cake we had last night. So, what does it mean to educate the feelings? To feel means to "sense". It is a form of perception. To "emote" comes from the Latin ex and moveo, to move outward. Something moves from inside of us, it is moved by a perception before we are even aware of what we are perceiving. To feel means to feel ourselves emoting. Educating the life of feeling means helping children practice that "pause" where we can feel ourselves and recognize what we need. This is extremely important because it allows humans to go with the emotion, express it, or just breathe into it and bring it down to a calm place. This pause is what makes us human, the ability to choose our response.

Our education aims to raise free humans who 

can impart direction and meaning to their lives

Children are themselves very free in their expression of emotions. This is a balm when the emotions are positive. A joy shared is a joy doubled, as they say. When the emotions are negative, the pause is essential. "You are frustrated now, yes? Let's take care of you first and come back later to find a solution."

The third stage of moral education, starting around age 12, is the stage of truth, or authenticity. Throughout grade school, we have conversations with the children where we pose moral dilemmas. In second grade: was it ok for the wolf to pounce on the lamb? The children’s answer is no, even though they know a little bit about the food chain. We have to affirm with calm assurance that it is ok in the animal world. After all, we all will die.

Nonetheless, second graders will stand with Francis of Assisi or Bridget of Kildaire, who, we are told, both “convinced” a wolf to become vegetarians. Each year, the same theme returns in a new way. Each year, the pondering becomes more refined. We keep asking, How can we become more human? Put in this way, it should not surprise too much that Sapiens took millennia to begin to understand that we can avoid causing pain to others. For as poor an effect as we have had on the planet, we are now finally at a point where many humans cannot sleep at night at the thought of other humans suffering on a different continent. It is happening as I write. In order to hurt other humans, or see other humans hurt, we need to numb ourselves. It is a sad reality that most of the mental illness and emotional disconnect is seen in first-world countries where we have the most resources to heal ourselves and the world.

Starting at age 12, young people need to be taught that what they feel inside, compassion for other humans, animals, ecosystems, and ocean life, is a sign of health. The thought that all humans have equal dignity: less able, less beautiful, less intelligent, less or more of one or other feature, color, ethnicity, gender… This is a truth that exists within us. Humans didn't always have it within. We are made strong when we acknowledge it.

The ability to think both creatively and critically through rigorous observation develops gradually. Middle-school students must acquire stamina and reverence for it. As our seventh graders completed their chemistry block this week, it was clear that their daily observations with combustion, acids, and bases had become compelling. Middle school science is the first rigorous training in scientific inquiry. Still, the ability to observe, ponder, and allow nature to speak to us has been cultivated since kindergarten and in every block every year. To those who ask why we don't dissect frogs or collect observations of combustion in third grade, our answer is that, in third grade, the first is immoral, and the second is boring. Immoral, because seeing the inside of a frog is unnecessary when there is so much to learn from the outside. Boring, because in third grade we don't want to sit that long.

What is it to be moral? Isn't morality subjective? We say, To be ethical is to enjoy an alignment of thinking, feeling, and will, an alignment of the head, heart, and limbs. When I can make myself do what my heart says is beautiful and good and what my head says is authentic, that is morality. Morality is the same as health. A healthy psyche is the beginning of becoming a free human being, someone who can enjoy a pause between stimulus and response, between “emoting” and acting from our highest place. To educate in this way, we must be students of the good, the beautiful, and the authentic.

I often tell our students in the middle grades, "This is a wonderful dinner conversation to have with your parents. What do they believe? What will you decide is true for you?" When I say this, I truly hope with all my heart that those conversations are happening. I hope parents will tell their children, "This is what I have come to believe, what is true for me!... This is what our family practices!" Whether you are a vegetarian, an agnostic, or a meditator, your children need to know that your life has meaning. This will give them strength. When they are 14 or older, they will question and argue for a different opinion. That is healthy. If they are arguing in second grade, that may be a waste of their precious life forces, which they need for growing their bodies.

This is the wise counsel we follow, that each stage has a quality. It is a path to long-term health that should stem the rising tide in mental illness that we are seeing in young people today and make them the confident, self-aware, free agents of their destiny that our “planet of love” so desperately needs.

In love and community,

Lalla

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