The Soul of Education
Philosophers of the past taught that we have a depth that goes beyond emotions and passions, a sensitivity to events that deepens us into people of character and profound understanding. They referred to this important dimension as the soul, and they included the soul in all levels of learning. Aristotle wrote an important book on the soul; Emerson, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson described the soul in considerable detail. This little sparkling poem of Dickinson, for example, tells us how sudden threats remind us of the soul’s connection to the eternal:
The Soul’s distinct connection
Is best disclosed by Danger
Or quick Calamity –
As Lightning on a Landscape
Exhibits Sheets of Place –
Not yet suspected – but for Flash –
And Click – and Suddenness.
To be human and to contribute to a more humane world we need to learn about the soul, about our depth and the precious vitality inherent in the world itself and in all its particulars. Without this soul, we live in a dead environment and feel that death within ourselves. Some things have to be learned. You don’t become aware of the soul in your unconsciousness. And so we have to teach it, both as a subject in itself and as a dimension of everything else. We could teach literature and art as means for discovering our souls and we could teach science as a source of the wonder needed to live in a world that is not just a fact but that has meaning and value.
In other words, soul could be both part of a curriculum and a point of view in all subjects taught. Without it we foster a cool world without heart and imagination, not worthy of any real education. One of my treasured books is Paideia by Werner Jaeger, about the Greek idea of education based on care of the soul. For example, “Instead of caring for money-making, Socrates advises care for one’s soul (psyches therapeia).”
I realize that we need a modern book on this subject of soul-oriented education, because it is so radically different from where we are now. We need a new curriculum and a new attitude. Without it we flirt with a tendency toward self-destruction. In his journals Thoreau wrote: “If thou art a writer, write as if they time was short, for it is indeed short at the longest. Improve each occasion when thy soul is reached.” The word improve here probably means “make the most of.” The sentence could be used for education. Take it to its most precious depth, where the soul is reached.
In education we don’t go nearly deep enough. We are rarely in the vicinity of the soul, except perhaps in those moments of recess and holiday when our learning meets with our play and friendly conversation and finds its heart.