First, at the most basic level, we all share, and its so obvious that we ignore it, the universal human experience of birth and growth and death. I’ve thought if you want to make connections in another culture, take a baby. The life-cycle binds us all together and yet the sad truth is that most students go through life without reflecting on the mystery of their own existence. They complete 12 or even 16 years of formal schooling, not considering the sacredness of their own bodies, not learning how to sustain wellness, and not pondering the imperative of death. My wife is a certified nurse midwife and delivers babies, including 7 grandchildren of our own, and Kay tells me of delivering the babies of teenage girls. ‘These are children having children, who for 9 months have fed their unborn infant coke and potato chips and have learned about the birth process in between the labor pains. Its really shocking that young people in America today grow up knowing more about their Walkmans and about the carburetors of a car than they do about the characteristics of their own bodies. And if I were reshaping the school curriculum for Century 21 to help students see connections, I’d have one major strand of studies called “The Life Cycle” at the very core of common learning, with the focus on nutrition and on health and wellness, and with every student having an applied project which would include the caring of some form of life.
I’m suggesting that being truly educated, meaning learning about how one’s own body functions, it means observing a variety of life form, and above all it means reflecting sensitivity on the mystery of birth and growth and death. Without such knowledge, we remain ignorant, and violence invades our culture on every side.
This brings me to priority number 2. In addition to the life cycle, all people on the planet also use symbols to express feelings and ideas. After our first birth we then utter sounds and start reaching out to one another. Language comes immediately after life itself. In fact, Kay’s convinced me that language begins in uterus, as the unborn infant monitors the mother’s voice, and I think it’s no accident that the three middle-ear bones, the hammer, anvil and the stirrup, are the only bones that are fully formed at birth. We start listening before we speak. A quality education surely means becoming proficient in the use of symbols, in the written word, in the spoken word, and in discovering the numeracy which is a symbol system too. My point is that our sophisticated use of language sets human beings apart from all other forms of life, and it’s through the miracle of words that we are all connected to each other. Consider the miracle of this moment. I stand here, vibrating my vocal cords, molecules are bombarded in your direction, they hit your timpanic, signals goes scurrying up your eighth cranial nerve, and there is a response deep in your cerebrum which approximates, I trust, the images in mine, but do you realize the audacity of this act. Something we just take for granted. I must say I am encouraged that you’re looking in my direction, but I also must say I’ve been a teacher far too long to confuse visual contact with cerebral interaction. I’m suggesting that language is not just another subject, it’s the means by which all other subjects are pursued, and the new curriculum should include a second strand called “The Use of Symbols”, which might include the history of language.
The study of mathematics is a symbol system and surely it would include speaking, and listening, and reading and writing across the whole curriculum, since its through clear writing that clear thinking can be taught. But above all, I do believe that students in our schools should be asked to consider the ethics of communication, since good language means not just accuracy it means honesty as well, and if you cannot trust and have some reliance on the message that I send, then communication is disrupted and the use of words becomes a violent and destructive act. Today’s students live in a world where obscenities abound; they live in a world where politicians use 60 second sound bites to destroy the integrity of an opponent; they live in a world where clichés become substitutes for reason, and students in the nation’s schools urgently need to be taught how to distinguish between defeat and authentic communication.
Just a year or so ago I read an article written by Dr. Elton Trueblood, who for years was President of Raine College, and now is in his 90s, but his mind is still going 150 miles an hour. He wrote about his early days as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. He said he had a professor who in the Oxbridge tradition used to assign a paper every week, now that’s heavy sledding, and then he’d repeat that paper every week and Dr. Trueblood said he’d get the paper back with all the red marks that would criticize the footnotes and comment on the syntax but always he said ‘in the margin and underlined were the words “Is it true? Is what you’ve written really true?”‘ We’re often struggling with the spelling and the syntax and the structure, but at heart communication is authentic only when it can be relied on to carry honesty and integrity from the sender. I’m suggesting that to be an educated person means writing with clarity, reading with comprehension, being able effectively to speak and listen and accurately compute, but beyond all this, education for the next century also means helping students understand that language is a sacred trust and that truth is the obligation we assume when we are empowered with the use of words.
This brings me to the Core Commonality number 3 … Beyond the life cycle and beyond the use of symbols all people on the planet respond to the Aesthetic Dance of the universal language. Architecture is a universal language. Music is a universal language. Painting and sculpture are languages that can be understood all around the world, and I’d like to see a third strand devoted to the responsiveness to the aesthetic. Isn’t it amazing how Salvador Dahli’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory”, can profoundly communicate to any person haunted by the relentless passage of time. Isn’t it remarkable how the gospel song “Amazing Grace” can stir a common bond among people, whether from Appalachia or Manhattan. Isn’t is inspiring how “we shall overcome” when sung in slow, solemn cadence, can stir powerful feelings regardless of race or economic status.