The Dalai Lama On Education

I have the highest regard for the Dalai Lama who must be considered one of the few truly great men of the present century. He leads by example and precept with kindness and compassion and his teachings are worthy of serious consideration by all of us who are struggling to make sense of a mad world. But even the wisest of men sometimes take a wrong turn and make statements that cannot stand up to criticism. Even the Dalai Lama.

In one of his recent tweets about education we are told that:

Education is the way to achieve far-reaching results, it is the proper way to promote compassion and tolerance in society.

This claim must be considered along with the Socratic claim that knowledge is virtue. Neither claim, unfortunately, is true. History has shown us countless examples from Torquemada to Eichmann of men who were well informed and well educated but who totally lacked compassion and virtue — regardless of how the latter are defined. Socrates equated virtue with knowledge (or at least Plato did, it’s never easy to distinguish the two from one another) because he was convinced that if a person knows what is the right thing to do, they will do it. Aristotle made short shrift of this claim in his Ethics and he was right: virtue is not a matter of knowledge and education in the usual sense of those terms. Virtue is a disposition, as the ancients would have called it, a matter of character, which is the result of early training and habits. We can try to teach ethics to a 30 year-old thief, but if he is inclined by habit to steal he will continue to steal. And how on earth would one begin to teach compassion? Knowledge and education can make it possible for people to think more clearly about right and wrong, but it will not lead them to do the right thing if their character is already formed and they are disposed to do the wrong thing.

In this vein, the Dalai Lala contends that education will make people more compassionate and tolerant, but these are things that can only be instilled in young people by their parents and teachers by example when the children are very young. Clearly they are qualities that we would all like to see  more in evidence, but we cannot expect our schools to teach these kinds of things along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. The focus of education must be on training the mind. We can only hope that good character, qualities like compassion and tolerance, are already present — at least in raw form — before the child ever enters school. Once in school these qualities can be reinforced by exemplary teachers, but the teachers’ training and focus must be on the minds of their students: that’s what education is all about.

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

La Cucaracha by Alcaraz

We make a huge mistake when we simply turn our kids over to the schools and expect our overworked and underpaid teachers to teach the kids to be virtuous along with helping them learn the mental skills they will require to succeed in a complex world. Virtue must be taught at home and it is a matter of character which is formed early, we are told — perhaps as early as five or six years of age. It must not be piled on the backs of overworked teachers who are paid a pittance and already have too much to do and too little time to do it.

Prognosis Negative

I haven’t seen the latest medical report, but the patient is in a coma and on life support so the prognosis can’t be good. The patient, of course, is the American democratic system and it is very sick if not near death. It waits for a champion on a white horse to rescue it — or perhaps miracle drugs, or a transfusion of new blood. As bad as things are at present they will get much worse if the Republicans have their way — judging by what they say.

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Books had a close look at the recent Republican National Convention and he had many astute observations to make. The one that interested me the most was the following:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe

people are poor because of circumstances beyond their

control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

We should have seen this coming, of course. When the presumptive Vice Presidential candidate tells us his favorite “philosopher” is Ayn Rand who advocates cut-throat capitalism we should have taken note. This group doesn’t care about people or the planet. There is no talk about the importance of educating the young or taking care of the poor. The latter are simply hoist by their own petard: they are lazy and unmotivated and that’s why they are poor. If they had any gumption they would be wealthy like us. This is not only a twisted, and even shrunken, view of the world, it is also a bit sick.

As Brooks suggests, the truly distressing echo resonating from the Republican rhetoric is the lack of compassion and concern for those who need our help. The chest thumping and braggadocio of the wealthy who honestly believe they made it on their own and everyone else should do and be exactly like them or there is something wrong with them is either delusional or downright stupid. This is especially so when one looks around and sees the talented and gifted people who are struggling to keep their heads above water as against the many stupid and uncaring people with great wealth who seem only to be able to gloat.

There are good people who need help and often the only institution that is in a position to deliver that help is the government, whether we like it or not. We tie the hands of government and reduce the effectiveness of social programs at our own peril: there but for the grace of God goes you or I. Even if people don’t respond to the call for charity and love of our fellow human beings, one would think they would respond to enlightened self-interest. We all benefit from a healthy government rooted in the concept of the common good.

If government “gets out of the way” we all run the risk of going down for the third time. The day of Horatio Alger is past. The day of progressive economic theorizing is past. We need to rein in our greed and self-interest and try to see the broader canvas. We need to develop new economies of sustainability and conservation — in the true sense of this term. And we need to care about one another. If we can’t see these things then the patient is beyond hope. Not even the most miraculous of drugs can save him.

The Rich Get Richer

As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as mentioned before the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what the hell is going on. I recently blogged that 26 U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they paid in taxes in the year 2011. The following chart tells the bigger story:

The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman at the top enough $$ they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.

The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffpost tells us:

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work  struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse.

Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person is a blog-buddy who made the following comment on a recent post I wrote about the “typical pauper.” He said: ”

The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).

Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat Visa bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there is always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those in the yellow box above. How do you cope?  Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!

My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity.