Question: Is this a special course you designed or is it part of the regular curriculum?
Answer: It could be easily taught up here. It is a one-semester course I designed myself, with between 180 and 280 kids signing up for it each semester of which I can only teach, because of time considerations, a couple of classes of it. But what I do with that is, I run that whole history against Eastern thought and then I run Buddhism across that.
I start from Heraclitus: "Everything is in flux."How do we know anything if "everything is in flux?
"That is the fundamental problem. Our sense data is in flux; the world is in flux; therefore how do we know anything? I use that as a way to explain the First Noble Truth: "the truth of suffering.
"In this day and age, it is difficult to convince people that life is suffering. It is easier for people to accept an explanation "that everything is in flux,
"therefore any place you try to attach will change. Therefore you will suffer. There is no place that you can attach to anywhere in the world that will not change and cause suffering. So you start from Heraclitus which is exactly the same place that Plato started from. If you describe the world of pre-Plato, they would think they were in Berkeley: everything is relative. Whatever I feel like is ok. It would support hedonistic views. So starting from that place, you can work your way all the way through Buddhism and all the way through Western thought to 1997 and capitalism, materialism—all the values of 1997.
Another topic is to go through what the current construct of values is in America and the world right now. Look at that whole frame of reference and have them understand what the nature of that is. (Reference to a cold-blooded murder of one student by another that had just occurred in Kentucky).
Question: Are students at Berkeley High worried that something similar to that murder might happen there?
Answer: The ironic thing is that we see it as much more of a tragedy than they do. They deal with stuff like that everyday. Half of them worry about getting shot at every moment, wherever they are. It is like a total abstraction. One of the things about 17-year olds is their sense of historical perspective; their sense of words like "tragedy." They are very young and have very little perspective on life. So everything has to be brought directly to their existential experience—them, now, here where they are. Tragedies like the one in Kentucky go through their heads very quickly. It didn't even hit long enough to score as much as an ad. A 15-second advertisement scores more in their consciousness than news. First of all, most of them don't pay any attention, have no context for the latest thing that happened in the news. They have no idea. They don't watch the news. They don't pay that much attention to it. You see, the funny thing about the newspaper and news is that it requires a very long historical context to be able to have any understanding of the impact of any current stories. Take, for instance, international news. You know how much background you need to have to follow what is going on in India, China, Japan, or Europe. You need years, decades, of knowledge to make that story fit into a context that's at all interesting.
This is a fundamental mistake that teachers make when they take their own life context, which is enriched by 30, 40, even 50 years of teaching and experience, and use that to dictate what a 14 or 17-year old should be able to relate to. Students in their teens normally have no historical context at all to base themselves in. The teacher has to develop everything from scratch. You are dealing with
tabulae rasae (minds not yet influenced by outside impressions and experiences) basically. And so, if you want to create a profundity, you have to know that you have to create the entire construct from which they can see what you want to present as being profound. That is why you have to choose very carefully what you are going to teach, because anything they are going to get in terms of profundity, you are going to have to figure out how to give them—from scratch.
A lot of teachers think themselves really "hip." I have seen thousands of teachers come through that school. I have been teaching there since 1969. I am so old, I am a dinosaur. I have watched many come and go who perceived themselves as really "hip." Those highly educated, "hip" teachers usually last for 1, 2 or 3 years! One reason they don't last is that they can't hack it. They don't have the energy to hack it. But the other, and bigger, reason is that they think they are "hip." To these kids you are not "hip." Nobody is "hip."You are just another teacher and you have to create the entire construct from scratch.
What the teacher must realize is that he has to teach the entire context—regardless of the subject matter. Let's take Current Affairs, for example. The teacher brings in an article from
Newsweek that he finds really interesting. But unless he creates a context for it, it is not necessarily going to be interesting to the students at all. Then the teacher gets upset because they are not interested. But he fails to realize that in order to incite their interest he would have to provide an incredible context for just that one story to be understood. When it comes to politics, social contract, psychology, or any other profound area of life, then a tremendous amount of background is required in the context of whatever you wish to teach before you can get the point you wish to make across—before the news articles will be meaningful.
Teacher: What I honestly feel the students really relate to is the individual's potential experience. We can use our being older and more experienced than they are to create the context for them, and then they can see through our perspective. They can be influenced by my experience, even in simple, practical things. But it requires self-honesty. So maybe the first step is that the teacher has to be really honest with him. Otherwise, the students will see right through him.
Doug: True. I am trying to cover in a few hours what actually requires days or weeks to bring across. Each one of the points about honesty can't just be expressed in a few words.
Teacher: Self-honesty is incredibly important. In fact, I disagree a little with what you mentioned in the beginning about having to have a lot of practice in order to be able to teach virtue. What I find is essential is not the practice but the honesty. You have to recognize your own limitations even to the point that you make that a part of the students' awareness—that they can learn from others' shortcomings as well.
Doug: But what you have described is practice.
Teacher: My experience is that 14 or 15-year olds don't need a huge context. I can just create a construct from my own experience and they understand right away. It is very simple to do.
Doug: Yes, but you have to know what context you should bring to them. You have to be very aware of what context you are assuming.
On No Drugs
There are drugs and alcohol. I have classes where half the students are heavy dopers and I go right at it. I don't even pause for one second. I go right into what it is about—how it affects the mind. The issue of drugs and alcohol to teenagers is that you are changing the fundamental ground from which you are seeing the world. So any time you change that fundamental ground, instability results. Yes, you've had a great experience on acid (LSD). Three-fourths of the kids in the class have done acid.
Don't try to argue about that. You say, "Whatever experience you've had: is it on solid ground? Is it not dependent on something outside of yourself?" This is an issue of freedom. Kids can understand the issue of drugs and alcohol because what they really want is freedom. And the fundamental issue of drugs and alcohol is that you are losing your freedom to something outside.
Whatever state you achieve had to be created from something outside, by definition. Drugs and alcohol involve the consumption of something external and so that is not a stable situation. It is not solid. It is without foundation. And it is not free. That is another big issue.
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