Over 30 years ago, the NBC television network began a series of public service announcements with the tagline, “The More You Know…” In one of those 30-second TV spots, actor Matthew Perry asked viewers to think about the ten things they most wanted out of life. Then, he said he would show us a way we could make all those things happen. He flipped around the board in his hands and showed us the message, “Stay in School.”
This is a noble sentiment. But it’s hardly going to change anything. In fact, the whole idea of school, learning, and education needs a bit of an overhaul. We need to eliminate the compartmentalized version of learning which only takes place between certain walls, at certain times on certain days, and only from certain sources.
Who does the learning belong to?
One of the first things Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, did was take her out into nature to learn about the world. In fact, Helen’s breakthrough in her education came when she realized the cool liquid running out of the pump was represented by the letters Anne spelled into her hand. From that point on, Helen thirsted to know the words which represented everything in her life, from her loved ones to the trees and the wind.
One of the shifts we need to make is to flatten the top-down hierarchy of education. The idea that teachers should be held accountable for the standardized test scores of students presents a great obstacle to this shift. It represents the fact we have placed the power for learning in the hands of the teachers and made them the gatekeepers.
The learning did not belong to Anne Sullivan. The learning belonged to Helen. Anne was simply the facilitator.
The Thirst for Learning
Another obstacle we must hurdle comes from the excuses for a lack of learning we place on our environment and circumstances.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he fought to end apartheid and gain political freedoms for his black countrymen in South Africa. For 18 of those years, he was confined to the dreadful Robben Island in a small cell with no bed and forced into manual labor. Yet, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela noted the men referred to the prison as the University. This was not just because many of the men earned official degrees through correspondence courses. The greatest learning which took place was learning from each other. They became their own faculty and their own professors teaching their own curriculum and their own courses.
We can make the assumption that the learning at the University on Robben Island was much more valuable, deeper, and more connected than what the men learned from formal educational materials. It was not their environment or resources which created their learning. It was their thirst for learning…the same thirst Helen Keller experienced when she felt the water in her hands.
Helen Keller learned despite being blind and deaf. Nelson Mandela learned despite being imprisoned.
The Greatest Lessons Come From Inside
So how can we acquire a thirst for learning and take that knowledge to a deeper level? We can take every situation we experience and use it to learn more about ourselves as we grow our character skills. The greatest lessons we will learn will not come from outside of us. They will come from learning about ourselves on the inside.
Character growth usually comes through pain, uncomfortable situations, and times of adversity. But, during these times, our growth actually comes through subtraction. When we stop trying to do more to prove our value and worth, we are able to become more. We have the capacity to exhibit the perfect example of any character skill already inside us.
No matter our past experiences or our current resources, we can always choose to let our feelings and emotions melt away. When we do, we allow the character skills we have naturally inside of us to flow without much effort. This is exactly what happened to Nelson Mandela in prison. Rather than focusing on his circumstances and reacting with his feelings and emotions, he responded by forging his character like a blacksmith.
A Blacksmith’s Process…
How does a blacksmith create a finished product out of the iron they begin with? The first thing they do is heat up the iron in a forge. This is what we refer to when we talk about our times of struggle and adversity. We need to be heated in the fire in order to make necessary changes. Rarely do we experience much personal growth by laying around on the couch watching TV. When we adopt the mindset of seeking excellence and trying to get 1% better every day, we find our struggles and adversity are opportunities to grow our character.
Once the iron has been heated to a high enough temperature, the next step for the blacksmith is to use their tools to shape the iron into the desired product. This is the action part of growing character skills. We have to take action and try new things. But we must always take action with the intent of creating the desired product. In terms of character, this is the best version of ourselves.
…Is a Cyclical Process
Many times, we worry about taking the wrong action. Of course, we don’t want to intentionally make bad decisions. But even if a blacksmith hammers the iron the wrong way, or makes a mistake, they can always reheat the metal and start over. In fact, blacksmithing is a cyclical process. Oftentimes, the smith is not able to create the entire product before the iron cools. When this happens, the blacksmith must start the process over again by reheating the metal.
The blacksmith can analyze the iron when it cools and see where further shaping needs to take place. In our character development, this is our chance to reflect and analyze. We identify where we can grow and what action we can take the next time we encounter situations of pain and adversity. Just like the process of shaping iron with a blacksmith, our process of growing character skills is cyclical. So as we continue to experience situations where we are heated in a forge, we can continue to use them to shape our character into the best possible version of ourselves.
Complete the Story
As we survey our past experiences, we can usually see whether or not our character was weakened or strengthened in certain situations. In cases where our response to being put in the forge weakened our character, it most likely occurred because we were focused on the circumstances of having to deal with our adversity. However, if our response strengthened our character it was probably because we seized the opportunity to hammer and shape ourselves while we experienced our adversity.
The process of forging our character helps us seize the power of learning and flatten the hierarchy of education. When we take advantage of these opportunities of adversity to grow character skills, we focus on the process of becoming our best. This is the process we want for our students. But it’s also the process we must undergo so we can fulfill our most important duty: provide our students with a compass so we can facilitate their learning.
Because the more we know…about ourselves…the better we will be able to write our own story. And our story is not complete until we give our gifts away to others.