Tuesday, June 24, 2008


A Principled Principal's Address

By John Taylor; 2008 June 24, 01 Rahmat, 165 BE


Last night we attended Silvie's grade eight graduation. Only when they were in pyjamas and ready for bed did we finally have leisure to look at report cards. What a pleasant surprise! Both Silvie and Thomas showed progress over the past several months that can only be called spectacular. Especially Silvie. She even got a 100 percent in geometry, a mark I never came close to, ever, especially in math.


All through school, Silvie's teachers were saying to us that her shyness and extreme slowness in doing class work were keeping her back. Maybe the imminence of High School prompted her to work harder, to study for tests and start finishing homework assignments. In any case, at the graduation ceremony, she won the prize for most improved, for math and "literacy" (meaning English), and I actually felt a little aggrieved that she did not win valedictorian and other prizes won by more consistent performers. Judging only by this term's marks, IQ and Gauss test scores, and the fact that she alone was chosen for an enrichment program in robotics at another school, if it were a horse race she would have nosed by her brightest classmates at the finish line.


As I was leaving the ceremony, her teacher cornered me and told about her improvement, how often when he was marking her the answers were not in the textbook but they were right so he had to give full marks. What she had been doing was that instead of consulting the textbook she had learned to engage me in Socratic dialog, usually in the morning at the last minute when Mom was in her usual tizzy screaming that she should have been on her way to school five minutes ago. Fortunately for Silvie, she has a very opinionated father who reads science magazines and takes positions even on abstruse points of optics and microbiology. We consulted Wikipedia and other references when my general knowledge fell short. When the teacher told me about her unconventional sources of information, well, I felt like I had been engaging in a virtual intellectual fencing match with him, through her, over the past several months. I felt like adding: "Yes, and several times you marked her wrong when she was right and I can prove it to you." But of course I did not say that.


Many things helped the progress of Silvie and Tomaso but I could not help but give some of the credit to our evening Baha'i classes, which started last November after they had dropped out of scouts and music lessons and there was a sudden opening in their evenings. These daily lessons are directed not at improving their academics but at faith; I meant them to counterbalance the overly academic and short-term focus of their public schooling. But it seems that emphasis on spiritual education actually improves academics. As de Bible say, put the Kingdom first and gravy will be poured over you.


Anyway, what I wanted to talk about today was based on my thoughts about the principal Lindsey Williams' address to her grade eight graduates last night. She is the best principle at this school in the decade I have known it. I especially like her frank, unassuming manner, and how this school and its teachers in general have not caught the disease of intellectual pride and elitism. They are not pompous, as many of my old teachers were in the snooty Ancaster High (my father liked Ancaster for its high academic standards but I encountered so much prejudice there that the last place I would ever send my kids is to a so-called elite college). They are concerned with knowledge and their students, not lording it over anybody. They do not confuse pretension with academic excellence.


The only fault I could find in her address was a lack of attention to longer term academic goals, beyond the first few months of high school. So the question I woke this morning with was: what would I say to a grade eight class about the long term purpose of learning if I were in her shoes, that is, a public school principal who is not necessarily a Baha'i? Obviously, as a student of the Baha'i principles, I would structure my remarks around them, but what advice based on that framework would be best to give? Here is my best shot, at least for the first seven principles. Maybe I will do more later.


Search for Truth


If there is one thing you keep all your life after have come away from this eight years of primary schooling, it has to be this: seek truth. Investigate reality. That is the essence of primary education.


Truth does not come to you already cooked on a silver platter. You have to go out and make your role, forge a unique place in the world. Nobody, not even we your teachers can tell you what that role will be. It is not in you, it is not out there in the world, it is in both, a mystical equation combining outer circumstances and the eternal truths that you prove yourself worthy of upholding. In fact, the best word I can think of for your destined place in the universe is just that, "truth." The truth you seek is your truth; it is of the ages, but it is yours too insofar as you conduct your search with sincerity and diligence.


Go out on a clear night and look up at the stars. You and I may come to different conclusions about where this vast array comes from, but one thing we can be sure of, it is not the product of a whim. This is not the handiwork of an amateur. That starlight has been traveling in our direction millions, and sometimes billions of years. For that reason, I tell you: do not dabble in truth. It is not an entertainment, a game that you play one day and leave off the next. Do not be a dilettante, be a genuine seeker after truth. Give your whole life to it, because truth is the life in life and all that is human, good and real.


Investigate assiduously every day of your life. Think of yourself as the detective in a detective story. Devote your whole existence to uncovering your own whodunit. Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes giving up on his murder investigation and going off to watch television or play video games? No, we all have a purpose, a role we were brought into this world to play.


Never stop seeking. As long you are alive, keep going at this ultimate goal because I can tell you this for certain, the day you stop caring about truth is the day you die. This is a fundamental to wisdom, to know that we do not die when our body stops functioning, death comes the moment we quit seeking out the meaning behind the sham, when we lag in our quest to know the nature of things.


This is our one transcendent duty -- and privilege -- as human beings. This is what makes you different from your dog or your cat or your plants or that fly buzzing around your head. Our duty of seeking truth makes life tougher for us than for animals, for at root you know one thing that they will never suspect. You know that you will die one day. They can have no idea. And this takes us to the next principle,


The Oneness of Humanity


The first thing I find when I go out under a clear sky and look at the stars is that I am not the only one standing before truth. The truth is huge. Everybody stands before it. Thinking people have been looking up there for thousands of years, Socrates looked up, and Jesus, and everybody you will ever admire, and men and women will continue to do so until the end of time. Every seeker of truth is in awe, and comes away feeling a special bond with all intelligent life, with every human being on this earth. That is the first discovery of truth, that all men and women are essentially one.


So if there are just two things that you come away from your schooling let the second lesson be this: we are all world citizens. We are one. We have a sacred duty, born of our search for truth, to see one another as essentially the same and love one another, to treat everyone we meet as a brother or a sister, a mother or father, a son or daughter, for we are members of one family already, it is our heritage; our duty to search for truth is just there to make it clearer. We who are detectives seeking an answer, we who have looked up at the stars and asked questions like, "Why?" and "How?," how can we help but see our differences as externals, as points of beauty, not obstacles blocking us forever from reconciliation.


Oneness of Religion


No matter what you and those around you may believe about God or religion, sooner or later you will come across people who have a completely different understanding of what you thought was essential. This is not a bad thing. You are actively seeking truth and you are already persuaded that all thinking people are brothers and sisters. Having learned these first two primary essentials, you will be pleased to find differences and you will already be skilled in finding similarities in seeming opposites. Anything but diversity seems dull and boring to a seeker of truth and a world citizen. The multiplicity of human opinions cannot pose a problem because we all share a singular spiritual heritage. A seeker and world citizen has the tools to see the way through to an answer.


Harmony of Science and Religion


The first thing you will find out when you leave this place is that very few people you meet will remember the two bases of education that you just learned in primary school, that is, search for truth and oneness of humankind.


It is your duty as seekers and world citizens, to remind them.


You will find that instead people tend to latch onto one or the other, science or religion, and hold tenaciously to that as their worldview and indeed as their own personal property. But the fact is, if you seek truth and see all humans as one in essentials, you already have covered the essentials of both religion and science. You will see no conflict between them. Both are ways to truth, and both are intended to benefit all that is human.


Science is about truth here and now, and religion is about truth seen in the perspective of eternity. Neither can contradict the other and still be true. Both faith and science are part of our common history, and can, if we make them such, be clear paths to a better future. What is more, you will understand that as soon as anybody thinks science and religion conflict, they are betraying themselves and showing their own ignorance of the two primaries, truth and commonality.


Elimination of Prejudice


Prejudice is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is the root of disagreement, conflict and "politicization" of contrasting but otherwise reconcilable viewpoints. Prejudice is the ultimate cause of hatred and war. But what is prejudice?


Again, we need only go back over our two primary lessons to know exactly what it is and how to deal with it.


Superficial investigation fails to arrive at the natural goal of the mind, consciousness of our universal oneness. Half-hearted effort at grasping reality results in stunted, deformed mental products. Ugly as they may be it is our nature to be good mothers to our mental children. We seek to protect and nurture them, incomplete as they may be. These offspring fail to connect with truth as discovered by the greatest minds in history. They cannot resolve into our common human oneness.


Prejudice also grows in the dark area between what we just looked at, science and religion; failure to apply that principle causes an artificial gap between religious and scientific truth. If science and religion are not harmonious parts of one dedicated investigation, they misalign. A chasm opens between present truth and eternal realities. Prejudice breeds in that dark place like a writhing serpent's nest.


Prejudice is so dangerous because it is highly contagious. To use the new verb -- it "goes viral" without warning. Prejudice has sex appeal. It is quickly and widely accepted not on its own merits but because fractured understanding perceives a need based not on our true nature and destiny, but on urgent needs and perverse desires born in exile from truth and unity.


We have a sacred duty to truth, to humanity, to faith and to science, to refute prejudice wherever we find it. Snuff out the sparks quickly, before they can catch flame in violence, hatred and war.


Economic Equity


The computer industry recently celebrated its billionth computer sold. But what about the almost six billion other human beings who do not have a computer? This machine, connected in a vast web to  all other computers, has become an essential tool for both search and oneness during the thirteen years of your lives. Yet even now six out of seven human beings do not have access to a computer simply because they cannot afford it. Many cannot even pay for food, much less a computer. Beyond compassion for others in need, think of the brainpower that is being wasted! We could all benefit if these six of seven joined us in the great forum of human inquiry.


You, dear students, are among the privileged few, the one billion who have access to the most complicated, powerful machine ever built. A helpmeet for the brain. Do not fritter away your time playing frivolous games on your machine. Take your destiny in your hands and make sure that in your lifetime seven out of seven will have access to a computer, that seven of seven will one day soon know how to use this wonderful instrument, this amplifier of search and unity by one and all.


Promotion of Education


Do not imagine that what you have learned here comes free. Everything comes at a cost, and every real good comes with heavy responsibility. Live up to what you have learned, or it will slip out of your hands and be lost forever. How do you live up to what you learned? By sharing it with others. I tell you this: knowledge is useless, worse than useless, if it is not passed on to others. The more you learn, the more this principle applies.


You must all become teachers. I do not care what you end up doing, what your trade or profession ends up being, you still must become a teacher. If you are given the job of cleaning up the street outside, you will still have to learn and improve the job and teach what you learn there to a new generation. That is what knowledge is, a growing evolving thing, just as we are, deep down. Generally speaking, if our search and knowledge of unity does not grow and become more robust then it will succumb to the germs and viruses of prejudice. They lie in wait to attack, to take all that this civilization has accomplished and drag it down into a dark age.


I want to convey to you a message of hope today. It is a happy day when we go on to greater things. We all read about the destruction of the environment and the advance of global warming, and it is easy to get discouraged. Do not give in to despair. There is hope, but only if we all constantly go back to these basic lessons of primary school and seek truth, find oneness, harmonize it with faith and reason, and then go out and teach what we have learned. There is only one reason the world is in trouble and that is because people have betrayed these basic principles of our age. You can, you must, turn that around by learning principle, applying it, and then teaching principle to others.


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