As a child, school was for me what Winston Churchill once called the Soviet Union: "...a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." No, I can do better than that. My experience in public school could be summarized by the word "awesome," in the sense that the Greek philosophers meant "awesome": namely, it displayed what humans could be wonderful at as well as terrifying.
Public school is embedded in an American culture of consumer-oriented youth and a winner-take-all economy that are in many ways hostile to actually getting an education, certainly education as soulcraft, as I have written elsewhere. When I was growing up, many of us kids -- white, Latino, Asian, black -- got trapped in a youth culture that did not see school primarily as an enterprise of education. In this sense, youth in school then were not that different from youth in school today.
To me and most kids I hung around with, school was a social thing. Classes, lessons, bells, books and homework were the price of admission we had to pay, the motions we had to go through, the means to an end: to be with our friends, to play in some form or another.
However, after high school, I realized I had spent far too much of my time doing things -- though "cool" at the time -- that had nothing to do with making me wise, nothing to do with preparing me for where life was going to take me: what it would mean to be a husband, adjusting to an America becoming increasingly hostile to common working people, grinding out what it takes to establish a career and then being forced to do it all over again because market trends demanded it, functioning well outside of my in-group or comfortable clique, learning to resolve differences -- political, racial, gender, religious, etc -- constructively. Back in school, differences were dealt with mano-a-mano; in other words, not at all, stupidly. So it's no surprise that our political parties and their leaders don't know how to overcome their differences either. I read about their dysfunction and cliquish stubbornness every day, or see it on TV and think: "Yep, that's how we behaved in high school."
I realize that one of the most important things we should have learned somewhere between the time we emerged from the womb and the time we start fending for ourselves in the great American experiment -- this Garden of Eden with claws -- is wisdom.
Speaking for myself, I'm sure I had some opportunity to learn wisdom from a few sources here and there: from adults who did more than just tell us what to do, but showed us how to do it; from teachers who dared to engage in education as soulcraft and model it too. But those relatively few examples were like prophetic whispers lost in the howling storm called culture.
For unfortunately, ours was and still is a culture where monied interests rule everything, where Americans are bred to find the reason for their existence in consumption, where schools try to fix every problem by placing more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers instead of courageously addressing our cultural problems, and where youth are too absorbed in what matters to youth to notice any of this.
Ours is a culture where wisdom is equated with age and age is a negative and youth is worshiped -- where many of the young and relatively inexperienced think that no one older than a high school senior can possibly know anything worth knowing. Which reminds me of the bumper sticker that says: "Hire a teenager now, while they still know everything."
Wisdom: honest and critical thinking, maturity, perspective, prudence, selflessness, interdependence, community good. Shouldn't public schools nurture these qualities of wisdom in us, and not just individualism, competition, money-driven values, or the cultural trends and merchandizing of "cool"? Because soon the current generation of children will be the next generation of politicians and CEOs and educators and parents. And because growing old in America does not by default mean growing wise.
In the Jim Carrey movie "Bruce Almighty," Bruce finds his life dreams frustrated. He is driving at night in the rain and finally as a last resort calls out to God.
Bruce: Okay, God. You want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what's going on? What should I do? Give me a sign.
After passing obliviously numerous road signs and other signals from God, Bruce finally grabs some prayer beads on his rear view mirror and prays not just for a sign but a full blown miracle. His car hits a bump and the beads fall to the floor. In the distracted search for them, his car slams into a lamp post. He emerges from the wreck, flings the beads into the roadside lake, and screams in maniacal fury at the heavens.
Bruce: Okay, if that's the way you want it. The gloves are off, pal! Let me see a little wrath! Smite me oh mighty smiter. What, no pestilence, no boils? Come on, you got me on the ropes. Don't you want to finish me off?! You're the one who should be fired! The only one around here not doing his job is YOU! What are we, you're little pet project? A hobby you tinker with now and again? Answer me. ANSWER ME!!!
This movie, which may not be suitable for children, nevertheless has a lesson for all ages. The signs of wisdom, direction and perspective may well be all around us. God (or, if you are not religions, "wisdom") may be speaking, through parents, through friends, through difficulties, through common sense which needs no miracle, through something as unlikely as a comedy film, repeatedly, so often that we're jaded or unimpressed with the answers: since the answers usually demand ongoing patience and hard work on our part. As a result, we're simply not attentive to the signs, or worse, we consciously ignore them. We're too young or too old, too wired or too tired, too doubtful or too sure of ourselves. If our schools our culture or public leaders are unable or unwilling to be the sign posts on the road to wisdom, we must look elsewhere.
However, at some point we need to realize that the really important question is not, "Where are the signs on my road to wisdom?" But rather, "Will I allow the signs that are there help me to be a wise driver." We could wait until culturally-bred inattentive or even reckless driving habits stop our speeding lives and wraps it around a lamp post, and then get mad at God or the world about it.
But wisdom does not have to be a lamp post.