Educating in an Age of Fear

A few years ago I was with my family in a national park and we attended one of the presentations by the Park Ranger. I have fond memories of these as a child in the early to mid-seventies. The presentation I saw with my daughter was reminiscent of my childhood experiences. It was mostly information about the park, the animals and plants—a general presentation about the complexity and beauty of the geology and ecosystem. The recent version of the presentation included a disturbing new element. The concluding message this time was a dire warning that all of this was in danger of being lost and it was really up to the next generation to rescue. I didn’t think much of it at the time until I started noticing the same message in nature programs such as “Nature” or “Nova” on PBS, and at other parks, information boards at science museums, etc. That’s an awful big load to put on the shoulders of an 8-year old.

We are educating in an age of fear—fear about pollution in our air and water, global warming, terrorism, lock down drills, endangered species—hell an entire endangered planet. How many adults are paralyzed by these fears? Should our children be as well?

Buddhism teaches to stand with a strong back and a soft front. The strong back is needed to stand up and face the difficulties of the world, but the soft front is needed to embrace the world. I fear the next generation(s) will not have the soft front. Will they retreat into hard-shelled cocoons in order to protect themselves from the onslaught of burdens put upon them by our generation?

Students today have access to the global information network like we never did as children. This is an awesome gift, but also a heavy burden. As educators, it is paramount that we maintain our soft front so that we can teach with compassion and empathy as children of younger and younger ages are cognizant of the global village and not just their local “tribe.”

But there-in might be the answer. Not only do we need to teach with compassion and empathy, I believe we must teach compassion and empathy. Social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin gave a talk at the Royal Society for the Arts called the Empathic Civilisation in which he puts forth an interesting idea.

Consider this. 50,000 years ago the empathy one felt was to their blood ties or clan. Anyone further away than “shouting distance” was outside your sphere of concern, or empathy. As time progressed, the world became smaller as individual’s “tribes” grew. Agriculture, written communication, and religion expanded one’s empathy beyond clans to tribes. Nation-states formed and one’s empathy was extended to those sharing national identity which at times superseded tribes. Here we are in 2013 and social networking as the potential to expand empathy beyond national borders. Consider the nearly instantaneous global response to a natural disaster. Images and information spread within minutes! The rest of the world offers help within hours! Rifkin we are actually “soft-wired” for empathy and this soft-wiring can and is stronger than hard wiring for individual survival.

Maybe teaching our children (and the adults too) compassion and empathy for the global tribe, which should also include other species as well is the answer. Bombarding our children with fear may be oppressing and dangerous as it might kick in the hard-wiring for survival (think cocoon mode), but fostering the soft-wiring for empathy and compassion might actually be life-affirming and empowering.

Here is a link to the RSA Animate of Rifkin’s talk

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