What a Good School Should Be: The House of Joy (Baan Unrak) in Thailand

A few years ago Baan Unrak came to my attention. It’s a place in Thailand on the border with Myanmar where mothers and children fleeing war and poverty can find a home.   The founders have built an amazing refuge by all accounts—the name means “The House of Joy”–and its residents are lucky to have found this sanctuary ( link to website.)

But what struck me most recently as I visited their website, was their school, based on something called “neohumanism.” This is a philosophy brought into being by an Indian, Shrii P.R. Sarkar, who espoused a holistic education based on universal love—not just love for all humanity, but really universal love: for animals, plants, and the inanimate world as well.  High-minded ideals indeed! But what got my attention was how similar it was to some other educational movements, like the Waldorf Schools, and the Basic School of Ernest Boyer.   In fact, no matter what the starting point, it would seem that any good system of education would want the kinds of things that neohumanism aspires to:

ecological and social consciousness

practical and personal skills

knowledge of self and world

joyful learning through the arts.

Moreover, it would be accomplished through an integrated curriculum led by teachers with great personal integrity.  The end result would be young people who were able to make their way in the world in a healthy way, with a solid sense of the importance of their connections to the forces of nature we live under, the earth we live on, and the people we live with.

The opposing point of view would be an educational system built on competition, on control and domination. It’s us vs. the universe, so we’d better learn how to contend with it and wrest some personal benefit out of it as best we can, even at the expense of others.  This would be a very Ayn Rand kind of position and without a doubt it has its upsides.  Some children thrive on competition and can be pushed to do their best in that scenario, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone.  Competition means winners and losers, and what do you do about the losers?  I suppose the answer would be to allow nature to take its course : let them be content with low self-esteem and a low-paying job–it’s survival of the fittest.

The House of Joy offers something different, and lets hope its message spreads around the globe.


Cultural Appropriation? What the Hell IsThat? Cinco de Mayo Fight at UNH


The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is in the national news, unfortunately. Last week a big controversy erupted on campus when a black student, Danique, filmed a run-in with another student, Michael, who was wearing a poncho to celebrate Cinco De Mayo. The video went viral, and the passion on her part is hard to miss as she berates Michael for perpetuating a stereotype and for not realizing how wearing it as a privileged white man “actually affects people’s lives.” Many online comments in reaction to this video are just what you’d expect: attacks on Danique, often in the crudest language possible. Since then there have been several other incidents at UNH including harassing Danique, racist graffiti, swastikas, ….college kids can be such idiots.

Let’s start with the incident where it all began and try to sort it out:

1) Is wearing certain articles of clothing insulting to Mexicans?

It depends.

Wearing an oversized sombrero clearly plays into a stereotype, as would wearing fake moustaches, or faking a Mexican accent.

But the poncho?   Hasn’t that made the leap into a normal part of the American wardrobe? It’s like objecting to wearing a parka because it rightfully belongs to the Inuit. But Danique’s point is that even if Michael doesn’t realize it, by wearing the poncho he is showing disrespect to an entire culture, and that culture’s distinguishing clothing should be kept for it alone and its celebrations likewise.

Maybe.  This leads to the second point:

2) Should celebrations of an ethnic nature be reserved for that ethnic group?

It depends.

Most major ethnic holidays are religious in nature and probably no one would be so bold as to try to “celebrate” along with that particular group in such a case. About the only comparable holiday is St. Patrick’s Day and I don’t think the Irish object to anyone celebrating in whatever way they want.   However, I believe Danique’s point was that the Mexicans were traditionally an underclass and to try to turn Cinco de Mayo into another St. Patrick’s-type celebration replete with costumes and kegs is a violation of an entire people in that it trivializes their status and usurps their attempt to commemorate their struggle. Michael disagrees, and as it turns out, with good reason.

But before we get to that…

What comes across most clearly in this video is that these are two people who do not understand each other’s position, and there is very little hope that any understanding will arrive given the heightened emotions of the confrontation.   It’s hard to get anywhere when people are yelling.    The next step should be this: the entire UNH community needs to understand where Danique is coming from, and Danique and her friends also need to understand where Michael is coming from. Cancel classes, cancel tests…talk, rationally, and listen.

The fact is, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated around the country for decades in the manner that Danique is objecting to. Denver, Chicago, San Antonio, New York—all make it a big deal with people dressing up like Mexicans, mariachi bands, and pub crawls. I think I’m right in saying that the Mexican-Americans like it this way—up to a point of course.  Michael is just following in their footsteps.

College campuses never shrink from an opportunity to party, meaning of course to get drunk. Turning Cinco de Mayo into “Drinko de Mayo” as one proud UNHer wrote on a sign, is the same kind of foolishness that gets frat boys into trouble every year.  Danique should be applauded for objecting to that particular behavior, but its not clear that Michael was in fact on his way to the nearest keg.

Let’s hope by this time the leaders at UNH have done their jobs and raised everyone’s consciousness a couple of notches at least.  Let’s hope the students at UNH are up to the task of opening their minds and coming to grips with that most amazing of all realizations:  not everyone thinks like I do…

If you can’t do it on a college campus, what hope is there for world peace?

Our Sexual Emergency: Watch out, World

I just nominated “sexual emergency” as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2016 in the category of “most euphemistic.”   For those who missed it, there was an appalling case out of Austria where a 20-year old man at a public pool grabbed a 10-year old boy in a changing room and raped him. The man then went back to the pool and was practicing on the diving board when the boy notified the lifeguard who notified the police who arrested this guy.   This horrible story made headlines around the world because although he admitted he’d made a huge “mistake” and scarred the boy for life, his defense was that he had had a “sexual emergency”: he was a refugee from Iraq and had not had sex for four months. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 4 years in prison, but in a development out of the Twilight Zone, on appeal the verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court because it wasn’t clear if the boy had agreed to the encounter.   Fortunately, when the case was then re-tried, the justices found that consent had indeed not been given, and ended up handing down an even longer sentence.

For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that he was a migrant from Iraq, and the bizarre twist in the verdict.   Let’s focus on that word.   “Sexual emergency” (sexuller Notstand) is new to English, but has been around for a while in the German language.   There was a women’s punk band that had a top-selling song of that title back in 1981. I tried to listen to the lyrics, but because it’s hard to hear and because the song itself is not something you’d want to listen to more than about zero times, I gave up. However if you google the term “sexueller Notstand” you come up with a lot of chat rooms where women are trying to figure out what’s going on with their men. Sometimes the term refers to women whose sex lives have dwindled to nothing, and sometimes it refers to men who are desperately in need of sex.

So sexual emergency is another way of saying you haven’t had as much sex in your life as you’d like to. But to try to excuse what this man did … What next? Would we excuse all those attacks in Cologne last New Year’s Eve in the same way? Or just a few days ago in Innsbruck? Viewed that way, life itself is a sexual emergency.   We’re programmed by our DNA to want sex, and in fact not just to want it, to crave it desperately and do just about anything to get it at certain times of our lives.   Our hormones go berserk and our animal brains seem to demand we give in to the reproductive urge.

But would anyone dispute the idea that one of the most important things in life is to learn to control this urge? It’s called “civilization.” You don’t just follow your desires, your appetites unless you’re some medieval barbarian warlord.   Those strands of DNA inside of us are tyrants, demanding that we yield to their decrees if we want to survive. But Reason has elevated us to a different level of being. We’re not beasts anymore, though the veneer of civilization is spread pretty thinly over our lizard brains.

The “emergency” around sex is that we are not treating it as something sacred, something greater than a mere appetite, or vehicle for continuing the race.  Until we can figure out how to teach every individual on this planet self-control,to respect women, girls, boys and not treat them as “objects of desire” then stories like this one will continue to plague us. We need to get onto this universal education project urgently.  Either that or develop the artificial sex partner, Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jill, at a price anyone can afford.  The faster the better for everyone.

The United States of Ridicule

Have you noticed there’s a lot of derision shooting around out there in cyberspace and on the airwaves?   With good reason, perhaps. The world has never seemed as loony as it does this year, loony in the fun sense and also in the scary sense. With so much material to work from, the number of shows that specialize in making fun of people has grown, and with it, a danger to our society.

This dawned on me last night as I watched Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal Bus Tour through the heartland, where she and her cohorts managed to find some truly incredible representatives of the electorate, some of whom are delegates to the national conventions. The goal is, of course, to make us laugh at them, to have us shake our heads in disbelief at their quirks and contradictions–and I confess, I do. For example, one young woman from Pennsylvania, an auto mechanic, had this exchange, in which she said she could never vote for Hilary Clinton because

Woman: we don’t need a woman as president—we really don’t–we’re too dramatic!

Interviewer: What if people said that about you—and you’re working on their truck—

Woman: Oh, they do all the time.

Interviewer: Well how does that make your feel?

Woman: I just get over it.

Interviewer: But do you think they’re right?

Woman: I know they’re not and I’ll tell them that.

So the point here is, that she could not see the contradiction, but the real goal of the show was for us to heap scorn upon this young person from the safety of our couches, and bask in self-righteous indignation.   The show offered victims from different ends of the political spectrum, but the constant was, of course, the need to get us to sneer at their eccentricities and blind spots.

I was reminded of a scene from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a smart guy from Connecticut time travels to the Middle Ages and ends up the Boss. At one point he tries to explain how inflation works to one of the commoners, and he just doesn’t get it. All he can see is that high wages are better than low wages—he can’t get the concept that higher prices negate higher wages. The Boss says, “I was stunned; partly with this unlooked-for stupidity on his part, and partly because his fellows so manifestly sided with him and were of his mind—if you might call it mind.”   The Boss gets more and more frustrated trying to explain it and mad enough to bust a blood vessel—just as we do when we’re confronted with someone of an opposing political view who won’t see it our way, even when we’re unquestionably right.  These mindless ignoramuses, these brainless clods should be–

And here is the danger. This anger, this frustration, this recourse to name calling.  There are so many opportunities now on TV, on youtube, in any number of media forums to ridicule our political opposites, that the temperature is rising all over the country. That’s not what we need right now. What we need is what we’ve always needed:

1) respectful forums where we can voice our opinions

2) open minds that will allow us to really hear what other people are saying and perhaps lead to the adjustment of our own thinking

3) the understanding that there will always be differences of opinions, and that in a democracy you have to find a way to live with the fact that you won’t always have it your way.   That’s the nature of political life.

The way to ensure that all three of these aspects of a healthy commonwealth are in place is to invest in the right kind of education.   We’re not spending enough time in what used to be called “civics”.   To hell with higher math, let’s teach people before they’re old enough to vote how to tell a lie from a truth, to open their minds, and to respect differences of opinions.   This is all part of the Sacrament of the Group and we need to get on it now.


Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”and the Sacrament of the Group

A terrific book is out there waiting for you: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, a combat journalist in Afghanistan who found that his experience on returning home from deployment was shared by many others in the military: it was hard to fit back in. He longed for the camaraderie you experience in battle, in a war zone where it’s life and death and each member of the team has to be there to support the other. Psychologically we need a tribe–that’s how we evolved.  Living a successful modern life means we don’t need each other physically as much any more, but the need to forge connections still haunts us.   When we are deprived of those connections we get messed up; when we find them, something clicks and our lives fall into place

The irony is that in peacetime, as affluence grows, we tend to be on our own making money to buy more stuff: we grow apart,we get selfish, we even get mean. But when we’re faced with a common enemy in a combat zone, or back on the home front supporting the troops as the nation did in World War II,  we get that sense of belonging, of  greater purpose. We come together, we share resources and have a sense of the tribe.

Junger is talking about what I call the Sacrament of the Group–a profound, feeling when we’re actively involved with people who are all on the same wavelength, with amplitudes reinforcing each other in what can sometimes be a sublime experience.  You can see this at political rallies, in concert halls, or at the World Cup. As a moment of transcendence it’s a powerful, fulfilling force, but at a more mundane level,  it is the bond of the tribe that Junger is referring to, something we sense day in, day out.  We’re missing this now in an America that is splintered as never before, which is why the vets are finding re-entry so difficult. How do we change that?

As Junger points out, we don’t get there by speaking contemptuously of our fellow citizens. The trolls are out there on the internet, and one of them has even leapt out of his reality TV screen to snatch a presidential nomination based on insults and umbrage. To glory in contempt is to destroy civilization. We should all be teaching our children to respect the dignity of everyone, even those they disagree with. This is a job for the family, schools, and community leaders. The primary campaign of 2016 is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.

We all need to belong to something, but tribes nestle within each other like Russian dolls. We begin with the family, then the neighborhood groups, and the community. Beyond that there is the city, the state, the nation, but ultimately we can’t forget that we are all citizens-of-the world.  Our task for the future is to get used to the idea of belonging  both locally AND globally.

Sebastian Junger appeared on the radio show On Point.   It’s worth listening to.


God Misconceived: Three Real-Life Examples

Imagine this happening where you live:

X kills her two sons ages 6 and 8, smashing their heads with a rock. She explains that God came to her to say the world was ending and she needed to “get her house in order”.

Y attacks a neighboring village with a group of like-minded men. They round up the women they find and force them to return with them. They tell the women that God wants them to be married and they are kept as sexual slaves by their captors.

Z and a group of his friends go into a neighboring village and steal the harvest of the farmers there. They burn the farm buildings and the neighbor’s child dies in the blaze.   Z justifies it all by saying the land belongs to him because God gave it to him and the people who live there have to be driven out.

What is the difference between these examples? In the third, Z could also provide some writings from long ago that in his mind prove what God’s will is. But really, aren’t they the same in the end?  How would any of us react to a neighbor announcing that God wanted any of these things? A call to the nearest police station would result, which is precisely what happened to X, a Christian Texas woman who was judged insane. But if she is insane, why not Y and Z as well? As you’ve probably guessed, Y is an Islamist adherent of Boko Haram or  IS, and Z is a Jewish settler in the West Bank, all doing God’s work.

Why would an unbiased reader condemn all three of these behaviors?    It’s because most of us have a concept of the Good or the Divine Will or Right and Wrong–call it what you like– that rules out killing, stealing, rape.  We don’t need to appeal to God for authority  or look in a sacred text, we know in our hearts what is wrong.   Any outsider would call X, Y and Z delusional, even with the Old Testament as exhibit A.   Did God really dictate the boundaries of that real estate deal in the Middle East way back when? How do we know? If the answer is “we know in our hearts”  that’s what X said as she murdered her own children.   If the answer is “we know because that’s what we’ve been taught” we’re closer to a  way to prevent these sorts of tragedies: better curriculum, better teaching. Start with compassion, not real estate. Start with the here and now and real-live human beings.

Are You Opening Your Children Up to the Spiritual Life?

Homo sapiens is the only species that can really use language.   Some apes have learned to do a little signing, but we are the only ones that can create complex sentences that convey complex ideas.   Our brains are wired to learn a language at a very young age, and if that opportunity is squandered, it becomes infinitely more difficult to learn to speak. There are terrible stories about children locked in closets for years who can only babble and shriek.  If they don’t hear the spoken word at the right time of their lives, it’s a lot harder to acquire a linguistic ability.

We are also the only species that has a spiritual sense, and there may be a window of opportunity to develop it as well. Columbia University Professor of Psychology Lisa Miller points out in her book The Spiritual Child that these days, although an increasing number of parents are identifying as being “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” many are clueless when it comes to helping their children develop spiritually.   Within a religious tradition their job seems easier: send them to Sunday School, or teach them a catechism, practice rote prayers that have all the stultifying effect of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  Maybe they’ll  say a prayer of their own now and then.

Maybe not.

Miller argues that spirituality is a dimension of our humanity that, if absent, opens the road  to problems.   She cites studies that show that developing a spiritual sense helps young people avoid depression, addictions, and other pathologies that prey on this generation of children. Her book is chock full of advice for parents on how to foster that spiritual life that seems so important to well-being.   All of us can get on the path to transcendence, with a little help from our parents.

This is the point my book also makes.   OK, so you’re spiritual, not religious, but what are you going to tell your child about death, right and wrong, and living together  peacefully in a world that has gotten smaller and smaller? We all need some guidelines for living, and most of us can sense that there is something beyond the mere desire to eat, drink, and be merry.  There has to be a moral code of some kind that we all live by and that is part of what defines the Spirit.  For the freethinkers out there, it doesn’t have to be a deity in the traditional sense, a Creator-Father, someone to talk to and seek answers from.  By simply seeking the answers to these spiritual questions and opening yourself to the wonder of it all you are partaking of the Spirit.

If we want to save the world, we have to start with our children, and with the allure of the screens pulling at them minute by minute.  Unless parents take the time to teach spiritual intelligence, to  wonder at beauty and ponder the mysteries of life,  future generations will enter adulthood as disadvantaged as someone who never learned to speak.

What Is a Human Being? Have Children Forgotten?

Where are we going in this crazy twenty-first century world of ours?  No one has a crystal ball, but a disturbing trend was recently made clear by the admissions director of a Waldorf high school. For those of you unfamiliar with Waldorf schools, let me fill you in briefly. These excellent private schools were founded in Germany between the wars of the last century as an alternative to the strict, rote learning that dominated the scene at that time. Since then, they have spread around the world, with about 200 schools in North America.   It is a holistic education.   Children spend a lot of time outdoors experiencing the natural world.   Music, drawing, painting, movement, plays, and games are all important parts of the curriculum.  “A love of learning that lasts a lifetime” is one of their bumper-sticker slogans.

The high school in question is a boarding school, accepting Waldorf and non-Waldorf students.   One aspect of the admissions process for decades has been to have the applicant submit a drawing of a human being. It can be anything from a portrait to the full body and can be copied from another drawing or produced freehand. Those who have been Waldorf students typically do a nice job, while those from non-Waldorf backgrounds might struggle a little with this assignment—but that’s not the point.

There has been a noticeable change in these drawings in the last few years.   There are still some outstanding artists among the applicants, but sometimes the drawings from non-Waldorf students are now just stick figures, or more like what you might expect from a 6-year-old, with bodies out of proportion with the heads, and limbs that are way too short or too long.   In addition, the number of cartoon-like drawings has increased. It’s as if the current cohort of students has lost touch with what real human beings look like. Could it be that the influence of the media and our dependence on the internet has warped our sensibilities to the point where, when we think “human being” we get the image of an anime creature rather than an actual, fully-fleshed Homo sapiens? No one should be surprised.

Just as Richard Louv wrote about the tragedy of our children losing touch with nature (Last Child in the Woods), here is an indication that children are losing touch with what it means to be human.  There have been warnings of the influence of the media for decades, for example, that more children are able to identify a picture of McDonald’s golden arches than the Christian cross or that they recognize brand-name logos before they can read. Children are what they see and hear. Let’s make sure our technological marvels do not swallow up the essence of our humanity. This is why Waldorf schools urge parents to limit young children’s interaction with electronic media, and get out into the world of nature and play with other children, not with a screen.

Pew Poll : Churchgoers’ Numbers Declining

Lots of interesting statistics in the latest Pew poll on religion in America. The big news is the same as last time: the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) is growing. In the  2014 survey, 23% of Americans fall into this category, up from 16% in 2007.   Belief in God has remained strong, but has fallen slightly, from 92% to 89%. However, the percentage of people who regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being rose from 52% to 59%.

Whether or not this trend will continue depends on the state of the world and how secure people feel.  Here at home we feel fairly secure, I would reckon, but there are still no atheists in foxholes, so if we start to feel under threat, perhaps some of those Nones will head back to the pews. There are threats a-plenty beyond our borders as wars and gangs continue to spin out of control in so many places, and refugees are fleeing to stable countries like ours in unprecedented numbers. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will be absorbed quietly or end up disenchanted and angry—the source of even more unrest.

But  I hope this trend does continue as it has, and that those apostate Nones look to the Seven Universal Sacraments for a framework upon which to build a new moral code to fill the gap left by traditional religions.   Children must be raised, something has to be taught about what makes us tick as human beings, and how to live as humanly and humanely as possible.   Without Sunday School to etch the Ten Commandments into young hearts, parents can use some guidance on how to approach the Greater Good.  Whether there is a God or not, we can perceive some universal Rights and Wrongs in the world if we take the time to look around.

ISIS, Rape, and the Bible

Newsflash: The army of attackers rushed on the defenders of the Middle Eastern villages without thought to their own safety. They knew God was on their side and the result was inevitable. Those protecting their homes were cut down, and when there was no one left to oppose them, the attackers rounded up the women and children and killed them without mercy.

Does this sound like a report of an ISIS attack in Iraq or Syria? It’s a description of the army of Moses invading the Promised Land found in the Bible, in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Now if you are a firm believer in what is written in the Bible, or the Torah if you prefer that designation, you would say that it’s clear God WAS on the side of Moses, because He did in fact deliver the non-believers into his hands. God wanted that battle to be won by Moses, and insisted that those women and children be put to death. Further, when people of faith wrestle with the question of God ordering genocide in the Bible,  they often end up with the old “God works in mysterious ways” answer: God knows the future and we can’t hope to understand Him, but have to trust that He knows what’s best. Here’s a link to that kind of argument.

Whew! So Moses had to kill all those innocent people because if any of them lived, they might corrupt the children of Israel, luring them away from the Lord. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, where “evil” would not be understood as cutting the throats of children, but allowing a competing religion to exist that might cause the Hebrews to drift away from the True Path.

I hope the reader possesses enough discernment to realize that this is precisely the argument that ISIS is using to enslave or exterminate its opponents.   The most depressing piece of reporting of the century showed up on the front page of the New York Times Friday, in a description of the institutionalized rape of the Yazidis and other non-Muslims by the ISIS fighters because God insists it is their duty. They have it down, chapter and verse, why it is pleasing to God to bind 12 year-old girls and rape them repeatedly.  God also told them to create a slave market for captured women.  In case we’ve forgotten, this is 2015.

Apparently it does not occur to the apologists for Moses or for ISIS that what we’re reading in the scriptures is not what God wanted, but what whoever wrote these things down wanted.  They are justifying their acts ex post facto by claiming a direct communiqué from God.  Because, really, how does anyone know that God dictated these scriptures?   Because our parents believed it, and their parents before them.  Because that’s what our teachers told us.  But the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures are often contradictory, so they can’t all be true. How do we choose the right thing?

Through being human. Through reading your heart. Through reason.   If there is no pang of horror at the rape of a girl, you have lost your humanity and gone over to the dark side.   If there is no hint of compassion for the victims of wars, both ancient and modern, then you have not learned to read your heart.   And if you cannot tell the difference between what traditions have imposed and what is truly right and wrong, you have not learned to use your reason.

The sense is growing that we are in one of those periods when history is shifting under our feet. The number of people in the world is growing too fast, our communications abilities are rapidly shrinking the world at the same time, but we’re not educating our fellow men and women in how to live together in peace at a pace to keep up with these forces.   So many humans, not enough humanity.  Educators, get busy.