To understand more about The Chicago Wisdom Project and the work to radically re-imagine education, please read the short piece below on one of the fundamental questions asked in what we call “Wisdom Education”: Who Am I?  Below that, you will also find a short film created by a group of Chicago Wisdom Project students called I Am. Finally, I have included my own poem entitled “I Am” (from my collectionHandprints on the Womb).

Who Am I?: A Fundamental Question of Wisdom Education

In some ways, this is the central question of Wisdom Education.  One could argue that it is the central question of our lives as human beings.  For all the time we spend worried about finances and careers, about what to buy and what to wear, our ultimate happiness lies in having a sense of who we are—that is, finding purpose and meaning and a sense of our place in the world.

The problems of Modernity are mirrored in Modern education.  We cannot blame educators for reflecting, to some degree, their society.  Foremost among these problems is the loss of a sense of identity that binds us to one another and to our world.  In letting go of the restrictions of traditional society that “kept us in our place”, we have also lost a sense of belonging.  I am not arguing for a return to a more restrictive, traditional culture—this is what the fundamentalist argues—but to remember that making our lives meaningful is important work.

In exalting the individual, modern industrial society gives us remarkable individual freedoms.  The problem is that we are so individualistic, at times, that we forget that we owe our existence to a web of relationships.  The point is not to eradicate the individual, as some fundamentalists, New Age cults, and totalitarian regimes advocate, but to situate the individual in a meaningful story.  These groups fixate on texts; I am emphasizing context.

I want all of my students to find some measure of personal success.  I want them to find financial stability and the prestige that comes from a good job and degrees.  But this cannot be the basis for an educational system, for these achievements are competitive.  They reflect a society with winners and losers.  The “Race to the Top”[1]cannot be anything but a reflection of this ethic.  In all the talk about test scores, it is seldom mentioned that tests are graded in terms of a percentile—this means our success, as in every other realm, is based upon how we compete with each other.  I have not yet heard it explained how we will have every child in America scoring in the 99th percentile.  Perhaps this, as much as any test, shows how bad Americans have become at mathematics.

So what of the child who does not go to Harvard?  What do we want from a person, in this culture, of whom it can be said, “He is educated”?  It is my hope that the answers to this question emerge, in part, from our work as a whole.  That is, a person who is educated is creative, has a relationship with nature and the body, tries to be healthy of mind and of spirit, is intellectually astute and thinks critically, and does something meaningful and useful with all these capacities.  The answer cannot come from a single person or a single book.  It must emerge as part of a holistic process.  Many of the answers will emerge from the youth themselves.

At the core of any answer one might come up with, however, is the answer to this simple question: “Who am I?”  It is a question I pose to my students throughout my time with them, in various ways.  We watch how it evolves, as it should, as they grow and learn.  It is a question that requires a relationship, first, with one’s self.  Students must practice silence and be comfortable enough with them selves to ask the difficult questions.  But it also has to do with one’s creative expression.  Indeed, it is a question that can only be answered through the mythic, poetic voice.  Through our art, we all define our selves.  If we watch a music video today, we find what many women think of them selves, what many people of color think of them selves.  These ideas come from a society that has marginalized them, has devalued them.  The task of an educator then, is to find a way to identify our selves that does not rely on society’s skewed ideas.

For any modern person, whether on the margins or very much in the mainstream, the tendency is to define oneself individualistically.   Descartes’ ideas—cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”)—form the basis for modern self-definition.  This philosophy negates the body, the Earth, our cultural traditions, our communities, our ancestors, and our interpersonal relationships.  Modern education has done more than simply omit the soul and the emotions: by forcing the student to abstract, to separate the interiority from the object of study—indeed, to separate the interiority fromeverything, even that which gives the individual a core identity, like a culture—education is experienced, on an emotional level, as loneliness.  When the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg says, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” he is revealing a truth about modern epistemology more than about the nature of the cosmos.

“I Am”

I am;

I am the dark matter of my dark mother, burning deep in space;

I am the salty ocean of my tears,

tears shed for a world of possibility and despair;

I am the story of my ancestors, and the imagination of my daughter;

I am memories of the long journeys, of stories told in darkness by the fire,

and in the moonlight;

I am the cave paintings, and the handprints on the womb;

I am being born each moment,

new and fresh.

I am the parched Earth, the crying skies;

I am Imagination,

tapestry of humanity’s yearnings for the future,

depth of my own uniqueness.

And I am the dying Earth,

crying for the memory of the gifts she gave us,

of the struggles of my mothers.

[Originally published in Handprints on the Womb]

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[1] This is the title of a recent U.S. Department of Education Program in which states with more innovative ways to improve outcomes (test scores) received extra money from the federal government.