Thoughts In the Heartland – On education: Starting with the Ark

News about educationits successes, its failures, its many challengesappears every day. We’ve seen stories about it locally as well as nationally and internationally. And I’m left wondering: what is education’s purpose?

I stumbled across a seemingly unconnected answer to that question in a press release about a man I’d never heard of. Last week, Dr. Jean Vanier, a French Canadian philosopher and the founder of L’Arche (The Ark), an international group of communities for people with mental disabilities, was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. Established by Sir John Templeton, an investor and philanthropist, the prize is awarded each year to an individual who has done significant work to encourage “life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works” (according to the Templeton website). To give you an idea of the prize’s significance, two past winners are the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa.

Vanier began his career as a naval officer for Great Britain and Canada. After years of prayer during solitary watches, Vanier resigned his commission in 1950. Then he studied philosophy, especially Aristotle’s work on happiness, and he gained his doctorate in 1962. He lectured briefly at the University of Toronto, but he was moved by the plight of people with disabilities, most of whom were institutionalized at the time. Vanier recognized that the institutionalized people he met were crying out for love. As one man asked him, “Will you be my friend?”

So in 1964, Vanier asked two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in a village north of Paris. Over the next 20 years, he gave lectures about his life, and others began following his model and living with and supporting people with disabilities. Now L’Arche numbers 147 residential communities in 35 countries.

In a series of interviews available on the Templeton website and elsewhere, Vanier explains why the model of L’Arche is so important. I highly recommend you watch them all, but here’s a few highlights. “The strong need the weak to become more human, more compassionate, more understanding,” Vanier says. “[Somewhere], the deepest desire for us all is to be appreciated, to be loved, to be seen as somebody of value.”

When people express their fear of people with disabilities, Vanier unpacks their reaction this way. “[We] don’t know what to do with our own pain, so what to do with the pain of others? We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?” In other words, Vanier points out, we are afraid of our mortality and weaknesses. In fact, we’re so afraid that if we do admit them, then we won’t be loved. So in our fear, we reject our own weaknesses as well as the weaknesses of others.

Vanier looks to Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of how to address our frailties. “[MLK] sayswhat I find extremely beautiful and strong, is that we will continue to despise people until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.”

So what does this have to do with education? Vanier links knowledge in two areas: head knowledge and heart knowledge. “The balance of our world frequently is seen as a question of power. That if I have more power and more knowledge, more capacity, then I can do more. I’m the one that knows, and you don’t know, and I’m strong and I’m powerful, I have the knowledge. And this is the history of humanity.” It’s not a pretty picture, as Vanier has witnessed through decades of human warfare and suffering. He points out that we usually emphasize education as a way for people “to become capable and to take their place in society. That has value, obviously. But it’s not quite the same thing as to educate people to relate, to listen, to help people to become themselves. So the equilibrium that people with disabilities could bring is precisely this equilibrium of the heart.”

By living a life dedicated to human care, Vanier has shown people with whom he has lived as well as thousands, if not millions, of people that education in life should cultivate compassion, empathy, and humilityin other words, virtue. It should show us that we are valuable because of who we are, not because of what we do.

Next week I’ll explore this idea of education further.