In his book, "A Different Kind of Teacher," John Taylor Gatto has an essay called, "In Defense of Original Sin." I don't usually buy the notion that somehow we've fallen from grace and are all guilty of sin – I usually disbelieve in sin itself. I tend to see behavior as harmful or fulfilling, rather than sinful, evil, or good. Yet here Gatto has a new way of looking at original sin that I find intriguing.
When Gatto says, "The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives," I think he's getting at the same thing Pete Seeger was saying in the quote directly below the masthead on this blog. I think he's right. Facts are easy, just a Google search away. Truth, responsibility, and wisdom are not so easy, and they get right down the heart of the human condition. Gatto puts this in the context of American Christianity, relating it to original sin. The penalties attending expulsion from the Garden of Eden are work, pain, free will, and death – and each one of these is a burden for every single individual, and the path to fulfillment and a happy life.
Then Gatto breaks these four down. There are all the ways we try to avoid these penalties in our modern, corporate culture – pain pills, denial of aging, lack of morality, work is a nasty four-letter word, and a lot of it is meaningless pencil-pushing. Then there are the meanings he ascribes to these in the concept of original sin.
"On work: Work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and character. Without real work we will inevitably find despair, no matter how much money or power we have. Work … produces spiritual rewards unrelated to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists, but only if we tackle it gladly, without resentment."
"On pain: Pain is a friend, because it forces our attention away from the world and refocuses it squarely on ourselves. Pain of all sorts is the way we learn insight, balance, and self-control. The siren call of "Feel good!" lures us to court desirable sensations and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Pain, however, is the road to self knowledge."
"On good and evil: In a spiritual life everything is morally charged; nothing is neutral. Choosing between good and evil is a daily effort, but taking responsibility for your choices makes you fully alive. … When we intensify our moral awareness, everything becomes a big deal."
"On aging and death: This world is only a stage in some longer journey we do not understand. To fall in love with our physical beauty, wealth, health, or capacity for pleasure is to kid ourselves, because all that will be taken away. … The only thing that gives our choices any deep significance is the fact that none of this will last. Awareness of mortality gives relationships an urgency, makes our choices matter."
And to sum up: "The best lives seem to be full of contemplation, solitude, and self-examination; full of private, personal attempts to engage the riddles of existence, from the cosmic mystery of death to the smaller mystery of exchanging secrets with a cat. … What constitutes a good life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, compassion, acceptance of loss, preparation for death."
In other words, things we must do for ourselves, which no teacher can do for us.
To be continued…