Karolis Zukauskas (Gint Aras) is a member of the Zen Life & Meditation Center. He has a blog from which this article was taken. You can view other articles by him at his site, Liquid Ink. Theodore Richards is a friend of many in our Zen Life & Meditation Center community and has spoken on numerous occasions at our Sunday Morning Zen program. 

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Theodore Richards, director and founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project, to discuss his ideas regarding contemporary education. The conversation left me inspired and quite moved.

The Chicago Wisdom Project is a non-profit, holistic education program that focuses on students’ creative expression and contemplation of the self. They teach mindfulness, meditation, and they partner with educators and institutions around Chicago, but also run a farm in Michigan.

I’ll quote the vision from their website:

  • Students should complete a creative project, giving them a sense of their ability to accomplish something meaningful.
  • Students should expand their sense of who they are by seeing themselves as part of a broader community and as having deeper connections to their ancestors.
  • Students should begin to see the future in terms of possibilities rather than limitations.
  • Students should have the confidence, after completing their rite of passage and their project, to teach others.
  • Students should have a sense of their passion, that which gives their lives meaning
  • Students should be aware of the issues that face their community and other communities around the world and how those issues are interconnected.
  • Students should have a greater appreciation for nature.

It’s this last point, the appreciation of nature and its connection to the creative process, which originally intrigued me. The Wisdom Project teaches permaculture and allows students to go on retreats and to learn about growing food ecologically in their small farm, called the Wisdom Farm.

I can tell you from experience that there are very strong similarities between the creative process and the life cycle of a garden.

While the people who attend these programs are younger than my community college students, Theodore Richards and I serve essentially the same socioeconomically disadvantaged residents of our city.

After listening to him describe his mission and experiences, I’m convinced that most of my students, but especially young men, would benefit tremendously by doing something like this, and that community colleges around the country would be well served to invest in some of these philosophies and methods, perhaps in the same way that 4-year colleges include “study abroad” sessions as part of so many majors. My students don’t need language or math education as much as they first need some time to learn to place themselves into a greater context, and to understand how to reflect and feel comfortable learning.

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Without getting too technical or using too much educator lingo, I feel that community colleges like mine do students a great disservice by focusing as strongly as we do on “outcome based education”. The way this works is that “expected outcomes” are compiled and listed. (The list above pokes a bit of ironic fun at the kind that end up in college course data forms or syllabi.) A course is deemed effective if students, assessed after completion, show they’ve met the outcomes.

Especially in the subjects I teach—Humanities and Rhetoric—certain things are simply impossible to quantify or measure with any precision, and assessing them depends on an evaluator’s experience, good taste, intuition or feel. Teaching is, after all, an art.

Our society isn’t very comfortable with this. We want to quantify everything to have “solid data” measurable and comparable to other results. While there’s plenty of virtue here, we’ve gotten too caught up in it. It’s as if we wish the exploration of the mind were identical to building a truss.

♦◊♦

I’m an artist and also an amateur (but fairly serious) organic gardener, and I can tell you fthere are very strong similarities between the creative process and the life cycle of a garden.

As a parent who gardens with my children, a girl and a boy, I notice how much they learn from something as simple as planting tomatoes or coming out each morning to see how many strawberries have ripened for breakfast.

They know food does not come “from a store”. But there are greater lessons: delayed gratification, patience, awareness of variables that harm or aid growth. My children feel the joy of collecting food and the pleasure of sharing it with neighbors. The greatest lesson of all is that they see their intimate connection to nature, not the common delusion that they are separate.

The creative process, of course, is natural. It is not an artifice we impose on ourselves. To create, one must allow ideas to come, let them take their course as we also guide them. Creative ideas grow. Sometimes they’ll be attacked by weeds or insects. They’ll dry up in the sun or get washed away. People will taste them and like or hate them. They are born, ripen, rot and die, yet they are never “finished” completely; they lead to other ideas in endless cycles.

The most valuable lesson of exploring one’s creativity, especially for a young person, is that we wish to perfect things but can never be perfect. Creating—cultural participation vs. cultural consumption—is a process. Its purpose is to journey, not to arrive.

The Chicago Wisdom Project is teaching all these things and building community in the process. Most notably, it is a place where, alongside girls, boys can explore, safely and in numbers, their emotions and ideas. They can express them freely. The goal is not to gather a “bunch of skills” that will one day help them become providers. Instead, the boys in these programs do what very few contemporary school settings allow them. They get to feel, accept themselves feeling and share that feeling with others. They contemplate and process what gives them meaning, not what value they might one day offer someone else.

If we had truly daring and visionary education reformers working in our government and in our schools, we’d be looking at programs like this one and finding ways to make them the rule and not the rare exception.

 

Photo of Chicago Wisdom Project students by Michael Relstab

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True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.

- See more at: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/art-farming-safe-place-boys-discover-gint-aras/#sthash.KrVRolGa.qYy7qvSU.dpuf

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“Make your guest your god . . . do not despise food . . . one should produce food in abundance . . . this is a sacred vow. Let a man never deny hospitality to anyone . . . I am food! I am food! I am food! He alone preserves me who gives me to another.”

Taittiriya Upanishad

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If you want to win HEARTS,
SOW the seeds of LOVE.
If you want HEAVEN,
stop scattering THORNS on the road.

Rumi

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In the act of creating a bread,
an honest loaf, an object with a presence,
a fragrance, a substance, a taste,
some would say even a soul,
the baker has changed grain and flour and liquid into an entity.

She or he has taken yeast, a dormant colony of living plants, and released
and nurtured them in embryonic warmth, has sprinkled in sugar on which
yeast thrives, has sifted in flour that builds the cellular elastic structure that
holds the tiny carbon dioxide bubbles that raise the framework of the house
called bread.

And in that house is love, and warmth, and nourishment, and comfort, and
care, and caring, and taking care, and time gone by, and time well spent,
and things natural, and things good, and honest toil, and work without
thought of reward, and all of those things once had, now lost in a country
and a world that has rushed by itself
and passed itself, running,
and never noticed the loss.

Yvonne Young Tass

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“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”

Victor Frankl

 

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“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

Dalai Lama

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One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations —
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and their was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver

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We die,
Welcoming Bluebeards to our darkening closets,
Stranglers to our outstretched necks,
Stranglers, who neither care nor
care to know that
DEATH IS INTERNAL.

We pray,
Savoring sweet the teethed lies,
Bellying the grounds before alien gods,
Gods, who neither know nor
wish to know that
HELL IS INTERNAL.

We love,
Rubbing the nakednesses with gloved hands,
Inverting our mouths in tongued kisses,
Kisses that neither touch nor
care to touch if
LOVE IS INTERNAL.

by Maya Angelou

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“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Mother Teresa

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Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

by Maya Angelou

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