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Teaching an 'Awareness of Interdependence'

Three years ago, the University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presented an innovative theory of human happiness in a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which documented states of heightened consciousness and satisfaction brought on by the creative process. His latest book, The Evolving Self, describes how the principles of "flow'' can be employed to help individuals and institutions gain greater self-knowledge and social awareness.

In the excerpt below, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi argues that our increasingly complex society has made the connections forged through education much more vital:

Only a few generations ago, a person who grew up on a farm knew what he or she had to know, and why. Information was concrete, familiar, and relevant. Knowledge was integrated around survival tasks--planting crops, caring for domestic animals--or around crafts like building barns and weaving cloth, or around symbolic necessities like playing music, dancing, or religious rituals. The usefulness of information was obvious. Now, however, a young person is rarely involved in serious, responsible activities outside of school. What he or she has to dois learn a great amount of abstract material, such as chemistry, biology, genetics, physics, mathematics, world geography, and history--most of the time without understanding what purpose these subjects will actually serve.

But even if someone learns enough about these separate disciplines, almost no one knows how to put them together. Yet any meaningful understanding requires bringing together the insights we have gathered from the various representations of reality, including the insights of art and religion. The great advances of Western science and technology have come about because we have learned how to funnel knowledge into increasingly narrow channels. This has resulted in great physicists as naÃive about social and political issues as a little child, in famous molecular biologists who study brain chemistry and understand less about how the mind works than Australian aborigines, and in social scientists--like the present one--who couldn't solve a differential equation if their lives depended on it.

Perhaps the most urgent task facing us is to create a new educational curriculum that will make each child aware, from the 1st grade on, that life in the universe is interdependent. It should be an education that trains the mind to perceive the network of causes and effects in which our actions are embedded, and trains the emotions and the imagination to respond appropriately to the consequences of those actions. What is the real price of driving cars, when all the costs to the environment are included? Of waging wars, when we consider the long-term impact of lives lost without reason, of cultures and social systems destroyed? What are the likely effects of letting all the hundreds of varieties of rice die out except the few most commercially profitable ones? What do "good'' and "bad'' mean, in terms of the total effects of a person's actions?

We teach children conservation in physics--that each action produces an equal and opposite reaction--as if it were a law that applied only to billiard balls or pistons in an engine, without making them aware that the same principle applies to human psychology, to social action, to economics, to the entire planetary system. We bring up children to take their places in a culture that, in reality, no longer exists. The basic skills they learn have little to do with survival in the future. Each academic subject is presented as if it had an existence independent of all others. History is taught with little regard to the ecology, the economics, the sociology, or psychology--let alone the biology--that are necessary to understand human action. The same is true of all other academic subjects. Yet if we continue to teach physics separately from ethics, or molecular biology without concern for empathy, the chances of a monstrous evolutionary miscarriage are going to increase. To avoid these possibilities, it is imperative to begin thinking about a truly integrative, global education that takes seriously the actual interconnectedness of causes and effects.

A good society, one that encourages individuals to realize their potential and permits complexity to evolve, is one that provides room for growth. Its task is not to build the best institutions, create the most compelling beliefs, for to do so would be to succumb to an illusion. Institutions and beliefs age rapidly; they serve our needs for a while, but soon begin to act as brakes on progress. Even the Bible, even the Constitution are only steps in the process of continuing enlightenment. They are glorious achievements, to be admired and revered with the awe with which we approach the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel, or Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. And we should certainly not abandon their wisdom until we discover more compelling formulations. But the task of a good society is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather, to make it possible for creativity to keep asserting itself. Its task is to give people a chance to ring forth new memes [a unit of cultural information] to be evaluated, selected, and joyously implemented by informed, free, and responsible peers.

From The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Copyright 1993 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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