Education for the Human Spirit (1990)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

Education for the Human Spirit (1990)

In preparing this talk, I was cautioned not to imply anything that would conflict with my credentials as a civil libertarian and an outspoken advocate of the First Amendment.  I was not surprised at the caution – but where is it written that civil libertarians and First Amendment advocates do not care about the spiritual condition of our species?

Whatever habits and inhibitions our culture has conditioned us to accept, this civil libertarian believes that, embedded in our genes is the belief that there is a greater force and mystery framing our lives, to which attention must be paid.  And the First Amendment advocate and student of the culture also knows that we will not solve our problems as a society – or preserve the planet – simply by making more horizontal advances.

“Progress” as we have known it – such as a new source of energy, that bigger super-collider, the colonization of another planet, or a floor polish without waxy yellow buildup – none of this, no technological advance or discovery – can provide the cure for all of what ails this culture.

The progress of our species, I believe, requires a giant vertical leap – a leap in our inner development.  We have embarked from the beginning of human history on a search for transcendent meaning, connection with a higher order – and that is where the next great improvement in our condition, where the next bit of progress, must occur.

We must respect each other’s faiths, of course.  But let’s not be so squeamish or parochial as to think that one of the great human imperatives of our time – the rediscovery and reinvention of a common spiritual life in our desolate modern age – can or should be suppressed.  The answer is not to banish these issues from the schools.  It is to fling open the doors – and find new ways of learning more about each others’ values and spiritual traditions and what we all hold in common as a species.

If one were to look at a very long river, one might see flora and fauna, trees and shrubs, of varying nature along the many miles of its banks.  If we think of our many and varied religions as uniquely different trees along a thousand-mile river – and appreciate that they are all nurtured by the same stream – can we not agree to discuss that stream openly, freely – and anywhere and everywhere – as a common river of values?  It nurtures all of our spiritual traditions while uniting us as a people.

In that metaphor, perhaps, lies our challenge.  There is no doubt that we must address the question of humankind’s relationship to the planet and all of its life forms.  The glory of the human cannot continue to mean the desolation of the earth.  So there is ample reason to strip away our cultural conditioning and give free rein – to a fresh examination of what we regard as sacred in the universe, on earth, and in our daily lives….

“In the long run,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “men hit only what they aim at.  Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

You could not aim higher, or better prepare the next generation for the world that we live in, than to teach it to look deeper into itself, to that place where humans from the very beginning of time have shared the same sense of awe and wonder as they groped for meaning.

From “Education for the Human Spirit,” at the National Education Association national convention, Kansas City, Missouri, July 7, 1990.