Education for the Human Spirit
Remarks by Norman Lear to the National Education Association, National Convention Kansas City, Missouri July 7, 1990
There is a spectacular improbability not to mention great chutzpah in my appearance here today. I come before you as a writer/producer of prime-time television entertainment that’s the stuff between the ads for panty hose and Drano. And. as the man who brought you Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Fred Sanford and Mary Hartman, arguably four of the least educated characters ever to be seen on television to share my thoughts about education today and its place in our culture. Ain’t that a riot?
My own mother may have had the right response when I called her some months ago in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and told her that I had an invitation to speak here today. “Can you imagine that. Mother?” I said. “They’re flying me all the way to Kansas City to speak to over 8,000 teachers because they want to hear what I have to say.” After a short beat, my mother said, “Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”
My mother had a way of keeping her son humble. I confess that I accepted your invitation to speak today with some anxiety. I was never a particularly good student, certainly not a scholar I left college before completing my sophomore year and never spent much time in later years studying history, literature, biology, philosophy or the other topics that engage your professional talents. The only explanation I can offer you for the chutzpah displayed in appearing at this podium today, is the fact that I will be 68 years old this month; I am a parent to four children; I’ve always taken my responsibilities as a citizen seriously; I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love of America and the American people and, I believe I’ve developed a keen sense of the American culture.
As a consequence, I’ve spent much of my career in television observing our national quirks and quiddities and then amplifying them to TV shows. Forty-some years of engagement in this process has taught me a great deal about our people and about the national psyche. So with all due respect for the vast storehouse of learning represented in this room, I am pleased to be talking to educators today about some of my intuitions – messages I believe the culture is sending our way and what they mean for the most important and celebrated of the world’s mammals, humankind. I have a deep concern about what I consider to be an unhealthy reticence in our culture generally, and in education in particular to discuss what may be the most distinctive trait of this remarkable creature.
I’m talking about her mysterious inner life, the fertile invisible realm that is the wellspring for our species’ creativity and morality. It is that portion of ourselves that impels us to create art and literature, and study ethics, philosophy and history. It is that portion of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder and longing for truth, beauty and a higher order of meaning. For want of a better term, one could call it the spiritual life of our species. Whatever we call it, we have long recognized its presence and accepted that it sets us apart.
And yet, as a student of the American psyche, at no time in my life can I remember our culture being so estranged from this essential part of itself. One can see it in the loss of faith in leaders and institutions the cynicism, selfishness and erosion of civility and the hunger for connectedness that stalks our nation today.
This hunger, resulting from a neglect of the spirit, is not confined to our nation. It extends to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations where the suppression of the human spirit has been deliberate over a long history, and where now that the spell of Communism is being broken the cultural costs are all too apparent.
Vaclav Havel, the famous dissident and newly installed president of Czechoslovakia, has pointed out that the most dangerous walls are not the political or military boundaries of Europe. They are, in his words, “the walls that mutually divide individual people and that divide our own souls.” As a corrective, Havel announced a remarkable presidential agenda “to bring spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness, and humility into politics and, in that respect, to make clear that there is something higher above us….”
Why, one wonders, as we approach the millennium and world leadership everywhere grows increasingly introspective, has no American politician dared to speak similarly, let alone adopt such a platform? How surprised should our leadership be to learn that most Americans would welcome the bringing of spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness and humility into politics and in the arena of public discourse, to make clear that there is something higher above us?
Most Americans seem to be aware, I believe, that our society has seriously lost its way. Our popular culture celebrates the material and largely ignores the spiritual. Greed is the order of the day in a society preoccupied at all levels with the pursuit of bottom-lines, a society which celebrates consumption, careerism, and winning, and lives by the creed of ‘I’ve-got-mine-Jack’. We have become a numbers-oriented culture that puts more faith in what we can see, touch and hear, and are suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the mysterious.
A culture that becomes a stranger to its own inner human needs which are — for better or worse, unquantifiable, intuitive and mysterious — is a culture that has lost touch with the best in its humanity — its sense of shared moral values — ethics, creativity, passion, wonder and joy.
My feeling that something was dangerously amiss in our nation’s culture came clear to me in the late 1970s when I was doing research for a film to be called RELIGION. I had hoped it would be a humorous look at TV evangelism. The closer I got to my subjects, however, the more I sobered up. I was mesmerized and disturbed, watching hour after hour of the Reverends Jerry Falwell, Janes Robison, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, et al — railing against the Supreme Court, the public school system — secular humanism, etc. some of them spouting thinly-veiled anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-other intolerances and blaming their enemies for the nation’s moral decline. It was riveting TV, but the message was shocking for its content, for the threats it posed to our constitutional rights and liberties and for what it said about the unmet inner needs of millions of people. It was with these concerns in mind that we founded PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY in 1980 to act as a public witness to our traditional values and to educate, lobby and litigate to protect them, as necessary.
It is contemptible how the leaders of the Religious Right shamelessly exploit their followers’ personal desolation for their own ends. What a travesty, also, that they insist the only valid religious or moral values are fundamentalist Christian ones, and that the secular laws of government ought to embody sectarian beliefs.
Having said that, however, it’s worth noting that the Religious Right taught us a lesson in spite of themselves. Even though they responded to people’s deepest yearnings in ways more likely to divide than unite, their exploitation underscored a point: we are not a nation enjoying it’s material success. We are a nation that seems to feel it has lost its way, that needs to recover its moral bearings. We are a nation increasingly aware that we must begin to make commitments to higher values, to live a moral code that connects us with each other and with eternity.
When many, many decent people feel the moral and cultural ground crumbling beneath their feet — and others, who may not feel it as keenly, still find it understandable — it is not bizarre to search for reasons, to look within ourselves. As a culture, we resist this, however. Despite the fact that young people today need moral guidance more than ever, the Religious Right’s divisiveness may be one reason that schools and other institutions are reluctant to deal with this issue. Then, too, there is the problem of those more sophisticated, better-educated people among us — those who have dismissed the search for transcendent purpose as flaky or irrelevant — evading the fact that the desire to lead a more purposeful existence, to search for ultimate meanings, is nothing less than a central theme in the human experience. Indeed, I have no trouble drawing the conclusion, from human history, that the response to life, to Being, the impulse to believe in something larger than oneself, is so strong and irresistible as to be part and parcel of the way we are genetically coded.
Why, then, have we allowed those on the fringes of the mainstream culture the revivalists, the new age swamis, the “I’m Ok, You’re OK” ego-boosters and the Religious Right to claim this territory for themselves? Why, when it so clearly belongs to all of us? Why, in our schools, our communities, our homes, are we so reluctant to grapple with these core questions? Why have we been afraid to teach and discuss the values that hold us together, that make us moral and spiritual beings?
The answers, I believe, can be traced to one of the most powerful unifying myths of our 20th Century culture — the idea of “progress.” In our mighty industrial empire, the American culture pursues a vision of human salvation through science and technology. We find redemption through consumerism — fast cars, hard-disk computers — things that are wondrous, useful, ingenious, and economically profitable, but which do nothing to satisfy the needs that relate to the inner life, where the capacities for awe and wonder and mystery abide and seek nourishment.
I cannot explain how we arrived at this point. It may be enough to note that a radical shift has occurred over the past 40 years in the institutions that guide and direct our culture. Once we looked to the church, the synagogue, the family, the community and civil authority. But clearly, that grand ancestral order has waned. Where we drift as a society is determined today more by the decisions of corporate managers and the values that dictate their decisions than by any other single influence. Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on “economic man” — these are some of the forces that now pervade our culture, at the expense of the human spirit, since business became the fountainhead of values in our society.
Business came to fill the vacuum left by the waning ancestral order unwittingly, I am sure but certainly four decades of television’s escalating impact was a factor in transmitting the values of corporate America to the society. As Professor Stuart Ewen has written, “Market forces” has become the new value system and we have come to the point where advertising “has become the primary mode of public address; the term consumer has become a substitute for the word citizen and the truth is that which sells.”
These values are so pervasive and their influence so profound that when we speak of the decline of public morality and personal values; of high schools and colleges, which in the pursuit of funding, are willing to graduate young people unable to read and write; when we speak of the increasing use of drugs in sports; of unmarried teenage mothers who have babies in order to feel loved; and the families with no savings continuing to consume their way deeper into debt; when we speak of a hundred social ills I think we nay be talking about a trickle-down value system that, with the help of television, has come to subvert the entire culture.
Our future is written in our children, who are shockingly apathetic to the world around them. This was affirmed recently in two studies by PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY and the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press.
As the study notes, 72% of young people consider career success their most important life goal, and the third most important goal was “enjoying yourself and having a good time.” “Being involved and helping your community be a better place” ranked dead last, the choice of only 24%. Only 12% saw voting as an important part of being of a good citizen.
We are talking about young people who are being raised to believe that there is nothing between winning and losing. The notion that life has anything to do with succeeding at the level of doing one’s best is lost to these kids in a short-term, “What’s in it for me?” climate, where leadership everywhere lives for the moment and refuses to make provisions for the future. There is no better illustration of the destructiveness of this ethic than the tales of our alarming environmental woes which lace the front pages of our newspapers daily. In the name of progress, technology, consumerism and other excuses, we are knowingly destroying the life-sustaining capacities of the planet.
The clear-cut logging of ancient forests, the frequent oil spills at sea, the extinction of 10,000 species per year and the whole litany of slow-motion environmental catastrophes from acid rain to the ozone layer to global warming — all are acts of a culture that has lost sense of its identity as a mortal, endangered species on a fragile little planet in the cosmos. They are acts of a society with no regard for posterity, and little sense of the commonweal, engaged in acts of psychic self-mutilation.
Lewis Mumford, the great scholar and historian, studying the fall of Rome, said that “Rome fell not because of political or economic ineptitude or even because of the barbarian invasions it collapsed through a leaching away of meaning and a loss of faith.'” Rome fell because of a “barbarization from within.”
What does this “barbarization from within” mean to the average American? How does the paradox of a gnawing spiritual hunger in a nation of our vast material wealth and grand achievements affect those people we euphemistically call the “little guys?” Let’s try to imagine what might be going on in the heart and mind of an average American worker as he lives with this paradox and thinks about these things. Let’s call him Bill.
(PUT ON BASEBALL CAP) Hi. I’m Bill. I’m what you call a working class American. I’ve got a wife who works (I wish she didn’t have to) — and three grown kids, two of them outta the house — a couple of cars I try to keep up myself — a small boat on a trailer hitch in my driveway which I can’t use since they closed the lake ’cause it ain’t fit to swim or fish in — I got a house, a mortgage, and bills that could choke a horse!
I guess my father woulda sounded the same 40 years ago. Life was a struggle for him, too. But things were different then. We were a big family you know, grandparents, uncles, aunts, lotsa cousins and we all lived up the street and down the street and across the street from each other. Everybody’s family was like that. There was a word then you don’t hear much now — neighborhood. We were all so proud of our neighborhoods. I live in a tract now — single homes and condominiums, surrounded by shoppin’ malls. We don’t have a park, and no empty lots for kids to play in, but we got parking lots alright, acres of them. Asphalt up the whazoo! And for what? For our Toyotas and Hondas and Subarus. Remember when they called the American motor car the Standard of the World? Hah!
Something’s wrong, fellas. The country’s full of them stand-up comics — you see ’em all over TV — but somethin’s still wrong. Nobody I know is havin’ a good time! Everybody I know drinks the right beer when they ain’t sippin’ the right soft drink; they’re using the right deodorant and rinsin’ with the right conditioner but none of then are running along the beach laughin’ with a gorgeous gal or dancin’ in the moonlight in a $500 tuxedo or even sittin’ in bars with a bunch of the boys, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and hoistin’ their beers, as if they didn’t have a care in the world — like them people you see in the TV ads. No, most of the people I know are strugglin’ to get it right and feelin’ a little guilty “cause it just ain’t addin’ up like it does for the guys in all those commercials.
I hate readin’ the papers every day. Most of it’s about people or things you used to believe in turnin’ into crooks and scandals right before your eyes. There’s almost nothin’ upliftin’ in there you know, someone or something in the news that makes you feel better about yourself or helps you see you could feel better if you did things different, like… What? I don’t know.
I didn’t feel like votin’ in the last election but I did and half of everybody else didn’t. Why bother? All you ever learn about the candidates you get from those 30-second TV spots that’re made by the same guys who do the commercials for detergents and breakfast cereals. Those commercials don’t tell you that much about the cereals, either but at least with the cereal, you can always pick up a box in the supermarket the next day and read the ingredients on the package.
Like I said before, somethin’s really wrong. Inside I feel like an empty room and it’s crazy, but you know what I think a lot about? About all the things we never discussed around the dinner table when we were raisin’ our kids.
Like, the other day, I heard this guy, Tom Sessions, on the radio and he was saying how we read all the time about fraud and cheating and lying to the Congress, and we’re all the time discussing it, but what we don’t talk a lot about is the opposite about morality — like what it is and where it comes from — questions of right and wrong, and how we know those things. This guy said that probably we stay clear of those things ’cause once you start poking around in there, it could lead to questions about “the God thing.” “The God thing,” that’s what he called it.
Well, we never talked about “the God thing” around our dinner table or morality, or any of the rest of it. I knew everything else about my kids — their favorite sports and players what they liked on records and TV — but how would they feel about telling the truth for pennies if lies were selling for big bucks? I didn’t know. What did words like caring and loyalty and integrity and principle mean to them? Would you believe that never came up around our dinner table?
I’m not sure my kids ever talked about them things in school either. Probably ’cause so many people get worried they’ll wind up getting into “the God thing.” Well, like this guy on the radio was saying what if they do?
Let’s say… someone says “I believe in Love Thy Neighbor, it’s the best way to live.” So, a religious person hears this and says, “Sure, ’cause there’s a God who loves us and wants us all to love each other.’* One of those humanists hears it and says “You believe that because it’s right and because history and tradition prove it’s right.” Then a physicist comes along, like Albert Einstein, and he says that “Love thy neighbor as thyself is like a natural law, almost like a physical part of the universe”. Now, my question is: What’s wrong with looking at all those possibilities… what’s wrong with examining them?
I wish I had it to do all over again. We’d have talked about things like that ’round my dinner table. Why? That’s easy. Because if we’d talked about things then, we’d be talkin’ about them now and if we were talkin’ about them now, maybe we’d understand each other better and maybe we’d understand better how to live in this world of ours.
So where do we go from here? I don’t know. I keep asking myself the question they made that movie about: “What’s it All About, Alfie?” You wanna give me an’ my family something for Christmas? Help us with that question.
To the extent that we understand Bill’s predicament, it’s incumbent on those of us in positions to help shape the culture — certainly we in media and you in education — to help. As educators, you probably have more to do with the character of the next generation than anyone else. In a sense, you are the architects of that generation. If we are to arrest the “barbarization from within,” the schools will have to play a role.
Part of this can be accomplished by instilling knowledge in young people by feeding their minds. But this enterprise is doomed, I submit, if education does not also feed the heart and soul. If we hope to penetrate to the spiritual quick of today’s youth — and spark their interest in the world, in social wrongs and personal morality — the schools cannot avoid the teaching about the core values that bind our society together. The inner life cannot be ignored.
One place to start is to restore discussion of the role of religion to its rightful place in the teaching of history, literature, art and social studies. Nearly four years ago, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY confirmed this through an extensive review of textbooks, in which it found an appalling neglect about religion. For fear of stirring up trouble all along the theological spectrum, many textbooks barely mentioned the role of religion in American history and others simply lost track of religion completely after the colonial period.
Fortunately, the PEOPLE FOR study helped trigger new attention to the deficiencies of textbooks and today many school systems are crafting new curricula to teach about America’s rich heritage of religious traditions. And textbook publishers are starting to listen, inserting more references and more complete, meaningful references to religion in American life.
We must ensure, of course, that teaching about religion does not trample on the sensibilities of minority faiths, and that neither teachers nor students proselytize. If good sense and specific guidelines are followed, I am hopeful that those dangers can be avoided. But, even granting there is a risk, the greater danger would be to forfeit all discussion in the schools of the inner needs of humankind at precisely the time in our history that we need most to confront this vital aspect of our species.
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 this 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 been 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 other’s 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. Now I realize you already face enormous pressures and problems in your classrooms, and you hardly need another responsibility but the problems and needs of the culture have thrust this upon you. A civilization cannot progress when the majority of its youth devote their interests and energies to the materialistic pursuits of the sensory or outer world. When the young neglect to interest themselves in ethics, philosophy, the fine arts, religion and cosmology or in the values of truth, beauty, goodness, love, loyalty and devotion civility itself ceases.
So wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in the process of teaching you uncover or discover a new, more spiritually satisfying notion of “progress” — one that relies less on a millennial faith in technology and rediscovers the center of our Being? One could imagine this search taking place through other institutions in our society. But none is as suited to this task, or as likely to have as great an influence as you.
“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.