Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Phi Theta Kappa Address: Learning to Serve

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at the induction ceremony of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Southwestern College on February 18, 2012.

Good morning and thank you all so much for this honorable invitation. It’s profoundly inspiring to be in the presence of so many deeply disciplined and completely committed people.

Over 100 years ago Phi Theta Kappa was created to honor, inspire and celebrate academic excellence. And over the last 100 plus years, tens of thousands of outstanding young people have earned the right to wear the banner of this esteemed honor society. And today, we celebrate you, our newest inductees.

On this important occasion, I think it would be a good idea, alongside the pageantry and celebration, to reflect for a few minutes on some important questions that we’re generally too busy to think about because we’re working so hard at being successful. But what is all this success really for? What is it really that we’re working towards? What is the real purpose of education?

Sometimes it seems that education is about gathering information, collecting data and hypotheses and theories and techniques and methods and more and more and more and more until you think you’re going to burst. It’s as if every class is an information dump – teachers back up giant trucks full of knowledge and dump it all in the middle of the room and you’re expected to carry all of it away and make good use of it.

All of that may be true to a large extent. But lost in that model is a more ancient notion of what education is really all about. The word education comes from the Latin educare which means “to draw out”. In other words, in this classical sense, the purpose of education is not to cover you over with layers and layers of what everybody else thinks, but to draw you out of yourself, the way a sculpture is lifted out of a bath of water.

Here’s a dirty little secret. Your teachers don’t really know anything. Sure, we’ve read more books than you and taken more classes than you, and after years of teaching we’ve certainly mastered our disciplines and learned how to effectively draw others into them. But we are not pouring our wisdom, such as it is, into you like water into an empty vessel. All we teachers really do is set up a series of tasks and challenges – read this, try this, find your way through this confusion, struggle through this problem – and when you take on these activities earnestly and vigilantly, something begins to shift inside of you. The real you begins to emerge.

The best education then, true education, is not indoctrination. True education does not bind you to tired and stale second-hand opinions of powerful others. True education sets you free, to finally be who and what you really are. It draws you up out of your fear and safety and invites you, or drags you, onto the wider stage where the rest of us are waiting for you to pitch in and help us heal the world.

So in a very real sense, education doesn’t add anything to you – it removes barriers. The Tao te Ching says that “in the pursuit of knowledge everyday something is added, but in the pursuit of wisdom, everyday something is dropped.” As we become who we really are, all the fear and artificiality falls away from us. Real education gives us to ourselves.

I know you’ve all experienced this yourselves. In the best classes with the best teachers, you’ve confronted this irony – that wisdom is the end result of a process of unlearning – letting go all of the false assumptions, prejudices, conditioned responses, biases, judgments and opinions that coalesced during our long childhood and adolescence. College strips all of that away.

A true teacher frees you from the things you think you know.

A true teacher leads you into an open field beyond all the partisan encampments.

A true teacher softens the walls that compartmentalize the uncarved wholeness of the world.

And out there in that field, with the rest of us, you find your own path, your own rhythm, your own light.

And then within yourself a sense of authority arises, an unshakable conviction that you are on the right track, that this is where you are supposed to be. Joseph Campbell calls it “following your bliss.” It comes from within and tells you clearly whether you are on the right path or not.

Bliss is different from pleasure. Bliss isn’t always pleasurable. Sometimes it’s challenging, difficult, frightening. But when you feel it, you finally feel alive, really alive, and you wouldn’t trade anything in the world for it.

And then comes the surprise – we learn that our deepest, most abiding joy lies not in the private fulfillment of desires. Our deepest, most abiding joy arises only when we perform the work that we have been given to do, in the service of others. When we take the tools we have been given and courageously fashion out of the raw materials of our lives great works of compassionate action, when we do this, a joy wells up in us that affirms our very existence. Finally we feel comfortable in our own skin. Finally we feel useful. Finally we feel like we are a part, a vital part, of something bigger than ourselves.

And this is where our education has been leading us.

And next comes this insight – that there is no difference between self-interest and the interests of others. In western philosophy we often place altruism – self-sacrifice for others – and egoism – pure self-interest, on opposite ends of a spectrum. We act as if they were diametric opposites. I’m either doing things for myself, or I’m sacrificing myself for others. It’s one or the other. But our own lived experience reveals that that construct is a lie. When we learn how to live lives of service, when we fully embody the truth that any and all work is service, then we awaken to the fact that our self-interest and the interests of others are, and have always been, wholly interconnected.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way: “Compassionate action is the highest form of self-interest.” In other words, only when we truly embody the consciousness of service does our own deepest joy arise.

So today we celebrate learning and achievement. Today we celebrate hard work and great accomplishment. Today we celebrate willingness and optimism. Today we join together to bind our talents and gifts into a great moral force for good. And today we honor that hunger you feel inside of you, that hunger to learn more, to grow, to do more, to be more, for that yearning you feel arising in you is a sacred energy, a divine expansion. It is nothing less than the universe expressing itself in you, through you, as you.

From us, to whom so much has been given, so much is expected. We have the talent, we have learned how to cultivate the discipline, we have the desire and the ambition, and we have the chops. We know how to write, we’re good at math. We figure things out. We read. We incessantly read. And all of this struggle is polishing us smooth, and shaping us for the rich and rough road ahead.

The real purpose of education is to draw out our authentic nature, and equip our joy with the tools it needs to better be of service, to be a part of the healing of the world. And the world needs healing. So many suffer. So much injustice thrives, awaiting only our awareness. For in the withering light of our vision suffering and injustice cannot stand. And in the warmth of our compassionate action, misery and disease cannot persist.

So take these colors, take this banner, take this honor of membership in Phi Theta Kappa and carry it forward as it carries you forward, into a future not one of us knows. But together, with the good men and women all around us, we will walk across that bridge together, and begin to build a world that works for everyone because that is what our soul is asking for, that is what we were born to do, that is what all this hard work is for, and that is where our deepest joy lies.

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