Everything about colonialism begins and ends with fear, and it can only be prevented or conquered with courage and fearlessness. ~ Four Arrows
It is often said that fear is good because it helps you to avoid dangers, or somehow develop yourself, as in facing your fears.
But this judgment can easily turn into the basis for a permanent mind-set of fear that holds someone hostage, steering the person away from a small and relatively benign danger into a large and more serious one: mental and political servitude.
If education in the cataclysmic age of the Anthropocene is to truly liberate us, it must teach us to overcome our fear by accepting and transcending it. The indigenous perspective here digs down into the deepest dimensions of human existence and offers healing medicine for a culture imprisoned by its fear.
As I began to shift the orientation of my teaching around the axis of relationship and trust, I was amazed to discover the extent to which fear permeates the educational situation. Why all this fear? Of course, fear is a natural response to danger and plays a key role in our development as human beings. We all know people who are crippled by fears they cannot surmount, and can also think of cases when someone’s lack of fear may have caused them to engage in risky behavior.
The issue is not whether to fear or not to fear, but what to do with our fear when we feel it, and this leads us to the heart of a key difference between modern and indigenous educational systems.
As Cherokee philosopher Four Arrows explains, while modern education uses fear as a controlling device, indigenous cultures use fear as a character builder, as a way to cultivate virtues.
“In mainstream Western cultures, fear is something to be avoided at all costs. People do not like to experience fear and go to great lengths to avoid it or escape from the emotion and its antecedents. We do not realize that when we are afraid we become hyper-suggestible to the signals or words of a perceived, trusted authority figure. Thus we unconsciously allow others to hypnotize us into believing in and acting according to wrong information. Indigenous views about fear are quite different. First, we do not let go of any critical faculties and are aware of the potential of the hypnotic influence. Second, once the emotion of fear stimulates awareness and physical avoidance of a danger, fear becomes a catalyst for practicing one of the great virtues such as generosity, courage, patience, fortitude, humility or honesty. If a person has been working on becoming more authentically generous, for instance, fear triggers a significant opportunity to learn generosity.” (From Four Arrows’ edited volume Teaching Truly, p. 252)
Previously, I examined some reasons for questioning the notion that our educational system is actually designed to promote democratic values. The study of fear clarifies this issue, because fear serves as a key mechanism for the production of personalities with an irrational fear of authority.
As Four Arrows observes, fear often induces a hypnotic effect on the mind, making the mind fixate on whatever perceived means there are for removing the source of fear, and making the fearful mind hyper-suggestible. What this student says about her fear is in my experience very common.
“I have found that in my other classes I get so worried about my grade that I lose sight of what I am actually learning and what I am getting out of the class. I think back to classes that I got A’s in and I realized that I don’t even remember what I learned in them. When thinking about it like that, the ‘A’ that I received really is worthless.”
This student speaks of being quite literally hypnotized by her fear, which makes her both docile and indifferent to whatever content is being studied. In this case, the educational situation does not help to move the student past the fear into fearlessness, but rather trains her to be motivated by fear of authorities, and the release from fear that comes with being a “good soldier.”
Actually, the fear-based concern utterly trivializes the meaning of the educational exercise, and thereby trivializes the issue of how to acquire self-knowledge, or for example, how to understand what our relationships truly mean to each other and to the world. Just removing the fear of grades has dramatically improved my student’s attention, engagement and creativity in the classroom. As one student commented,
“When you walk into a class without worrying about how you will be judged, it is a stress and pressure free environment. There are no mental barriers to speaking your mind. Additionally, the thoughts you may hear from others can accelerate and further your own thoughts. This type of teaching is the ultimate for getting a student to learn rather than learning the student. It ties into my ultimate question as to when will people wake up and start to do things for themselves. To realize that these things are better for their minds and their spirituality, more than any grade or diploma could potentially be.”
The fear I’ve been talking about so far has primarily been the fears of students. But the system induces tremendous fear in teachers, as well.
Without respect for, or trust in, the teacher based on the teacher’s manifest abilities to be helpful and to model intellectual or spiritual virtues, you obviously need some kind of fear mechanism to get students to listen, or at least to get them to take tests or quizzes. So, the lack of trust also undermines the teacher’s confidence in his authority to speak, to truly instruct.
Often, fear turns to anger by the teacher whose authority is challenged. And here’s the point: the teacher’s authority is continuously at stake in the classroom if it rests on a relationship of power and subordination rather than trust or spiritual respect. And, of course, teachers who are afraid of their students are far less disposed to developing real relationships with them.
No, you don’t need to quiver in fear of being hit by a car in order to cross the street safely, you just need to understand the risk and act accordingly. The indigenous perspective is that the proper use of fear is to propel us beyond fear, to the development of a decision or a capacity or insight which unlocks the potentiality highlighted by the fear experience. What this has meant in my own experience of teaching philosophy is that I’ve tried to move the student away from focusing on her fear of my power to judge her, and towards her even deeper fears of her own ignorance.
This is terrifying at first, but quickly turns into fun.
When you release students from stressors in the classroom, they are suddenly free to think about questions in a whole new way, because they are no longer in a trance. Students are first puzzled, but soon catch on and delight in the new space this creates.
Not afraid of having to prove how much they know, they can start to admit, and come to terms with, how little they do know. They can start to truly engage in the mystery of not really knowing who they are, of the awesome challenge knowing oneself truly poses for the educational process, without which worldly freedom and success have no meaning.
It really tells a lot how surprised students are when they realize that the education they are investing all this time and money into is actually for them. You mean, they ask, that this process is really for me? About me? That it is all about making me happy? What a radical idea!
When students have been activated in this beautiful way, then the problem isn’t boredom or mistrust or even fear but as my partner Jen Taylor taught me, it’s learning to channel the intense excitement students feel when confronting the mystery of their hidden nature. As she observes,
“There are really two kinds of so-called fear. One means there’s something wrong, and you need to do something to fix it. The other kind is just excitement caused by the dawning of some new insight or ability. When I see a student slipping into fear, I’ll tell her, ‘Fear is just the opposite of excitement,’ and like a talisman, you can see her embrace the feeling and jump into the moment.”
Jen refers to her herself somewhat jokingly as a “Neolithic philosopher,” but the label is a deep one because it refers back to an older experience of being in the world, of being truly fearless, ecstatic before the mysteries of Being.
Why have we in the modern world grown so fearful?
The reasons for our fears go deeper, pointing to questions regarding the very nature of the Ego and our perceptions of ourselves as separate, finite beings. For the mindset of modern culture—which continues to glorify the ideal of individual autonomy—it can be difficult to appreciate the extent to which the ego is synonymous with fear.
From the indigenous perspective, fear is caused by a psychological illusion of separateness that must ultimately be uprooted. The modern obsession with controlling nature keeps alive this illusion, ever deepening the fear it induces. True freedom comes not by liberating ourselves from all dependencies but rather discovering our inter-being, our internal spiritual identity with the larger web of life.
As my path led me to examine the deeper grounds of fear in the classroom, I became increasingly critical of the whole grading practice.
Initially my problem with quantitative and qualitative grading practices was that they didn’t seem very accurate. But as I delved deeper into the ways that grading functioned to shut down the student’s imagination, I realized that the problem was judgment itself.
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Editor: Emily Bartran