When I asked students in our teen Dharma study group to submit an essay discussing their beliefs, they shifted uneasily on their cushions.
“What if I don’t believe in anything?” One young man asked with genuine concern. He wasn’t the type to manufacture a bratty excuse to evade an assignment. Others echoed his apprehension as they struggled to generate ideas.
As they left the study group, several students asked….without a hint of irony…..if I could suggest a topic to them. Although I did consider dispensing one of my beliefs, plugging a favorite cause or two, I was too unsettled to act even in my self-interest.
If the honors-level high school seniors in my Dharma study group are typical nonbelievers, then the power to believe is in danger of extinction. More frightening is my Orwellian nightmare that schools may be leading the charge to vaporize belief. Like most cognitive skills, the development of a belief….what Virginia Woolf calls the “fierce attachment to an idea”….requires careful cultivation. It needs a rich soil and ample space to extend its young shoots. It needs a network of roots to sustain it through inclement weather. How can a belief breathe in the tight spaces of Scan-Tron forms (SAT & PSAT forms)? In the formulaic five paragraph essay? In the mad rush through exercises that race to the top and leave no child behind? How can it cleave its way through misconceptions if students are never asked what they think?
Invariably, the first question almost every adolescent writer asks when they begin a writing assignment such as this is whether first person pronouns are permitted. After all, most style manuals discourage the use of “I” in academic writing, insisting on third person, on objectivity, on detachment. But isn’t detaching students from a topic tantamount to denying their right to believe? Removing the “I” from “I believe in this….” leads not to neutrality but to tyranny.
The Buddha taught us in the Kasibharadvaja Sutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, that we ought to have a relationship of belief, practice and wisdom:,
Belief is the seed, practice the rain,
And wisdom is my yoke and plough.
Modesty’s the pole, mind the strap,
Mindfulness my ploughshare and goad
Such belief, it is said, can lead towards liberation. Indeed, a person who is “released by belief” can well, in consequence, be “on the path to arahantship”. It is for such reasons that belief is stated by the Buddha to be appropriate as “a person’s partner” and to be “a man’s best treasure”.
John Stuart Mill said that “one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 with only interests.” Surely, he never had a college counselor advising him to build a resume of extracurricular interests instead of contemplating his beliefs. Were Socrates teaching in today’s schools, would his students, too, ask whether their pursuit of wisdom would shine on their school transcript?
Given some time to mull over the assignment, my students eventually unearthed a cache of wonderful beliefs buried under years of schooling. They believed in magic and science, in God and poetry, in friendship and true love…..even in the NY Yankees. Liberated by the freedom to express their values, they were also terrified of their peers’ disapproval, for once they attached an “I” to a claim, they could neither hide behind impersonal generalizations nor string together a clothesline of quotes from other sources. As they went around the room sharing their beliefs, they felt their power surge.
The prospect of finding myself in a room of believers would not have appealed to me 20 years ago, but now I say bring on the credos, the manifestos, and the philosophies…..the more, the merrier. All students, regardless of ZIP Code, are entitled to a rich education which includes finding belief. Imagine an academic resume that highlights candidates’ beliefs instead of test scores and activities. This, I believe, could trigger a new era of education…..and maybe even a revolution.