“Traumatized? Not really. The boy scouts do it, the Marine Corps does it, street gangs do it.”
“All the same thing. And it has the same structure.”
-Scott Pelley, correspondent, discussing educational ‘boot camp’ with Father Edwin Leahy of St. Benedict’s Prep
If you watch the 60 Minutes segment on St. Benedict’s Prep, you’ll see Marines working with the students. When one boy is on the ground during push ups, the leader yells in his face: “Why are you on your knees while your brothers are pushing?” That style of leadership and education is lionized throughout our culture, in sports, Kitchen Nightmares, street gangs and the military. It works by breaking you down, by pushing an image into your head: those above you (for the “structure,” Father Leahy motions in the form of a pyramid–a hierarchy, with a drill sergeant or class leader above, and others beneath) push you until you become a Marine, a St. Benedict’s man, a member of the gang. The message is, “You will do these things, as we tell you to do them. And we will make you better.” At St. Benedict’s, I believe that system has saved lives. In our army it has made powerful soldiers. (The boy probably did another push up). But I don’t want to train soldiers.
I want a system that doesn’t direct you, but rather recalls you to your own growth. I want a system that supports and encourages you in choosing for yourself. Do push ups–or paint. (Or for double points, do push ups while painting). Run, sing, dance, study physics, or write science fiction. Do it deeply, do it fully. Do it for yourself and for the betterment of us all. I don’t know what this other system looks like, but I’m looking for it. It starts, I think, at a disadvantage as far as power and motivation are concerned. Fear is powerful. Ambition is powerful. Competition is powerful. If I scream at you your blood pressure spikes, and the organic systems that support you tell you it’s time for something dramatic. There is fire in that, but I want to find a different fire. I want it to start off gentle and individual, I want it to be your own; and when you roar, I want it to be your voice roaring. Although while the roaring fire forges steel, it also burns houses. It’s the quiet flame that heats our tea kettle and warms our hearts.
I’ve watched parents who motivate their children by yelling at them. I’ve seen teachers who do the same thing, and coaches. I’ve done that sometimes. There’s probably a place for it. Fear pushes us to engage. At the same time, fear makes it harder for us to think, to notice nuance, to hear the quiet, individual voices within. A few weeks ago I was talking to a student I’ve built a connection with, and in my frustration, “for her own good” I wanted to yell at her. I was afraid she was making the wrong decision. I wanted to take all my passion and push it toward her, so she would choose something else. And then I had to laugh at myself. At the heart, I was worried she was making her decision out of fear. If I yelled at her, I’d be pushing her to make another decision out of fear. I wanted her to choose for the gift of her heart. I wanted her to choose from her hope for the world. I wanted her to choose from her joy, her hope, her kindness, her love–herself. You can’t yell someone into that.
For us Americans, it seems easier to get gung-ho about competition than about cooperation. It seems easier to be gung-ho about victory and supremacy (WE! BEAT! YOU!) than about tolerance and compassion. Maybe it’s time we worked on that. Gung-ho itself is from the Chinese phrase gōngyè hézuòshè, which is from gōng “work” + hé “to join together; combine.” I’m pretty gung-ho about that. What if we learned from listening, instead of yelling? What if we grew from inside? What if our fires were cook-fires instead of an army’s beacons? What if, instead of urging our children to fight for their causes, we asked that they live for them?