Saturday, January 14, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 5?

Knowledge is the Key

Self as student, having just grown a beard!
As I intimated in my last post I had a relatively happy or content childhood, even though we were quite poor by any monetary standards.  However, poverty in material things need not necessarily be poverty as such.  After all we only need a certain amount of the world's goods to survive anyway.  However, we in the West have been brought up with an obsession with things, with having material objects, with amassing a collection of X, Y or Z.  It would seem that the vast majority of us in the West have swallowed whole this lie, bought into it and have based the trajectory of our little lives upon it.  However, there are riches which cannot be accounted for in the numerical sense.  These, I believe are spiritual values, and I use spiritual here in its broadest and most holistic sense of connecting with the inner self, with others and with some meaning in life which draws us ever onwards outside our egos.

When I was young, both my parents believed in the value of education.  Neither of them had attended secondary school, not because they did not so wish, bur simply because their parents had not the money to send them, and anyway they had to go to work to support their younger siblings.  This was the norm in the late twenties and early thirties when my parents were growing up.  They both desired that their children would do better than them in life and so we went both to secondary school (which by then was free in Ireland) and on to third level (for which we had to pay).  It is a truism, almost a cliché now, when we use the following saying: "Give a man a fish and he will live for a day.  Teach him to fish and he will live for a lifetime."  Quite simply education is the key to power over one's life.  That's, in part, why I became a teacher.  I am teaching in a working class school in the north inner city of Dublin, and I see myself very much in the role of enabling and empowering young boys (I teach in an all-boys school) to take their lives in hand and reach their full potential.  That's the greatest gift one generation can give to the next - that is to empower them through education.

The Love of Books: Bibliophilia

Self at Máire Duffy's debs, 1977
In the last post I mentioned my obsession with books.  I suppose that today modern youngsters have the Internet and a plethora of video games and what not to keep them amused.  They certainly have more of the world's goods than we ever had when we were their age.  My friends' children often leave their bicycles behind them, not alone at school, but on the local green of their housing estates.  Indeed, one man's young lad did this twice, and on both occasions, needless to say, the bicycle was stolen.  For our youngsters, it would seem material things come very cheap.  We have taught them that having is more important than being, about which I will say a little more further down.  Books are never really stolen, are they?  Unless, of course, they are rare books which carry a monetary value beyond their literary or information merit. 

However, be that as it may, there are some few diligent readers among our boys at school.  They have a rare gift, which I believe will stand them in greater stead than an obsession with computer games.  One boy whom I teach told me lately that if he had children he would call them after characters in some computer game or other.  Now, I smiled and said "great," as I noticed he was deadly serious.  When I was young my mother bought us a huge dictionary, which I still possess, that came in weekly parts - The Webster Dictionary.  I still use it sometimes, believe it or not.  She also bought me - again in weekly parts - a wonderful encyclopedia of science called All About Science.  Once again, these books still adorn my bookshelves.  They carry within their covers not alone knowledge, but rather articles my young mind read as well as the love and concern my mother had for our education.  Again, she gave me more than just the physical gift of a book.  With a mother's love, she bought these books, which came in weekly parts each week unfailingly.  Indeed, that's what any mother, or indeed father or guardian should do.


We all know that competition is no bad thing.  When I was in primary school I fifth and sixth class I normally came second place to a guy called Liam Coffey who has long left Ireland.  He was and is a genius and according to my researches on Google he is a Associate Professor of Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (see IIT ) That he achieved so much does not surprise me as he was a brilliant student and a nice guy.  Anyway, I only say this as when I got into O'Connell's secondary school I always then came in the top 10 students or so, never again achieving a very high place in class, that is in the top three or four.  Anyway, that does not disappoint me at all as I have always achieved what I was capable of - in other words, I achieved my potential, not what X, Y or Z or even Mammy or Daddy wanted for me.  I achieved what I wanted for me, and that was and is enough for anyone.

However, healthy academic competition amongst us as young lads led to our achieving better results all along the way.  Needless to say, competition can also be singularly unhealthy if it is obsessive, and if my self-esteem is only based on achievements either on the sports field or on the academic front.  If you are constantly comparing yourself to another or to an idealised other (after all, good psychology teaches us that virtually all others are idealised in our little minds which project these images out onto them!) then you will end up very sad and disappointed, rather like how Shakespeare felt in his famous sonnet Number 29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Having and Being

It is to Erich Seligmann Fromm (1900 – 1980) that we owe a debt of gratitude for his drawing the important distinction between having and being.  He was a Jewish German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and humanistic philosopher. He was associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School of Critical TheoryFromm used an interesting word, or indeed neologism, coined by himself called biophilia, that is the inherent psychological orientation within any human towards humanity and nature in all its splendid diversity. For example, in an addendum to his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil, Fromm wrote as part of his Humanist Credo:

I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom. (See here: EF )
Now biophilia as a characteristic of the human person is an orientation which renders the person happier when s/he is in a state of just being themselves.  Somewhere or other Erich Fromm wrote the following which I believe contains no little wisdom, and I'll finish on this quotation because I thoroughly subscribe to its import: "If I am what I have, and I lose what I have, who then am I?"  Now, that's a good question, is it not?


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