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COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. This is the last post.

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

Read Full Post »

A group of seventh graders learning about preparing orchard plots for planting crops as part of the SAT program in Honduras

A couple of days ago an inspiring piece appeared on the Bahá’í World News site to which I was alerted by a friend on FB. Given all the gloom around at the moment it seemed a good idea to try and spread about something more positive, concerning a new approach to learning that will help create well-rounded community-conscious human beings rather than cogs for the wheels of industry and capital. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

WASHINGTON D.C. — In the last twenty years, remarkable strides have been achieved in providing access to education for children around the world. However, research in the field of education is showing that increased schooling has not automatically led to increased learning. The United Nations estimates that 250 million children are not able to read, write, or perform basic math, whether they have been to school or not.

Addressing what it calls a “learning crisis”, the Brookings Institution — a major think tank in the United States-started an initiative in 2015 called “Millions Learning“. The study sought to identify educational interventions where not only access to schools was improving, but also learning itself.

One of the programs featured in the report is the Baha’i-inspired initiative Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (SAT, or in English, the Tutorial Learning System). Since its beginnings in the 1970s in Colombia, SAT has expanded across Latin America to reach more than 300,000 students, and it has been accredited and recognized by a number of governments.

The “Millions Learning” report highlights 14 educational programs that show increased learning outcomes through innovative approaches to schooling. A major criterion of the study was that these programs could be scaled up in size and implemented in other settings in a sustainable way.

According to Brookings, SAT is “catalyzing an education revolution” by “transforming how education is conceptualized, designed, and delivered.”

“SAT is radically different from the traditional secondary school and high school model, and it is cutting edge in so many ways,” said Jenny Perlman Robinson, author of the case study for the Brookings Institution. “It focuses on skills that are beyond the traditional academic skills, such as moral and character development, and it conceives of learning as something much broader.”

Read Full Post »

Elementary school classroom

Elementary school classroom

After publishing the first article in this series concerning implicit racism on the Greater Good Website I thought it was worth following it up with a link to this second equally important post by Jeremy Adam Smith. At some point in the near future I will be revisiting the issue of racial prejudice, particularly at one point in the context of education in America, because this is an issue of major importance for the future of our society, and this sequence of articles will, I feel, help me achieve a more informed take on the matter. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

This article is the second in a series exploring the effects that unconscious racial biases have on the criminal justice system in the United States. The first is “Can We Reduce Bias in Criminal Justice?”

Two students. One is black and the other is white. On Tuesday, they both refuse to complete the math worksheet. On Wednesday, neither will stop talking during lessons.

Same behavior. Will they receive the same punishment?

A new Stanford University study predicts that the black student will be punished more harshly. Why? Not because of overt racism. Rather, harsher discipline might be the result of unconscious partiality to the white student, a phenomenon called “implicit bias” by psychologists. The study also finds that the bias might be just as likely to come from a black teacher as a white one.

The significance of the finding isn’t confined to classroom walls. When students are suspended or expelled, it becomes much less likely that they will graduate or go to college, and much more likely they’ll get arrested, go to jail, or even die in the hands of police. Many studies suggest that implicit bias, not white supremacist intentions on the part of individuals, plays a role at nearly every stage.

While the lifelong impact of school disciplinary policies can affect all students, black ones are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Education. A study published in the January American Sociological Review found that the damage of high suspension rates goes beyond those pushed out of school, generating “collateral damage, negatively affecting the academic achievement of non-suspended students.”

While these big-picture disparities are well documented, the Stanford study is the first to experimentally suggest that unconscious bias might play a role in classroom discipline, an accumulation of individual decisions that sweep thousands of students out of school and into jail over the course of their lives.

“What we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when black and white students behave in the same manner,” write Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt in their paper, published in April by the journal Psychological Science. (Eberhardt won a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” fellowship for her work on implicit bias.)

It’s a pattern that might provide insight to interpersonal bias in criminal justice. “Just as escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by Black students might feed racial disparities in disciplinary practices in K–12 schooling, so too might escalating responses to multiple infractions committed by black suspects feed racial disparities in the criminal-justice system,” they write.

Read Full Post »

COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. The post below dates from 2009: I have updated it in places with new information. 

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

Read Full Post »

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2009. 

Excessive Individualism

The Children’s Society‘s recent report has once again highlighted the issue of whether our society is damaging children: this time the focus is on the self-centred individualism of too many of its adults.

BBC News Online, on Monday 2 February reported on this in these words:

According to the panel, “excessive individualism” is to blame for many of the problems children face and needs to be replaced by a value system where people seek satisfaction more from helping others rather than pursuing private advantage.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February unpack aspects of what this means. They describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal:

disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive. Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship.

They also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting.

Soul-Stirring Message

Working with Children

Working with Children

In April 2000 a message of great passion and power emanated from the Universal House of Justice. It included these words about children:

Our children . . . .  should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation. Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

Since then the world-wide Bahá’í community has been striving to mobilise itself more effectively. We are seeking to create an increased capacity, both within the ranks of the Faith’s adherents and within the throngs of people who also feel passionately about the future of our children and young people, so that we can throw our weight behind this absolutely critical work of nurturing our children and protecting them from the worst consequences of our mistakes, work which is so close to the hearts of so many of the world’s billions.

The message of April 2000 went on to say:

The necessity exists, too, for individuals and . . .  institutions at all levels, which is to say the community as a whole, to show a proper attitude towards children and to take a general interest in their welfare.

What is true for us is, of course, true for everyone.

What Can We Do?

Is there more that we can do than is already being suggested?

Clearly there is. Many communities, organisations and religious groups have asked themselves this same question and are moving heaven and earth to address this critical issue. The Bahá’í Community has done the same. The whole community is supporting an educational programme for the education of children and youth (there are two posts being republished on this topic soon). There are other initiatives that have been taken as well. A good example in the UK is the Swindon Youth Empowerment Project.

The Project offers experiences designed to enable young people to came into contact with themselves as spiritual beings, as ‘… a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.’ The overall aim of the project is to develop a “Healthy Human Spirit” and it is inspired by the principles of the Bahá’í Faith as a service to the community. It sees  every child as ‘potentially the light of the world.’ However because a child is also potentially ‘its darkness’

the question of education [should] be accounted as of primary importance. From his infancy, the child must be nursed at the breast of God’s love, and nurtured in the embrace of His knowledge, that he may radiate light, grow in spirituality, be filled with wisdom and learning, and take on the characteristics of the angelic host.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Section 103)

The project draws on the words of the 2004 OFSTED Report to define its purpose as:

… the training of good human beings, purposeful and wise, themselves with a vision of what it is to be human and the kind of society that makes that possible.

A recent book by Viv Bartlett – Nurturing a Healthy Human Spirit in the Young gives an excellent account of the youth empowerment process. In his introduction he explains the overall purpose (page xx):

The main aim of this book, then, is to focus on the human spirit in the young. It argues that this spirit needs ‘light’ to function properly and that it is entirely incapable of releasing its inestimable potential without it. It is a book about ‘turning this light on,’ in terms of those insights, understandings and relationships that every young person craves, whether disaffected, troubled or not, even though they may not be aware of what it is that keeps them ‘in the dark.’

Unremitting Effort

cc-2

Tending the Needs of Children

Wherever we are able to throw our weight behind this wheel, we have to be aware that it is not the work of a day, a month, a year or even a decade. This work will take a generation and beyond to accomplish. It will not be achieved by governments, though they can help it along. It will not be achieved by schools and colleges alone, though they need to be in there working at it, as some of them do. It is not just for youth leaders and charities though their efforts are essential and highly praiseworthy. Even parents are not the only ones upon whom this responsibility weighs.

This work is for all of us to contribute to in some way or other, if not by work then by money, support, encouragement or prayer –  or whatever else we can do, however little it may seem to be.

If we do not then how else can we as a society respond to

. . . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character.

Or realise

. . . the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(From  a letter written by the Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008)

We none of us can do this by ourselves. But just imagine what can be achieved if everyone in this country and throughout the world does just a little. Together we can build a future for our children. It is not yet too late. Is there any work more important than this?

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What is imperative is that the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle rise markedly over the next year . . . . .  Much will fall on those who serve as tutors in this respect.  Theirs will be the challenge to provide the environment that is envisioned in the institute  courses, an environment conducive to the spiritual empowerment of individuals, who will come to see themselves as active agents of their own learning, as  protagonists of a constant effort to apply knowledge to effect individual and  collective transformation.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2010. 

Much effort is being devoted in the Bahá’í community to acquiring the capacity to empower others. A key component in this endeavour is what is being termed ‘accompaniment.’ In the same message as quoted above, the Universal House of Justice refers to this:

This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a  word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common  vocabulary of the Bahá’í community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters  the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Bahá’u’lláh‘s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization, which the  Guardian states is the primary mission of the Faith.

There are a number of contexts (see other posts for an explanation of these) which are allowing Bahá’ís to acquire, develop and consolidate these skills, but we are still at a relatively early stage of doing so and we have much to learn.

I for one have been helped greatly in my endeavours in this respect by the vast body of experience that has been accumulating over the years in the wider community, some of which I have discussed in this blog (see for example the posts on Effort and Excellence). In the book I was describing there, Bounce by Matthew Syed, he drew heavily on the work of Carol Dweck.

I simply had to have a look at some of her work myself so I bought her book Mindset. The whole book is a worthwhile read but I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground as Syed does, valuable though that is. I thought it would be worth looking in more detail at what she has to say about empowering relationships.

For the benefit of those who haven’t read my posts on Bounce, perhaps I’d better recap on the concept of mindsets and her argument from evidence that there are two mindsets which are particularly relevant to learning and personal development.

There is the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset believes in the crippling myth of talent which goes along with the idea that you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you can’t acquire it so there’s no point in practising. If you do have it, you needn’t work very hard to keep ahead of the pack. In fact, working hard to do well means you aren’t talented because if you were you wouldn’t have to work at it.

The growth mindset says that everyone has the capacity to become extremely skilled at any number of things. It just takes focused practice, openness to feedback and a belief in the power of effort.

One of the key distinctions between the way these two mindsets affect people lies in their experience of mistakes. To the fixed mindset mistakes prove you have no talent and are to be avoided at all costs which means steering well clear of anything you could learn from. It leads you to stick to what you can already do and avoid attempting anything that would stretch you at all significantly. The growth mindset welcomes mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

Now for what Dweck says about relationships especially in the context of education.

First there is the issue of praise. She nails her colours to the mast very early on in her discussion of teaching and parenting (page 175):

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.

This is a central point for those of us who are involved in working with others to empower them. We know encouragement is vital so why should praising intelligence be so bad?

Dweck puts it most succinctly on the same page:

[Children] especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow – but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.

She adduces empirical evidence to support this and she is not the only well-qualified voice to do so. Many years ago I read a book by Guy Claxton, Wise Up, with the sub-title ‘The Challenge of Lifelong Learning.’ He discusses very similar issues in somewhat different language and makes the point that modelling the value of confusion rather than the value of simply looking clever is an important part of a teacher’s toolbox (page 70):

[A] knowledge-focused model reinforces teachers’ belief that they have to be the fount of all knowledge – a belief that makes student teachers very anxious. . . . . Not to know is, for them, to be caught out, to be found wanting, and thus to risk the loss of the pupils’ respect. . . . The idea that genuine confusion and uncertainty are part of learning, and that if children are to become good learners they have to get used to operating under such conditions, is, on this model, unintelligible. The idea that it might be useful for teachers to model for children ‘what to do when you don’t know what to do’ would be . . . unthinkable.

The House of Justice emphasises that in the adult learning processes we are striving to implement, everyone, including the tutor, is ‘to advance on equal footing.’ Feeling you have to behave as if you know it all would be completely out of place.

And Dweck is not blind to the importance of shifting the emphasis from having the gift of talent to seeing the value of learning. In her view we praise people (page 177) for ‘what they have accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.’ She points out (page 179) how ‘speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning,’ When people learn something fast we need to apologise for giving them something too easy and denying them an opportunity to learn.

She condenses many of her insights into the incisive statement (page 186):

Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.

Her approach does not involve lowering standards in order to ‘encourage’ a student. Feedback has to be honest and the standards have to be high. That is combined with the ability to communicate to every single student, however disadvantaged their starting point, that they can learn to learn. And that once they learn that, who knows how high they can fly?

Fixed mindset teachers in her view (page 197) ‘look at students’ beginning performance and decide who’s smart and who’s dumb.’ They don’t believe in improvement. Teachers with a growth mindset combine challenge with nurture (page 198). And they do not regard themselves as a finished product either.

They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.

She quotes a coach with a growth mindset (page 207):

You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of  becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.

It’s hard not to see the parallels here with spiritual development:

The lily grows from a very unattractive-looking bulb. If we had never seen a lily in bloom, never gazed on its matchless grace of foliage and flower, how could we know the reality contained in that bulb? We might dissect it most carefully and examine it most minutely, but we should never discover the dormant beauty which the gardener knows how to awaken. So until we have seen the Glory of God revealed in the Manifestation, we can have no idea of the spiritual beauty latent in our own nature and in that of our fellows. By knowing and loving the Manifestation of God and following His teachings we are enabled, little by little, to realize the potential perfections within ourselves; then, and not till then, does the meaning and purpose of life and of the universe become apparent to us.

(Esslemont in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 74)

So, we’re all on a journey, teacher and student alike, and none of us is complete and perfect. And the humility of that understanding is empowering when it translates into action within a relationship.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

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RZ-230x300An eloquent and moving letter was published today on the Iran Press Watch website. It describes one Bahá’í prisoner’s reaction to the 30 years of anti-Bahá’í discrimination in the educational sector. Below is an extract from the article:  for the full post see link.

HRANA (Human Rights Activists News Agency) – Ramin Zibaei* is a Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) professor who has been sentenced to 48 months in prison for the crime of teaching at this Baha’i college, whose daughter was recently prevented from continuing her education, and who is currently incarcerated in Ward 12 of Raja’i Shahr prison in Karaj.

He has written a letter to the people of Iran which has been provided to HRANA, the full text of which is printed below:

A point of view which has not yet changed since at least 30 years ago

My fellow Iranians why are you at ease?  For what reason have you closed your eyes? Take a look around; prepare your ears to hear the voice of the deprived.  The sound of our silence has reached the sky, you have seen it and heard it but you easily let it go, or did not realize what has descended on the deprived; but now that you are aware – you tell me – why, after 30 years have passed, has your point of view not yet changed?  About 30 years ago, when I wanted to complete my diploma, my high school teachers’ attention were fixed on the particular field and the university into which I would be accepted, oblivious to the fact that the nationwide examination process had added a religion column and would not allow me even to take the qualifying exam because I am a Baha’i, let alone enter the university.  Therefore I was barred from entering university due to my faith; yet I dared hope that in the near future this point of view and misunderstanding would be resolved, so that I and other Baha’i youth, just like the rest of you, my dear fellow Iranians, would be given back our natural rights to higher education.  Eventually this hope turned into despair, and I eventually accepted the truth, that this change of heart would not be a reality for my generation, who should have entered university in the 1980s. Nevertheless, I continued to be hopeful that this basic right would be available to the next generation.

Therefore I kept the fire of love of learning alive in my children, and prepared and encouraged them for higher education. In this path I began to teach in the Baha’i Institution for Higher Education (BIHE), so that Baha’i youth would not be deprived of knowledge of the latest sciences. Ultimately, because of my efforts at teaching at BIHE, I have now been incarcerated in this prison for the last three and a half years.  Unfortunately, though it has been at least 30 years since my generation, it can be observed that in this year’s nationwide examination too, my daughter, due to her belief in the Baha’i Faith, under the excuse of having an “Incomplete Application”, was barred from entering university.

Now, my dear, tell me what kind of a spiteful point of view do you hold towards me, which has prevented two generations of students just like me and my daughter from the most basic right of any Iranian – and how long will this continue? Is there any hope that our third generation – I mean the children of our children – will not fall victim to this discrimination? Are we not born and bred in the same land? Don’t we – you and I and our children – together constitute this nation?  Does not belonging to the same land – our beloved homeland – bind us together as Iranians?  Have we not always prided ourselves on being Iranians? Do you ever think why we Iranians, when we are abroad, become so happy when we run into each other in any corner of the world?  Is it not because we no longer feel lonely and homesick at that moment?

Footnote:

* A short biographical sketch of Mr. Zibaei and an appeal on his behalf can be found at http://scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu/Events-News/Article-Detail.php?art_uid=3179

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