By Jean Matelski Boulware
Theodore Richards is the founder and director of the Chicago Wisdom Project. The mission of the Chicago Wisdom Project is to re-imagine education through holistic programming that transforms individual, community, and world through creative expression. He is the author of Handprints on the Womb, a collection of poetry; Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, and Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto; and the novels The Crucifixion and The Conversions.
The following is an excerpt from the documentary film The Science of Wisdom. In this interview, Theodore discusses the role of wisdom in education, increasing community dialog about wisdom, and the wisdom in sustainable farming practices for urban youth.
Jean: Being the founder of the Chicago Wisdom Project (CWP), how do you define wisdom?
Theodore: I would answer that by saying I wouldn't define it. I think that it's most useful to think of a variety of different categories and concepts, and how those different concepts interact. At least in my work, I like to think about wisdom [in education] as being a way of looking at the whole as opposed to looking at fragments and parts. That's a big part of our educational philosophy. Wisdom requires a way to look or take whatever information or ideas one has and apply those ideas in a [specific] way. It’s this idea of the relationship between building from knowledge into a more compassionate approach to life. I think that's a lot of what wisdom is. There's this ability to take one's knowledge, one's ideas, one's skills, and all of these different things which we focus on in education in fragmented capacities and look at the whole person. Look at that whole -- the ability of that person to act more compassionately in the world. I think that's the general sort of notion of wisdom that I would hold.
Jean: How do you go about doing that with the youth that you work with?
Theodore: Well, we fought with a few different things. I think it starts with really asking the question, "What does it mean to be an educated person, and what does it mean to be a whole person?" It seems to me that if we look at just one narrow aspect of a human being, we're not necessarily going to get at this whole person. So what we do is we create a framework of different elements of what makes a human being. There's the intellectual and that involves more than just ideas or pieces of information. It involves the certain ways of approaching that information. Can we think paradoxically? Can we ask big questions for which there are not necessarily concrete answers? How do we grapple with those kinds of paradoxes? In addition to the intellect which most people associate generally with education, we have a body of approaches that we do with youth. We have what I would call the soul, which is really just about the person's interior life. How do we integrate the emotions and their feelings into the educational process? How do we give them some tools and skills to deal with whatever emotional issues they might be going through? From there I think [we address] a big part of the question about what it means to be a human being. What does it mean to be an educated human being? It is this question of “Who am I?” The core of all the work we're doing is asking this question and part of that needs to involve a relationship to one's broader ecological self. So we do a lot of things with kids that involve getting outside of the boxes and away from the screens that they are in front of all of the time to engage the world in a more embodied and more ecological way. We do that through our permaculture farming and our nature retreats that we do with youth. I would say that all of this really culminates in the storytelling aspect. It doesn't have to be a literal story told in prose. It can be anything from a story or a poem to pottery, movie making, music, or any kind of creative expression that allows the student to give their own sense of who they are to the world, to tell their story, and to define themselves. But it's a long way to get there, because that also involves unpacking all of the different stories they have been given about who they are, [and re-writing those stories to reveal their more authentic selves]. So that creative, imaginative aspect is, I would say, the culmination of the whole process.
Jean: How do you measure success with your students?
Theodore: That's one of the big questions. I started doing this partly with a little bit of resistance to some of the measures that we focus on in education, because so much of the testing that we do focuses on this narrow range of pieces of information and values that which we can quantify. What we [at CWP] are doing is trying to look at things that are not necessarily so easily quantifiable. So it's very difficult to measure a person's sense of who they are. It's difficult to measure their story. Their awareness of their ecological identity -that's a hard thing to measure. I think what we can do is assess how they are able to critique the stories that they've been given. That has to do with media awareness and going through some of the ideas about themselves, how well they're able to express their own story in their own words, and how that story evolves from beginning to end. We start with kids that are young. Some of them are as young as 13. I think seeing them through the process, and how they're able to express their story in their own way is a big part of the skills they can get along the way. It's not so much whether the story itself is good or bad or whether it's right or wrong, but it's thinking about how that story has evolved, and how their sense of themselves has evolved.
Jean: You mentioned getting kids away from screens, how might digital media affect the way that people view wisdom?
Theodore: I think digital media probably has an effect on the way we view everything. All of us, not just young people, spend so much time involved in digital media. I think it has a huge effect just based in the amount of time spent there. The way I tend to look at it, most people aren't really thinking much about wisdom at all anyway whether they're on the computer or not. So the consequence is negligible, but I do think about the effect of spending time in an enclosed space. Although most of us have smart phones, all these different gadgets, and most of us are inside a lot of the time, it is particularly true of the kids in our program. These are kids living on the South Side of Chicago. There tends to be fear of going outside and exploring the world because there are sometimes legitimate [dangers] that are perceived out there. So kids are spending very little time outside. This has been quantified and the extent to which kids spend more time inside now [has been quantified]. The effect of that on a person's awareness, their sense of self, what they value, and how they perceive their world is huge in that people are relating less to the world in an embodied, tactile way. They are thinking more in terms of this two-dimensional way of interacting with their world so they're interacting in a disembodied way. This disembodiment, the lack of feeling and touching the rest of the world, and the effect that has on a person is the biggest generation gap that I feel between teenager today and myself. Teenagers today engage their world much more through these different digital media than I ever did or do now even. I think that effect on a person's sense of who they are, their place in the world, and identity is so deeply entwined with these two-dimensional images of ourselves, and that really affects how we think of ourselves and affects how we think about wisdom.
Jean: What can we do to promote more communication about wisdom and contribute to the dialogue?
Theodore: You know, I think that people don't think about wisdom very much and that’s very much true. It's also true that people don't think about a whole lot of things very much either. One of the things that we are trying to do at the Chicago Wisdom Project is to think about education in a way that fosters and promotes an engagement with the world in a more philosophical way. I like to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, who would always say that we need every person to be a philosopher. The idea is that if you want to have a functioning democracy, everyone has to be able to think in order to critique the leadership of that democracy. If we can't do that, we don't really have a democracy. We can have people vote, but that doesn't mean there's a functioning democracy if people aren't thinking in that way. The first thing is figuring out ways to create an educational system that fosters critical consciousness and encourages people to think deeply. My experience has been working with youth, and many youth who are high school dropouts. For the most part everyone, regardless of their educational level, really wants to answer big and deep questions about who they are and their place in the world. That is what people actually want to do. I would say the thing that they don't want to do is to study for some test that will assess them because some bureaucrat or politician made some arbitrary thing, the most facile thing. It was the easiest way to say, "We're doing something about education." Make up a new test and make up a new standard. What's really required is the hard work to figure out ways to have these dialogues in conversations with people about things that are really meaningful to them. If we have conversations about things that are meaningful to them, wisdom will arise. A different way to think about it is not so much how do we get people to care about wisdom. I would suggest that maybe we just figure out ways to get people to care about their world, care about ideas, and care about the deep and difficult questions about the world. If people care about those things, they are caring about wisdom whether they're using the word or not. Thinking about ways to create educational systems and create schools to approach young people in a way where we really foster that curiosity. It is already there. It's just a matter of not crushing it.
The thing I like to point out is that we have tests with kids to assess their reading ability by seeing how many words they can read in a given amount of time. That's a common strategy used in standardized testing. There's nothing wrong with doing that a couple times just to see, but when that becomes the focus of a reading program, which it is in some classrooms, it is a good way to get someone to hate reading. Getting someone to hate reading is a really good way to get them to never think about wisdom or any big question in their life again. It’s not that someone can't be wise without reading, but I think that's a bad idea. The other thing that is a fact in the City of Chicago is that if your child is in the public schools in CPS you have six different options for military schools and one option for art school. In terms of free education, there is only one art school, but there are six military schools. I think that gives you a sense of the way we think about learning in our schools. I mean the idea is to control the kids as much as possible. With creativity you need freedom, and I would suggest that to think meaningfully about wisdom, you also need that freedom and that space which is not so easy to deal with. Kids can be wild, and I think wisdom can be wild too because you can't put it in a box necessarily. So I think a willingness to let people have that freedom to think deeply and meaningfully is important to being creative.
I think the other thing for me that has to be a part of the conversation, and gets to the heart of so many of our crises (whether it's educational crisis or ecological crisis or whatever we're talking about), is when we think about our world, who we are, and about the decisions we've made. So many of those decisions have been based upon fear of the wild. We have so much fear of the wild that we are paving over everything out of the fear. Then we create schools that are so rigidly structured, there's not a lot of room for that wildness, and not a lot of room for creativity. That kind of wildness is really at the heart of wisdom and at the heart of a way that we can really save ourselves. If we're going to think about how we can re-imagine ourselves or re-imagine our world, we have to think of it in terms of its exploration, which inherently involves risk. Many of the kids that come into our program have so little comfort with taking risks and so little comfort with entering into new spaces. It's a big part of why we try to get youth out of their comfort zone. There seems to me a greater risk in not letting your young person explore their world. Ultimately you have to give a person this confidence to explore the world. I think that courage, confidence, and spirit of exploration is really at the heart of wisdom.
Jean: Where is your farm located compared to the city and can you tell me a bit about it?
Theodore: We are actually developing a farm in the city, which is one of our programs, but the farm that we have and the land we have in Michigan is about an hour and 15 minutes away from the South Side. We have done a lot of day trips there because it's not that far. So sometimes we'll go out there and spend a day there to work on some project. Other times we'll have a retreat for the weekend, [or stay] for an extended period so they can work on the farm and learn about permaculture and other building practices. We are trying to think of the farming, the building, and everything we do on the farm in a holistic way and to do everything as sustainable as we can. So they are learning sustainable building along with the sustainable farming practices. Thinking about farming and agriculture in a holistic and sustainable way really is a fundamental part of our conception of wisdom. It's a fundamental part of thinking about who we are if we're thinking about ourselves in an expansive way beyond our individual selves, but thinking about ourselves in terms of our ecological relationships. My conception of wisdom has to do with exploring who I am in relationship to other people. Who am I in terms of my social self? How do I relate to other people? Then how do I act in the world in relationship to other people? If I think of myself in a more expansive way and then think of myself in terms of my ecological relationships, how do I affect the world in terms of the other species on the planet?
Reference: The Science of Wisdom, produced by the JJ Effect, directed by Jason Boulware
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