As my son has his first day at school, here is a reflection on what I hope for from his education. There’s more to learning than knowledge. What does it mean to learn, not just about the world, but how to live well within it
Yesterday was my son’s first day at school and I shared what so many parents and children experienced this week with the start of nursery, or school, or a new school or college. Parenthood, I discover, is full of transitions that keep surprising you. Proudly wearing his new uniform and overflowing with excitement, before our eyes Leo seemed to turn into what he calls ‘a big boy’, while my wife and I also felt the sadness that comes with time passing.
I’ve been reflecting on my hopes from my son’s education. Of course, Leo needs to learn to read, write and use numbers; and an extra challenge is that, living in Wales, we’ve opted for his education to be in the Welsh language. In time, he’ll engage with the process of intellectual training and discovering the world on which teaching typically focuses. I want Leo to be excited by learning, but I hope he also discovers that there’s more to education than knowledge.
The starting point is what I want for Leo at the beginning of his school career: that he’s treated with kindness. More than that, I hope he receives from his teachers a form of kindness that a parent can’t really offer. It’s what Buddhism calls metta, the loving-kindness that means open-handed, unconditional appreciation of all beings, whoever they are. Leo’s special to me, but I want him to learn that he’s also ordinary, just like the other children, and no less valuable for that.
Receiving kindness is a foundation for giving it. The closest Buddhist word to ‘education’, shiksha, means training, especially learning to put kindness into practice by acting ethically. The Buddhist ethical precepts start with not harming living beings and in positive terms, this means acting with love, or metta. They also include not taking things that haven’t been given, and learning to act with generosity; avoiding false speech, or practising truthfulness; and finally, cultivating mindful awareness.
The precepts suggest qualities that apply at every age and all of them have a place in education, I believe. As our values and interpretations determine how we use what we know intellectually, education must include the heart as well as the head.
It would be absurd to hand over to his school the responsibility for my son’s moral education. But as I watched Leo bound into his new classroom yesterday, my deepest wish was that he doesn’t just learn about the world, but that he truly learns how to live well within it.