A Prison Of The Mind: A Musing On Education

How hard is it to tell a story? I do not mean reading out of a book, or reciting back what one has heard from their teacher, in poll parrot fashion, but coming up with an original story. It depends a lot on one’s education. While many people consider me to be a good writer now, that was not always the case. My writing style has been honed through some native ability and a huge amount of hours of practice writing out my thoughts and feelings until I was able to let my keyboard be an adjunct of my deeply intellectual mind, able to express my thoughts (and sometimes even feelings) with ease.

The same is true in speaking. As I have sought (so far without success) to push and prod my students in second year Speech Class to write and then give speeches in the “Add Color” speech of the old AC Spokesman’s Club booklet that tell a story with words, their minds are a blank. Most of my students have no idea where to begin in telling a story, and that concerns me greatly. After all, from my childhood my immense capacity in imagination has been one of the few opportunities for me to deal with my life in a creative (rather than destructive) fashion, and it has been the wellspring of many creative (and disturbing) plays, short stories, and essays in my prolific body of work.

As I have been trying to encourage and give examples of my students of the “add color” speech, I have talked about previous speeches where I explained the correct way to fold a towel. I have talked about skunks, the destruction of Pompei in 79AD, the melodramatic story of my first love between the ages of 10 and 14, how Hurricane Fran gave me cabin fever in 2004, Niagara Falls, and so on. I have extemporaneously talked numerous times about subjects in the hopes that some of them would get the point and be able to tell stories of their own, and so far it has been in vain. My students appear to enjoy my stories—and laugh at the way I am able to tell them without any notes whatsoever with such vivid details. But they seem unable to tell their own stories, and that is tragic.

Why would the Thai system of education produce students so ill-equipped to tell a story? Stories are all around us—we watch television shows (if we do—I must admit I have not watched much tv at all here in Thailand), or movies largely for the story, which we call the plot. We read novels (or nonfiction books) often for the plot. Stories are how we best remember facts (which is a big reason why people often think me intelligent—I do not remember dull and boring facts very well, but I weave everything in my mind into immensely complicated and often drolly amusing stories). Stories allow us to see context, to place facts in their proper place, and to draw conclusions (and get into fights) about the past. Different narratives make a big difference in where we stand in arguments. This is true whether we are dealing with religion, or sports, or politics, or history. How we frame a story (or how others frame a story for us that we accept as true) makes a huge difference in what we see and how we believe.

Without the ability to tell stories we are imprisoned in our own mind, unable to express and defend our own perspective and our own experiences. Without the ability to tell a narrative, we have no personal history, only isolated events that lack context and flow and connection. We have no ability to learn from our lives, to recognize our patterns of behavior (both good and bad) and to explain to others where we are coming from, where we are at, and where we are going. For these matters are not told in facts, but they are framed in stories—sometimes deeply moving and tragic ones. To be imprisoned in one’s own mind is a terrible fate, but such is the fate of those who only learn to repeat what others tell them, and lack the ability to tell something for themselves. Such people are trained to be robots, automatons, and slaves, and that is a fate I abhor either for myself or anyone else.

But how do we learn how to tell stories if no one has ever taught us? How do we make sense of our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings, our experiences, our hopes, and our fears. I am a person of many deep thoughts and heavy emotional burdens, many fears, and some private but tenaciously held dreams. I maintain sanity (as best as possible) by telling my story, in the knowledge that expression of these matters in an open and honest manner is the best way of taking the sting out of feelings. For the monsters under the bed lose their frightening quality once one turns them on, and shadows are banished in the harsh light of day. One needs to be able to express what is inside to be able to handle such matters (often, for me at least, painful matters) in a useful way. Otherwise one ends up deeply angry but inarticulate, like a savage barbarian.

When I look at the politics of the world today, I see a lot of savage barbarians, whether one is in the United States or in other countries. Politicians motivate others by hates and fears, often inarticulate, and people are whipped up into a frenzy in the thought that some leader is going to take away their problems through the magic wand of government or the invisible hand of lassiez faire capitalism. The emotional fervor is the same, as are the lies and gimmicks, no matter which side of the political spectrum one is on. What is the same is the appeal to deep rage and anger and the inability of the ordinary people themselves to frame their own narratives and tell (and therefore understand) their own stories. Instead people borrow narratives from charlatans and liars, and copy the lies and slanders of others as if they were true, unable to separate truth and fiction, propaganda from evidence for themselves, prisoners of lies and the lying liars who tell them.

And that is the fate I want my students to avoid. I do not want them to repeat to me, word for word, what is coming out of my mouth (for one, I am not an easy person to understand). I want them to tell me what is inside of their minds, to examine their own lives for useful wisdom. I want them to go to the Bible or to books and be able to read them and respond thoughtfully to them, asking questions rather than just parroting back chapter and verse. Any parrot can mimick what one hears. It takes a human with a well-trained mind to be able to wrestle with enigmas and dark sayings, the sort of puzzles and dilemmas I have made my life’s work to wrestle with. I do not want them wrestle as desparately as I have, but I want them to be able to use their minds wisely. And yet they seem deeply ill-equipped to do so by the way they have been educated. How many of them desire to be free enough to learn how to escape from the shackles of ignorance and the prison of rote memorization that they have been sentenced to? I suppose we shall shortly see.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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