I took this week’s theme for The Avocado Jungle and styled it into the question, “Is education part of the solution to almost every problem the world faces?” Then I asked a great friend and great teacher, Ria Kubota, that very question. I got a wonderfully unexpected and insightful answer, even with a restless infant wriggling in her arms. It’s under two minutes long and you can listen to the audio here.
Ria is a creative and thoughtful woman who has been inspiring young music students for ten years now, first in public middle schools and elementary schools and now in private schools. She’s also a mother of two—one school age girl and one baby girl (the one you can hear fussing in the background from time to time). And Ria says, yes, education is the answer. More specifically, she says, “It can be the solution to the world’s problems, but only if you choose to teach the right things.”
“First and most important you have use and teach compassion and treating others with dignity.” Whoa. Not the first words I expect to hear. “If people started from that,” she adds, “I think a lot of our problems wouldn’t be problems.” Now, we can’t just head into the tribal areas of Afghanistan and teach the future terrorists of the world our version of compassion and dignity. But of course, that’s not what Ria is arguing. She’s talking about school education, and I think it applies to that familial and generational and community kind of education, too, where parents and family and neighbors and church members function as role models who can teach things like compassion and dignity to the youth around them. Compassion and dignity are concepts that grownups may have an easier time describing in words, but that children learn about everyday and come to recognize and understand at a very young age. Those who don’t learn to recognize it early tend to grow up with a pessimistic view of the world at least, and sometimes emotional and psychological problems beyond that. There’s research to suggest that (as with almost anything) one can have a
genetic predisposition to these sorts of issues, but there’s also lots of evidence that children simply learn empathy and compassion by watching and interacting with adults (see Van Hasselt and Hersen’s dry and academic but thorough “Handbook of Social Development” around page 235). So I can’t help but agree with Ria. I also can’t help but wonder how we go about doing this systematically, nationally, even globally. I think it starts with training teachers well, hiring teachers intelligently, and providing parents with knowledge and resources.
Ria continues on with some more broad commandments. Each one, as I hear it sounds so worthwhile and even crucial, and each challenges me to even begin to describe how American schools, for starters, ought to achieve these things. Teach children to listen. (So incredibly important… almost on par with the compassion and the dignity.) Teach them to work together. Teach them history with the goal that they learn to ask good questions that help them think about the future. Teach them to write so they can learn to reflect on their own lives. (I wonder what the world would be like if we all took
a few minutes a day to reflect and to work through our problems on paper.)
And lastly, being a music teacher, Ria knows the power of art. “You don’t even have to speak another language, but you can communicate with others,” she remarks. It made me think of the significance of moments like the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s landmark 1956 visit to the Soviet Union. This and other huge moments of artistic (in this case musical) diplomacy are highlighted in this
article on Boston.com. Art conveys so much, connects us instantly to our emotions and sensory perceptions, and grounds us in our own humanity. This connection truly can overcome obstacles like language, race, class, and nationality. I know Ria is not alone in believing that raising a nation of artists—or at least of men and women who understand and deeply appreciate art—could go a long way toward solving the issues we’re struggling with, especially when an initial connection like the one art can achieve breaks down barriers like fear, mistrust, isolation and hopelessness.
Thank you, Ria, for your thoughts. I know you are doing your part to teach the importance of dignity, compassion, reflection, learning from the past, and of course, art.