Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Access or Inspiration---Landscapes of Education

With beautiful words and images, Bonnie will continue to post reflections on our pilgrimage to Ireland in September. Deep thoughts keep coming from those experiences of standing on holy ground. Continue to guide us, Bonnie.

In the meantime, I gather the inspiration from those Celtic mists and hit the world of secondary education in the state of North Carolina with a leap and a bound. My travels, from Murphy to New Bern, are now complete. Having traveled now almost 3000 miles in a rental car (with "Eduard"--my GPS guide with a lovely Yorkshire accent), I have talked to students in over 75 high schools and 14 community colleges. With four college fairs per day, sometimes five, I have managed to scan the horizon of secondary education. It is not a pretty picture. In the western part of our state, I have seen high school seniors, already old before their time, stand in the corner of the gym, where over 50 college representatives stood eager for conversation about their school, huddled with friends in the corner, not even interested in considering future educational opportunities. In the east, I have seen student athletes, decked out in Friday football jerseys, dream of playing college football not even mindful of the long-term educational opportunities afforded with such a dream. In the central part of our state, I have watched as a counselor explained the reason for the student's lack of interest--"he is interested in only working for NASCAR--he doesn't want to go on to school." Foot ball is good and important to our southern culture and NASCAR has created opportunities for our state but where is the passion for learning? Where is the desire for improvement? Where is the burn to learn?

I have seen dirty sidewalks, unkempt hallways, poorly maintained doors and windows, unpaved parking lots, and a general sense of defeat and impossibility. Our schools are hurting, our teachers are overwhelmed, our students look like "deer caught by headlights"; our system is not working.

Yes, we need more money for education in our state. Yes, our students need to have more access--to be able to attend college or university regardless of economic status. But more than state appropriations, and creative access initiatives with financial aid and admissions assistance, we need inspiration. Access is good, but inspiration is essential. We need students who are eager to learn, who know the exciting possibilities that come from understanding more about their world, who are inspired to change their community, their world, their own lives. We need inspiration in our system--somewhere, somehow.

This is my question of these weeks: How do you inspire students to learn? Landscapes help--clean hallways and freshly painted walls do make a difference. Beauty inspires. Inspiring teachers inspire. Those adult mind guides---our teachers-- who are alert to their world, who can transmit knowledge through inspiration, are essential. And students need to know that there is more than they can see, that there are possibilities out there, that the clutches of poverty and ignorance need not bind them forever, that life can be meaningful, that truth can be discovered in the microscope in the science lab and in the blade of grass on the hillside. We have been saying that students need access to education. I am now saying that students need inspiration first, then access. For in my high school tour this fall, the missing ingredient was inspiration.

Back to the Celtic thread for a final moment---what I find really interesting in the study of monastic landscapes in early Celtic Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, Wales are the connections between inspiration and learning. At the center of the monastic community were also schools and colleges, as well as the expected chapels and holy groves for prayers. These educational places promoted the love of learning, the love of writing and painting, and the love of nature in the religious community.

Inspiration matters. Hard to quantify, and even more difficult to transmit, but our high school students need it! And those of us laboring in higher education, where inspiration comes a little easier, need to be willing to share it with those who are in need at this given moment. Inspiration matters.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflection: Landscapes – Sacred or Meaningless

Reflecting on Photos of Ireland

The remains of a rock structure perch
precariously on an uplifted mound of
earth. The outer walls struggle to stay
in tact with the ground now so uneven
beneath it. In the forest an old, old tree
wearing moss over its lower trunk
stands by the pathway in solemn
welcome to all pilgrims who go there.

In my country we have no buildings
from more than a few centuries, nothing
to touch the many stone churches
dating back a thousand years. Even
our trees are often newly planted, so few
old forests have escaped progress.
Our windswept coasts too often
developed into beaches and resorts.

We are the New World, trying to lead
all the rest, while our elders in the
old are second fiddle at times. If
age has wisdom, where is ours, except
maybe in the land itself, the part,
at least, we haven’t scraped away
or covered with concrete. And what
does it say about our heritage?

Looking back at the four hundred plus pictures I took while on the pilgrimage in Ireland leads me to reflect on many aspects of culture, both that which we experienced while abroad and our own at home. I’ve also been reading from several books since I returned home. One of those is Dara Molloy’s The Globilisation of God. In it he suggests that as Christianity and Western civilization spread through other parts of the world, the indigenous religious beliefs that reflect a sacred connection to the land have been lost.

Reading Dara’s book has given me much to think about. The pre-Christian and early Christian traditions in Ireland maintained that sense of the sacred in the very landscapes. Wells and hills, sacred to the Celts before Christianity, were adopted as locations for abbeys and churches. We noted that particularly in Kildare. Thus, in Celtic Christianity there remains some connectedness with the landscape that many of us in other parts of the world have lost. I was addressing some of the loss we’ve suffered in the US in the poem above. But I’ve thought about it even more since writing the poem. And part of my thinking process has been influenced by another book.

I’m something of an amateur archeologist, having participated in a dig in my home state at a site where Spanish explorers in the 1500’s set up a small fort beside a Native American town. In that particular case, after about eighteen months when the Spanish became too demanding or possibly abusive to the Native Americans, their settlement was burned and the Spanish themselves killed or chased away from the site. As we well know, in American history, things did not turn out that way for the majority of the Native American culture.

My interest in archeology and Native American culture led me to pick up another book – Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia. It describes a large Native American complex that existed on the Mississippi River nearly a thousand years ago. At the present time parts of the complex lie within a state park in Illinois, but that is a fairly recent development. Before it became protected and archeologists had the opportunity to explore much of it, housing developments and interstate highways cut through mounds of ceremonial centers and burials, destroying what might have been learned about a complex culture that existed on this continent a millennia ago. At least parts of Cahokia were sacred spaces to those Native Americans. As our nation grew, it showed no concern for what had been sacred to earlier indigenous people. The same was true at the archeological site where I volunteered. A mound that had existed there, created by perhaps related Mississippian people or their descendants, was pretty much plowed down before archeologists began digs at the site.

We owe much to progress. But have we also sacrificed something in the wake of it? What toll has our absence of concern for what was sacred to those before us taken? How is our disconnect from the land and its heritage influencing our lives today? How is it affecting us spiritually? Can we learn anything from other cultures who do view the landscape in sacred terms? What would that mean for the environment?

These questions and more are a part of what I brought home from the pilgrimage to Ireland.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Another pilgrimage of sort--visiting high schools across North Carolina

How hard to leave those Celtic mists! I returned home to pack another suitcase for a busy month of travel for the Office of Admissions of Wake Forest University. In the last two weeks, I have visited over 50 high schools, traveled over 2000 miles across the great state of North Carolina, seen sights from Murphy to New Bern, distributed almost 4000 pieces of admissions literature at College Fairs across the state. In the next few days, I will share my observations of the state of public school education and the need for greater attention to secondary education by institution of higher education.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reflection: What I Brought Home

At Home after Pilgrimage

Morning glory and honeysuckle
vines climb the willow
by the foot bridge
giving it unnatural
blossoms of orange and purple.
They were not there
when I left.

Rain, scarcely more than mist, falls
over goldenrod and barely-changing
leaves in a familiar landscape –
weather more like we expected
in Ireland than here in the Piedmont
of North Carolina. I wonder
what the cool temperature would
be in Celsius, so spoiled
am I to Fahrenheit.

It is a good day for wonder -
a time to be inside, reflecting
on all I met and saw and did
while away. It is a good
time to bring all the
experience and solitude
of pilgrimage home with me.

Toward the end of our pilgrimage in Ireland, we began to think about what we would be taking home with us. I’m speaking of the ways in which the pilgrimage changed us, the things we learned, the personal growth we gained through the experience. To paraphrase the words of Tennyson, from his poem “Ulysses,” just a bit, “[we] are a part of all that [we] have met.” Or I should say that a part of all we met has become a part of us.

Spending time in a landscape different from the one in which I live opened my eyes anew to my own landscape when we returned home. Thus, the poem above.

The experience opened in me other ways as well. One morning in Glendalough I went down to breakfast early. I was in search of coffee because I’m accustomed to having my first cup at home before I do anything else. But arriving in the empty dining room at the same time was a young woman with a backpack. She was trembling from the cold outside. She asked for something hot – coffee or chocolate. When served a cup of coffee, she wrapped her hands around it and sat, still shaking. It was obvious that she was chilled through and through though she was wearing a coat.

I began a conversation with her and learned that she was from the Czech Republic. She’d come to Ireland looking for work. She had been camping near the Glendalough Hotel the previous night when the temperatures dipped, and about four in the morning, she’d come into the entrance hallway of the hotel for warmth while she waited for the dining room to open. Even there she had remained chilled so that three hours later when I saw her she was still shivering.

After she had warmed up with a second cup of coffee, she left. When I left the dining room, I saw her talking with a staff person in a hallway. I had many questions in my mind. I wondered if she were inquiring about work there at the hotel. I also wondered if she were camping out that night because she had no other place to be. She had told me if she couldn’t find work, she’d go back to the Czech Republic.

I carried home with me the memory of that young girl who looked no older than the high school students I taught until recently. I wondered at her being alone in a country other than her homeland and the circumstances that sent her there. I have continued feel the concern for her, though our encounter was brief.

Back at home I received an email from a friend telling me that she planned to participate in a walk to raise money to fight world hunger. I found myself readily joining the walk. I don’t know that the young Czech girl I saw was hungry, but it struck me that she only asked for coffee – something hot to help her get warm that morning, nothing to eat. I wondered if she had no money to buy breakfast. The possibility of hunger in a setting where we were being overfed raised my awareness that morning. And that awareness moved me to act back at home.

That, as well as new eyes for the beauty in my own back yard, is something I brought home from the pilgrimage.

Bonnie McCarson

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bonnie McCarson, a wonderful writer, poet,, and pilgrim

You have been reading the beautiful words of Bonnie McCarson, scholar of British literature and history, teacher of English, published writer, poet, and pilgrim. Bonnie graciously agreed to provide a daily itinerary of our travels (while I am still traveling). Thank you, Bonnie, for helping us to remember.

Bonnie and I will continue to reflect on this trip and the significance of this pilgrimage in our lives right here on this blog site. Stay tuned.