Discovering The Ancient Fire
By: Brad Cole

In the dark, early morning hours of winter, while leaving for work, and walking down the driveway to my truck, I can see the constellation Orion directly above, peering out between the tall trees of the surrounding forest. Being a nightly hunter among the stars, and a figure similar to Christ in that he was a son of a mortal woman, but impregnated by the immortal god Poseidon, I feel awed by his silent and eternal vigil in the heavens. What a grand personage to be standing above, seeing me off to work.

As a teacher of incarcerated youth, I often wonder during my drive to work how to reach and assist those who remain unreachable. Prison is such a miserable, dead-end road for youths with so much potential; potential they do not understand, much less utilize.

When I enter my classroom, before the students arrive, I think of Plato's Cave allegory. Similar to the bound figures who are facing the darkness of the cave's back wall, many of my students refuse to see the liberating firelight of reason, which I try desperately to show them. Only the enticing gestures of flitting shadows appear to interest them. It is toward only disheartening temptations that they are attracted, while the true nature of life marches by silently in all of it's eternal glory.

If I could only teach them to turn around and see the dark reality of their desperate situation. If they could simply see that the shadows are only illusions cast by a honorable but ancient fire that lies behind them. The smallest of tasks appears to be the greatest of educational challenges.

Education at its' best is all about assisting our youth in moving from the secluded solar system of adolescence, where their lives evolve around parent figures, to the much larger, darker and frightening universe of adulthood, where they must learn to make their own way through life. They will not be able to achieve this transformation as long as they are self-absorbed in a world of abstract images that obscurely define what is a successful life. Adolescence is a critical stage where they learn about the nature of power, society, and success; but they also need to learn that life contains an inner language of truth that needs to be discovered, understood, and nurtured. This is called the language of wholeness in that it breeds personal empowerment, liberation, and transcendence.

In modern society's mass media, a mature dialogue of inner liberation is difficult to find. Our language, culture, and sense of beauty has been hijacked by the marketing schemes of capitalism. So we must struggle to bring back into our lives sound reasoning skills. But in order to reclaim our language, we must learn how to give the objects of this world their proper names, such as: true wealth has little to do with money, justice is not merely a judgment of the courts, to know is far from understanding, truth is often heard in silence, beauty is to be sensed not seen, there is great power in humility, a soulful richness in poverty, and that illusion is not reality. Only by understanding these ancient contradictions can people begin to realize the kingdom of the spirit that lies in the heart. Gandhi said, "There should be truth in thought, truth in speech, and truth in action. To the man who has realized this truth in perfection, nothing else remains to be known because all knowledge is necessarily included in it". What better lesson to be teaching our youth than to be reclaiming humanity's heritage of truth?

Understanding the nature of truth, transcendence, and liberation is one of the simplest of lessons. In my youth I loved to go ice-skating. In North Dakota winter rivers were great places for it. Even today, thoughts of briskly skating down a snowy, tree-lined river into the surrounding countryside still enchants me. The feel of the frosty air striking red cheeks, snow creeping up the ankles, and the sight of bare trees silhouetted against a crystal white background, all serve to create a transcendental moment. It was an open-air study concerning the nature of the elements that lie about us, and beyond, the sense of earthly eternity submerged in time and place. It is the single most important lesson regarding personal transcendence and liberation. I often think of Joni Mitchell's song which has a refrain, "I wish I had a river / I could skate away on." It is in personal experience, based ideally on nature and community, where beauty becomes a revelation of liberation for those who are able to discover it. For it is in our perceptions of the beautiful that we devote much of the truth of our lives.

The ultimate bedrock of any culture is its ability to bond with a healthy, living environment from which it can find the resilience to endure difficult times. The question is not whether the people of modern culture are bonding with the technological environment it has created, but to what degree this is good. Modern society, especially its' youth, have obviously bonded with the mass media, cars, and the fashion market. But it is now time to weigh the pros and cons of this situation and ask ourselves how the education system should respond to it. Because education is in the best position to be making the needed changes that can ensure a reasonable, nurturing, and stable culture that will sustain the future of America. One in which we would be proud to raise children. Only by discovering and reaffirming beliefs that lay deeper than the media /commercial culture can we find the strength to resist it and create lives of greater substance and richness. Through study of the important subjects of civilization a wealth of ideas and concepts are born out that infuse one's life with meaningfulness. Any serious reflection on a substantial topic can enrich one's life. But it needs to be a process of meaning making, actively constructing a deeper level of awareness and understanding than what had previously been attained; a process that can start an individual on a life-long pursuit of searching for greater personal integrity and wholeness. This is the meaning of a liberal education. But somehow, even within our public school system, this needs to include a spiritual component that will lend it even greater significance.

According to Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Terry Bergen, "The terrorist attacks of September 11th have placed an even greater importance on education". She went on to say, "Schools must ensure that students learn the fundamentals of citizenship" (2). Hopefully, this concept of citizenry will include assisting youths in becoming well integrated and whole human beings.

The miracle of life, even on the darkest of winter nights, shines in the magic of stars. Orion among them, is sternly standing guard over earthly eternity, but Plato's Cave has been submerged into the abysmal depths of world history, while many students remain seated in darkness, watching the dancing shadows on a cave's wall, much as they did in early Greece. A few brave souls find the courage to turn around, discover the ancient fire, and perhaps even leave the cave to bathe in the morning sunlight. The hopes of humanity rests on those sparse souls returning to the darkness of the cave and teaching those remaining there about the true nature of the world.