The Education of Youth and Our Twentieth Century Dilemma
by Habib Taherzadehpublished in Bahá'í News, 342, pages 18-20
What is education? Education means the development of human faculties through training and instruction so that the individual may be fit to lead a happy and useful life. Education has two aspects, one moral, the other intellectual.
Moral education aims at building and purifying personal character. It directs and motivates human behavior. It is the essential factor for the advancement of human evolution. It prepares the ground for acquiring spiritual perception. It is the foundation of life.
Intellectual education, on the other hand, consists of acquiring knowledge and ability to adapt ourselves to the environment in which we live. It develops and refines our mental faculty. However, it is a blind instrument. It may be applied either for construction or destruction, for the elevation of mankind or for its degradation.
That is why the prophets lay so much emphasis in their ethical teachings on the need for moral training and the refinement of human conduct. Their object is to awaken and nourish the soul within us as a prerequisite of spiritual consciousness and as a step forward towards human evolution.
Unfortunately, in our modern life little attention is paid to moral education. Parents often neglect this vital duty of character formation and feel satisfied if their children observe certain superficial manners and keep up appearances in their social life. There is no deep down moral impulse to inspire and motivate their conduct.
Much less can be expected nowadays from school teachers in the way of moral education, since they consider themselves to be solely concerned with the intellectual training of children. Our modern education is highly secularized. It has little to offer in the way of a philosophy of life and neglects those values and abstract properties inherent in human nature. It deals entirely with the study of the sciences of inert matter and the material side of life. Consequently this systematic development of material knowledge has led, within less than a century, to the phenomenal triumph of science and technology - a thing unprecedented in human history and experience.
Today machinery on a vast and new scale has revolutionized industry, creating a world of potential plenty and comfort. We have almost abolished time and distance. Our medical science has made an enormous stride in eliminating disease and in improving public health and hygiene. Our scientists have penetrated far into the depths of space. They have discovered the stupendous power of the atom, which is now available both for beneficial and destructive application.
What effect has the impact of modern life and civilization produced on human beings? What consequences have these momentous changes in the conditions of human life brought about? Do the acquisition and employment of the fruits of industry constitute a veritable advance in the course of human evolution? What is the price demanded for all those lavish and glittering gadgets that science has placed in our eager but clumsy hands? The answer to all these questions reveals a grim reality that would sound alarming to many of us. Yet the plain fact is that the same mighty impulse which enabled us to attain to such a high level of material progress has produced a paradoxical reaction which is exerting a baneful influence on the non-material aspects of our life. It has actually tipped the scales against us, and is driving us slowly down the path of degradation, simply because we have neglected the laws of our nature, because we have lost our sense of balance, because we have ignored the fact that material progress, if unaccompanied by a corresponding development in the moral and spiritual aspects of life, will eventually prove a source of evil and lead to human degradation.
The civilization," is Bahá'u'lláh's grave warning. "so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men... If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of good when kept within the restraints of moderation."
The question is: Are men really degenerating? A cursory glance at the world's advanced communities would reveal that in spite of the enormous progress made in the field of education, the intellectual standard, the mental caliber of the masses, remains very low indeed. We notice that multitudes of modern individuals are afflicted by a mental weakness, by nervous and degenerative diseases for which there seems to be no effective cure.
Meanwhile cases of crime, robbery, violence, delinquency, immorality, lawlessness, and terrorism have assumed alarming proportions. Our arts, our music, our literature, the fairest fruits of human intellect have lost their true value and have been excessively vulgarized. Marriage ties and parental relationships, which constitute the warp and woof of human society, are being steadily relaxed. Modern people have be come indifferent towards all those conceptions of decency and morality that at one time held sway over the hearts of men and directed their thoughts and actions. All these vices, excesses, mental disorders, and disconcerting frustrations are but the outward signs of an internal affliction - the affliction of the soul. We are so hypnotized by the brilliant display of new gadgets, the vulgar attractions and pursuits of our time, that we seldom realize that the soul within us is atrophying, owing to insufficient nourishment.
We are being chastised for transgressing natural laws, for trespassing the bounds of moderation. We reluctantly note that man, who had gained mastery over matter, has fallen prey to his own lower nature and become a slave to his own handiwork. This grievous situation constitutes the real dilemma of the twentieth century.
What is the outlook for the younger generation? What is the position of youth in this challenging period? They find themselves in a world out of touch with God, and out of harmony with the exigencies and problems of the new life that science and industry have thrust upon us. They find school education lacking that creative impulse which is required to guide the behaviour of the individual, and unable to give a clear conception of the role he has to play in this new world in which human power and its scope are so greatly increased. They find doctrines that are inconsistent with reason and the established facts of science.
This sad situation prompts many young people of today to cut themselves off from the idea of God and religion, and to adopt a sceptical attitude with no genuine faith at all. In vain they search around them seeking a substitute for faith to fill the void and soothe the aching soul within. They try evasive doctrines and philosophies, and pernicious ideologies, only to find them hollow and unsatisfying. They turn to scientists, statesmen, and the so-called leaders of thought for enlightenment, only to be disillusioned.
Our youth are likely to grow desperate and dissatisfied. They find no calming influence, no soul-uplifting power, to direct their steps towards lofty and constructive goals. Thus it would seem a natural consequence that their sensitive subconscious minds should revolt in protest against the perversity and hollowness of our present way of life and should seek such gratifications that will at least momentarily relieve their sense of frustration.
This is the sad fate that our decadent social system presents to youth the world over today. There is no doubt that the effect of this grievous situation on the morals and psychology of the younger generation has been catastrophic.
How are we going to tackle the problem of child education? How are we going to train our children according to those lofty standards of Bahá'í conduct set up by Bahá'u'lláh and exemplified by the life of our Master, Abdu'l-Bahá? Obviously we cannot bring our children up in a sort of egg-shell. We cannot isolate them from the rest of the world, of which we are all a part. We cannot shut them off from the gay but illusive social life that flows ceaselessly at our doors. Little, too, can we expect in the way of character training from our institutions of learning.
The Bahá'í Faith regards parenthood as a divine privilege, and at the same time imposes a colossal responsibility on it that cannot be shirked on any pretext whatever. A single child whose conduct is noble, 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, is far superior to thousands of ill mannered ones; the former would prove itself the crowning pride of a generation while the latter would be a source of shame and misery.
He further points out that this sacred and delicate task can in no wise be effectively fulfilled unless the parents set up, through the dynamic force of their own characters and conduct, through loving self-dedication, such a shining example that it will shed ample light of moral guidance on the path their children are destined to tread. This is the essence of His exhortation and constitutes the bedrock of character training.
Educators, as well as parents, ought to bear in mind that they should not remain content with gestures of morality, with a mere observance of a set of conventional codes of behaviour, which have no real value whatever. Rather they should aim at instilling noble virtues and qualities into their children's natures, so that their thoughts and deeds, their whole attitude towards life, become the expression of the inner improvement; so that thus they may be able to lead happy lives far removed from the frivolous and sordid satisfactions of our age.
Let the following moral precepts gleaned from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá guide our steps towards the lofty goal of moral evolution, the attainment of which would usher in the Golden Age of human maturity and the dawn of Divine Civilization on this planet:
"The companions of God," Bahá'u'lláh declares, "are, in this day, the lump that must leaven the peoples of the world. They must show forth such trustworthiness, such truthfulness and perseverance, such deeds and character that all mankind may profit by their example."
"Be ye the trustees of God amongst His creatures." He in another passage admonishes men, "and the emblems of His generosity amidst His people. Let your eye be chaste, your hand faithful, your tongue truthful, and your heart enlightened." "Be generous in prosperity," is yet another counsel, "and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbour, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgement, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility."
"Beware lest ye offend any heart," is 'Abdu'l-Bahá's admonition, "lest ye speak against anyone in his absence. Be no cause of grief to anyone. Be silent concerning the faults of others. Be kind to all men and treat your enemies as your friends. Direct your whole effort towards the happiness of those who are despondent. Bestow food upon the hungry, clothe the needy and glorify the humble. Be a cause of healing for every sick one, a comforter for every sorrowful one, a pleasant water for every thirsty one, a heavenly table for every hungry one, a star to every horizon, a light for every lamp, a herald to everyone who yearns for the kingdom of God. Be truthful. Be hospitable. Be reverent. Be humble."