Tending the Roots in a STEM-Crazed World

'In Love with Poetry'

Prartho’s essay on poetry and creativity in education – and the capability of amazement.

What Poetry Brings to a Classroom

For whatever reason, I emerged from the wee hours of childhood on a quest. (Perhaps we all do.) Alone on a rainy afternoon, or catching butterflies in the summer fields, or deep in the throes of a fever dream, I had bumped into some mysterious inhabitants of my inner realms, and I intended to get to know them better. And so, it was with great expectations that I entered the University Grand Hall for my first lecture in Psych 101. Perhaps I would get my first glimpse behind the curtain of human experience, to look in on its unadorned figure. But in his first lecture, my professor leaned into the podium, cleared his throat, and pronounced: “Psychology is a science, and … [dramatic pause] … as a science, it’s purpose is to predict and control … human behavior.”

Your Dreams Take Flight

I, who had a fondness for science and math (my SAT scores leaned in those directions), was horrified. Were Darwin’s investigations into the mysteries of evolution aimed at prediction and control? Were Einstein’s meditations on Gravity and Time for the purpose of predicting and controlling them? When Archimedes ran naked in the streets, did he shout, “I am in control of my bathtub’s misplaced water!” ? No, he roared, “Eureka!”

In spite of this deadening introduction – or maybe, defiantly, because of it – I continued my studies in psychology through the masters level. But I veered in worrisome directions for my professors whose holy grail was quantifiable evidence. I spent most of my free time at the ‘touchy-feely’ Counseling Center, exploring aspects of consciousness that behaviorists wholeheartedly dismissed as tricks of the imagination. And instead of designing an easy-to-manipulate experiment with the department’s formidable lab-rat population, I focused my thesis research on creativity.

With this ironic touch: It was funded by a National Science Foundation Grant!

National anxiety around the US’s ability to ‘compete globally’ was similar then to now. With Sputnik, the USSR had beat us into space, which prompted a brief but steady stream of money into research on what makes a person creative. And what most studies unearthed (including mine) was unsettling to the empirical soul. The essential traits of a creative mind included suspension of one’s critical faculties and an open door to the unknown, the unlikely, the unwieldy… the unpredictable.

Once again, national anxiety over our ‘ability to compete globally’, which is the buzz phrase in educational debates, is rearing its fretful head. In recent international tests, American students placed shockingly low in science and math, and were first in only one category: self confidence. This revelation has sent politicians and educators in a desperate scramble to stay at the forefront of our brave new technological world. Thus, a new educational gold-standard has been conceived and sent out onto the white waters of the American classroom: STEM. A curriculum devoted to Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math.

This banner flies even from our elementary schools. Drive through Fairfax, and find St. Rita’s School proudly festooned in those letters. Who can argue, of course, that our future won’t be thronged in technology? Even now, the left-brained fitness required to make one’s way through a day’s worth of digital mazes is daunting. And it seems likely to grow only more fierce.

But a curriculum so heavily weighted on what can be measured and manipulated, predicted and controlled, certainly gives pause to the neglected interior, to the artist in us all. Thankfully, a right-brained contingent has risen up and wedged an A for the Arts into the mix, creating a counter movement called STEAM. But I’m not sure the arts have found their rightful place in the story. I’d like to suggest we dig a little deeper, we citizens of the Over World of Technological Wonders. That we get down to the roots, without which nary a stem will rise.

What are the roots of human life? And what practices tend them? For one thing, roots do their work under ground, in the dark. They draw water and essential minerals to the plant; they nourish it and keep it juicy. So, perhaps the roots of human experience are the aspects of a person that must be left to their own devices and remain in the dark. The parts that drink from underground springs and bring forth the visible expressions of life—growth, and ultimately, blossoming.

And perhaps the water our human roots drink, that which keeps us nourished and juicy, is wonder. Aha! Have we arrived at poetry? Isn’t wonder where all poems begin? And doesn’t science also have its roots in wonder? As is often the case, Albert Einstein, our nation’s Master of Math and Science. says it best:

“The finest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.

I recently attended a panel discussion among ecologically minded scientists whose mission is to integrate a sense of ‘spirit’ into the necessary scientific rigor needed to bring our world into a healthy balance. One among them with countless degrees across scientific disciplines, summed it up like this:

“The only thing that will save our planet is a deepening sense of awe.”

And what discipline deepens awe, if not poetry? Poetry is the wonderer’s art form. It makes its home in the unmeasurable and the unanswerable, it revels in fiddling with the impossible. I have been a Poet in the Schools for over 15 years, a privileged witness of what can happen in a classroom with only pencils, wide-lined paper, and a model poem or two—often one we write together, on the spot, on the board. That is to say, I’ve had my share of glimpses behind the curtain where the unadorned figure of human experience does her wild dance.

Children are made of awe. I have never met one who wasn’t over-pouring with wonder. They love to be surprised and are perfectly happy going back to square one. If you ask a gathering of children what the weather is like inside their desk or which color is best at keeping secrets or what sound the heart makes on the first day of summer, no further explanation is needed. Every one of them will raise their hand and wave it hard. They understand the world of odd connections. And they literally applaud when it’s poem-making time, which is something worth giving our attention to. Metaphor-making, the antidote to compartmentalization, the art of slipping over boundary lines … brings joy, the personal “Eureka!”

And so, it is a sad state of affairs that in recent years as budgets wear thin and school boards and foundations look for places to cut, poetry seems to be among the first dispensables. From a certain perspective, I understand it. There is nothing glitzy about poetry. In fact, it’s probably as low-tech as one can get. And besides, almost no adults like it anymore (present company excluded!). For many, it was that weird discipline nobody could make heads or tails of and couldn’t wait to outgrow.

And yet… Given the right introduction (i.e., let’s spend some time wondering together), whole classrooms of children stand and cheer when the teacher announces Poetry Time. They know it’s time to tune back into their own mysterious roots, hidden from view, and to listen to the never-thought-before ideas those roots bring up from the dark. It’s time to wonder again. To ask the questions that have no answers. To shine their own small lights on what will never be measured, controlled or predicted.

But from this seeming chaos, all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math… all stems are born. And these children might, in fact, bring poetry along with them into their adulthood days… for the sheer fun of it. And poetry, with its metaphoric connections that hint at an ultimate unity, might turn out be one simple remedy to relax our anxiety over ‘global competition’. It might remind us of the joys of cooperation and the appreciation of differences… it might keep us capable of amazement.

Essay by Prartho, first published in Marin County Poetry Center Newsletter


Prartho SerenoIn Pune 2, along with designing Osho’s swan logo, which she envisioned as a lone swan breaking its cosmic egg and making its way, through deep instinct, to Mansarovar, (Ma Prem) Prartho Sereno edited Osho’s books, was a feature writer for Osho Times International, and worked as a painter of items sold in the ashram boutique. Since then, she has authored three prize-winning poetry collections and a book of personal essays. She has been a California Poet in the Schools since 1999 and teaches a sold-out quarterly course at the College of Marin, ‘The Poetic Pilgrimage: Poem-Making as Spiritual Practice’. Her latest book, ‘Elephant Raga’, won the national Blue Lynx Prize and will be released in April, 2015. www.prarthosereno.com

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