Education and Happiness, Tango and T’ai Chi

I just saw a Facebook photo of a former student of mine who has become deeply involved in Tango dancing, traveling around the country to compete in contests, traveling to Argentina to learn from experts, clearly happy and delighted in the photos as she dances.

At the same time, after giving my TEDx UFM talk in which I admit to no longer doing t’ai chi, I’ve begun doing it again, and feel much healthier as a consequence.

Most people are monomaniacally focused on education as academic skill acquisition.  While I have created schools that outshine most (almost all?) others in terms of academic skill acquisition, for me academic skill acquisition remains strictly a partial aspect of education.  As mentioned before, the purpose of education is happiness and well-being for all, NOT academics for the sake of academics.

Are tango and t’ai chi important dimensions of happiness?  Well, maybe.  It depends.  Both are practices where one can develop deep expertise through continual practice, and thereby spend significant periods of time each day engaged in a flow state (i.e., being happy).  They also both provide significant health benefits, which clearly contribute to happiness and well-being.

Going a bit deeper, because I know that this former student of mine, a female, was raised with extraordinary innocence, I expect that the world of competitive tango allows her to engage enjoyably with men in a way that is less sordid than is the hook-up bar culture.  Separately, t’ai chi has given me deep mindfulness and serenity, and helps me to make better decisions in my personal life.

I would never insist on a national curriculum that forces all students to tango or to learn t’ai chi.  Both practices are on the esoteric margins of American culture today.  Tango dancing and t’ai chi are at present esoteric cultural practices that highly educated people take up sometime in their 20s, 30s, or perhaps their 40s.  They are virtually non-existent at the secondary school level.

One of the unrecognized aspects of the legally enforced dominant operating system imposed by government education is that certain social systems are more or less enforced by law.  To some extent, the dominant social curriculum in American high schools consists of football and cheerleading, drinking and drugs.  There are variations (basketball is major, and to a lesser extent baseball, track, hockey, volleyball, golf, tennis, swimming, etc. with respect to sports, and at some schools it is almost all alcohol with no drugs, elsewhere pot is prevalent, etc.)  But even the variations are typically within limits.

The importance of creating innovative schools for me consists not merely in the opportunity to innovate academically, but also to innovate culturally.  Thus the physical education program at MVHS included mountain biking and yoga, at the Atheneum School faculty and students all did t’ai chi together each morning.

These alternative practices are not only important due to the benefits specific to the activities (tango and t’ai chi have different specific benefits than do mountain biking and yoga), but they also allow for the creation of new and different adolescent sub-cultures, with different social, emotional, and wellness characteristics than are prevalent in mainstream subcultures.  Here I can’t describe the entire set of circumstances required to create such different subcultures; I only want to call attention to a little recognized direction that happens to be of great interest and importance to me.

What would happen culturally if, instead of a relatively narrowly defined set of “normal” behaviors and rituals that almost all American teens experienced, we had numerous cultural experiments with rich subcultures devoted to diverse practices?  Might society move in interesting directions?  Might new and wonderful ways of living as adults evolve?

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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