One day, several years ago, I read a quote from Thoreau, and his words stopped me cold: "We are all schoolmasters and the universe is our school house."
I, who have been a teacher all my life, had failed to realize that, as Thoreau says, this is everyone's true nature — being a teacher. I don't mean the teacher who stands up in front of a classroom. I mean someone who nurtures and inspires and encourages and guides and challenges and supports others by talking with them.
At heart, we're all teachers. Think how moved you are when someone asks for advice, and how deeply stirring it is to help open up new possibilities for another person. The essence of each one of us is this impulse to nurture and transform. It's at the center of our true selves.
We Don't Need More Classroom Teachers: We Need Barefoot Teachers
We don't need more classroom teachers, we need barefoot teachers. The term barefoot didn't just come to me out of the blue. It was buried in my subconscious, a forgotten memory about a time when China trained thousands of lay people in the basics of medicine and health care, and sent them out to the small towns and villages throughout the country. They were called barefoot doctors, and apparently they transformed Chinese health care.
I was always fascinated with that story. And then, a few years ago I discovered that in some African countries the concept still exists, and further, in India there is a barefoot college -- a school that encourages villagers to live in sustainable ways, helping them preserve their ancient customs as well as learn new ones that will help them survive.
So, when that term barefoot surfaced from my memory, I suddenly saw thousands of teachers spread out across our land inspiring people to lives of joy and meaning, lives dedicated to creating a caring culture committed to the common good.
Barefoot Teachers of the Past: Engaging Hearts and Minds
Have there been barefoot teachers in the past? Most of us would list Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. — all who transformed people through the power of their words. These were not common, ordinary individuals by any means, but it occurred to me that I might discover in them the elements that make up a barefoot teacher.
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What struck me most, as I thought about these leaders, is that they were devoted to engaging others' hearts and minds. They worked to give people a more expansive sense of life. All of them were iconoclasts — questioning and challenging authority and the dominant culture. And they did it all with conversation.
And as I began to think about these teachers, I realized the true role that conversation had played in history. Conversation was so threatening to the status quo that Socrates was killed for asking questions. Jesus was crucified for telling stories. Madame de Stael was banished for holding salons. The tool that barefoot teachers have used throughout the ages is conversation. None of these people were warriors or kings who — we are taught — were the ones who changed the world. They were common, ordinary souls who believed in the power of talking with others.
If we can begin to see ourselves in this tradition, our daily conversation will take on new significance. We may not be a Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, or Gandhi, but we can draw on their inspiration to transform our daily exchanges with people.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Transformed Vision of the Common Good
What was their vision? It's expressed in a document that is relatively recent — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was developed by the United Nations in 1948.
It describes human beings as having inherent worth and dignity, born free and equal. It asserts that we should have freedom from fear and want; that everyone has a right to work, to rest, and have leisure; we have a right to an adequate standard of living including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, old age or other "lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond control."We have a right to education that shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
But the declaration doesn't just talk about rights. It says that the government should be the will of the people and that we should act in a spirit of brotherhood. (It actually says this.) And this is the clause that floored me: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible." Community is legitimized and affirmed.
Authenticity: The Remaking of a Counterculture
I've been searching for other visions of the barefoot teacher. Then I found a book that has helped: Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goilinan. He looks at some of the counterculture advocates throughout history, people like Socrates, Keats and Shelley, Thoreau and Emerson, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon — some of them the same people I identified as barefoot teachers.
He says that there has always been a counterculture resisting the mainstream culture, and he lists the characteristics that they all seem to have held: they were antiauthoritarian, egalitarian, and irreverent; they searched for truth within and challenged convention, hypocrisy, and pomposity — always searching for freedom and joy. I love this list. Isn't this what you want? This to me is the barefoot teacher. And there is one characteristic that encompasses all the others authenticity. That's what all those traits are about.
Each Era Has Its Own Great Work: Saving the Planet
Theologian Thomas Berry has said that each era has its own Great Work, and that ours is saving the planet. But of course, we can't save the planet unless we save its people as well. All the problems are related, and all spring from an unawareness that we are all one, all part of the web of life.
Only if we realize this — and act on it — will we be able to create a new culture of collaboration, caring, and concern for the common good.
©2013 by Cecile Andrews. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good
by Cecile Andrews.
The heart of happiness is joining with others in good talk and laughter. Living Room Revolution provides a practical toolkit of concrete strategies to facilitate personal and social change by bringing people together in community and conversation. The regeneration of social ties and the sense of caring and purpose that comes from creating community drive this essential transformation. Each person can make a difference, and it can all start in your own living room!
Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.
About the Author
Cecile Andrews is a community educator focusing on voluntary simplicity, "take back your time," the "Sharing Economy," and Pursuit of Happiness Conversation Circles. She is the author of Slow is Beautiful, Circle of Simplicity and co-author of Less is More. She has a doctorate in education from Stanford University. Cecile is very active in the Transition Movement in the US. She and her husband are founders of Seattle's Phinney Ecovillage, a neighborhood-based sustainable community.