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The Prepared Mind


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.

Reacting to my piece, 5 Writers Imagine America: Reflecting Forward, 2016, my friend, Vermont documentarian, Michael Hanish, emailed the following (I will place it here as an image because the form is relevant, I think; it's exactly as it appears in his email—like a poem that we'll title, "So"):


It's like a riddle, isn't?

"So," then a pause. We must begin there: "So" is as if to say, summarizing 5 Writers Imagine, Now that you've said what you said, following Thoreau's most men lead lives of quiet desperation and that this desperation is orchestrated—meaning it is systemic, purposefully constructed, a mirror of our socio-economic structure—and that this manufacturing of longing brings with it great suffering, a cost to society, its citizens, everyone, why then live as we do? What has gotten us here? How did we get here?

Socrates believed that the most important form of knowledge is about "how best to live." Socrates talks about "definitional knowledge"; that is, how we define words and concepts, diving deeply into what holds our definitions together, their lifeblood. His belief in wisdom and goodness is derived from human logic and natural skepticism—what we say we want to teach, the entry level, intellectually, to citizenry. Any person who knows what goodness and truth are will live that way. It is his ignorance of goodness and truth—even the rejection of it for self-gain—that prevent him from being a wise and honest man.

Socrates is the fundament of our classic Idea of Education: we want to ensure citizens live good, complete, and honest lives—we all want that. Isn't that so? The good life begins by realizing our inherent good—that there is something good, perhaps unnameable, a sense of this or that, we strive towards; it is fundamentally and universally understood to mean "the good life," "how best to live." So the essence, first, may simply be a feeling, a good feeling that comes when things go well, when one does something and a positive outcome is evident. This really only happens when we're doing something for someone; this is true of teaching, what a teacher looks for, that reaction—the upturned brow, the slight grin of recognition, the ah ha nod. And we, the teachers, we get that, we get that feeling that comes across and hits us sensually.

The essence towards which we thus move has to be empathy, sensually perceived. Empathy is a natural condition of evolution; it's essential, though if we look around, today, this concept may be difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, empathy is necessary—or should we say, the essence of a civilization's survivalability. E.O. Wilson, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, argues as much.

The "prepared mind" and the mind in the process of preparing to be a citizen through Education must first grapple with empathy—its importance, its place. If the citizenry is empathetic we've solved quite a bit—a mark of evolution. This does not necessarily come through educational institutions, though; communities, families, friends, even online versions of ourselves and our dreams play a hand in how we come to understand the value of empathy, such as we see in this super community service project, Thread, urging "others to believe—that empathetic and enduring relationships are our society’s most essential form of wealth. This conviction stems from the understanding that at some point in each of our lives we have all felt alone." Empathy enables a critical apparatus that is very discerning—and always striking for some good. The prophetically named Thread aims for this. We need more Threads, more intimate connections built on empathy.

The next critical word in Michael's "So" poem is preparing or to prepare, to be prepared, " is in part about preparing the mind," says Michael.

It's very facile to go directly to the logical, to Reason; we're prone to this concept of being prepared that aligns with a highly structured educational model that addresses the mind, strictly, playing along with our production systems. This is what then separates us through education. From the prenatal stage to college, kids fortunate enough to have been born into wealth - the high end of our hierarchical socio-economic system, or is it a ladder?—have been on a conveyor belt to excellence. There is no room, here, to wonder, to experiment, to analyze and critique; this is a system about right answers, tests of one kind—and it's why we need organizations such as Thread that are involved in nurturing those our system leaves behind and marginalizes. But the super kid on the conveyor belt to excellence doesn't realize that s/he is also marginalized because imagination, creativity, any veering from the system of elegant approbation is rejected, denied, devalued. So this kid enters college with a very narrow perspective and, this kid, is expected to one day lead.


The first answer to what the prepared mind wants is simple: obedience, acquiescence, abdication. A strict socio-economic system that is exclusive, not inclusive, and requires followers and few leaders. This may be the most valued answer because it's tied to wealth—the acquisition and maintenance of it by a few.

Yet the mind is prepared, more often than not, outside the confines of education, which tends to dissassociate the mind from the body since we tend to look only at the student in class, not the student living in the context of the class, the school, his and her community. We even sit students that way at desks: we look only at their heads, not their entire beings. The Being cannot be a part of education, but it's the most critical component: the establishment of a critical consciousness that is mindful of his and her place in the world, which is the first criteria for empathy. But education is very clear about this: we only prepare the mind, as if the mind is somehow disconnected from the heart.

So in our efforts to educate, we leave out the most intimate—what is intuitive and sensual—which must involve how one feels and how these feelings inform decision making.

A second answer to what the prepared mind wants is also simple. Following obedience, the prepared mind wants citizens to be anonymous, homogeneous, one and the same, as we see in the classic movie, The Matrix: everyone beating to the same drum. In another context, it's Melville's Moby Dick where all on the Pequod are asked to follow one direction, a singular purpose, disassociating themselves from their respective identities.

The tension between the self and others, between one's individual needs, dreams and desires, and that of one's society is a vintage American struggle. How we've figured out ways of controlling it is through the commodification of human experience, placing a value on the things we wear, things we say, things we produce, things we hold in our hands, so much so that our entire selves are merely cogs in the harsh marketplace: if you don't have a value, you're out, relegated to a life on the margins.

And yet a third answer to what the prepared mind wants is this: those that cannot follow, those that don't look like and behave like everyone else on the conveyor belt to apathy—a result of excellence, mind you—must be removed, so the systems for removal, be these prisons, abject poverty and slums, even places where citizens live invisible lives, such as those in Flint, Michigan, for instance, or those on the borders of legality, must be strong.

The most challenging form of preparation, which we are not prepared to handle and thus are not doing well at, has to do with how we address, acclimate, and define change. Change is inevitable - yet we want to deny it. The clock changes second by second, minute by minute, each moment fleeting, while also melding into the next. So the mind must be, first, prepared for the monumental changes that come about simply waiting for an appointment, watching TV, listening to a lecture, running. Minute by minute change is inevitable. The inevitability of change causes consternation; however, those that accept this change and live accordingly - which means living in the moment as change occurs - are the happiest since evaluating the significance of an action, in the moment, going back to Socrates and extending to Aristotle, always tends to move towards what's most pleasant, happiest, most insightful therefore comprehensive.

A final answer, therefore, to what the prepared mind wants is to ensure, through powerful systems of mediation—social media, media in general, the noise in our society—that citizens are kept from understanding how powerful it is to be present in the moment one is in because, in the precise moment one realizes his and her complete sense of self, that moment is pregnant with life and possibility; in the moment, the individual is fulfilled, complete and whole. Which doesn't mean that there's not strife; of course there is, but in that moment there is potential and hope, possibilities. Powerful systems of mediation want to have us always looking beyond the moment, to tomorrow, as if life is a series of soap operates and we're to wonder what the next episode may be. In that form of existence, a person is not present, not doing, but merely wallowing in doubt, self-pity, confusion, and seeking narcissitic approbation - the pursuit of vanity and egoism that is praised for its singlemindedness. Thus unabated solipsism becomes normalized. Ultimately, the system benefits economically by ensuring we are all extreme narcissists; only the egoist is capable of marginalizing others, of pushing away human life, determining that it's unworthy.

How's it working out for us?

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