In a society that puts such value on efficiency and productivity we are often quite resistant to the practice of deep contemplation, specifically contemplating the why of things, questioning the reasons that we do what we do. Why(!) is this? Why questions are unsettling because they hold the potential to shake the very ground on which we stand, unsettling the foundations on which we have built our lives and practices.

But ‘the way of why’ is an essential practice if we are to live wisely. Joseph Campbell tells of the all too familiar fate of ‘climbing the ladder’ of career success and getting to the top only to discover that the ladder was up against the wrong wall. We measure our worth all too often, as individuals and as a society, based on productivity, progress and achievement – ‘getting things done’ – failing often to look at whether the things we are doing have any real meaning, or contribute in a healthy way to the common good.

The ‘why people’ in society and our organisations – those who challenge, question and inquire – are often jettisoned and marginalised, labelled trouble-makers, obstructing the path of progress. This is like the story of a group of foresters cutting down a section of forest. Seven or eight trees in one of the team checks the map and realises that the path they are paving is in the wrong place – they were supposed to be working on the next forest over. Realising their mistake, he informs the others but is rebuked for holding things up. “Look at all the progress we are making!” they point out.

As ridiculous as this sounds, is this not what we do the whole time in our personal, organisational and social life? We get a hint that maybe we are ploughing the wrong field but we have invested so much time and energy in this direction that it would feel like too big a defeat to start from scratch again. Instead we ignore the subtle sense that we are going down the wrong path and keep going, each step forward bringing us deeper and deeper into the morass.

In relation to education, Abraham Maslow writes that there are two different factors at play: “First of all, there is the overall majority of teachers, principals, curriculum planners, school superintendents, who are devoted to passing on the knowledge that children need in order to live in our industrialized society. They are not especially imaginative or creative, nor do they often question why they are teaching the things they teach. Their chief concern is with efficiency, that is, with implanting the greatest number of facts into the greatest possible number of children, with a minimum of time expense and effort.” The other group of educators are ‘humanistically oriented’, who have as their goal the creation of better human beings, that is, the facilitation of self-actualisation and self-transcendence.

When we consider the why of educating what might we come up with as our aims and goals? Are we simply aiming to help children adapt and fit into society or might our aim be something more revolutionary? As the thinker Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. It is hard to argue that modern industrial societies are healthy when we consider the levels of division, inequality, poverty, not to mention the environmental degradation they inflict upon the earth. The world needs an education system that can unleash and nurture the creative potential held within young people that can be used to contribute towards solving the world’s problems. If there is to be any hope for the future of the race we must begin to access the greatest untapped resource in the world: the creativity held within each human being.

This is what Maslow is pointing to when he talks about the creation of better human beings. More specifically he outlines what the purpose of a humanistic education might be:

“The chief value of the ideal college (education)…would be the discovery of identity, and with it, the discovery of vocation”.

William Damon describes this as defining a ‘desired self-identity’ and an ‘inspiring purpose to dedicate one’s life to’. This boils down to two questions that could be a good guide on which to base educational activity:

What kind of person do I wish to become?

What do I want to accomplish with my life?

These are what are referred to as ‘ultimate questions’ because they address what matters most in life. Maslow elaborates by remarking that the discovery of identity is finding out “what your real desires and characteristics are, and being able to live in a way that expresses them”. This means learning to be honest and authentic, and allowing your words and behaviour to be “the true and spontaneous expression of your inner feelings”.

Our culture and education largely teach us to deny certain feelings and encourage us to inhibit their expression by denying, shutting down, or cutting off. Maslow argues that healthy people seem “to be able to hear their inner-feeling-voices more clearly than most people”. They know what they want, and they know equally clearly what they don’t want…Other people, in contrast, seem to be empty, out of touch with their own inner signals…They use external criteria for everything from choosing their food and clothing to questions of values and ethics”.

This discovery of identity naturally leads, according to Maslow, to the discovery of vocation:

“Part of learning who you are, part of being able to hear your inner voices, is discovering what it is you want to do with your life. Finding one’s identity is almost synonymous with finding one’s career, revealing the altar upon which one will sacrifice oneself”.

Maslow finishes by summing up the role of educational institutions: “Schools should be helping children to look within themselves, and from this self-knowledge derive a set of values”. Identity and vocation form the basis upon which a meaningful life is built. If these foundations are not in place we will search in vain for the pseudo-fulfilments of money, possessions, success, status. The sense of purpose and direction that naturally arises from a strong sense of identity and vocation not only contribute toward the individual’s happiness but help the individual make the greatest contribution they can to improving their community, their society and their world.