On a typical day, you will find me seated before 25 community college students. Often I think, “Pinch me; I’m dreaming! Teaching is the most honored profession in the Universe.” Other days, I am nonplussed by the palm-sized babysitters, distractors and anxiety-soothers we call cell phones. Despite my efforts to challenge and inspire, students remain plugged in and tuned out. They are a constant, nagging reminder that disconnecting from technology is the only way back to a real, substantial and healthy life.
From 2002-2005, I taught at Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota. I loved my Native students. I would relay an assignment and sit back. For the first 20 minutes, they would gaze vacantly as though at some invisible screen. I would get the dreads. I’d think, “Oh, no. They hate this project. I’m done!” In a matter of minutes, the room would be abuzz, not with sound, but with the vital energy of engagement. The students would cut, paste, read, think, write and think some more. By the end of class, they had created impeccable works of scholarship and art.
I do not know how they fare now, as I have not returned since 2005. I can say with certainty that, at the time, concentrating in class or connecting to Gaia came naturally to the Lakota, who for a long time remained immune to the allure of the flip phone. Prior to the invasion of cell phones, news traveled by what is affectionately termed “the Moccasin Telegraph,” that mysterious je ne sais quoi method by which information, events, and gossip swiftly spread throughout the Native community — all without help from broadcast networks or radio towers.
My current crop of students spend their days with phone in hand or bud in ear. Contact with the natural realm — or any real plane of existence other than the technological — is an afterthought. Life ensues in the virtual realm of social media and the Internet. They will likely not pause to gauge the thickness of a squirrel’s fur and its predictive connection to the imminent onslaught of frigid weather. They are not inclined to attend to the conversation of crows, avian friends and messengers. They feign no interest in the waning of a fingernail moon, the popping of early spring buds or the sluicing of winter melt water, undulating in oily, rainbowy rivulets over the asphalt. All of these are, instead, “experienced” by clicking on a gif, YouTube video, Instagram or Snapchat.
While I’m not in the business of conversion, I do see it as part of my job as educator to foster and facilitate the learning process. I want my students to experience the joy of discovering an unlimited well of ideas and creativity available by accessing the vibrant domains of self and Nature. Unlike my students at the tribal college, my Normandale students at present respond to new tasks with visible agitation, a flood of questions, and more than a few cleverly disguised attempts to bamboozle me into talking them through every micro-step and nuance of what ought to be their assignment. Were they simply to take a walk in nature to gather their shakes, they could easily uncover a wealth of inspiration through their own observations, talents and original creative ideas.
Years ago, I had the impetus to write a treatise entitled “Spiritual Pedagogy.” Alas, I waited too long: that phrase has since taken hold in books and scholarly journals everywhere. Still, I hold fast to its source, which lies in Cedric Red Feather’s Mandan spiritual wisdom. He has taught, and still maintains, that there are four parts of a person: the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional/social. Address the spiritual, and all of the others fall in line.
I cannot prescribe for anyone a particular path to the spiritual — for you must find it on your own. It may be as close as your own backyard. Take a walk within the natural world; listen intently to the super-numerous beings all around us. Therein lies the road back from your technological Emerald City. All you need do is click your heels three times and recite, “There’s no nourishment like Gaia. There’s no nourishment like Gaia.”