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“Born to see, my task is to watch” – Goethe’s Faust II
“Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato wrote that the most important task for a society was to teach the young to find pleasure in the right objects. Now Plato was conservative even for his times, so he had rather definite ideas about what “those things” were that young people should learn to enjoy. We are much too sophisticated in this day and age to have strong feelings in the matter. Yet we probably agree that we would feel better if our children learned to enjoy cooperation rather than violence; reading rather than stealing; chess rather than dice; hiking rather than watching television. In other words, no matter how relativistic and tolerant we have become, we will have priorities. And we do want the next generation to share those priorities. Finally, many of us suspect that the next generation will not preserve what we value unless they now enjoy it to some extent.The problem is that it is easier to find pleasure in things that are easier, in activities like sex and violence that are already programmed into our genes. Hunting, fishing, eating, and mating have priviledged places in our nervous system. It is also easy to enjoy making money, for discovering new lands, or conquering new territories, or building elaborate palaces, temples or tombs because these projects are in synchrony with survival strategies established long ago in our physiological makeup.
It is much more difficult to learn to enjoy doing things that were discovered recently in our evolution, like manipulating symbolic systems by doing math or science or writing poetry or music, and learning from doing these things about the world and about ourselves.
Children grow up believing that football players and rock singers must be happy and envy the stars of the entertainment world for what they think must be fabulous, fulfilling lives. Asked what they would like to do when they grow up, most of them would choose to be athletes or entertainers. They don’t realize until much later, if at all, that the glamour of those lives is vulgar tinsel, that to be like them leads anywhere but to happiness.
Neither parents or schools are very effective at teaching the young to find pleasure in the right things. Adults, themselves often deluded with infatuation with fatuous models, conspire in the deception. They make serious tasks seem dull and hard, and frivolous ones exciting and easy. Schools generally fail to teach how exciting, how mesmerizingly beautiful science or mathematics can be; they teach the routine of literature or history rather than the adventure.
It is in this sense that creative individuals live exemplary lives. They show how joyful and interesting complex symbolic activity is. They have struggled through marshes of ingnorance, deserts of disinterest, and with the help of parents and a few visionary teachers they have found themselves on the other side of the known. They have become pioneers of culture, models of what men and women of the future will be – if there is to be a future at all. It is by following their example that human consciousness will grow beyond the limitations of the past, the programs that genes and cultures have wired into our brains. Perhaps our children, or their children, will feel more joy in writing poetry and solving theorems than in being passively entertained. The lives of these creative individuals reassure us that it is not impossible.” – M. Csikszentmihalyi