Monday, November 15, 2010

A Bit More on Totems

Yesterday I wrote a post about education and totems, and the recognition of different personality types. A very profound comment, which I reposted there, suggested that "We have to be able to teach all modalities (aural, visual, kinesthetic) to all children." And while I completely agree with this, it is not quite the same as what I was talking about.

While thinking about it, I realized that there are different things being learned in school, different things being taught by the teachers. The primary one that society seems to focus on is the intellectual stuff, which can be taught to the teachers and further conveyed to all the students. To do this, we need to learn to reach all the students in many different ways, not only because people learn differently, but also because people pick up different things in each modality. This is experienced by all of us as we go through the Ruhi Books in the training institute in our area. We learn some things by memorizing, and other things by answering the various questions. We learn still more by doing the practices, and then reflecting on how that experience sheds new light upon what we have studied.

But there is still something else, altogether, to be said for the teacher / student interaction in the school setting: Not all teachers can reach out and connect with every student on that profound level that makes a huge difference in the life of that student.

Oh, and this is not the fault of the teacher, nor the fault of the student. It's just the way it is.

Aside: There is a great story of a famous teacher of the Cause (I think it was either Ali Kuli Khan or Lutfullah Hakim, but I wouldn't swear to it) who was giving a  talk one evening, and Ruhiyyih Khanum was there in the audience. At the end of the talk, they said, "And now Ruhiyyih Khanum will tell you a little bit about the Faith." She was shocked by this, but went up and spoke anyways. Afterwards, she went up to the speaker and asked what he thought he was doing, putting her on the spot like that. He explained that there may have been people in the audience whom he would never have been able to reach, just because of their different personalities. No matter how he tried, he said, he would never be able to connect with them. Perhaps, because she was different, she might be able to reach them, and how could he deny them this opportunity?

This is how I feel about teachers in the school system.

When I was a child I had some excellent teachers who, through no fault of their own, just didn't connect with me. They were excellent teachers, and I learned a lot from them, but there was no "connection" there. Then there was another teacher who almost universally hated by my classmates, but for some reason, her and I just became very good friends. She is one my cherished teachers and I would say she changed the course of my life.

This is what I'm referring to.

My history teacher, whom everyone loved, and who taught us so much about the love of history, just didn't click with me. My chemistry teacher, however, did. She first taught me a lot about the subject she was paid to teach, but then went on and taught me about how to see what is important in life.

It seems to me unrealistic to expect all teachers to connect with all children. Life just doesn't work like that. We are not interchangeable cogs on a wheel. Some people we work well with, and others we don't.

And it is here that I find the personal animal totem a useful metaphor. Oh, and to be sure, this is different from the family, clan or tribal totems. You just need to do a bit of a search on totems to see the difference.

So bear with me while I recount what I know of how this system worked.

A child would be born and grow up in a village. They would be watched by everyone around them. All would get to know who they were. Then, at the appropriate time, which differed amongst different tribes, the child would be given their totem. This was a public ceremony, presided over by either a shaman or an elder. Through this, the child would be consciously aware of what their totem was, as would everyone else. Also, the totem was not usually chosen by the child, but by people who had lots of experience and knew what traits to look for.

Today, I have worked in offices where personality tests were adminstered to help people understand inter-office dynamics. To me, this seems a bit similar to the idea of the totems that I am talking about in a school. But let's face it, it far more fun to be a skunk than an "istj".

You see, when we are a bit more aware of how people interact, we can actually put that information to good use. Those of us who have had the bounty of staying after school with a teacher, willingly, and helped them clean their room while they just chatted, know of what I am speaking. It is those conversations, those friendships with someone in a position of authority, that are life changing.

So why not do what we can to encourage it?


  1. This comment is from Juliet Martinez, and has been reprinted here with her permission. (Thanks Juliet)
    - - - - - - - -
    Another way to talk about totems is archetypes. Each of our personalities are made up of a variety of archetypes, and these wax and wane in prominence, as well as shift over the course of our lives. Like the imagery of a totem, understandin...g archetypes give us a language for our personalities when so often "who we are" is hard to nail down.

    For example, my daughter has a very strong Sovereign archetype, so she has a wonderful kind of dignity and sense of command as well as a strong "nobless oblige" streak. And in darker moments she can be imperious, demanding and frankly tyrannical at times. Understanding this archetype has guided many of my decisions as her parent.

    One great exploration of the Prince/Princess archetype is the book, The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain. We see that in order for the Prince to gain compassion and true wisdom, he has to live outside the castle among people who don't know he is a Prince. Other stories about Prince/Princesses also emphasize the value of experiencing life as a normal person for this archetype. This has been a major factor in my decision to place my daughter in public school. She does really struggle with the way teachers and other students don't want to do things her way or let her follow her own path. But I think this experience is essential for her so that she can gain perspective that will help her express that part of herself in a wise, loving and compassionate way.

    I suppose in the modern age, watching movies or reading folk tales and novels about certain archetypes is the rough equivalent of turning to wise elders who have already mastered the terrain of a certain archetype or totem. It would be lovely to have a broader acknowledgment of our childrens' traits, though, and greater understanding and support by the general community.

  2. One must be careful to not confuse typology, archetypes, totems, ISTJ, etc. for the absolute uniqueness of each individual. All typologies are only languages for approximating the individual's uniqueness. Confusing the type for person is the basis of stereotyping.

    Ideal education, in my view, is arranging the environment so that the student can explore their own gifts through interaction with that environment. Teaching should be about fostering the autonomy of self and the responsibility that goes with it. All else is training.

    Frank Lucatelli