The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi is the founding president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. He undertook both monastic studies (he was ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama) and a secular education (he earned a graduate degree in Comparative Philosophy of Religion from Harvard) — and the combination is reflected in his innovative work and worldview.
Like the concept of the middle path in Buddhism, Tenzin Priyadarshi appreciates the logical, analytical, and spiritual education he’s received — and which he now passes on. He spoke at the Schools of the Future 2016 conference in Honolulu about re-thinking the role of educators. “If teachers are not facilitators, they are obstacles,” he said. At the risk of sounding like a heretic to an audience of teachers, Tenzin cited examples in Tibet and India where online learning is the better option for certain skills.
But Tenzin was quick to ask, “Even if students can sometimes learn better with digital tools, how do they become good human beings? Are these things even teachable?” Ironically, “I’m just a human being” is a common expression used when someone doesn’t achieve a task or goal, as if being human is some kind of weakness. Tenzin is working to create a platform for teaching ethics in school, because people don’t become good human beings by magic; they, like athletes and scientists who train to become experts, need to learn and practice.
The challenge in teaching secular ethics and human values is that there’s no template for what a good human being is. Tenzin Priyadarshi put it this way: “We can identify what love feels like — but not hold it in our hands.”
Even so, education can make a dent, and the number of social and emotional learning opportunities is proliferating in settings ranging from kindergarten to university. Recently, the deans of admissions at Harvard and MIT agreed that incoming students would be evaluated on the demonstration of qualities like compassion, and not just on their GPAs. The problem, of course, is coming up with metrics by which to evaluate a person’s emotional intelligence. Even Tenzin Priyadarshi, whose teaching is devoted to raising the level of ethical behavior, admits, “You cannot grade empathy.”
To see a video of his presentation at the 2016 Schools of the Future Conference, click here.