Reversing the Tower of Babel

            James Henry Breasted wrote, in his unforgettable book The Dawn of Conscience, “The course of sound progress is a wisely balanced mean between the lessons of experience and new vision.”

            The supreme questions: Where do we find the lessons of our common human experience? The velocity of change is so fast—what are the realities that do not change in this world of constant change? If there are universal principles that hold true through time, how do we apprehend them? How do we go about transmitting them?

            These questions are timeless and relevant now because the answers to these questions are relevant to the fashioning of a humane Global Curriculum that will nurture our growth into a unified diversity.

            My path as an educator has been paved with these timeless questions. My pursuit of answers began through the door of etymology, the study of the full and original meaning of words, in five ancient languages: ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Sanskrit, Homeric Greek, and Biblical Hebrew. This fascinating study uncovers the world of common human experience and the wisdom gleaned from it, in words. Moreover, it reveals that these ancient languages were founded on a simplicity so basic that it consists of only one concept: the philosophy of Oneness, animated by the value of love and the value of family.

            The result of this continuing study is the creation, development, and implementation of an interdisciplinary, intercultural, interlingual Curriculum rooted in the classical cultural traditions and standards of thought. The goal of this approach is to develop global, Renaissance human beings who are awake to our common world.

            The Wilhelm Curriculum is humankind studied as a whole. The program demonstrates the universality of fundamental ideas. To illustrate impartially the mental, technical, and aesthetic achievements of the past and the present, each discipline is studied across the board, with the concept words—that is, the principal ideas—given in several languages. Each culture, in its own inimitable way, defines these terms differently yet never contradicts one another in principle. This confirms the fact that the human mind and spirit are the same at all times and in all places; it forms the basis of all translations, from ancient hieroglyphs to modern-day languages.

            Further, fundamental principles of all the disciplines are explained, clarified, and emphasized by a correlation of parallel texts of other cultures. In this manner ideas are stretched, expanded, and appreciated until the pupils have a bone-deep understanding of what these principles are. In the process they firmly grasp the fundamental concepts that are indispensable to higher learning. As they learn to see the world th7rough language, they not only gain a keen awareness that we speak a common vocabulary, but they absorb with understanding the illuminating remark by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the great Orientalist and transmitter of traditional thought, “There is no private property in ideas.” In this manner the pupils become united with the world, begin to receive and appreciate the rich inheritance bequeathed to them by their ancestors, the family of humankind.

            Studies begin in Africa and Asia, our oldest cultures, move on to the Greek and Roman eras, and then move to the Arabic period, which made way for the opening of the New World and to the many cultures of great antiquity of the Americas setting the stage for the modern era.

            In the process of finding one’s roots, finding one’s family in a universal sense, pupils grasp the fact that our ancestors include all those who have gone before, and that we ourselves are in the process of becoming ancestors to all those who are to come. As they learn to think of the various cultures as different branches of one tree, a sense of respect for all the members of the family emerges. Best of all they perceive that we owe grateful homage to all those who have contributed to our common heritage.

            The Wilhelm interdisciplinary, intercultural, interlingual approach weaves the arts, the sciences, and the humanities together and relates them to traditional values. Thus, art is science and science is art and both are philosophy.

            We enter into the soul of a culture through language because the values of a culture are transmitted through language. Language embodies perspective, that is, a theory or philosophic way of living and perceiving. Einstein’s stimulating remark reminds us, “It is the theory that determines what will be observed.” Or, as the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf would say, “Language determines our logic and vision of reality.”

            Basically, language embodies only two philosophies: one sees unity in diversity, and the other is a vision divorced from the concept of unity. It must be remembered that all traditional values—that is, the invariants of civilized life—hinge on the ability to see unity in diversity, the integrity of things. Etymology stands as witness to this perspective, for all words originally had an implicit or explicit reference to unity.

            Integrity was the “masterpiece standard” for all traditional cultures. For all of our ancestors, integrity was essential to any form of creation, from business agreements, to art, architecture, music, politics, science—in short, to every aspect of life, because integrity has to do with conscience, with unifying the parts into a grand wholeness where every part supports and sustains every other part and the small is equally significant as the great. Einstein articulated the traditional, indivisible view of science, ethics, and aesthetics when he said, “The first test is beauty,” meaning integrity. Because science, ethics, and aesthetics are in principle the same, science affirms our spiritual heritage, giving our pupils roots and purpose.

            Language with a reference to unity activates the imagination, breeds conceptual and rational thinking, for it guides one to see relations between things and nurtures our ability to see “the big picture.” Oneness becomes Truth no one can ignore because language will not permit it.

            Brain research and etymology are allies in confirming the fact that we are programmed to seek unity because the brain is innately programmed to hold opposites in equilibrium, to simultaneously keep a vision of the whole in mind while analyzing the parts.

            Therefore, the constant reference to unity in traditional languages in no way lessens the ability to analyze the parts; it simply increases the ability to see relations, to make connections, to see the interdependence of the parts and the completeness and integrity of the whole.

            For example: Geology. Current dictionaries define geology as “study of the earth.” This definition is misleading because it is a half-truth. Geo means “earth”; logy is from logos, meaning “unity.” Thus the full meaning of the word geology is “the study of the unity of the earth,” which returns the significance and beauty to the word’s original implicit meaning.

            “Cracking the code” of language leads to the discovery that all concept words embody love or non-love, that the conception of a single living principle is embodied in all words and in all languages, and in itself corresponds to all choices of right and wrong in their invariant state.

            This establishes a universal moral reference point, a supreme standard that is binding on all alike because it expresses the unalterable character of integrity. Sincerity, compassion, gratitude, cooperation, courtesy, responsibility are all forms of selfless love. Irresponsibility, ingratitude, insincerity, lack of compassion, discourtesy, are all forms of selfishness or non-love. In the process of learning to think and to speak the language of integrity, the pupil grasps with full comprehension Ashley Montague’s profound remark: “The meaning of a word is the action it produces.”

            Further, “cracking the code” of language leads to the discovery that “Human culture is a unified whole,” as the German historian Alfred Jeremias tells us, “and in the various cultures one finds the dialects of one spiritual language.”

            The great fourteenth-century statesman, jurist, historian, and scholar Ibn Khaldun, in his masterpiece The Maqaddimah, gave the definitive explanation of logic when he wrote, “Logic concerns the norms enabling a person to distinguish between right and wrong, both in definitions that give information about the essence of things and in arguments that assure apperception.”

            Once the pupil has learned to read, to see “in depth” the essence of all events, actions, images, and concepts, words pass on what they possess—the life-sustaining values of civilization. For the pupil sees that it follows that anything done out of context is without love, is unhealthful both for the individual and society.

            These health-enhancing ideas are further confirmed for the pupils by brain research and medicine. Medicine tells us that health means not only the absence of pain and disease but also a sense of well-being and the ability to give and to receive love.

            This unalterable law was understood by our ancestors, for they defined abnormal, paranoein, as apart from the mind of Reason, unable to perceive the unity; normal, metanoein, as with the mind of Reason, able to perceive the unity.

            Brain research and medicine verify that language, moral imagination, and health are inextricably one, for brain research tells us that every thought is a biological change affecting us from the tops of our heads to the bottoms of our toes. Thoughts are clothed in words.

            With the remaining time allotted to me I would like to share in summary fashion how these principles were substantiated by being put into practice in public and religious inner-city schools in San Antonio when I was called in to help assuage gang wars. I presented our Curriculum and approach as a cost effective health program. The following is the story of one approach and one model. It is no brief of the only way to work, it is simply one way that does work.

            Now come with me into some of the classes and see how students begin to make human connections, recognize their oneness with those who are seemingly other than themselves in their beliefs, their ethnicity, their gender, their age. See how they learn to discern without separating and begin to move from me to we, begin to recognize and acknowledge that we are, All Under Heaven One Family.

            After we have been introduced to the class and each individual student has been introduced, I explain that we will be in engaged in the classic traditional approach to education which begins with the premise that life has a purpose, that each one of us is significant, and that each one of us has a Destiny to fulfill. Our Destiny is tied to our gifts, and we are all born gifted.

The pupils learn that, from the traditional point of view, our gifts, our innate abilities, are our vocation, our calling, and that to be gifted is to be in the presence of something given. “Work,” wrote Khalil Gibran, “is love made visible.” Our gifts are that form of love which we have been chosen to give to the world.

            Thus the primary reason for going to school is to find one’s gifts, to develop them to the fullest so that one has something to give to the world. Peter F. Drucker, acclaimed economist and management philosopher, sums it up with this advice: “Forget about career planning. Find something you are good at and try to make a contribution.”

            Next the pupils learn that the Curriculum will be the story of civilization. Our starting point will be the history of words because words embody “the high story,” the common life experience and accumulated wisdom of the family of humankind.

            The pupils learn that language is the life-blood of a culture because the values of culture are transmitted through language. They learn that the inner origin of language is deep. The roots were formulated in times when the universe was conceived as Pure Being, Pure Unity, outside of which nothing exists. They learn that words were an expression of our ancestors’ profound sense of kinship with their fellow beings and the world. Oneness, the value system at the core of all traditional languages, expressed a philosophy of family and the indivisible unity of humankind and nature. Thus the integrity of language was held together by a common principle, what the Chinese call TAO, Egyptians: ATUM, Indians: BRAHMAN, Hebrews: ELOHIM, and the Greeks: LOGOS—the principle of harmony between opposites, the highest form of Unity, the First Principle of the Universe.

            In the beginning words had real meaning because words were whole entities, spiritual and physical not being separate but simply different aspects of a single meaning. Through language one was guided to distinguish without separating and to live one’s life in context, that is, to never lose sight of one’s individuality or the individuality of others, while at the same time never losing the vision that we are all one family, all parts of the whole.

            The pupils learn that in the beginning words were created through direct experience. Realization, the sudden moment of seeing the real, was an emotional experience followed by a struggle to clothe what had been seen and felt in words. They learn that all traditional cultures believed that the meaning of a word is in the sound; when the sound changes, so does the meaning. Further, if two words are spelled the same, sound the same, but have different definitions, they come from the same philosophic center. Or, if two words are spelled differently but sound the same, yet have different definitions, they too come from the same philosophic center because originally language had to do with making sounds come together meaningfully.

            Our first example is pupil. The word pupil refers to the pupil of the eye, and pupil also means “student.” The pupils will later learn that the ancients called students pupils for a good reason; for the truly educated human being, a sage, was called a Seer. After the definitions have been recorded in their vocabulary notebooks, the pupils are invited to turn to the person sitting next to them and look them in the eye.

            Ahhhs, mingled with laughter, are heard all around the classroom as the vision of the eye and a tiny image of oneself are reflected in the pupil of the eye. This lucid and powerful vision of Oneness has a profound psychological impact because the tiny image reflected in the pupil of the eye is authentic, it is realit is not digitally or otherwise technologically produced. “One is peering into the face of Truth,” as Quincy Jones would say.

            Another “ahhh experience” follows as this visual logic is clothed in two words conveyed by one sound: eye and I. Octavio Paz would say the pupils are discovering something we have forgotten, “the correspondence between what words say, what eyes see.”

            In the process words become sound-images; sound-images that support intuition and sustain memory because word and meaning, sound and image, are mutually interlocked. Oneness has become an idea one sees, hears, and feels.

            These experiences crystallize The Golden Rule, the essence of wisdom of every age and every culture, the standard of conduct unanimously agreed upon by every branch of the family of humankind. In this manner, language lifts the pupils up ethically for, by the help of the Mirror in the Eye, they have the power of seeing and knowing who they are and how they are to live in an almost miraculous way.

            The following poem, written by two of the pupils, records those moments of spiritual transformation when the familiar became illumination.

The Pupil of the Eye

The eye is like a mirror

Look closely

My neighbor is myself

Samuel Oren-Palmer 7 yrs.; Aaron Barr 6 yrs.

            This poem was committed to memory in several languages. Homework includes sharing their new knowledge with their parents and a research project: look your pet in the eye (if you don’t have a pet, borrow a friend’s pet) and share what you see with your classmates and teacher in the morning. More “ahhh experiences” in the making!

            The adventure comes full round with the words think, perceive, reason, Seer. Think means “to reflect; to conceive.” Reason means “to test by reflection and deliberation.” Perceive means “to apprehend with the mind of Reason,” the faculty that thinks but does not also will. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The will is free insofar as it obeys reason.” A Seer, a wise person, is one who perceives the paradox: I am myself and my neighbor—All is One and One is All. Or, as the Chinese would say, “Everyone is Chinese whether they know it or not.”

            Moral judgment grows ever stronger as the pupil comprehends that to think correctly means to see oneself in others, to remember we are each other, and that think also means “to marry facts and feelings and give birth to conscience.” As Aldous Huxley brilliantly pointed out, “To think correctly is, in itself, a moral act.”

            As the pupils come to the realization that every word, even seemingly trivial words, have profound philosophical, mystical, and social connotations, they are given the definitions of these words in several languages. These geographical variations of the same concept expand and enrich the single definition and strengthen their sense of common understanding. Moreover, the pupils see that language reveals the origins of our inherited ideals.

            For example: think in Egyptian means “to see with the eye of the heart”; in Chinese, “to examine with the heart”; in Sanskrit, “to conceive; to perceive with discernment and feeling”; in Hebrew, “to perceive the importance of Oneness”; in Greek, “to conceive; to intuit the unity.” Intuition means “to see, to guard, to protect with the eye of the heart.” Now the pupils have a multiplicity of trusted sources—separate cultures but closely united objectives—verified by thousands of years of human experience.

            It is a widely unappreciated fact that during the Alexandrian period Western vocabulary became stripped of its spiritual base, its reference to unity. In the process, words were restricted to their surface value with no clue to their significance. Disconnected from feeling and emotion, words became destitute of spiritual essence, that is, devoid of the concept of Oneness. What remains is a bankrupt vocabulary dispossessing us of our traditional inheritance.

            When language regains its spiritual strength, it nurtures the best in all of the pupils by reorienting them to the Principle of Oneness. Moreover, Balanced Thinking and The Golden Rule, two aspects of the same thing, are an integral part of common courtesy. Courtesy is the tradition that prevents violence. Thus the tradition of Reasonableness and The Golden Rule is transformed into the pattern of health and harmony.

            Each day the pupils are centered and the tone of the day is set by beginning the day with the following credo—an unambiguous step-by-step way of becoming a cultured human being. The Credo is committed to memory in many languages.

Wilhelm Credo

Where There Is Love

There is Concern

Where There Is Concern

There Is Kindness

Where There Is Kindness

There Is Harmony

Where There Is Harmony

There Is Helpfulness

Where There Is Helpfulness

There Is Cooperation

Where There Is Cooperation

There Is Civilization

            The Wilhelm Credo could be described as an ecumenical prayer because all religions converge at a common point: God is Love. E agape inne Theos. Selfless Love is God.

            What we have here is old wine in new bottles. The shape of the bottles are different for the public schools and the religious schools, but the wine is the same for both.

            The public schools’ “unity consciousness” is referred to as moral consciousness in the religious schools. In the public schools, the students are learning the pattern and process of reason, balanced thinking; in the religious schools this is called the pattern and process of virtuefor there is no virtue without reasonableness. In the public schools, the Curriculum strengthens the student’s concept of health and rationality. In the religious schools the Curriculum strengthens the pupil’s identity with God, for God is Love. Whether one calls the result health or holiness does not matter—the pattern and process are exactly the same.

            Love, Reasonableness, and The Golden Rule—these are the seeds planted by all cultures and all religions. These are the familiar sounds the pupils long to hear again and again. These are the familiar sounds that nurture the seeds into flowering. In this manner education unifies the diversity of cultures, unifies the diversity of religions. By so doing, education transmits the precious legacy that is our common moral and ethical inheritance and our only protection against a relapse into barbarism.

            Jacques Barzun, in his illuminating book From Dawn to Decadence, defines decadence as “a technical description of historical cycles when a culture forgets the original meaning of its motivating ideas.” In my opinion, this crisis in meaning has its roots in language because we think in language.

            Language controls perspective, controls the way we see, think, feel, and respond. Words without a reference to unity are out of context, are abstractions, are words devoid of meaning.

            What I am suggesting is the revitalization of language that will reverse the Tower of Babel and provide the change of consciousness demanded by our global civilization and the new millennium. For the journey into the new millennium consists “not in seeing new lands, but in seeing with new eyes,” as Marcel Proust would say. It is time to outgrow self-centeredness and awaken to the fact that one is infinitely more than oneself.

            It is a historical fact that the attainment and maintenance of civilization and culture have been achieved only through education. Now marks the critical time, the historical moments when we are shaping the civilization form of our universal civilization. “Here is a challenge which we cannot evade,” as Arnold Toynbee would say, “and our Destiny depends on our response.”

            By taking the prudent and daring step of returning the principle of integrity to words, the civilizing, unifying power of language is restored. Language once again becomes family-oriented, engenders a sense of belonging and well-being by guiding one to discern without separating. By returning words to their original meaning, one is reminded of the problem-solving principle, love, embodied in words and in all of its manifestations. Thus, one is intellectually prepared to make choices of integrity.

            Idealism makes a great people and a great culture. The integrity of our universal civilization requires that people everywhere have a good understanding of these universal values that transcend change.

            When words are once again rooted in the reality of Oneness, things will once again be seen in context, facts will no longer be “value-free” and without significance but will be reference points to the “big picture,” where everything matters because everyone and everything are interrelated, interdependent, and indivisibly one. Language will no longer be an obstacle but a vehicle whereby we, in the twenty-first century, will have the opportunity to return to Paradise, “the Land of No-Forgetting,” where everyone remembers we are each other.

* Marilyn Wilhelm is the founder-director of Wilhelm Schole in Houston, Texas.