An acquaintance told me a week ago that there is a deep connection between training for a marathon and good schooling and encouraged me to draw this connection.
The connections at first seem obvious. Perhaps school is like training. You put the work in and then get results out. Effort over the long haul leads to incremental changes in the body, mind, and spirit that allow the runner/student to do something which perhaps seemed impossible. I suppose this is the association my friend had in mind, and it works at a certain level.
Runners recognize, however, that equating training with effort and work takes an external view of the whole thing. From the inside training never feels primarily like a goal-oriented activity. In order for it to work and work well, it must mostly be immediately satisfying.
Sure, there were moments when there was a lack of satisfaction and I could invoke an external goal (running under 2:30 in the marathon was mine) to get myself out the door. But my training at its best was an almost wholly present-oriented activity. The training works when it is integrated and flows and feeds the rest of your life, through friendships, being outside in nature, and the pleasurable feelings of bodily movement. If we have to be inspired to get out the door on a frequent basis, and if it's not the doing itself that is inspiring, then the effort that marathon training requires can't be sustainable. The running must be based in a sort of joy in movement, one that is pleasant in itself and flows out of experience with the vitality and force of Nature.
Learning is the same in this sense. As living beings, it is as natural for us to learn and grow as it is to breathe and eat. Schooling, like training, has to feed that natural impulse and work in it and through it. The purpose of schooling is to make the human animal most fully what it can become. Too often we think of the work of education as the construction of an artificial self, manufactured through external effort and work. So long as the work of education fails to engage with the natural impulse to grow and learn, it will be absent vital force. If running and training must be based in the joy of movement in order to be fully effective, so education must be based in the natural joy of growth.
One of the great dangers of marathon training (perhaps the single greatest danger for the highly competitive runner) is overtraining. Overtraining happens when instead of working in concert with vitality, training begins sapping it. The consequences to the runner are loss of joy, constant fatigue, depletion, etc. Yet, often the runner ignores these signs, attempting through sheer effort to will the body to follow the despotic trainer. The error of overtraining is a consequence of too much artificial effort and too little listening to the body.
When our schools fail today, they fail in two ways.
1) Focused too entirely on what society needs from its young people, it forgets entirely that the process of education is founded in student growth. The "training plan" -- having been crafted by political interests -- is implemented and executed with complete disregard for the individual undertaking it.
2) Schools, teachers, and parents intentionally trying to maximize student growth, very much like the marathoner in training pushing herself to her absolute limit, disregard the natural ability of the child to grow and the natural source of growth, which is joyful play. They push the child too hard, effectively overtraining them so that they lose touch with their natural capacity for growth. Here schooling becomes based in effort, work, and achievement rather than the internal qualities of curiosity, will, determination, and freedom.
Schools work only when they are founded in and working through the natural impulse to growth and association that are a byproduct of being living beings. Any other approach to education is necessarily artificial and external -- usually founded in ideas or demands that are only weakly attached to the relationships of community out of which the school draws all of its life.