Tuesday – Self-Discipline and Simplicity

In accordance with Stoic Week, each day I will be discussing how a different aspect of Stoicism relates to the practice of teaching. For Tuesday, the theme outlined in this years Stoic Handbook focuses on Self-Discipline and Simplicity.

Tuesday’s theme of self-discipline and simplicity can relate to many aspects of teaching, however I have chosen to look at how it can specifically impact our student’s lives.

Within the modern landscape of teaching there exist many facets of student’s lives that can have negative impacts on their performance. Here I am thinking of the prevalence of modern technologies like cell phones, computers, and music players. Although each of these technologies can be used to the benefit of learning, they often end up being welcomed distractions for unengaged learners.

I think running parallel to this idea is a kind of self-entitlement that many students feel towards their future. The rise of such technologies along with the influence of social media sites like twitter and facebook and the impact of our current celebrity worshipping culture has created an attitude that suggests to our students that instead of self-improvement one should focus on self-promotion. A kind of reverse utilitarian attitude that it is better to be a satisfied pig then an unsatisfied Socrates.

I personally have run into many students whose future aims include nothing more than being popular and being paid large amounts of money to live a particular lifestyle (gym, tan, laundry). Unfortunately, television and other media is ripe with examples of people cashing in on these types of lifestyles and such examples can have a major impact on both the motivation and the way our students view their education. I believe that a large number of students who adopt this way of life fail to realize that very few individuals will succeed at gaining celebrity status and so waste precious time becoming a type of person someone will want to watch rather than becoming the type of person others would want to be.

Our current society aims at providing short term gratification through the medium of watching largely uneducated people demonstrate just how uneducated they are; worse still a kind of admiration has been placed on these celebrities. It is not hard to see that academic progress and discoveries currently take a backseat to celebrity news and culture. Growing up in this kind of atmosphere has definitely impacted our youth and I think the application of Stoic self-discipline and simplicity can serve as a way to combat the present unpopular attitudes around learning.

Even the ancient Stoics recognized that one of the big problems we face stem from our desire to always want more than what we currently possess. Humans seem to have an insatiable hunger for more that can have both positive and negative impacts on our lives. In one sense we are always striving to create a better life for ourselves and those around us, and yet in another sense this same attitude can often lead to despair, depression, and a lack of appreciation for what we currently have. No matter how good things are, most of us believe they could always be better.

Our material desires can be particularly difficult to overcome in our present materialistic culture. The idea that an emblem on a shirt or the latest model of a phone can bestow prestige beyond that of hard earned talent and ability is especially troublesome. I think a possible solution to this problem is to advocate to our pupils the stoic theme of self-discipline and simplicity. By depriving ourselves of the things we want but do not necessarily need we develop a deeper understanding of just how superficial and erroneous many of our desires can be.

By living without our cell phone for a few days or giving up facebook for a while, we may begin to realize that even without these things life still goes on. If we can get our students to consider this theme then perhaps they will acknowledge that they can be more than their last cleaver status or have individual value outside of receiving a hundred text messages a day. I think this is especially important for our students as many of us as teachers can at least remember a time when this was possible. Many of our younger students have never lived in a world without social media and cell phones.

I think this also touches on a troubling and important idea that the world has become so small that there is very rarely any time that we can truly claim to be ourselves on our own. We are so connected with everyone else that even when we escape to the solitude of a quiet place, we are usually only a call or text message away from another person. The state of the world allows very few opportunities for true individual thought and self-reflection. Perhaps by unplugging our students can start to gain a better understanding of the kind of person they want to be without be bombarded by the expectations of others.

Short periods of deprivation can also have the effect of allowing them to appreciate how lucky they are to be in a position to possess the material goods they own. When they plug back in they may come to appreciate how much technology allows them to connect with the ones they care about. Living in a connected world has its benefits as well as its downfalls and our ability to exercise self-discipline may allow us to begin to understand this.

Ultimately, I think Stoic self-discipline and living simply can help our students lead more fulfilling lives by making them appreciate what they have and perhaps make them start to question why there is intrinsic value within the things they own beyond the superficial. Owning a phone that allows you to connect with your loved ones has value even if it is not the newest model with all the bells and whistles. By emphasizing the superficial we set ourselves up for hardship as in today’s world no matter how good something is there is always something better around the corner. Through deprivation and living simply we may also come to a deeper understanding of who we are irrespective of others.

Again, I conclude in the words of the stoics: “How easily dazzled and deceived we are by eloquence, job title, degree’s, high honors, fancy possessions, expensive clothing, or a suave demeanor. Don’t make the mistake of assuming celebrities, public figures, political leaders, the wealthy, or people with intellectual or artistic gifts are necessarily happy… Stop aspiring to be anyone but your own best self: for that does fall within your control.” – Epictetus


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