When I was in high school, two major developments occurred: First, I became totally engrossed in the “soundtrack of my life,” enthralled by the musical overlays of emotionally intense lyrics that gave meaning to my otherwise paradoxical existence; and second, I became philosophically and socially engaged through conversation with peers, parents, teachers, and even strangers. Everything seemed to explode with meaning. Looking back, I wish I had been gifted a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching; I am confident it would have either brought deeper meaning to life, or it would have provided me with content for my exploratory discussions.
The Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell writes, is “the classic manual on the art of living.” (p. vii, Mitchell, 1988) It is a memoir of sorts; the tale of the Master who has achieved complete harmony with the way things are. “The Master has mastered Nature; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it.” (p. viii, Mitchell, 1988) While its origins are attributed to Lao-tzu, very little is known of the author’s life or position in society. However, it is known that the Tao Te Ching dates back at least to the time of Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.), if not before. It is through Mitchell’s translation that the wisdom is approachable and recognizable to a modern audience. Mitchell’s voice, that he lends to the wise words of Lao-tzu, puts even the most puzzling of philosophical concepts within reach.
3. If you overesteem great men, people become powerless. if you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.
The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place. (Mitchell, 1988)
Certainly, the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching requires deep consideration, and might perplex the mind: How exactly does one practice not-doing? But it is this challenge, the flexing of the mind, that I believe teen’s are craving as they make sense of world and their place in it through identifying their credo.
With 81 chapters, each representing a pearl of wisdom, this version of the Tao Te Ching is laid out very similarly to a book of poetry. Each chapter is one page, and each page is predominantly white space allowing for concentrated focus on the text written in stanzas. The stanzas are not written in rhyme, but each sentence is concise and deliberate in its styling. The vocabulary is not exceptionally complex (Lexile 1070; ATOS 7.4), however, to discern the intended meaning does require critical thinking.
The Tao Te Ching can be incorporated into middle school or high school curriculum as a primary source in literature, or supplemental to the study of world religions, ancient history, or even civics class. The Tao Te Ching offers students a new perspective, shedding new light on themselves and their community, challenging them to think outside the box of Western culture.
68. The best athlete wants his opponent at his best. The best general enters the mind of his enemy. The best businessman serves the communal good. The best leader follows the will of the people.
All of them embody the virtue of non-competition. Not that they don’t love to compete, but they do it in the spirit of play. In this they are like children and in harmony with the Tao. (Mitchell, 1988)
No matter the class subject, the Tao Te Ching would be best utilized as a focal point for deep class discussions, the development of critical thinking and communication skills, and culminating in a writing activity enhancing communication skills in written form. Stephen Mitchell’s translation can be used as the primary source, challenging students to find alternative translations (examples here and here) for comparative analysis of individual chapters. Students could also incorporate 21st century technology by creating a blog, sharing with their classmates their analysis of each chapter (or selected chapters) through individual posts and comments.
AASL: 2.1.1. Use Critical Thinking skills in order to construct new and deeper understanding. 1.3.2 Seek divergent perspectives 1.3.4. Contribute to the exchange of ideas within the learning community 1.3.5. Use Information Technology responsibly and ethically
CCSS: CC.6-12.SL.1d Comprehension and Collaboration: Explain own ideas and understanding in light of discussion. CC.6-12.W.8 Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Recall relevant information from experience or gather relevant information CC.6-12.W.1b Text types and Purposes: Support claim(s) with clear reason and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating understanding of the topic. CC.6-12.RH/SS9 Analyze the relationship between primary and secondary source on teh same topic.
Also, the Tao Te Ching can be tied into meditation in the classroom. (Check out “How to Start a Meditation Program in your School” and read about some of the positive impacts of meditation in the classroom here.)
I’ve only found one school district that has incorporated the Tao Te Ching into their ELA curriculum, and made that information available to the public through the internet. You can see the Appleton Area School District (Wisconsin) list of additional educational materials approved for use in their classrooms, here. Given that there is apparently little precedence for using Tao Te Ching in public school curriculum, how it is integrated into your classroom might require some heuristic experiment and ingenuity. My suggestion is to start small, using a selected chapter as a discussion starter, gauging the level of student interest and engagement, and progress from there. As an added point of interest, openculture.com listed Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Tao Te Ching as one of the 25 Best Nonfiction Books Ever, and might have resources that could be helpful in integrating it in your classroom curriculum.
For those classrooms that are interested in the application of Taoist concepts to other works of literature, check out the work of Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh (1982) and The Te of Piglet (1992). It might be a fun crossover from a familiar childhood storybook and a more philosophically rich overview of Taoist thought.
American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/CrosswalkEnglishStandardAll1-4.pdf
American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner reading standards in history all AASL standards common core crosswalk. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/ReadinginHistoryAllStandards.pdf
Assessment, curriculum and instruction Morgan building. (2015). . Retrieved from http://www4.aasd.k12.wi.us/east/APPLETON_EAST/Documents/2015-2016/HS%20Parent%20Letter-%20Educational%20Materials%20Selection%20FINAL%20Grade%209-12%20April%202015.pdf
Lao-tzu, & Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te ching: A new English version. New York: Harper & Row.
Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf