Reviewed by Hank Edson
The Road Less Traveled offers great understanding of the world and great clarity of purpose to the reader. While many books possessed of great understanding reveal the intricate and complex, The Road Less Traveled reveals something very elementary: love. M. Scott Peck’s definition of love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” This definitions has far reaching implications for everyone, and certainly for educators whose job is to guide the development of human beings into adulthood.
Dr. Peck’s thorough application of this definition could be described many ways. As an educator and an individual concerned with my own growth, I would explain the implication of Dr. Peck’s definition of love in this way: First, spiritual growth is not only the basis of a healthy psychology, but also of all growth and all aspects of life. If an individual’s psychology is unhealthy after all, every aspect of life is affected by it. Dr. Peck quite clearly removes any distinction between one’s psychology and one’s experience of life. Second, Dr. Peck’s definition can be applied to provide a useful analysis of how and why some individuals develop dysfunctional psychologies. This Dr. Peck does by explaining two basic directions in which people continuously stray from reality. Either by not taking enough responsibility for one’s life (a character disorder) or by taking too much (a neurosis), we avoid the hard discipline of love: nurturing our spiritual growth and the greater understanding of reality which accompanies it. Third, accepting Dr. Peck’s explanation of spiritual growth enables one to become alert and receptive to the support and care, not only that we need to give ourselves, but also to that which is offered by the spiritual nature of reality. This support and care Dr. Peck calls grace.
These are the three separate applications of Dr. Peck’s thesis explored in this book. However, I have ordered them slightly differently than they occur in the book. The discussion of dysfunctional psychologies, which I mentioned after the initial explanation of the significance of love, Dr. Peck explores first. Second, Dr. Peck explores his definition of love all the way to the ultimate realization that spiritual growth is about trying to become God, trying to fully love and cognize reality. In the third section of his book, Dr. Peck takes time to explain the errors frequently found in both stereotypic “scientific” and “religious” perspectives. Dr. Peck’s claim is that his perspective is both scientific and religious, but free of the errors usually made by people in the name of either. Finally, in the fourth section, Dr. Peck shares several experiences in his practice as a psychiatrist which helped him recognize grace as part of reality.
As a teacher, I find Dr. Peck’s book extraordinarily empowering for so many reasons. Any resource that can provide the general public clear insight into healthy and dysfunctional psychology is enormously useful. For teachers understanding the vast importance of teaching self-discipline is beyond measure. The four tools Dr. Peck provides for learning and teaching discipline [delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing] could be modeled and taught in classrooms in countless ways. This is not to say discipline is not being taught today, but certainly such instruction lacks the articulated purpose provided by Dr. Peck. Additionally, these tools when energetically communicated and applied cooperatively between the home, the community and the school could greatly strengthen our society.
Also, Dr. Peck’s articulate incorporation of spirituality as the core of personal development is very important to an education system which is at the very least awkwardly confined when it comes to guiding the spiritual growth of students. Not only is this thesis important because Dr. Peck shows that spiritual growth is necessary to the healthy maturation of human psychology, but also because it provides an understanding which is inoffensive to scientific rationalism, unbiased and secular in its expression, and empowering to the claims of an underlying spiritual reality. In an age where these claims have been daily ridiculed, attacked, feebly defended, and largely abandoned, Dr. Peck’s thesis clears away the confusion, resentment, and ignorance which have so long surrounded the claims of a spiritual reality and opens our minds to consider what may well be the most basic, most important understanding of reality. By his example, Dr. Peck enables educators to provide for their students what so many recent school shootings, gang wars, drug problems and unhealthy family situations indicate is missing: a defining principle for humanity to live by.
Given that love is the will to extend one’s self for one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, the worthiness of the hard work of such an extension and the dignified power such work gives to the name of love are two very reliable understandings which could motivate teachers, parents, and students to embrace education from a spiritual depth in even the most mundane of daily disciplines.
Finally, in addition to the hope for wisdom and fulfillment, which Dr. Peck asserts is the result of the discipline of love (of extending one’s self in the name of spiritual growth), is the wondrous phenomenon of grace. In the classroom we teach this idea only in the vague sense, for example, that in art mistakes are often fortuitous. Dr. Peck opens the possibility that grace may be a constant companion in all our efforts. Brilliantly articulated and extremely insightful, Dr. Peck’s ideas are also well confined within his own experience, understanding, and practice of psychiatry. For this reason, I believe Dr. Peck limited his equation of the spirit with the subconscious mind. Holy men and women with deeper spiritual experience than Dr. Peck have tried to explain, however, that even more astounding and profound experiences of grace than those explored in The Road Less Traveled are achievable through study and purification, not of just the mind, but of the heart as well. I don’t think Dr. Peck would disagree with this extension of his thesis as probably the mind must be mastered before one can begin to work on the heart. When Dr. Peck speaks of the subconscious his real goal is to clarify its goodness and its power. He may have no real idea or claim about its nature beyond these two points. Therefore, it may be only the idiom and tradition of western psychology which has differed from the teachings of prophets and holy people regarding this subject, not actually Dr. Peck himself. In any case, the concept of grace is of vital importance to the world, and the insight Dr. Peck has provided regarding it should be made use of in the classroom.
Grace is, after all, the greatest motivation we can possess for respecting the world, the whole, the community, nature, etc. When we accept the idea that nature is merciful, intelligent, and nurturing, we will pursue our harmony with it with greater honesty, humility, and discipline. In education, so often we see only the trees and not the forest. We focus on reading and math scores and worry over aberrations which are the result of our own greedy and distrustful systems of accountability as though afraid of being cheated out of money, instead of teaching our children how to receive and share the beautiful and meaningful bounty available to a balanced, disciplined life. As basic as balance and discipline may seem, they are truly the road less traveled and they do make all the difference.
Copyright © Hank Edson 2008