Brain Pickings

Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love

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“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other.”

In the winter of 1969, shortly after a young woman he considered one of his brightest and most promising students committed suicide, Leo Buscaglia decided to deal with the flurry of confusion by starting an experimental class at the University of Southern California where he taught, exploring the most essential elements of existence — “life, living, sex, growth, responsibility, death, hope, the future.” The obvious common tangent, “the only subject which encompassed, and was at the core of all these concerns,” was love. So he simply called his course “Love Class.” While some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant” and mocked its premise, the university agreed to let Buscaglia teach it on the condition that it be without course credit and he teach it free of salary in his spare time. Over the three years that followed, the course — not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition — earned Buscaglia the moniker “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes, drawing students of all ages and backgrounds. In 1972, Buscaglia published the most universal and important of those ideas in a slim and potent volume titled Love: What Life Is All About (public library).

The book opens with an adaptation of a magnificent lecture titled “Forward to Love,” which Buscaglia delivered in 1970 at a school in Texas, focusing on a more oblique and abstract but no less crucial aspect of love: how the laziness of stereotypes stifles its spirit and labels limit its transcendent power.

Buscaglia begins by looking at the nursery of social beliefs — the education system:

Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.

This might sound obvious — a tired truism, even — and yet it’s antithetical to how most formal education unfolds, even today, with its model of industrialized conformity. Buscaglia offers a poignant example:

[The art teacher] comes racing in from another class and has time only to nod to the teacher, turn around and say, “Boys and girls, today we are going to draw a tree.” She goes to the blackboard, and she draws her tree which is a great big green ball with a little brown base. Remember those lollipop trees? I never saw a tree that looked like that in my life, but she puts it up there, and she says, “All right, boys and girls, draw.” Everybody gets busy and draws.

If you have any sense, even at that early age, you realize that what she really wanted was for you to draw her tree, because the closer you got to her tree, the better your grade. If you already realized this in grade one, then you handed in a little lollipop, and she said, “oh, that’s divine.” But here’s Junior who really knows a tree as this little woman has never seen a tree in her life. He’s climbed a tree, he’s hugged a tree, he’s fallen out of a tree, he’s listened to the breeze blow through the branches. He really knows a tree, and he knows that a tree isn’t a lollipop! So he takes purple and yellow and orange and green and magenta crayons and he draws this beautiful freaky thing and hands it in. She takes one look and shrieks. “Brain damaged!”

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist' (click image for more)

To drive the point home, Buscaglia offers another illustrative tale titled The Animal School — a story he loves “because it’s so wild, yet so true”:

The animals got together in the forest one day and decided to start a school. There was a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish and an eel, and they formed a Board of Education. The rabbit insisted that running be in the curriculum. The bird insisted that flying be in the curriculum. The fish insisted that swimming be in the curriculum, and the squirrel insisted that perpendicular tree climbing be in the curriculum. They put all of these things together and wrote a Curriculum Guide. Then they insisted that all of the animals take all of the subjects. Although the rabbit was getting an A in running perpendicular tree climbing was a real problem for him; he kept falling over backwards. Pretty soon he got to be sort of brain damaged, and he couldn’t run any more. He found that instead of making an A in running, he was making a C and, of course, he always made an F in perpendicular tree climbing. The bird was really beautiful at flying, but when it came to burrowing in the ground, he couldn’t do so well. He kept breaking his beak and wings. Pretty soon he was making a C in flying as well as an F in burrowing, and he had a hellava time with perpendicular tree climbing. The moral of the story is that the animal who was valedictorian of the class was a mentally retarded eel who did everything in a halfway fashion. But the educators were all happy because everybody was taking all of the subjects, and it was called a broad-based education.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' (click image for more)

Buscaglia’s most important point, however, is that such industrialized conformity transcends the education system and bleeds into our everyday lives, at all layers and levels of society — its product is a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit. We then use these labels to produce culturally toxic stereotypes and polarities that say nothing about those being labeled and a great deal about those doing the labeling. Buscaglia writes:

How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.

He goes on to share a rather unique experience from his own childhood:

I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents were Italian immigrants. A big family. Mama and Papa were obviously great lovers! They came from a tiny village at the base of the Italian Swiss Alps where everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew the names of the dogs, and the village priest came out and danced in the streets at the fiestas and got as drunk as everybody else. It was the most beautiful scene in the world and a pleasure to be raised by these people in this old way. But when I was taken, at five, to a public school, tested by some very official-looking person, the next thing I knew I was in a class for the mentally retarded! It didn’t matter that I was able to speak Italian and an Italian dialect. I also spoke some French and Spanish — but I didn’t speak English too well and so I was mentally retarded. I think the term now is “culturally disadvantaged.” I was put into the class for the mentally retarded, and I never had a more exciting educational experience in my life! Talk about a warm, pulsating, loving teacher. Her name was Miss Hunt, and I’m sure she was the only one in the school who would teach those “dumb” kids. She was a great bulbous woman. She liked me even if I smelled of garlic. I remember when she used to come and lean over me, how I used to cuddle! I did all kinds of learning for this woman because I really loved her. Then one day I made a tremendous mistake. I wrote a newspaper as if I were a Roman. I described how the gladiators would perform and so on. The next thing I knew I was being retested and was transferred to a regular classroom after which I was bored for the rest of my educational career.

He returns to the perilous effect of labels — something that Maya Angelou famously lamented — and reminds us that social forces are the cumulative result of our individual choices:

Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.

Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity:

We are constantly moving away from ourselves and others. The scene seems to be how far away you can get from another person, not how close you can get to them. I’m all for going back to the old-fashioned thing of touching people. My hand always goes out because when I touch somebody, I know they are alive. We really need that affirmation…

We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel. The hardest thing to be is what other people want you to be, but that’s the scene we are living in. Are you really you or are you what people have told you you are? And are you interested in really knowing who you are because if you are, it is the happiest trip of your life.

The rest of Buscaglia’s Love: What Life Is All About, an exquisite addition to these must-read books on the psychology of love, goes on to explore our ancient quest to define it, the notion that it’s a learned phenomenon, the interplay between love and strength, the responsibilities of love, and more. Complement it with Van Gogh on love, Stendhal on its seven stages, and the science of how “limbic revision” rewires the brain in love.

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