Why go to school? What is the meaning of education?
If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare. The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.
It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel's words: "It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."
The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading. My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival - the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education [and by implication parenting] of a certain kind.
The Learning Revolution, 1991
This Matter of Culture
Why do we go to school, why do we learn various subjects, why do we pass examinations and compete with each other for better grades? What does this so-called education mean, and what is it all about? This is really a very important question, not only for the students, but also for the parents, for the teachers, and for everyone who loves this earth. Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Having a job and earning one’s livelihood is necessary – but is that all? Are we being educated only for that? Surely, life is not merely a job, an occupation; life is something extraordinarily wide and profound, it is a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings. If we merely prepare ourselves to earn a livelihood, we shall miss the whole point of life; and to understand life is much more important than merely to prepare for examinations and become very proficient in mathematics, physics, or what you will.
So, whether we are teachers or students, is it not important to ask ourselves why we are educating or being educated? And what does life mean? Is not life an extraordinary thing? The birds, the flowers, the flourishing trees, the heavens, the stars, the rivers and the fish therein – all this is life. Life is the poor and the rich; life is the constant battle between groups, races and nations; life is meditation; life is what we call religion, and it is also the subtle, hidden things of the mind – the envies, the ambitions, the passions, the fears, fulfilments and anxieties. All this and much more is life. But we generally prepare ourselves to understand only one small corner of it. We pass certain examinations, find a job, get married, have children, and then become more and more like machines.
We remain fearful, anxious, frightened of life. So, is it the function of education to help us understand the whole process of life, or is it merely to prepare us for a vocation, for the best job we can get?...
Surely, education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joys. You may earn degrees, you may have a series of letters after your name and land a very good job; but then what? What is the point of it all if in the process your mind becomes dull, weary, stupid? So, while you are young, must you not seek to find out what life is all about? And is it not the true function of education to cultivate in you the intelligence which will try to find the answer to all these problems? Do you know what intelligence is? It is the capacity, surely, to think freely without fear, without a formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true; but if you are frightened you will never be intelligent. Any form of ambition, spiritual or mundane, breeds anxiety, fear; therefore, ambition does not help to bring about a mind that is clear, simple, direct, and hence intelligent.
You know, it is really very important while you are young to live in an environment in which there is no fear. Most of us, as we grow older, become frightened; we are afraid of living, afraid of losing a job, afraid of tradition, afraid of what the neighbours, or what the wife or husband would say, afraid of death. Most of us have fear in one form or another; and where there is fear there is no intelligence. And is it not possible for all of us, while we are young, to be in an environment where there is no fear but rather an atmosphere of freedom – freedom, not just to do what we like, but to understand the whole process of living? Life is really very beautiful, it is not this ugly thing that we have made of it; and you can appreciate its richness, its depth, its extraordinary loveliness only when you revolt against everything – against organized religion, against tradition, against the present rotten society – so that you as a human being find out for yourself what is true. Not to imitate but to discover – that is education, is it not? It is very easy to conform to what your society or your parents and teachers tell you. That is a safe and easy way of existing; but that is not living, because in it there is fear, decay, death. To live is to find out for yourself what is true, and you can do this only when there is freedom, when there is continuous revolution inwardly, within yourself.
But you are not encouraged to do this; no one tells you to question, to find out for yourself what God is, because if you were to rebel you would become a danger to all that is false. Your parents and society want you to live safely, and you also want to live safely. Living safely generally means living in imitation and therefore in fear. Surely, the function of education is to help each one of us to live freely and without fear, is it not? And to create an atmosphere in which there is no fear requires a great deal of thinking on your part as well as on the part of the teacher, the educator.
Do you know what this means – what an extraordinary thing it would be to create an atmosphere in which there is no fear? And we must create it, because we see that the world is caught up in endless wars; it is guided by politicians who are always seeking power; it is a world of lawyers, policemen and soldiers, of ambitious men and women all wanting position and all fighting each other to get it. Then there are the so-called saints, the religious gurus with their followers; they also want power, position, here or in the next life. It is a mad world, completely confused, in which the communist is fighting the capitalist, the socialist is resisting both, and everybody is against somebody, struggling to arrive at a safe place, a position of power or comfort. The world is torn by conflicting beliefs, by caste and class distinctions, by separative nationalities, by every form of stupidity and cruelty – and this is the world you are being educated to fit into. You are encouraged to fit into the framework of this disastrous society; your parents want you to do that, and you also want to fit in.
Now, is it the function of education merely to help you to conform to the pattern of this rotten social order, or is it to give you freedom – complete freedom to grow and create a different society, a new world? We want to have this freedom, not in the future, but now, otherwise we may all be destroyed. We must create immediately an atmosphere of freedom so that you can live and find out for yourselves what is true, so that you become intelligent, so that you are able to face the world and understand it, not just conform to it, so that inwardly, deeply, psychologically you are in constant revolt
Because it is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition. It is only when you are constantly inquiring, constantly observing, constantly learning, that you find truth, God, or love; and you cannot inquire, observe, learn, you cannot be deeply aware, if you are afraid. So the function of education, surely, is to eradicate, inwardly as well as outwardly, this fear that destroys human thought, human relationship and love.
This Matter of Culture, 1964
Creating an atmosphere in which there is no fear requires a great deal of thinking on everyone’s part; the child, student, parent and educator. No fear physically is fairly obvious; no bullying, no corporal punishments, no spanking, no isolation as in time out, etc. No fear psychologically is another matter; no comparison, which includes grades, no rewards, which include praise and threats of punishment, no humiliation, no shame, no ‘I told you so,’ no, ‘how many times do I have to tell you,’ no, ‘look what you did, or did not do.’ In all these, and many other ways, culture implants deeply and very early, the seeds of our psychological mask, our copping pattern, our self-image or ego. First things first. When the milk spills attention is focused on the milk, not who tipped it over. Below, Chris Mercogliano explores where we go from there. As you will discover, Chirrs is describing the atmosphere for optimum learning and performance lifelong, one’s relationship with others and the environment, not content or curriculum.
This optimum learning atmosphere Chris describes, stands in contrast with our deeply held assumptions regarding education. How is it possible that an industrial-revolution structure remains appropriate for a post-technological global-brain where the mobile computer in your pocket has twice or five-times the computing power of the human brain, which is not far off? And yet, we still believe children in mass should be ferried to local knowledge incubators for six to seven hours a day, one hundred eighty days each year, and be inoculated with one to three homework assignments per week, taking fifteen to twenty minutes each, first through third grade - two to four assignments per week, lasting between fifteen and forty-five minutes each in fourth through sixth grade.
The primacy of knowledge is shrinking and with it the primacy of content as the focus and goal of education. Buckminster Fuller, 1895-1983, noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. On average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the “Internet of Things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. Simply put, The Internet of Things is the concept of connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from cellphones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of. By 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices... That's a lot of connections (some even estimate this number to be much higher, over 100 billion). 2020 is two months away. What does this say about our outdated assumptions about schooling? Increasingly individual parents are waking up. What we call schooling is part of a much larger system, a system designed to benefit the system, not the individual.
School as a Living Organism
It may sound strange coming from someone who has spent all his working life teaching in and helping start schools, but I have always been ambivalent toward their existence, even ones I think are pretty good places for kids.
Why do I feel this way? Because most schools are:
- Artificial environments where children tend to learn about life second-hand.
- Rich in information and materials, but poor in organic experience filled with meaning and purpose.
- Increasingly isolated in these days of heightened school security that keeps others out and budget cuts that keep students in, placing yet another barrier between children and real-world sources of deep and permanent learning.
- Following a standardized template that has little connection to local conditions, which makes no sense in a nation as geographically and culturally diverse as ours.
Even autonomous schools with unique and flexible approaches have to continually resist the gravitational pull toward taking on the characteristics of institutions by adopting routines and protocols aimed at meeting the mechanical needs of the institution, not the human needs of the participants. It’s no coincidence that the two examples Webster’s gives for “institutional” refer to food and a certain shade of green, the obvious inference being that the term means bland and drab. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, everything about a child’s makeup abhors blandness and drabness because excitement, wonder, and challenge are the natural drivers of development.
Another life-diminishing aspect of institutions is that identity inside of them is based on roles, on what one does and not who one is. In schools, the one-dimensional focus on intellectual performance suppresses the cultivation of relationships that reach deeper, more personal levels. The resulting superficiality discourages the kind of intimacy that is another of development’s core ingredients.
In an earlier essay I argued that in order for schools to avoid becoming artificial, isolated, institutional places that neglect children’s developmental needs, they have to behave like true communities. Here I will propose a second necessary condition: They must function like a living organism.
Allow me to flesh out the metaphor in some detail. First and foremost, a school needs a metabolism to generate the energy required for teaching and learning. In order to metabolize a plentiful supply, a school has to act in a manner similar to what science calls an “open system,” meaning that it continually exchanges matter, energy, and information with its environment.
Unlike closed systems, which exist in isolation and are controlled by external instructions that predetermine their behavior—machines, for example—open systems have the internal capacity to direct themselves and to change in novel ways. Put more simply, closed systems continue to follow their instructions automatically regardless of what’s going on around them, while open systems are sensitively attuned to their surroundings and can change spontaneously as conditions change.
Thus change is a key element of metabolism, which comes from the Greek word for change. In order to help children gain the abilities and the knowledge they need to live fruitfully in the world, a school has to continually adapt what it does and how it does it to the constantly changing conditions in that world. This is something conventional schools, which are classic examples of closed systems, woefully fail to do because they are mandated from above to rigidly adhere to an educational model that was cobbled together over 150 years ago. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was at its peak and there was a high demand for schools to produce people who followed directions well and were willing to perform dull, repetitious acts for an external reward. The end result was a system of schools that continue to operate very much like factories, with efficiency and uniformity as their primary operating principles.
Tradition and strong social institutions such as family and religion also existed then to guide young people through the transition into adult life. But today’s wide open world calls for a very different skill set. Successfully navigating adulthood now depends on flexible, independent thinking and inner sources of motivation and guidance, and yet conventional schools still cling to the same anachronistic model that does little to develop these tools.
A school-as-a-living-organism approach will ground itself in recent research that demonstrates children’s ability to orchestrate their own development. Because the process is driven by a child’s inherent desire to seek out the challenges that lead to an understanding and mastery of the world, education becomes far more a matter of self-directed exploration, discovery, and trial-and-error problem solving than teacher-directed instruction.
Entrusting students with the responsibility for their own education helps them learn to make good choices and leads to the secure sense of purpose and reliable inner compass they will need to become engaged, autonomous adults.
A school-as-a-living-organism will change in response to internal conditions too. It will maintain a fluid, flexible structure so that it can alter its approach to fit the ever-changing needs and aspirations of its child and adult participants. One of the fundamental reasons conventional education is so lifeless is because it is based on the old-paradigm view of learning as a mechanical process in which all children engage in exactly the same way and at exactly the same time. The end result was a rigid educational model steeped in conformity and standardization, one that insists students adjust to it and not the other way around.
The reason living organisms can share matter, energy, and information with their environment is because the cells that comprise them are surrounded by a semi-permeable membrane that allows for constant exchange with the outside world, while at the same time filtering out harmful toxins. And so it should be with schools. In order to stay vibrant and relevant, they need to welcome in parents, artists, writers, scientists, activists, and community leaders to share their knowledge and experience with students—on a routine basis and not just a token few times a year as is presently the case. At the same time, students should be encouraged to explore learning opportunities out in the marketplace as soon as they are mature enough, shadowing and working as interns and apprentices alongside professionals who can provide valuable modeling and mentoring.
All too often today young people are led to believe that the adult world is dangerous and foreboding, and that there is no place for them. And yet once they graduate from high school or college we expect them to find their own way into adulthood. One obvious solution to this potentially paralyzing bind is to grant them access to the adult world throughout adolescence, so that when the time comes to make the transition they already have enough experience to enable them to take their first grown up steps with confidence and a sense of direction. The fact that the adult world isn’t dangerous doesn’t mean there aren’t toxic influences from which children need to be shielded. A school-as-a-living-organism will recognize how susceptible kids can be to manipulation and will filter out things like corporate advertising, junk food, military recruiting, and indoctrination in all of its many forms.
ANOTHER ESSENTIAL COMPONENT of a metabolism is respiration, whereby the oxygen needed to catalyze energy production is transferred from the outside air to the cells inside. In a school-as-a-living-organism, the enthusiasm of the students and the teachers serves as the oxygen. Because their schools foster exploration, creativity, collaboration, and self-expression, students will naturally transport enthusiasm into the classroom. They’ll come to school eager to learn, knowing that the activities will be novel and meaningful and that they will enjoy a genuine sense of connection to each other and their teachers.
Conversely, the scripted, prepackaged curriculum that is the mainstay of conventional education is enthusiasm’s archenemy. So are grades, competition, and other forms of extrinsic motivation, which recent research shows, actually suppress learning. Children are born with a powerful inner drive to learn, and introducing outside rewards only interferes with a process that evolution has been steadily fine tuning for millions of years.
As psychologist Carol Dweck discovered in her groundbreaking research on motivation, the students who urged themselves on with their own desire to tackle challenging learning tasks consistently outperformed those who were driven by parental expectations and approval, even when the latter had greater previous ability. The bottom line is that when there is a sufficient supply of enthusiasm in the classroom atmosphere, the reliance upon extrinsic motivators is utterly unnecessary. You might say that learning is as automatic as breathing in a school-as-a-living organism because its entire approach is centered on the knowledge that development at the individual level and evolution at the species level is essentially a grand learning process, and that children’s own curiosity and hunger for challenge will supply all of the necessary impetus.
As for teachers, they will naturally teach with enthusiasm when they get to be themselves, share what’s exciting to them, form individual relationships with their students, and collaborate with the other teachers. It is noteworthy that the verbs “respire” and “inspire” both come from the Latin root spiritus, meaning “breath.” To inspire, in turn, means “to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on.” This should be the highest aim of teaching, and a school-as-a-living-organism will encourage its teachers to develop themselves as people and as professionals on an ongoing basis so that they can continue to serve as sources of inspiration.
A third important component of metabolism is digestion, which is what enables an organism to convert food into energy. Here I will temporarily step away from the metaphor in order to emphasize the literal role of food in the learning process. Although the brain accounts for only 2% of a person’s total weight, the body allocates as much as 25% of its energy to meet the brain’s needs. Moreover, children’s developing brains are acutely sensitive to nutritional deficiencies and won’t fully develop unless they receive an adequate supply of key nutrients. A school-as-a-living-organism will therefore pay close attention to children’s diets. If there are children who don’t get a complete meal before school, the school will serve a breakfast that includes whole grains and fresh fruit. The same goes for lunch, which must also be a balanced meal rich in natural vitamins and minerals.
A school-as-a-living-organism will also make educating children about food a priority, especially by finding ways to involve them in the process. Students will have the opportunity to help with food preparation, and wherever possible with growing some of the things that the school consumes. There will also be field trips to places like farms, dairies, and bakeries so that children have a direct experience of where their food comes from. Moreover, all instruction about nutrition and the relationship between diet and health will be done in contextual ways that bring the information to life.
Mealtimes in a school-as-a-living-organism will be social occasions—with students and teachers eating together in the same room—that help to foster a sense of community. As families disintegrate or grow more geographically distant, as people become increasingly transient, as urban neighborhoods are fractured by suburban flight, as electronic communication removes the intimacy from interpersonal communication, and as face-to-face transactions disappear from the marketplace, too many of us are “bowling alone” these days according to political scientist Robert Putnam in his book by that title.
This rising individualism in American society, says social psychologist Jean Twenge in Generation Me, is accompanied by a disturbing increase in narcissism, which she and a team of researchers have been measuring with an annual nationwide survey of college students. The results, which form what is known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, indicate that narcissism levels doubled between 1982 and 2006. A school-as-a-living-organism will also use food in celebratory ways, by marking important ethnic holidays with the preparation and sharing of special foods embedded in the cultural traditions of the students and the teachers.
NERVOUS SYSTEMS HAVE a fourfold purpose: to monitor and interpret environmental signals, serve as an internal communication network that enables an organism to coordinate the best possible response, synchronize the functioning of internal organs; and then our human nervous system, thanks to the evolution of the prefrontal cortex, has the apparently unique capacity to maintain a conscious awareness of our thoughts and emotions—our inner environment, as it were.
Life scientists operating out of the old Newtonian paradigm constructed a hierarchical model of our nervous system. The idea was that it passes sensory information “up” to a highly centralized control center in the brain’s frontal lobe that analyzes the data, decides on the most advantageous reaction, and then issues commands back “down” to the appropriate muscles. A good analogy is the modern corporation, with the frontal lobe as the chief executive officer. Most individual schools and all school systems are organized in the same top-down fashion, with a growing number of districts even calling their superintendents CEOs.
Neuroscientists now know, however, that the human organism’s internal communication and decision making processes are highly decentralized, and that the distribution of control can be quite horizontal. As Nobel Prize laureate Gerald Edelman explains, the brain is somewhat of a paradox: Each brain area is functionally segregated and yet no one area alone controls the rest. The necessary coordination is the result of a complex set of hormonal and electromagnetic feedback loops in which the frontal lobe is a highly influential partner, but not the chief executive it was once thought to be.
Then there is the discovery by neuroscientist Candace Pert that the same receptors found on nerve cell membranes are present on most, if not all, of the rest of the body’s cells. This means that our internal communication network extends beyond the nervous system, thanks to these ubiquitous transmitters that Pert calls “molecules of emotion.”
A school-as-a-living-organism will likewise have a widely distributed means of monitoring conditions in the outside world, facilitating internal communication, synchronizing the goings on in different parts of the school, and maintaining a conscious awareness of how well the school is working. Its “nervous system” will be made up of the highly interactive web of relationships between all of the participants, with students and their families, teachers, support staff, and administrators all serving as signal molecules providing the feedback needed to sustain the school’s well-being.
To facilitate nervous system activity, a school-as-a-living-organism will hold a weekly policy and planning forum during the school day in which students, teachers, and administrators are all encouraged to participate. This will give everyone a say in how the school operates, and it will place decision-making on a shared, horizontal basis. Accordingly, the leadership style of the administration will be collaborative, not top-down, and the administrator’s primary function will be to remain aware of the school as a whole and make sure that it stays true to its mission.
Ample and clear communication between school and home is highly important too, and so a school-as-a-living-organism will also regularly hold evening forums for parents. In addition, teachers will encourage parents to contact them whenever they have questions or concerns, or relevant information to share about their children.
It’s no accident that “communication” and “community” stem from the same Latin root: communis, meaning “shared by all.” Schools that are communities in which education is truly a shared endeavor will inherently be schools with well-functioning nervous systems.
YES, A SCHOOL MUST have a brain, an obvious requirement because of the enormous role the brain plays in the learning process. But at the center of a school-as-a-living-organism there will also be a strong, pulsating heart.
Metaphorically speaking, this means that schools should first and foremost be caring places. Or quoting the esteemed educational philosopher Nel Noddings from her book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, “The primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring.” According to Noddings, this is because when teachers truly care about their students, the result is “spontaneous delight and happy growth.”
Noddings writes elsewhere that the highest aim of education in the best schools is happiness because, “Happy children growing in their understanding of what happiness is, will seize their educational opportunities with delight, and they will contribute to the happiness of others.”
For Noddings, who taught math for 17 years and raised 10 children before earning a PhD in educational philosophy, human relationships are happiness’ single most important ingredient. She views teaching as a “caring relation,” not a role; and she recommends that teachers spend more than a single year with their students because the other ingredients of happiness—friendship, commitment, love—all spring from a level of intimacy that takes time to establish. She also advocates for smaller schools, and for teachers to specialize less and teach more than one subject so that they can have more contact with fewer students.
A crucial but all-too-often-ignored dimension of caring in the helping professions, according to psychiatrist N. Michael Murphy, is self-care. It is only when teachers know how to nourish, replenish, and love themselves that they will be able to help students learn to do the same. Whereas self-care is rarely, if ever, a part of conventional teacher education—therefore most of our schools today suffer from what Noddings calls a “crisis of caring”—teachers and administrators in a school-as-a-living-organism will be encouraged to actively attend to their own well-being on a daily basis.
In a school-as-a-living-organism, children won’t have to play roles either. Rather than acting like “students” conforming to the performance expectations of others, as is the case in conventional schools, they will be people living their lives on their own terms—pursuing interests, seeking out challenges, and sharing themselves with others. They will get to bring their bodies, emotions, and spirits to school, not just the cognitive learning portions of their brains, and there will be ample opportunity for them to attend to their physical, emotional, and social needs as well as their cognitive ones. Above all, they will have permission to be themselves. If they’re exuberant, it will be okay to express that exuberance. If they are angry, they can get angry; and if need be, they can receive help with learning to express their anger constructively. If a personal issue is troubling them, they can share it with others without fear of being judged and with the expectation of support in solving the problem.
When children’s selves and lives are encouraged to intertwine and overlap, it is inevitable, as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck explains, that “the conditions of others will become one’s own.” The end result is a community of caring in which it is safe to be oneself because no one is excluded for being different. Thus the “heart” in a school-as-a-living-organism will consist of all of the participants’ individual hearts linked together by mutual caring—an idea we now know is more than just a metaphor.
It turns out that the heart’s electromagnetic field, which is 1000 times stronger than the brain’s, projects up to ten feet beyond the body. This means that the hearts of individuals in close proximity are literally touching and affecting each other all the time.
Noddings’ philosophical emphasis on caring and happiness is currently receiving biological confirmation too. According to recent research in neurocardiology, the heart is extremely sensitive to emotional states, which then heavily influence the quality of the powerful hormonal and electromagnetic signals that the heart broadcasts to the brain and the rest of the body.
For example, when we experience sustained positive emotions such as love, caring, and appreciation, our hearts induce in us an overall state of what scientists call “coherence,” meaning that all of our internal systems are operating in sync with one another. Of particular relevance to education is the fact that positive emotions enable the heart to foster the coherent alpha wave activity in the left hemisphere of the brain that makes learning possible. Conversely, negative emotions such as fear, stress, and anger disrupt the brain and impede children’s ability to learn.
A school-as-a-living-organism will pay careful attention to its heart because it knows a well-functioning one will enable the school to sustain the coherence that makes possible the complete development of each and every child. For the bottom line is this: The mission of school-as-a-living-organism is to nurture growth in all its myriad dimensions, not just left-brain academic skills. And in so doing it enables all children to reach their highest possible potential, which is their birthright.
Reflecting back over the 40 years since I first began teaching, what keeps coming to mind is the old French aphorism, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Indeed, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. The world has certainly changed to an almost unimaginable degree, but what about education? While the cry for change has at times been shrill and the rhetoric promising it ever bolder, has the situation really improved?
If anything, the operating model of the overwhelming majority of schools, both public and private, only seems to have drifted farther from supporting real learning and growth. And the maddening truth remains that the children who succeed in these schools primarily belong to a privileged minority whose resources and experiences outside of school give them an advantage over the rest. How much the fortunate ones actually learn in school, as opposed to learning it in the context of the rest of their lives and then demonstrating it in the classroom, would make for an interesting study indeed.
Additional irony can be found in the ways in which conventional schools ultimately apply the recent research providing us with a much more accurate account of the learning process. For instance, neuroscientific advances in our understanding of brain function are bringing us a “brain-based” education that often ignores the paradigm-shifting realization that learning is a holistic game in which the brain is only one of the players. Focusing so narrowly on brain mechanics only perpetuates the old-paradigm reduction of education to a cognitive brain training exercise. It pays little heed to Gerald Edelman’s reminder that the brain is embedded in a body and the body is embedded in an environment; and it ultimately leaves children in the same old backside-numbing predicament: sitting at a desk passively absorbing skills and information in routine and out-of-context ways.
Another example is how certain reform-minded schools have translated the recent scientific confirmation of the fundamental role emotions play in the learning process into an “emotional intelligence curriculum,” whereby children are instructed in such subject matter as the visible cues of happiness, sadness, anger, and so on. Meanwhile, everything else going on in the classroom, well, remains the same. The educational process continues to leave how children feel—about themselves, their teachers, each other, what they’re doing, and the world around them—out of the equation.
Thankfully however, something else has stayed the same too: There continue to be schools and families that operate by variations of an educational model that is very much attuned to how children learn and grow best.
Many of these schools and homeschoolers began doing what they do well in advance of the research that now validates their approaches because they intuitively understood that education is a relational, experiential, and highly idiosyncratic process, and that children learn better when we trust them to direct their own education. Others have started more recently in response to the educational implications of the budding paradigm shift in science.
Is the growing number of people pursuing alternatives to the conventional model a sign of us heading toward a revolution in education? If only it were so; however, the reality is that education as an institution only mirrors the surrounding society. At the system level its principles and practices are determined by powerful political, social, and economic forces that are extremely adept at defending the status quo.
And maybe this is “the way it spozed to be,” borrowing the title from the dissident teacher James Herndon’s 1968 chronicle of the one and only year he spent teaching in a segregated middle school in inner-city Los Angeles. As educational philosopher Maxine Greene pointed out in her book The Dialectic of Freedom, one of the reasons American culture is in such a shambles is that too many of us take our freedom for granted and view it as an entitlement or an inherited possession. Freedom has devolved into meaning an absence of interference, or the wherewithal to get ahead and get what we want as soon as we want it.
True freedom, according to Greene, is a quest and not a destination. It’s the capacity to take initiative. It involves risk and above all, the overcoming of freedom’s obstacles. But today’s culture is so distracting and anesthetizing that young people are no longer exposed to the kinds of situations in which they are likely “to choose themselves as committed and as free.” She continues: “They may have the liberty to buy books, to change jobs, to leave home; but they do not know what it is to reach out for freedom as a palpable good, to engage with and resist the compelling and conditioning forces, to open fields where the options can multiply, where unanticipated possibilities open each day.”
Inspired by the Greene’s words, I will part with the thought that perhaps a hidden and paradoxical purpose of the conventional educational model is to give us all something to struggle against—to spur parents to stop blindly turning their kids over to schools that don’t have their best interests at heart, teachers to take pause to consider their true purpose and how to achieve it, and children to seize the responsibility for their education. For there is no doubt that education can be a source of liberation for anyone determined to make it so.
A School Must Have a Heart, 2014
How do we model a state of being that will awaken and expand in this next, most threatened generation ever, the capacity to live a full, authentic, even miraculous human life, to break the destructive spell we call Western Civilization and rediscover who and what we really are – and by so doing tip the scales from death back to life?