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A Time to Rethink Education

“A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides. (Hannah Arendt, 1954, “The Crisis in Education”)

The Covid-Crisis offers us a moment, a pause, a respite, to take in the world we have created – observe it, all of it. The inequities, the destruction of habitats and ecosystems, the loss of agricultural knowledge, the meaningless jobs, broken families, hardened racisms, protection of identities and attendant loss of compassion, the desires by the richest not to mix with the rest of us and their beliefs that they are exceptional humans, the ascription of one’s self-value to the amount of money earned, the loss of confidence or trust in governing bodies while consuming from commercial bodies that are larger than governments and have no obligation to be transparent, the break down of families under economic and social stress. Is the Covid Crisis showing us which societies care about their citizens and which ones do not? Is it laying bare how inequities are killing us? Can we use this crisis as a lens through which to examine what most families in any modern nation-state need? What better time to rethink education.

I keep hearing parents, schools, and teachers say that our children need to “keep the learning going on at home”. It’s an astounding statement given that we and our children are a part of a history-changing moment – but we need to take time to witness it. The desire to “keep things normal” is understandable. But, the world as we know it just shifted – either because of the pandemic or because of the collapsing economy. Once we are able to come up for air, what might we do to love and know our world again?

As an educator I believe that a breakdown in any society has roots in how it educates its citizens. Education in the U.S., like most places in the world, allows culture to be reproduced and the choices of an older generation to become the moveable realities of a younger one. Schools are the vehicles for this process. Families and communities contribute to the “cultural values” of the school – its priorities and goals, especially in an immigrant nation, where the “melting pot” ideal has melted and the building blocks of our towns reflect deep-rooted diversities that have not been harnessed into a vision for American society. The last 40 years have cultivated truly competitive and brutally self-serving sets of social practices that have not been challenged by our schools.

Instead, our schools have embraced the logic of capitalism, (market, colonial, industrial, post-industrial, neo-liberal, surveillance, corporate, government) and allowed it to dominate all other logics, erasing other forms of intelligence, turning our souls into material goods and selling them on a market that imagines the existence of money. This would make sense if we were “Alice” in wonderland. Schools in the 1980s adopted the individual-competitive model and seemed to never look back. Our children were shamed by bad grades, wrong answers, not fitting in or losing, so we had to make “everyone a winner”. But, everyone is not a winner; competition still drives the activities. Can we appreciate our children’s work without comparing it to others? Local banks offer “bunny bucks” for good behavior – external motivation replaces the natural drive to learn. Kindergarten teachers reward children who behave well – rather than focusing on creating projects that draw out best behaviors, that is, cooperative and group oriented activities. School districts pit teachers against each other to get best scores (and not lose their jobs). Freshmen enter college afraid to answer questions wrongly, afraid to ask questions, only interested in getting the right answer. This does not bode well for the kinds of problems our planet faces.

And, what kind of future does this offer our children? Should they have to fit into a broken world-order or should they be equipped with the tools of their imaginations, skills in their hands, compassion in their hearts, and flexibility in their judgements. Covid-19 has removed us from society and given us a chance to value those human connections again. But, how should we reconnect?

The deeper crisis in U.S. education – that of the triumph of an economic model over how we think about any issue – needs to be critically examined. Our public schools (so many of us have abandoned those potentially world-transforming places) already contain so many resources for rethinking our world. How many of us have learned new gardening techniques from neighbors who were Mong farmers in Vietnam? Or how to knit mittens like an Icelandic granny? We may have tasted the amazing curry of an Indian neighbor at the kindergarten potluck, but did we learn the vedic counting system? Did a child come to school wearing Kente cloth and your child was mesmerized? How many of us actually decided to learn Spanish after meeting several Spanish-speaking children in our schools? Have we worn the “diversity” badge without allowing it to educate us? Have we allowed the corporatization of our schools to define how we view our child’s success? How much time have we taken to learn from our neighbors? How much do we know about our own family’s histories? And, what other place on earth offers up such rich resources? Maybe now is the time.

Public schools, not private schools, homeschools or unschools, lay the foundation for education in the U.S. Industrial capitalism, with its cookie-cutter designs, continues to legitimize the existence of schools (there’s a reason they look like factories or prisons) while these very schools invite in the surveillance capital (software corporations) that has no walls but needs a poor and unimaginative labor force. Covid places our children (and their poor teachers) squarely in front of screens in an attempt to mimic reality. After a few weeks both teachers and children know the promise is empty. There is no learning going on – only a game of pretend. Though, it’s not difficult to realize how empty the educational promise in America is these days (if we can teach virtually what are we doing in schools; if we don’t need schools why not disband -but continue to need the software corporations who supply us with “educational materials”.) If only those who can afford to build their own (private/publicly-funded) schools can have them, the rest of us will end up working for them. (Sound familiar Betsy DeVos)? Certainly without schools, one more cornerstone of American public life will disappear. And those who will be lucky enough have physical schools will also only know each – elite – other – helping themselves socially, politically, and financially, but not knowing how to think about the rest of the world.

How do we reclaim our public schools? How do we place our teachers back into those schools? How do we ensure that all children have access to education equally so that those who become our policy-makers don’t see themselves as exceptional to humanity. As the saying goes, “all education really begins at home”. So, now’s our chance. Dig out old photos of your families, tell those stories. Share home-cooked meals that everyone helped to prepare. Pick up an old craft from a family tradition and learn it with your children. Get to know yourselves. The experiences you have with your children during this crisis are “war memories”, engraved by the trauma of this change, that will be powerful enough to nourish our children into adulthood. My mother still thinks about how she and her sisters had to take apart old sweaters to knit socks for the soldiers during WWII. It is a memory filled with trauma, love, and warmth.

Allow these long days to be interspersed with curiosity. Does you child have a Mexican friend at school? Try making tortillas together so that when we return to shared spaces they will build a deeper relationship. Build a simple loom and try to weave Kente cloth or cook an African meal or a curry. Learn to knit those mittens together. Find out what kinds of crafts your grandparents had – try to recreate them – your children will be deeply moved.

When we get through the Covid-Crisis, we need to begin rebuilding the world on different principles of society. Another pandemic is coming. Climate change is happening. And the foundations of 21c. education in the U.S. should not be laid upon the dog-eared economic principles of capitalism. If there is something our generation – parents – can do for our children it is to show them that there are lots of wonderful ways to think about the world, what a good life is, how to solve a problem, and how to be together. Our schools need our support and need to let go of their corporate funders. All children need to be placed into rich environments, filled with art, music, math, physics, stories, quiet, excitement, movement, and stillness. It doesn’t need more software. If we return to our schools with new stories about our families, new skills based on curiosity, and a commitment to our diverse communities, we will have not lost time and will have gained insight into our own needs as a society.

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Gardening Children: Choosing Environments for our Young Children 

“Plants are improved by cultivation, and men (sic) by education….This education comes to us from nature itself, or from other men, or from circumstances. The internal development of our faculties and of our organs is the education nature gives us; the use we are taught to make of this development is the education we get from other men; and what we learn, your own experience, about things that interest us, is the education of circumstances.” (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762)

What is a kindergarten? A child’s garden, a garden for children, or a place where adults cultivate their gardens? If we are the gardeners, what should be in the soil? How do we provide places for shade-loving or sun-loving children? How do we make sure roots grow deeply and hidden capacities are not blocked? The metaphor slowly transitions towards a view of all the other environments – or circumstances, as Rousseau would have it – where our children grow: schools, towns, shops, communities, neighbors, society. These are places where we have little to no control. Many of us are concerned about the kinds of values our children will bring home with them once they are outside the home, playing and learning with others. We live in a society with mixed values. How do we ensure that our children will reflect the values of our own families as they learn and grow?

While our children are young we should take time to think about what kinds of experiences and values we want our young children to absorb. If our homes and  our schools are filled with meaningful relationships, work, play, artistic activities, cooperation, the lives of animals and plants, and respect for the needs of others, then healthy foundations for learning will be laid. If families make deliberate efforts to connect with each other on a daily basis around the dinner table or at bath time, bedtime or on the weekend hike, communication will become an important aspect for how a family’s values will be instilled.

Children are built to learn. This is why they are so dependent. It is up to us, the parents, to choose and create some environments for our little ones to flourish and not to shut-down. The multitude of over-stimulating, numbing, adultifying experiences available to our children is evidence that we do not live in a society that values childhood in and for itself. In her latest book, Erika Christakis describes the loss:

“We’ve appropriated their music and books and clothes… but what have we given them in return? Adult gadgets and expectations? Unfortunately, the solution requires more than merely reducing screen time and ponying up more Legos. The small window of early childhood is closing its blinds a little prematurely, it seems. For example, 10 percent of eight-year-old girls are now in the early stages of puberty. Children themselves are leaving the early years behind with a new urgency.” (The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups , xix, Erika Christakis, 2016).

In order to value the experience of childhood, parents and teachers need to have their own developed capacities for thought and feeling. And, we need to value adulthood – the ability to apply life’s lessons in order to guide our children. If we fall prey to the abundant beliefs that “getting older” is something to run away from, we will find ourselves wanting to be like children. This, in turn will make us vulnerable to the superficial trends of competitive culture and consumerism because we have not taken time to develop our capacities as adults. 

Childhood cannot be saved by children. Children up to the early-nineteenth century were “quickly grown” in order to take up their life’s responsibilities depending on class. Historians continue to examine the idea that “childhood” did not emerge until the seventeenth century in Europe, that it did not exist at all during the middle ages. So, what is it about these young ages, say two years to eight, that is so valuable?

Developmental psychology continues to confirm what histories of childhood show us – that these years are malleable. It is a time when capacities are developing, when we can shut down creative thought or nourish it, feed imaginative capacities or not, encourage grit or crumble it, enable entitlement or cultivate gratitude. We can set healthy boundaries for our children to work with or believe they can set them alone; we can share appropriate responsibilities with them or under-evaluate what they are capable of; we can be their guides or be their followers. All of these choices have consequences. We can raise children who have poor boundaries, don’t know right from wrong, do not believe they can learn from adults, and have no sense of what they can offer the world or we can raise children who use their boundaries to know themselves, make mistakes in order to learn the right way to do something, seek adults who have something to teach, and believe they can offer the world something good. Our children all have capacities for renewed visions of a humane future rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

As we begin another year at this “kinder-garten” it is we, the parents and teachers, who are gardening our children, building suitable environments for them to play and work, help and be helped, express themselves and consider the needs of others, learn that they can do something they could not do before, and become our (dependent) helpers. This is no easy task given the demands of our work-lives and the many places we send our children where we have no control. But this conversation may be a good place to begin.