Adults often tease children for having an imaginary friend or special stuffed animal. “Aww, isn’t that cute,” we say, believing they’ll grow out of it
Yet that imaginary friend or stuffed animal is teaching that child to interact, learn language, exercise imagination, and engage a host of important life challenges.
Children are recognizing, rehearsing, and developing real life skills and values through play, and they are not that concerned about how it looks to the outside. Let’s hope they don’t grow out of that.
Now, let’s turn a keen eye on adults. We use a large part of our alleged intelligence to deny rather than engage the reality around us. We ignore global warming, personal deficiencies, racial, gender, and class inequality, and the list goes on.
Ironically, we often use a pragmatic “realism” to excuse away pertinent facts which seriously impact the survival of the present and future human race.
Who is mature, and who is immature in these situations?
The wisdom of children
A child sees a homeless person on a street, asks about that homeless person, and wants to intervene.
“Why are there homeless people? Is there something we can do?”
“I know… it’s sad. I wish we could,” adults typically reply, copping out of a long explanation and hiding behind a self-motivated desire to avoid grim truths. Instead, we attempt to protect children from the ugliness of the world by denying them compassion.
Why couldn’t we simply say, “That’s important to know. Let’s find out. We don’t want people to be without community, food, shelter and someone to love.” Why couldn’t schools make this problem and other concrete social problems and opportunities the core of their curricula?
Is there anything more important and immediate to learning than addressing suffering—the suffering of the earth and its inhabitants?
Who is immature? We adults are. We do not face reality. We are the ones playing peekaboo with our denial and fantasy. We are the ones providing excuses for our irresponsible behavior and inaction.
It is children who seem to understand the higher value of essential non-material virtues—love, care, truth, courage, honesty. On a visceral level they “get” that loving presence is more valuable than an expensive toy substituting for an absent parent. We adults don’t.
The immaturity of adults
So we confirm that children are collectively wise in their actions, rather than innocent, and that we adults are collectively immature, rather than wise.
Yes, an individual child may throw a temper tantrum, and an individual adult may care for the poor, but wisdom or immaturity is most evident in the sum effects of the observed groups. By my accounting, adults as a group are doing far more damage.
We adults are polluting the world, extracting natural resources at an alarming rate, and loading debt on future generations. And we are effectively taking responsibility for none of it.
We adults like to take kids to task for failing to clean their rooms. Yet, we fail to clean the planet. In fact, we leave it messier every day, adding junk not only to the earth’s surface but its atmosphere and its orbit.
We adults like to criticize adolescents for being egocentric and materialistic, yet we aim for five-bedroom McMansions in the suburbs with three- and four-car garages filled with titanium golf clubs, jet skis, and that hot tub we ordered but never quite got installed.
We rant about teens who irresponsibly charge three hundred dollar electronic gadgets to their parents’ credit cards. Then we turn around and rack up trillions of dollars of national debt (in just a few years) and put that on our children’s credit card.
We bemoan the cyber-bullying among youth that may cause suicides numbering in tens or hundreds, but promote large scale geo-political bullying, in the form of pointless and violent wars, costing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
We like to counsel our kids about being financially literate, deferring gratification, and investing in their future—saving for college, a down payment for a house— but we’ve let our community and national infrastructure go to pot in the mad rush to lower taxes and fund cushy individual retirements.
The folly of schools
And of course we build schools to perpetuate and reproduce this insanity.
“Get yours” is the implicit rallying cry of schools toiling under the legacy of industrial education.
“Be compassionate and excel!” does not appear to be the operating motto.
We look in most schools at the continued relentless emphasis on competition, on testing, on preparation for individual jobs, on singular achievement, and we see a main theme emerging, “Nobody matters but you,” quite at odds with official mission statements.
Even though present schools exist in an age well beyond the Industrial Era, schools continue to retain and enact industrial habits. They still largely treat the learner as a product to be processed, quality controlled, and prepared for material consumption and production.
The goals of most schools are typically not chosen from the grass-roots concerns of the learning community but rather adapted from predetermined standards decided by experts. Learners and their experience are apparently not to be trusted in an industrial system.
This framework requires stripping away imagination, genius, and difference, and replacing it with “civilized” obedience and homogenized delivery. The person gets lost in the process. Curiosity, inquiry, and engagement are met with formulas. Education splits from learning. Learners become objectified “students.”
Here is the catch, though. Industrial education no longer works. In fact, it concretely makes matter worse. You cannot just blindly advocate for more of the same, more jobs, jobs, jobs and more manufacturing and consumption in a shrinking world, and expect to solve global pollution and resource scarcity.
Despite this, educational authorities, if anything, have regressed more deeply into an industrial mode of thinking. They’ve responded to uncertainty with the same top-down control that gave rise to our current uncertainties and challenges in the first place.
You notice this impulse in the latest pushes to increase testing in schools, “get back to basics,” and increase academic standards. These do have valid learning uses but not when applied to mistaken notions about the nature of reality and the purposes of learning.
Current education tells us to ignore suffering, to box it up, and delegate it to some abstract authority somewhere else: “Social responsibility is not our department. Just study and get that high-paying job, raise a family, and let everyone else fend for themselves.”
Why do we keep trying to be Dr. Frankenstein, imposing our compartmentalized will on life rather than learning from the billions of years of holistic wisdom inherent in the life around us? Why do we insist on reproducing obsolete knowledge in our world and in our children (and paying for our stubbornness)? I don’t have a good answer.
We simply need to value effective transformative learning above obsolete reproductive education.
Developing people’s unique genius and ability to contribute and collaborate in an interconnected world is no longer a luxury. Critical, creative democratic, grass-roots education is an urgent necessity in a changing world.
A new vision of democratic, grass-roots education
“Learning originates with people, and [yet] schooling has very little to do with people, but rather processes. I’ve long wondered why we don’t simply make a school based on people, and their problems and opportunities, and simply directly teach to that.” (Zeus Yiamouyiannis in Oct. 24, 2012 conversation with Kirsten Olson)
Now imagine a school that wasn’t simply built on competitive self-promotion and ignoring the well-being of others. When a child says, “Can we help that homeless person?,” we might actually say “yes” in a fuller way.
Imagine a school based in an aware community, digging up the roots of the homelessness (or pollution, or bullying, or debt, or intolerance) in a way that goes beyond personal charity or coping to unearth the structures that gives rise to injustices.
Imagine a school where active empathy, art, creativity, entrepreneurialism, critical social thinking, and problem-solving organize the curriculum. Where pressing needs like non-violence, environmental care, and multicultural, economic, and political literacy become the centers of an enterprise we learn to engage together.
Imagine, actually asking and answering the non-rhetorical questions, “What are we to learn in this life? What is a high quality life for us and others?”
Imagine a school centered in community where “just being a good person” is not enough, where trying to keep your nose clean, obey the rules, and get into heaven are simply motives too selfish to serve as standards of good citizenship.
If we pursue this community option, we will uncover key anti-democratic myths, like “selfishness is human nature”. We will discover how this myth has been used to naturalize industrial era exploitation, colonialism, inequity, and abuse, and we will hopefully choose to veer from that precedent.
We will learn that it is simply a bad deal to trade integrity and health for “stuff.”
We will learn that “smart” people don’t destroy the world. They heal and co-create it.
It will be the task of new schools to reconnect self-awareness to others and to the world. It is my belief, that youth will lead this new connected awareness into practice. They have the most at stake. They are young enough to carry that commitment into the future. They have not epically failed as their forebears have. They deserve their shot.
Youth know that taking from others, “getting yours” at the expense of others is a failed vision. It doesn’t work in the larger global village, and it destroys individual virtue.
All the realism and “hard skills” in the world cannot trump the fact that “soft” human capacities drive accomplishment. Academic literacy is only a part of educational success. So-called “soft factors”—organization ability, work ethic, support network, etc.—end up exerting a stronger influence.
Good schooling and world citizenship is based on giving—contribution, concern, care, service. To support these purposes, education must include personal awareness and excellence, interpersonal respect, community advocacy, and global understanding.
We need an education that does not say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” but rather, “There by the grace of God am I”
Real democratic, compassionate education is founded upon an intimate sharing of the human condition, a high sensitivity to the suffering of others, and a high desire to do something about it. It involves learning to listen and design, rather than assume and impose.
The world’s problems cannot be solved by doubling down on failed habits and purposes. Comprehensive, complex, collective problems are solved when the genius in every heart, soul, body, and mind is unleashed and powerfully connected. This is the promise of true pluralism.
What is stopping us from directly devoting ourselves to the cherished non-material values and skills of love, creativity, solidarity, critical challenge, mindfulness, and community? What is stopping us from letting money, work, education, and social organization serve these aims and capacities?
There is no shortcut. We cannot have elite scientists or technology engineer from the top down what is inherently a bottom up human enterprise. We’ve already tried the top-down shortcut to “perfection,” and we got eugenics, religious fundamentalism, and dictatorships.
We are called to embrace in unity a world of intriguing imperfection and difference, without which there is nothing to learn, nothing to accomplish, and nothing to appreciate and respect.
We need an education that takes the world as it is, in all its beautiful promise and difficult problems, rather than what we might tell it to be. We need to engage that promise and confront our problems rather than delete them from our consciousness and dump them on the least powerful.
Let us then borrow wisdom rather than money from our children. Let us listen to that emerging and powerful wisdom in developing our capacities to meet what is in front of us. May we then craft a universe together with a place for all of us.
November 21, 2012