Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Shadows on the Wall - The Futility of Ed Reform

Have you ever had a thought come to you with such force or clarity that you realized your thinking, from this point forward, will never be the same?

I'm sitting in a workshop at the AERO conference this weekend. The session is going to be led by Pat Farenga, who's a good friend at this point because of our work together, but he's running late. I've loved this conference, my second time attending, in large part because it is small and the conversations are so very, very deep.

The conference is in its 26th year. 26 years of talking about learner-centered educational alternatives. I've been wondering all week how it is that this deep, caring, devoted conversation and those who participate in it haven't more significantly influenced the larger education dialog. The topic of this session is "Homeschooling Towards Positive Social Change: Challenges and Concerns for Building a Movement." Perfect.

Someone suggests that part of the reason Pat is late is that they found this great old diner where they stopped for some special omelets. Pat runs in, apologizes for being a few minutes late. Pat worked with John Holt years ago, and now continues the Growing Without Schooling organization. He's been at this work for decades, has seen waves of enthusiasm for learning alternatives come and go, and remains a positive, encouraging voice to all who work in this arena.

A woman across from me has a bottle of juice from Whole Foods on her desk. I think about the omelets, the juice, food, and learning, and it hits me. So I say it out loud:

"If we want to know how most people think about this alternative education movement, all we have to do is to look at how most people think about those who are deeply concerned about processed, packaged, and genetically-modified food.

"If we're wondering why we're not influencing larger change, maybe there is something important we might learn from why most of us haven't been moved by the whole- or clean-foods movement."

The woman next to me seems to be adding to my comment, but she talks about something completely different. I am brave: "Did you move on to another topic because you didn't get what I was saying, or you didn't agree?" I try to make sure she knows I'm truly interested and not confronting her. She looks confused. I realize that what is going on in my head is not clear to anyone but me.

There are some fifteen people in our room, several of whom have expressed their excitement about the work they are doing to build new school models, or to build bridges between their homeschool groups and the local school district, or to help others understand the importance of how you treat children. They are good people.

But I think I'm seeing something they are not. Something that perhaps explains why after 26 years, this is still a very small conference, with hand-written signs for each session outside just a handful of rooms. Something that explains why, even with the opt-out movement and more debates about the value of high-stakes testing, it doesn't seem like we are likely to actually see substantive change in education. Something that maybe would explain why Pat has seen waves of enthusiasm and projects over the course of decades ebb and flow, but never really take off.

I say: "If we are working on education change, believing that this is just a matter of convincing others of how treating children with dignity and respect will dramatically improve education, perhaps we are missing the bigger picture." I go on. "Those of us concerned about food and health are constantly surprised about how people seem so willfully blind to how their eating habits are directly related to their health issues. What if this is all tied together?"

"If we're passionate about seeing learning clearly, but not just as concerned about the damage the food industry is doing to our health, or about the banking or pharmaceutical or any of the other institutions that claim to be helping us are most often often harming us, then maybe we're misunderstanding what's really going on. What if they are all part of the same story, and not seeing their connectedness is a big part of why change isn't happening?"

I know that I'm hijacking the session.  I determine to just say a few more words and then let it go.

"I would never eat an omelet at a local diner. When I began to research food issues [for my health--I have a number of auto-immune disorders, including Vitiligo] and began to understand that almost all food companies are in the profit business, and not in the improve-your-health business, I stopped eating a lot of foods that really harm our health. In my food-eating life, I know I'm seen as being as weird as I often am in my education work. So what if this is actually a bigger story, a story of the ways in which institutions have controlled narratives about how things are or should be done, and education and food and banking and pharmaceutical and medical are all part of the same bigger story..."

Deep breath.

"... and so when we sit here and debate education as though it's just about trying to convince others of our understanding of how to help children, we're really just in Plato's Cave, arguing about the shadows on the wall, and not turning around to see the degree to which education is just one part--and maybe the most important, facilitating part--of a larger institutional system that depends on and manufactures compliance and control, and depends on our not realizing that we're busy being distracted by our idealistic desires and activities, not seeing the puppet-masters who project the shadow-play."

(On reflection, I realize that saying the phrase "puppet-masters" triggers all of our conspiracy theory alarm bells. But who are the beneficiaries of narratives that try to convince us to do things that are not good for us? They are those who makes a profit from that behavior. We know enough about our cognitive inclinations to justify our actions through reasoning to not have to attribute malice to those who have talked themselves into pushing consumer behavior which helps them keep their job or make a living. Above them there are those who accumulate wealth, power, and privilege from a system that depends on most people being followers and not independent--of course their world view would incline toward narratives that justify their position.)

I'm too far gone in my diatribe now to stop.  One more thought, I say to myself. "If I were black and living in the sixties, and you said to me, the answer is just for white people to understand the need to treat blacks more respectfully, and to help them to understand that, and to start clubs and schools that are integrated, I think I might say: 'You're being naive. Long-held systemic discrimination and the abuses of power and privilege do not willingly yield to positive thinking.'

"At some level, power must be confronted. The American Revolution was about confronting the abuse of power. The Civil Rights movement required confrontation to overcome entrenched beliefs and behavior. The American tradition of civil disobedience is a recognition of the need to demand change when power is involved.

"We now have generations of students who were taught above all else at schools that they were not good learners. Taught in some deep and profound ways that they are not capable and should not be in independent control of their own destinies. We have untold millions of children and their parents who have been convinced that they are defective and that medication, rather than changing learning models, is the solution to their misbehavior."

I really am about to finish. "I think I now see why we're not making any progress. Here we are, animatedly and passionately discussing the shadows on the wall, not realizing that we are seeing life as framed by those who project and benefit from a reality that they have created for control and profit, and who benefit especially from our not seeing beyond that shadow play."

I stop. I listen as the conversation moves forward, not really informed by my comments. The woman with the Whole Foods drink indicates to me that she understands. Fairly quickly the conversation moves to the different projects people are excited about. I watch as Pat is supportive and thoughtful in his responses. Aware that I could be seen as trying to take over the session with my own thinking again, I later venture quietly to raise my hand. People are so excited about their own ideas that they ignore conversation protocol, so I wait and I, too, appreciate their enthusiasm. When I get the chance, I do ask my question: "Pat, having watched positive education projects and movements come and go over the last several decades, have you got any advice for why they succeed or why they don't to those just starting?"

Pat says there are two parts to responding to that question, but he's not really even through the first part before the change-makers steer back to their own projects. I'm OK with that. The epiphany has come for me.

Note: I wasn't really anywhere near this articulate. And I'm sure a recording of what I really said and how others responded would show that I've greatly exaggerated or added or even misconstrued what happened. But this is an accurate representation of my thinking, so let's call the rest a fictionalized version of a real event. I've also made a couple of minor updates and correcting to this post as I've tried to clarify what I'm saying--I know that's not great web protocol, but I'll note the changes in the contents.
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