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Subverting Insanity

The question this week relates to how I see the possibility for the creation of authentic learning experiences during lean political and financial times. My colleagues have done a brilliant job articulating approaches varying from first approaching one’s self as what needs to change, to making deliberate decisions about where to exert your energy, and lastly, taking account of the larger picture of education reform in the last 30 years as to not get too worked up about tests and standards.

I appreciate Chad’s sentiment and series of questions. It’s one thing to talk theory and ideals, it is another to enact them. It pushes out of the safety of conformity–to systems and ourselves. We put ourselves at risk at least for criticism and at most for termination. So how’s this? I want to be put out of a job. Here’s my story.

Public education does not live in a bubble, it is rife with all the troubles of society today. So while Paula put the changes of public education on a timeline, let’s look at what else has happened. Addictions have risen, the number of people with mental health disorders has grown, our jails have become overfilled, the number of children born to the parents who fit within these categories have increased and overall our population as exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. Yet, we can’t get enough of “Octo-mom,” and “Surprise, You’re Having a Baby!” We have moved from wholesome home cooked meals to microwave dinners, soda, and drugs as the primary things we ingest. We spend more time in front of a screen than doing nearly anything else. The rich have become disgustingly more wealthy while the middle-class has evaporated into debt, and the poor are perhaps more oppressed than ever with legal mechanisms to keep it that way. We cling to our illusions like infants and think a damn test is going to solve the problem. We talk about accountability but think about this: Wall Street just received billions of dollars of tax-payers’ money for putting millions of people out of work, out of their homes and into bankruptcy. Not one banker will go to jail. Politicians are pandering to said bankers because they bankroll their campaigns.

Our economy is built on poverty; exploitation of the planet, its plants, animals and people; and building and selling weapons to kill each other. I’ll put it simply, the world has gone crazy. THIS IS MADNESS!

So while we are clamoring over losing a field trip or having to give a stupid test, it all pales in comparison to the big picture we are in. The world is run by a technocracy that continues to supplant work from millions of people. Those millions of people are largely killing themselves with drugs, nutritionally poor diets, or literally killing themselves and each other. And technology is supposed to increase quality of life…(and it has in some medical applications for sure). Meanwhile the elite, the intelligentsia, think that they are simply inherently better, made of stronger moral fiber because they have money and aren’t crackheads. Meanwhile, the means by which they make their money is enslaving their grandchildren in debt and destroying the planet. Nice work. <sarcasm>

I love my #edtech friends, but seriously, no wiki is going to fix these problems (prove me wrong, I would love it!). Our mainstream culture today has two predominant traits–crazy as hell and morally bankrupt. Yet, believe it or not, I do believe people are inherently good.

Thus the subversion needed is not one of standardized testing, nor standards, it’s about doing sanity instead of insanity. Our children our surrounded by insanity-their parent(s), media, advertising, reality shows. We have to make damn sure that we are not part of that insanity.

We must be architects of character, before curriculum, before assessment; character.

Youth of today are on more drugs than any generation before them, they have higher rates of personality disorders (persistent impairment in interpersonal relationships), and stand before one of the largest problems humanity has ever faced. Uh-oh.

Our primary concern must be sanity if we ever want to move away from the cliff of nuclear war. Our primary concern must be sanity if we want clean water to drink. Our primary concern must be sanity if we want to reduce the inevitable effects of global weirding. I don’t care how many kids graduate high school or go to college if they are all crazy. I don’t care what the techniques of champion teachers are if they are crazy.

Show me students who know how to take care of themselves, others, and their environment with genuine concern and compassion, and I will give you a diploma, now that sounds like a reformed system to me. Show me someone who can conceive of an economic system that creates robust communities without poverty that don’t degrade ecosystems, and he can have a PhD.

So I said I want to be put out of a job, what did I mean? I mean that I want to cultivate such a high degree of sanity that a public school certified teacher is no longer needed. Parents would again have the time to rear their children. They would be trusted to be sane enough to provide the experiences needed for a chid’s proper development. Other adults would willingly contribute to children’s enrichment, whether that is learning how to farm and all the complexities involved in farming with your neighbors, or designing self-regulating buildings with your buddy that is a real natural building architect.

If our focus moved from chasing money to cultivating character and community, public schools may be obsolete. Since our focus would be on the quality of our lives as interdependent with the quality of neighbors’ lives and the ecosystems within which we are a part, so much of the crazy that drives our systems today would be gone. A degree in education would perhaps also disappear, because what is mastery of education other than knowing how to be a mature adult mentor and role model to others?

The system I envision looks much like the home school networks of today. But in order to get there we must focus on sanity, we must give up our addictions to money, stuff, and convenience. We must begin to wear the clothes of virtue that lay dusty and molding in the bottom of our closets.

So my subversion is sanity–Not subscribing to or persisting in seriously flawed systems and thinking. Flawed is perhaps best defined in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” And by this definition I will make progress in sanity by promoting what is right through my own perceptions and actions.

How are you contributing to sanity or insanity?


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


13 thoughts on “Subverting Insanity

  1. Adam,

    I tend to wonder if sanity has left being a constant to now placing itself on a continuum. In other words, has sanity gone from something that in a “simpler” (not really) world where an individual could be looked at to be sane and labeled as such to a world where people’s degree of sanity is based upon the topic being discussed.

    Despite its subjective nature, people who are sane are traditionally labeled as such by whom? I think that a majority of the world currently suffers from what I would unscientifically label “serendipitous sanity”. This needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. That’s part of the reason we are in the predicament you describe above.

    The example that sticks out to me is that of nuclear weapons. How can a world that strives for peace believe that the very existence of nuclear weapons on this planet somehow aids in creating that? I’m not talking about Iran or Korea either, obviously. I’m talking about the United States and all the other countries that consider themselves “advanced”, but can’t part with a product that could destroy our planet. Who is more sane in that situation: Iran or the United States? I simply expect better of “us” so I would label the U.S. as insane. Even better, I don’t think the people of Iran should be labeled as insane. I think the leader(s) who proliferate a need for a nuclear buildup are. Yet AT THE SAME TIME, I don’t see the U.S. saying, “if you stop trying to make an atomic bomb, we will destroy all of ours.”

    So let’s bring it back to the schools:
    Has the proliferation (word intentionally used) of technology created a society of hyper-irrational, illogical people, or simply created a larger group of people that are insane? Is there a difference?

    If there is a difference: how do we teach kids to adapt to this type of world and harness it’s power rather than allow it to own them?

    If there isn’t a difference: then we’re screwed. (kidding) How do we break down developing sanity in younger kids so that they have the Habits of Mind to be successful in the future?


    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 20, 2010, 8:09 pm
  2. Aaron,

    Thanks for jumping in on this post. Here’s my thoughts in response to your comment:

    Insanity: Def. 1-repeated actions that bring forth harm to self or others.
    Def. 2-adherence to beliefs, ideas, or action which demonstrate extreme foolishness or irrationality
    Examples: Modern warfare, modern economic systems, modern agriculture, modern materialism.

    Technology itself has not created an insane society but has exacerbated it. The premise that technology must indefinitely progress is insane, as it is not guided by any moral principles. To what end must technology progress? Within what bounds must it progress? I don’t know how having children in India wading through electronic waste contributes to the advancement of humanity, for example.

    This also answers your question of how do we teach kids to adapt and harness technology’s power. We must first teach them how to harness their own power as co-creators of culture. Then as they engage with any subject whether technology or food, they have the proper guiding principles to think through the issue with. Again Aldo Leopold offers a great moral compass, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” We can use this to guide use through economics, architecture, design…anything.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 20, 2010, 8:40 pm
  3. Adam, I read your post once, couldn’t decide what to do, and now have come back. While I am fundamentally in the same place about lots of things, I get a little tangled and uncomfortable in your argument in two ways.

    1. You and my good friend Ron Miller share a fundamental point of view: that the world has gone crazy, we don’t live sustainably, and it’s all crazy gone to shit. While you guys may be absolutely right on, (actually, I don’t agree with this, although I don’t discount the validity of every observation) my problem is that this isn’t a very ACTIONABLE way to live. The underlying sense of overwhelm and disaster tends to make people feel passive and afraid, rather than empowered to take action and kick ass on stuff around them. When Ron and I talk about the problems of public school, an institution he has largely withdrawn from altogether, he just simply says, “It’s too hard. It’s too big. I can’t deal with that.” Maybe because I’m just a stubborn street fighter I just can’t accept that. What CAN we work on now? Isn’t that really the question? Is your sense of “insanity” really helping you? How does it make you better at the work? I’m just asking. I want to hear.

    2. When you prescribe for other people what is sane and what is not, and hold those ideas with fervor, passion and fear, don’t you in some sense stop listening? Stop taking in someone else’s point of view? And isn’t that a kind of rigidity that gets us into the insanity in the first place?

    I like your vision of homeschool networks for the future. But there are lots of underscaffolded, poor kids for whom that may not be a good model: they don’t have parents who will bring them to more informal settings and encourage and support their learning, they don’t have access to lot of resources that help you be successful in “freer” environments. How do we take that on in our discourse?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2010, 8:25 am
    • Kirsten,

      All the points you raise are valid. First of all, while my post and purview may raise anxiety levels to the point of paralysis, it’s not the case for me. For me it is like standing on the peak of a very tall mountain, where I have an extremely wide view of what is actually happening “down on the ground.” Thus, instead of being fooled that if only the public schools didn’t demand testing, I feel empowered by understanding what is driving that and so many other issues we face. It empowers me to do the work that I believe truly matters, as I said, character cultivation.

      And while the world might be largely headed in a tailspin to disaster, there is hope, great hope! In my post I most likely made too large of generalizations, and I apologize for this. I believe that we are all accountable for the history we write today, as within each of us the potential for war or peace, greed or sharing. It’s how all the individual decisions and actions aggregate to form the larger arcs of history. In Ron’s book, “Self-Organizing Revolution” he captures a particular aggregate of individual actions that is going to save the world. The same in Paul Hawken’s “Blessed Unrest.” There are millions of people working tirelessly everyday to bring forth sanity. The writers on this blog are another example.

      What I attempted to illuminate in my post was that we have to take into account the bigger picture that public education is a part of, our highly dysfunction, degenerated, and destructive society. So if we want to think about education reform, we have to think about cultural reform first. Someone who does this brilliantly and you may know her personally is Zoe Weil. Through the Institute for Humane Education she addresses the larger issues facing every human being on the planet today. In ways that are appropriate from kindergarten until death.

      As for my prescriptions of what is sane…I have two thoughts. The first is that if we knew each other in the flesh, you would know quite well how deeply I listen to others, having been a social worker, a mediator, and a restorative justice advocate (and a teacher!), I listen to the depths of another person’s soul. What I try not to do is get confused. Just because I authentically listen doesn’t mean I have to agree by the end of the conversation, my sympathy and/or empathy for a person or point of view might be enhanced, but I most certainly don’t have to agree.

      I remain discerning, not pre-judging, but discerning. I also do not globalize a person’s behavior to be who that person is. In Chinese thought, people are not “assholes,” but they are “assholing.” This idea that there are no nouns is also found in many spiritual traditions, especially earth-based ones. Within this idea, I am discerning if a particular idea, belief, or action aligned to the creative or the destructive principle, these being the two fundamental archetypes of consciousness.

      Furthermore, while I may approach this issue with passion, I am not a zealot, nor do I sit in a place of fear. I sit in love and compassion. Here’s an extreme example: Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, an institution founded on hatred ( I have deep sympathy for the confusion that rules this man’s and his followers lives and I am clear that they acting crazy. They are the example of approaching a subject with passion, fervor and fear that stops them from listening to others or reason. In all honesty, while I am capable of behaving in such an irrational fashion, I assure you I am not. If you ever think I am please, please, help me to realize it.

      As for access to resources for kids from poor families, this is exactly part of the issue of cultural reform that I am trying to address. Why are they poor in the first place? It’s not because they are morally inferior as our Puritanical heritage would have us think. It’s because of many other complex reasons, including our economic structure being inherently built on there being very poor people, that at a minimum we only need to pay someone $7 and change, about half of a livable wage. Thus, we have legalized, stamped and approved poverty. So we need to develop new ways of doing business, ways that are about the planet and people at least equally as they are about profit.

      In the meanwhile, those kids should absolutely be in public schools, with loving, kind, and able teachers. Teachers who have integrity, compassion, and keen intellects. Those schools should be empowering and incorporate structures to support authentic learning. But this is a short term answer in the larger scheme of things. We can’t lose sight of the reasons why those kids can’t be a part of a homeschool network. Because our economic engine is in overdrive to provide wealth for 5% of the planet, and this means families have to send both of the parents to work to barely make enough. And if the issue is that their parents just don’t care enough to take their kids places and support their learning, then again the issue is character, because what is a parent other than someone who supports their children to learn and grow to be healthy and happy people.

      That’s my thoughts for now. I will return to this later today, and perhaps offer more.

      Thanks for speaking honestly.

      With hope,

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 21, 2010, 9:22 am
    • Regarding Ron (and others like him) who shy away from public schools, I say that’s fine. we have to know our boundaries, our limits. While Ron himself may have never set a foot in a public school (I don’t know that to be true), I personally know that he has metaphorically set foot in thousands of schools as he has influenced that many teachers through his writing, talks, and workshops. So while the world might be a better place if Ron were the Secretary of Education or a Superintendent, he doesn’t have to do it all himself, let those who are called to such taks to do so and let’s hope that they have a good dose of Ron (and John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, bell hooks, Nell Noddings…) in them.

      In peace,

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 21, 2010, 9:58 am
  4. What a great thread. Thanks to Adam, Aaron, and Kirsten for the depth and candor of conversation.

    I tried to comment last night, but found myself wanting to come back with fresh eyes – I wanted to re-read Adam’s post and reflect, myself, on the beliefs and feelings it stirred. Also, Kid 2 was using every trick in the book to avoid bedtime.

    First, Adam, I would love to read a science fiction novel you wrote. As a nerd, I get very inspired to take personal action from that long view you and other visionaries, like sci-fi authors, have. I would love to follow the thread of hope you might weave through a tapestry of near- or far-future crisis.

    Your post makes me think of “Harrison Bergeron.” Kirsten’s response does, too. I think of conversations I’ve had with students about the way the story ends, and I’m reminded of students who reacted by proposing solutions and of students who reacted by joining in the story’s condemnation of society. Adam, I think you and Kirsten have created a valuable and rich opportunity for discourse about starting and end points for taking personal action to help educators and students work together to change our course. Conversations like this one and stories like “Harrison Bergeron” represent for me the complexity of action and motivation for healing change.

    Regarding the post: obviously, I have a lot of energy invested in standardized testing. However, I resist viewing standardized testing as a problem of “giving a stupid test.”

    From my perspective, these tests dictate the entirety of our schools’ structures. Schools and students are defined by stances towards and performance on these measures. Teacher meetings are about intervening on students’ behalves to make sure they lear as evidenced by passing the tests. “Bubble kids” are taken out of electives and non-core classes or asked to attend after school sessions to pass the tests, while kids assured of passing, or with no hope of passing, get less attention paid to their needs by educators, not because the educators are uncaring, but because public education as a system is in thrall to testing. Multiple tests throughout the year are given as predictors for performance on the end of course tests. The tests impact everything, from how kids are labeled, to how they are told to use their time at school, to how teachers, administrators, parents, and communities are labeled and told to use their schools.

    There can be a significant, meaningful change in public education that would benefit students’ inquiry, curiosity, creativity, sanity, well-being, and learning by doing away with the machinery of testing. A standardized test represents more than a standardized test.

    I imagine we agree on that; I just want to emphasize the primacy of assessment reform in school reform for democratic and authentic learning that would support educators in building sane relationships with their students. Testing is a big part of replicating in schools the inequities of wealth and obstacles to sustainable, healthy living that Adam cites.

    What do you think, Coöp?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 10:10 am
  5. Thank you everyone for this great dialogue. I appreciate being pushed.

    When I wrote this post I hesitated in making it live because it was more raw than I usually like to portray my thinking. However, I am glad I did. I like the conversation it is stirring, and the uncomfortable feelings, to me this says we really have something to look at here. I hope as we push through these feelings that everyone continues to feel respected, safe to voice their thoughts, and heard.

    As you know from our past conversations, generally speaking I am against grades, standardized tests, and homework. But what I am trying to do here is reframe my questions. Test or no test, how is public education preparing students to meet the crises that await them? Standards or no standards how is public education promoting a healthier and sane population? Homework or no homework how are children being taught to care for themselves, those around them and the planet?

    I am looking back to our first posts where I detailed that education in a democracy needs to be for the development of extremely sane planetary citizens. When I think about how this could be done, I can see homework being a part of it, I can see tests and standards. I can also see there being none of the above. The issue for me is that this is not the aim of public education currently.

    Schools are one of culture’s largest tools to perpetuate itself and this is not a bad thing of itself. But when a culture is corrupt and headed nowhere but off a cliff, we have to start asking timely questions.

    As you state a major problem with standardized testing is that it engulfs the educational system. It takes kids out of classrooms, takes up class time, forces its way into the curriculum, budget, etc. What I am saying is that I don’t care about the stupid test or perhaps not even what it is assessing. I am saying it is irrelevant to the problems we face today and what we should be doing to meet them.

    What I am saying is there are bigger fish to fry and this is what I want teachers, administrators, parents, and public officials to hear. I challenge anyone to tell me how SAT’s, GRE’s, AP’s, etc. demonstrate that a person is going to be a successful human being in the 21st century. How any of those tests demonstrate a person’s ability to successfully deal with conflict-intrapersonal or interpersonal. How it demonstrates their ecological understanding. If they can’t do that I will tell them that their test is irrelevant, better used for compost to grow a school garden. And that if they want to attach millions of dollars to a piece of trash then they are just as irrelevant as the test. I will explain to students that there are these irrelevant tests out there that they are free to take or not. And that while these stupid tests are sometimes used in admissions processes that if a school is stuck on such a score than more than likely their program is irrelevant too. I will provide them with a number of options for schools that are more sophisticated in their admissions process and will most likely better serve the student in the long run. Regardless my students will understand that “difficulties aren’t hurdles on the road to god, they are the road.” Martin Buber aptly puts the human situation. Frustrations aren’t going away, it is how we learn to deal with them that is vital. So today it is the SAT’s, tomorrow it’s my attitude, someone else’s attitude, a threat from al-Qaeda, the power going out because of disrupted supply…

    I am proposing taking the power out of these stupid tests by repeatedly articulating what is vital and important today. Sanity. And sanity needs to be qualified differently than it currently is. Again I invoke Aldo Leopold’s words for this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 21, 2010, 3:21 pm
  6. David Purpel has got my back in “The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education.”

    “The process, absurd as it is, is simple enough. Give students and teachers a test, teach them how to pass the test, and Eureka! the test scores go up–which the public is told means excellence has been achieved. What is particularly painful about this cynical travesty is the degree to which professionals in education, sociology, and psychology participate in such nonsense even when they know or should know better. These professionals participate, indeed contribute to and shape a public dialogue in which education is reduced to a concern for passing tests of dubious validity, thereby bypassing the serious and perplexing questions of what should be taught, for what reason, and for which mode of humanity and community. By avoiding these serious questions professionals not only trivialize their work; more importantly, they neglect their responsibility to focus public dialogue on central issues.” (1989, p. 17-18)

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 21, 2010, 4:00 pm
    • Adam, I am very much into the perplexing questions and the perplexing of questions. I’m also very much into assessment of character and problem-solving skills – formative ones that help students, say, refine service learning skills into a sustainable community organization that thrives after its founders graduate.

      I also think my cynicism drives my optimism; I need to explore my cynicism about testing. At my best, I find what I think are moral actions in place of it. At my worst, I become more aware of the compromises I’m making and the costs I’m paying and asking others to pay in doing so.

      Throughout my questioning, I think something as jargonistic as assessment reform remains vital to the return to sanity we value and acknowledge as necessary for the advancement and well-being of us and our communities. But it does us no good to draft the sanity curriculum and assess it by multiple choice. Test or authentic assessment, rather than test or no test, is a key issue for me precisely because tests harm and authentic learning can heal. I mean to talk about, “test or something else?”

      However, I’m more than willing to question myself about shifting to “something else” exclusively. I’m sure that my resistance gives tests an equal measure of power in my thinking, writing, and perhaps teaching.

      The tests are irrelevant to stewardship education; our actions are not. Every teacher who runs the risk of being irrelevant for supporting testing represents someone who could be very relevant in students’ lives of learning, service, and well-being.

      How do we remove the totem AND convert its diligent adherents to authentic, democratic, sane education?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 9:43 pm
  7. Adam,
    Your duality as it relates to education and the world is interesting in this post. The insanity you speak of the world around you is balanced by the good being done in it as well. I believe you recognize this with your belief in the good of people, but tend to forget it in the idea of wanting to be “put out of a job.”

    Your points well made about creating a type of homeschooling environment that focuses on the planet, children and sanity of learning, rather than the incurable insanity existing currently is courageous, but is challenging to some rational realities.
    Two quick points to challenge you on this notion.

    The first, my experience coming from and still associating with a very conservative christian church that prides itself on home schooling its children (while I know is different then how you image homeschooling to exist in this alternative reality) fosters a brand of learning that is perpetual ignorance. I wonder, if the current state, in a family oriented, traditional home schooling environment continues to perpetuate one type of belief and learning, can your future vision do the same (maybe on a different political, moral front?) My concern is with the idea of being “out of a job,” is that those who take over will be still prepetualing a belief or learning, just a different one. Does the teacher, even with their own biases, at least present multiple platforms for learning for different individual thinking?

    Second point, volunteerism in the U.S. is the highest it has ever been. Even with the change for inflation in population. Most of this volunteerism is associated with some sort of educational organization, whether it be senior projects for public high school, eco friendly non-profits, higher education internships, ect. If the volunteerism is going in a direction that is directly related to education, and we deem this to be a good thing, then if degrees and education are put out to pasture, is their a jeapordy of losing these gains? I believe the sanity would return and volunteerism would likely explode within local communities and families, but would that volunteerism be connected with learning, connected to wider demographics and geographic locations?

    Thanks for this head spinning blog, I loved it. 🙂

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 21, 2010, 6:03 pm
  8. Here’s a great TED talk that articulates my point about being discerning about sanity and insanity, health and insanity.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 22, 2010, 11:17 am


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