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Education Aligning with Life.

Deborah Meier observes in “NCLB and Democracy” from Many Children Left Behind (2004), that public education has not been seen by communities as a public enterprise in quite some time. Communities of families which surround and empower schools are a collapsing ecosystems. As governmental mechanisms of control increase in education, as the measure of schools and teachers become increasingly hinged to test data and driven by standards, schools become decreasingly nested or networked by their local communities. As I look closely at classrooms, diversity in ways of knowing seems relegated to the junk drawer as it is  subjected to industrial line simplicity; each teacher adds their interchangeable part to the federally designed product.

For ten thousand years the Anthroposcene (The age of humans) has been changing the face of the Earth, beginning with the spread of selected animal breeds and food crops. As members of the global community we are experiencing a 6th great extinction comparable to prehistoric events of global ecological failure. We are witnesses to thoughts and languages dying from our human community at an alarming rate. Linguists predict that in the next 100 years we will lose 90 percent of the world’s remaining 7,000 languages. Languages are intricate expressions of relationships and experiences, built upon local knowledge. These languages cannot survive if we reduce the field of knowing to only include that which serves western economic values.

A planetary biodiversity crisis leaves the biotic community struggling to remain resilient to the systemic stress of climate change. I look over the narrow bridge of evolution during this period of extinctions and wonder what will come through this time of loss. Selling tickets to the ark, we select the species that will make it through the flood. The rate of extinction caused by climate change only increases the systemic effect of humanity’s choices.

As an educator I have to appreciate the responsibility of this time and look directly at the thought climate that has allowed the disconnect to take place which encourages so many of us to become profoundly disconnected from the natural world and consequently from each other.

For some time I have looked to wild spaces for inspiration and wisdom.  Today on 10.10.10 the 2010 evolution of the movement initiated by Bill Mckibben, I look to Terry Tempest Williams whose work, The Open Space of Democracy (2004), invites us to a grounding in the reality we share with one another and the natural world. In fact, so much of what she writes is an act of refusal that a separation exists between the human and the “natural” world.  As I shape and refine what I can make sense of as authentic education, I find assistance in her words.

Schools shall not be a place to prepare tomorrow’s future for what the present deems valuable but a place where tomorrow meets today in meaningful work an dialogue about how to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Teachers are not the fountainheads for governmental bodies of content knowledge but empathetic thought coaches who have walked the path of life for a committed while are willing to offer their experience to another generation with mindful curiosity. Long ago these mindful guides laid down the carrot and the stick so that they could offer both their hands in support and hopeful peace.  A community which chooses to “prepare” students for the future, chooses to state implicitly that students are not valid participants in the conversation of life.

What moves me about this brief speech I have placed below is her wordplay on the notion of climate change. She compares global climate change to the change in consciousness that is resulting in response to such a systemic problem. She states how the climate of our thoughts changes as we recognize our connection to a living planet. I recognize that we cannot afford a thought habitat where people understand intelligence only as measured in the accumulation of consistently testable facts.

On this day, I think it is important to state that we cannot, as a planet, afford any human endeavor to not contribute to the health of the whole planet. We are too far down the path towards collapse, towards a new climate balance that has little to do with what we humans find hospitable. Education cannot abdicate it’s role in the constructive movement toward the ecological restoration of the planet, this restoration includes that of a human ecology which remains diseased by a poverty of mind, systemic stress and biochemical pollution.

Like an embrace that holds all of our broken parts together, the way forwards contains so many of the same mutually beneficial solutions. By aligning ourselves with the carrying capacity of our planet we learn to consult, respectfully, the coevolution of life with life. A climate change of consciousness is a problem commensurate with our abilities to adapt to the whole of life, but can we respond to the invitation of our higher selves without the fear so deeply inspired by our modern age? I offer this as a meandering path back against fear, greed and ignorance.

I’ve become convinced that the context of learning is essential in our lives and in our schools. No pedagogical style, no behavior management strategy or counseling process will heal the open wound of shattered communities. We must belong to a community. We must define ourselves in concert with one another while maintaining our self-organizing autonomy. The process of understanding ourselves and the world around us can be the necessary means past the alienation that separates future generations.

As we fully inhabit our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities and our collective land, we orient towards the life community and it’s sustainable flourishing. Our human notion of justice integrates into our capacity for understanding from a continual, active cycle of wisdom with the past and the land. Cultural intelligence springs from deep committed dialogue with each other and recognition that tight control of choice and behavior is antithetical to authentic growth.

Terry Tempest Williams writes:

“In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities. We remember that our character has been shaped by the diversity of America’s landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it. Cooperation is valued more than competition; prosperity becomes the caretaker of poverty. The humanities are not peripheral, but the very art of what it means to be human.”


About jsteele1979

Hello, I'm a grad student at Goddard College in Vermont though I live in Madison Wisconsin. I'm working toward a masters degree in Education and this site is part of my studies.


5 thoughts on “Education Aligning with Life.

  1. Jeff,

    This is a beautifully ambitious post. You strive to articulate what we are just on the edge of discussing in education reform/transform.

    As you know the connection between character and ecology is something near and dear to my heart and mind.

    One thing I would love for you to elaborate on is this passage:

    I’ve become convinced that the context of learning is essential in our lives and in our schools. No pedagogical style, no behavior management strategy or counseling process will heal the open wound of shattered communities. We must belong to a community. We must define ourselves in concert with one another while maintaining our self-organizing autonomy. The process of understanding ourselves and the world around us can be the necessary means past the alienation that separates future generations.

    My thought is that we do belong to a community–an ecological community of biotic and abiotic elements that we are hardly aware of 99% of the time. Not until we are unable to breath or have no access to clean water do we begin to understand that we are fundamentally alive and human because of our belonging to this community. Is the issue then that we need to practice awareness of this belonging? Can this not be incorporated in pedagogy, counseling, feeling and thinking?

    Dr. Mike Cohen would argue that if we do practice consciously connecting with nature that our severed connection to our natural community will begin to heal. Just as a surgeon reattaches a severed limb or digit to the body, engaging in consciously connecting with nature begins the reattachment process. however just like the doctor can only use tools such as sutures to press the pieces back together, our pedagogy or counseling can also press ourselves and our larger, natural community close together. There is a natural process that is beyond our conscious control that then takes over and begins to reconnect us, heal us. What do you think?

    always pushing,

    Posted by Adam Burk | October 14, 2010, 8:33 pm
  2. I just lost my comment, Jeff, but here’s the gist:

    This is a heartfelt and wise post.

    I worry about public education’s ability to get past political considerations to practical ones about stewardship and compassion.

    What might be the first steps you’d suggest in either winning public schools more independence to educate sanely or giving educators strategies to help elect state and local executives and boards of education that have a long view of education and its power to save communities?

    I want to go out and mash-up an Edible Schoolyard with a Learning Expedition right now.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 14, 2010, 8:41 pm
  3. Thanks Jeff for this! I want to share so much with you and look forward to our conversation on Saturday. Your idea of community ring true to me and believe just as we need to find a balance between the personal and the communal, we must also look for ways to be come into partnership with the earth, because only as partners will we find the balance to fullish….not just survive.

    Looking forward to more of your writing and some of the pragmatic steps you take to move this vision forward. Also I really hope you picked up Person/Planet by Theodore Roszak as I believe he would speak to you as much as he speaks to me. Here is his section on education….I recommend reading the whole book at least the chapters that speak to you…. but this chapter…especially the end is a must must must read.

    School: Letting go, Letting Grow

    here is the last part:
    Know thy self, Trust thy self, Be thy self


    Posted by dloitz | October 15, 2010, 1:19 am
  4. Good stuff, Jeff. Very powerful. Thank you.

    I hate to restart an old dialogue, but again your post leaves me thinking that the mainstream Nation-at-Risk-NCLB-Race-to-the-Top standards-driven public system just cannot address this level of concern. My hope remains with the counter-hegemonic potential of small community-based human scale alternatives who can perhaps begin to realize an ecological educational vision. Hmmm.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 17, 2010, 10:23 am
  5. Paul,

    I would love to have you do a post about your school. Also My thesis is on Human scale education and see you school as a great example of such a school! You should also look at the Al Kennedy High School in Eugene…. a small alternative public high school of sustainability…really awesome stuff they are doing there! Let me know if you have an idea for a post…. So glad you are here!

    Posted by dloitz | October 17, 2010, 2:10 pm

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