Near the end of my mother’s 79th year, she fell and broke her hip. As the surgeon readied for the operation, a physical exam revealed she had lung cancer. My mother would not consent to chemotherapy, but instead to a long series of radiation treatments. She looked at me and said, “I don’t want my hair to fall out and if the radiation doesn’t work, well, then its time to go.” We did not know it at the time, but she had only ten months to live.
My brother lived in the same city with her (I was a seven hour drive away) and immediately went about setting up for her the very best care he could. During the course of the next ten months, he put up a Herculean effort to help her heal. He drove her to her doctor’s appointments, assured she took her medicine, suggested new therapies, and spent many hours with her in her home. It was a beautiful thing that he did.
I, on the other hand, made visits whenever my schedule allowed. I called her frequently and every five or six weeks made a visit. In about the eighth month of her illness, she looked at me and sadly said, “I am trying and trying, but I am not getting any better.” A few days later when we were talking, I became aware that something had happened within her and while she did not say it, she had decided to die. I knew it was time to help her prepare to die rather than help her stay alive.
My brother, on the other hand kept up his efforts to help her stay alive. I bless him now for his love and devotion. But there was also such an intensity to save her life that he did not see her wishes or the inevitability of her death.
Outside of her house sat a magnificent 100-foot maple. Unable to bear losing it, my mother had ignored the signs and hired an arborist to keep it alive. It underwent all the possible treatments. Eventually, it had guy wires to keep the massive limbs from ripping away in heavy winds. It was patched and treated for diseases. She spent thousands of dollars trying to prolong its life.
Still, it kept dropping its huge branches on the house, damaging the roof. Steadfastly, she held to the vision of it in earlier days. While it was telling her that the time to die had come, she continued to repair the roof and pay the arborist. After she died, my brother and I continued trying to save the tree. Four years later, with it ever more weakened by age and disease, a major storm destroyed it.
I have been thinking of these things lately because I believe that the current educational system, in which most of our children are enrolled, is like an aged parent or a dying tree whose time has come. Despite the warning signs, we continue to pour millions of dollars, and many more millions of hours of effort into saving it. Why? Everything has a life cycle. Why not accept that this system has lived its life most fully.
From its inception just prior to the industrial age to post WW II, the current system grew into a magnificent tree; one that fed us and helped our country grow strong. As we became known as the land of opportunity, the education system served as the heart of possibility for millions of new Americans. But as with any living system, our education system’s DNA does not allow for eternal life. At well over 150 years old, the consciousness and the context for its creation is no longer.
Sadly, very sadly, our children are the branches falling on our roof. The warning signs are everywhere: the drop out rates, low levels of engagement in the classroom, the cases of violence, depression, eating disorders, apathy. These are their efforts to tell us we need to plant a new tree. The current one is dying.
If we were to close our eyes and imagine a glorious spring day, we might imagine a lush meadow with flowers and a forest alive with green growth. We might see sunlight, blossoms, feel the soft breezes, hear birds chirping, lambs bleating. Whatever our image of spring, it would be young and fresh, filled with an energy that renews the spirit and offers the promise of life to come.
I believe we are on the cusp of a new season. It is time for Springtime in education. We are being called by our children and by the times, to coalesce a completely different vision. A vision that rises to meet the real needs of human life and all life on the planet now and into the future.
Let us take the dollars and the energy we have been spending on saving the “old tree “ and put it into co-creating a new seed. Let us step outside of ourselves, admit the system is dying and build something with and for our children that will ignite passion in all of us. Let us plant a new tree whose fruit will nourish and sustain the natural curiosity and openness of our children.
Despite the immensity of the task, manifesting Springtime in education is not impossible. We possess the creativity, the wisdom, skills and gifts to launch a new spirit and form in education. It is time to stop blaming, repeating the same old patterns, and holding on to old territories, and for the sake of our children, join together and refuse to compromise.
Let us think the unthinkable together. And most importantly, let us be inspired by the voices of our children, for they are the only future we have.
Charles Kouns is the Founding Steward of Imagining Learning, an educator and the father of three. Imagining Learning is creating a national portrait of young people’s wisdom on the reinvention of education.