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Philosophical Meanderings

The boundless valley

In the grass by fishhawk

In the grass by fishhawk

[Author’s note: much of this post is inspired by Bethany Nowviskie’s “Reality Bytes.”]

Public schools and universities in the United States are increasingly governed by corporate interests that supersede, transverse, and transgress local and state code and control.

There is a tremendous amount of tension between academic tradition and capitalist pursuits, and sometimes that tension shears apart institutions we love. Sometimes that tension so infuses those institutions that the tension itself becomes the fossilizing agent binding together warring factions in dysfunctional cultures of attrition, blame, and cynicism.

These are dark places full of grinding conflict and the spaghettification agency, curiosity, and identity in the gravity well of standardization.

But are these places new?

Haven’t schools always been driven by the industrious? Haven’t schools always been meant to bequeath to our children our parents’ status quo? Haven’t schools always settled to reflect what we, the people, have settled for ourselves?

Haven’t schools always been a window into the dreams of the privileged?

Our public schools have always been dark places for some because they have never been built to be bright places for all.

The fault lines between what is happening in our public schools and what should be happening in our public schools have always existed throughout alternating periods of light and dark. We are in a period of collision, friction, and upheaval. Conflicts about school and society that have been dormant underground in our collective conscience are now being pushed up to surface in our attention. Through violent upheaval, our problems have shaken off the sediment of our complacency, and we are cut again, suddenly and deeply, by the ridges of inequity that we have sharpened with our disregard.

Concerned for our own ever-expiring well-being, we are all of us scrambling unevenly to summit and claim the daunting and mountainous realities of our national economic, geographic, and political landscapes. However, so long as we are concerned with ourselves, we will be forever wading through landslides of our own making.

The mountains will not topple or spin: not the mountain of inequity; not the mountain of shortsightedness; not the mountain of privilege; not the mountain of pride. Neither the mountain of ours nor the mountain of theirs. None of them will crumble beneath our feet.

The mountains have risen. They will rise again. They will be claimed and claimed and claimed and named after our worst tendencies in dealing with one another. We will climb those mountains until the air is thin, until our voices are shrill, and until there isn’t enough room for everyone else. If we insist, some children will follow us and help throw others off the mountain.

Many of our leaders follow the mountains, so we should not follow them. The truth of the matter is, they are not in control of the mountains.

Let’s instead look to the children who still remember maps full of hope and who still experience the sysaesthesia of material reality and nearly graspable impossibilities. Let’s look to the children who remember the sublimity of discovery and the empathy necessary to genuine care.

There’s nothing for us at the top of the mountain or in between the fault lines below them, but we can find everything we need in the people around us if we are brave enough to stop climbing and to begin looking in more than once direction at once.

Let’s build something worthy of our students, of our selves, and of our time together where we are, here and now, in the boundless valley of learning in community that is open to us all. Let’s admit ourselves to that valley and join our children who are already there, wondering if they will be allowed to stay – or if they must heed the call summoning them up the mountains.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


14 thoughts on “The boundless valley

  1. I love this post. I love the way you articulated your thoughts, Chad.

    My response will meander and may meander so far as to be off-topic.

    Schools have always been coercive. At least Rousseau, when advocating a more natural, human and humane method of education, admitted that reality. Socrates, after advocating and practicing open dialogue, often pushed for his method, ideas and philosophy dominating the social system – but at least he admitted that. To me, that’s the real danger.

    But all social institutions, indeed all social systems, have a coercive element. I value school. I also value family. I value democracy. I value public media. I value my neighborhood. And yet all of these can be coercive and can stifle the individual. I have seen people wounded badly by just about any social system, in part because we are broken (at least a little) and in part because the systems we create will almost always dehumanize at some point.

    There has to be some nuance there. There has to be some tension between the will of the individual and the will of the group.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | June 21, 2012, 1:36 pm
    • Thanks for your comment, John –

      I have two immediate responses.

      First, I agree that the tensions you cite are ever-present. I encourage us to hold those tensions without acting on them so we can stay in the boundless valley and attend most to kids and learning.

      Second, too often the will of the individual (the billionaire, the politician, the teacher) wins out over the will of the group (the poor, the people, the kids). I urge us to follow the kids into learning in that valley, whether we follow after their will, questions, whimsies, or follies. For me, any nuance comes from responding in helpful, idiosyncratic ways to each kid’s wonderment. The status quo of teaching as it is embraced and embodied by the profession, as well as the media, is not nuanced as such, and is in favor of teacher control in the classroom driven by respect for the teacher and the profession. I think the economy of respect is inflated past worth and that the gift economy of learning together and making stuff together for one another, ourselves, our schools, and our communities brings much more compassion, trust, and learning than respect does, or perhaps ever did. When we comply in schools, we are least often submitting ourselves to the will of the many, and most often submitting ourselves to the will of the one or the few.

      What do you think?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2012, 3:22 pm
      • I think there is a daily, difficult drive to follow the will of the students and bring about meaningful education in a place of standardization. I don’t see us being in much of a disagreement so much as taking things from a different angle. Opting out and even creating alternatives allows for certain freedoms that don’t happen when you’re within the system of a low-SES, “failing” school. But it’s where I belong and where I want to work for change. The tension of conformity and non-conformity, of following just enough rules to avoid getting fired will ultimately shape my perspective.

        So, I’ll work with the kids. I’ll take the standards I have to teach and let them run with the projects. We’ll probably paint murals. We might produce plays. We’ll definitely do videos and podcasts. But beyond that, I have no idea. I’ll let them in on the process as much as I can and somehow my hope will be to turn the factory into an artists’ loft, where we can form a community.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | June 21, 2012, 4:41 pm
      • Chad,

        I’m intrigued by your mention of teaching as a “gift economy.” It reminds me of a class I took at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking that focused on writing as part of a gift economy. We read sections of Lewis Hyde’s, The Gift. Upon returning to my classroom, I taught my 7th and 8th grade students the difference between market and gift economies and we discussed the ways in which conceiving of teaching as part of a gift economy would utterly change their perception of what goes on in the class. I mean, the analogy is obvious, right? In a gift economy, the gift moves from the giver to the receiver, but, unlike commodities in a market economy, it is not consumed, it simply changes possession. In terms of teaching, there’s far more to Hyde’s conception of how the exchange would work–I liken it to his understanding of art as a gift. But that’s a discussion for an entirely different blog post.

        There’s a lot more to that mindset, but I just wanted to test and see if I’m on the same wavelength as you.

        Additionally, I hear in many of your posts here a spirit of doing and making instead of just learning and consuming. I’ve just finished writing a paper for the education symposium of the Industrial Designer’s Society of America that champions just that spirit, and why we ought to be utilizing a learning by doing/making mentality in our classrooms, one that honors the creative spirit of all individuals but does so within a conception of how our making and creating impacts communities and people all around the world.

        I agree with much of what you’ve said, and much of what I’ve written and practiced over the past decade has dealt with the same tensions you deal with here. My question has always been: How do I reconcile my belief in a truly liberal education–with its power to connect us with our massive potential and the knowledge that we must learn to wield that potential with in the understanding of our membership in and duty to humanity–with my competing belief in a representative democracy practicing such market-based economics as we do? In recent years I’ve searched for an answer to that question in the field of design. David Kelley and IDEO’s work with Human Centered Design and, more directly, John Kolko’s taking on of “Wicked Problems” (find his pdf on-line at have both given me impetus to move from a mere academic understanding of the liberal arts and humanities to a far broader conception of their importance to making and doing and to ultimately saving the world.

        Posted by Garreth Heidt | June 22, 2012, 12:57 pm
        • Garreth, thanks for such a generous comment full of connections!

          I think about gift economies partially as you suggest in that what is shared is available to all – it is not consumed. I also think about working and learning and teaching freely without judgment or the expectation of a reward like, say, respect or a completed assignment. For me, teaching as part of a gift economy encourages me to work without any expectation of return – it focuses me on doing what I can for my kids and their learning, rather than on what they should be doing or should be doing fort me. In attempting to gift what I do (which is often hard to do given human feelings), I try to look at learning as a ceaseless phenomenon going on for my students and me, and I try to stop thinking of learning as something a kid should or must do in response to my teaching. Teaching and learning in a gift economy seem to me phenomenological, not transactional.

          I’m definitely into doing and making, and I’m a novice at both. I think of backwards design as a process of observation and negotiation through which my students and I can agree on and share what we value and use our common enthusiasms to tackle our shared work. As a public school classroom teacher, I do sometimes default to what I “need” to cover, but I much prefer following students into learning over asking them to follow me, and my kids typically like to make things rather than receive them like deliveries they didn’t order. If I feel boxed into teaching something, I make sure that I protect an equal amount of time for students’ self-directed learning time.

          Now I’m going to go and find the resources you mention – thank you again for sharing them!

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | June 22, 2012, 2:29 pm
  2. Stimulating messages, Chad and John. To me it’s not automatically true that tension exists between an individual and a group (or maybe it’s just not significant enough to act on as you suggest Chad). May I suggest that the true responsibility of every individual within and outside any group is to regularly self-assess our alignment of individual will with the will of the group.

    That self-assessment might yield good alignment and continued support of the goals and efforts of the group or it might not. For the former, we most certainly stay the course whether that will of the group is good or evil. For the latter, our choices are to seek to alter the will of the group or disassociate ourselves from the group; either way, we must be alter to counteract the actions of the group.

    Two additional thoughts:

    First, there are many individuals in groups for which their will is not aligned with the will of the group. But they are initially blind to the misalignment and do not self-assess and thus discover it.

    Second, there are indeed groups of the denied opportunities with which we don’t seek to join. However our will as individuals or caring groups must be to work for opportunities for these groups.

    The good news as I see it is that we with the wills of opportunity, decency, diversity, … have the right message. If we continue to seek dialogue with those in groups with wills of evil, many included because of lack of self-assessment will discover the misalignment; the size of such groups will diminish as will their influence.

    I hope this engineer / engineering educator has been clear enough to add to the conversation …

    Posted by jcbjr9455 | June 21, 2012, 5:08 pm
    • Self-assessment is huge – thank you of reminding us of it! I hope we self assess until we see that our kids are best served by “teachers” who learn and make things alongside them in parallel lines of inquiry, discovery, struggle, and trust. Our kids are not best served by the profession as reformists see it, nor are they best served by the schools we have iterated over time – incessantly and explicitly, I would argue – to marginalize and exclude “others” from privilege.

      I think of old science fiction (1990s and 2000s stuff) and wonder why we purchase new materials instead of purchasing the tools our kids could use to make whatever they need to follow their lines of inquiry. We’ve moved quickly from conceiving 3D printers to selling them commercially, but our schools are using technology to reiterate static texts. I guess I have a teachers-as-nerds post knocking around in my subconscious, but what I mean here is this: if we make it our work to join all students in learning we will help more kids learn than we would if we continue letting some kids join us in conforming with authority. Why line up when the line never moves? Why not discover what happens outside the line? Indeed, if the line keeps us apart from some of our kids, what good is it in the first place?

      With love from Disney World,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2012, 10:03 pm
      • I have but a cryptic remark:

        “Childhood’s End” suggested the need for, or perhaps the inevitability of, an outside influence that might assist youths in their transformation to what they were/are ‘destined’ to be…

        I truly love your perspective(s).


        Posted by Brent Snavely | June 27, 2012, 9:34 am
        • Brent, sometimes I wonder if we in schools are here just to provoke kids to react against the institution and its values – somehow, somewhere, though, too many adults and kids bought into the system instead of rebelling against it.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | June 28, 2012, 8:11 pm
  3. Chad, This is incredibly powerful, moving you to a new level of languaging and imagery. I am at work on a post that follows yours, based on my recent experiences, about changing the story education tells itself.

    Thanks for your power and insight here. I also love the photo.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 21, 2012, 7:28 pm

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