School is Fiction… Let’s Re-write its Story (and Purpose)

My previous blog asked us to go beyond student-centered approaches to learning and teaching and converge divergent thinking toward a common purpose. While the dominant trope in “progressive” education circles goes along the lines that we cannot prepare students for the unknown world of tomorrow, I posit that there are issues that will persist beyond the event horizon of our knowable future: climate disruption, socio-economic injustice, and the precariousness of relationships with others. I call these the Big Three and I believe that the roots of these issues can be traced to our anthropocentric worldview. Because our increasingly homogenized cultures value human life over all other forms, these issues persist, and will persist, well beyond this decade and the next. I believe we need to adopt a more biocentric value system that shifts our thinking and actions toward a common purpose, the welfare of the bio-collective—the whole of all living beings on earth (and eventually beyond) who share a common interest in the healthfulness of the planet.

I want to make clear that I am not calling for us to replace student agency, but rather to channel agency toward having positive impact on all living things. This would put agency—with all the choice, interests, strengths, and so forth—at the service of the bio-collective. When student-centered structures and approaches stop short of improving the welfare of other beings, they stop short of bringing us closer to addressing the Big Three issues. More to the point, they keep us rooted in self-centeredness, in anthropocentrism, in contributing to the Big Three issues themselves through inaction or misdirected action. If I am at the center, as a student, I am sending a message that all other beings orbit me, even other humans. 

At the time of this writing, the One Planet Summit in Paris is concluding. In the 30th-anniversary edition of the Human Development Report (HDR), The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene (published last month), takes a clear position: 

The strain on the planet mirrors the strain facing many of our societies. This is not mere coincidence. Indeed, planetary imbalances (the dangerous planetary change for people and all forms of life) and social imbalances exacerbate one another.  As the 2019 Human Development Report made plain, many inequalities in human development have been increasing and continue to do so. Climate change, among other dangerous planetary changes, will only make them worse. Social mobility is down; social instability is up. Ominous signs of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism are worrying. Collective action on anything from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change becomes more difficult against a backdrop of social fragmentation (p. 4).

While humans have been altering ecological landscapes since the Neolithic Revolution (and earlier if we consider the mass extinctions resulting for human migrations for the last 45,000 years). Yet nothing has compared to the transformative powers of human actions we see today. Scientists propose that we are moving into a new epoch, when humans replace geology as the dominant force that shapes the planet; we are entering the Anthropocene. The Human Development Report argues that to navigate the Anthropocene, “it is essential to do away with stark distinctions between people and planet (p.9).” The Report “mobilizes human development analysis to marshal evidence and suggest options for individual and collective choices on how to redress both social and planetary imbalances (p.22).”

In the Anthropocene, ecological, socio-economic, and intra/inter-species tensions are interconnected. In order to prepare students for tomorrow, we need to instill a sense of purpose in their learning and actions, toward the welfare of the bio-collective. 

Not everything has to be about saving the trees or solving word hunger. Playing the guitar, writing poetry, cooking for others, inventing a robot that feeds the cat… these are all products and ideas that can potentially have a positive impact on the self, others, and the world. The Arts and Sciences can make our life experiences more meaningful and are the building blocks of discovery, introspection, and love.  What matters though is the consciousness and intentionality behind the production of these thoughts and items. Are we acting as self-indulgence or for the good of others? (There is a nuance even between good for oneself exclusively and self-indulgence.)

Passion projects, genius hour, free-for-all self-directed learning have little value if they’re not anchored in why. Consciousness and intention fuel the value shift that directs thoughts and actions toward good, which should be the why. Anything else is self-indulgence and contributes to self-centeredness and anthropocentrism. Consciousness and intentionality provide different meaning (and perhaps value) to actions. Two people can carry out the exact same actions, but consciousness and intentionality change the spirit of the action.

I can hear the voices already. “What?! Students need to be able to choose themselves! Who are you to tell them what to do? How dare you impose your values! This is more of the same!” 

It’s not. I am calling for the re-writing of the fictional narrative that is school.

Very crudely, school is an institution created to serve a specific contextual purpose. No one before the nineteenth century needed school (in its current form) to learn. The entirety of human history prior to school as a formal institution attests to this. School has the function of preparing children for industrial production or post-industrial services and is a nice, safe enough place for working parents to drop off their offspring before they go to the factory or office (before school, it was just fine to take them to the fields to plant or harvest).

The state has another, more insidious, reason to provide mass education: the inculcation of nationalistic and socio-economic ideologies in young minds. France, for instance, made public education free, mandatory, and secular in 1882 in an attempt to destroy the clerical values that  led to the divisions between monarchists and republicans that had eviscerated the country since 1789. Jules Ferry is still revered today and no one in Paris questions the why the country refuses to teach local dialects like Breton or Corsican in state school. Regionalism risks eroding republican and revolutionary ideals of unity.  The Ragged Schools in Britain weren’t much more than charitable organizations that provided and fire and warm gruel to destitute street children. Add to this that every morning millions of American school children pledge allegiance to the flag and you see that school is a place where dominant values are adopted, sometimes questioned, but almost always transmitted. Even when we reject those values, we exist in relation to them and the “other.”

School is a place that creates imaginary realities, inculcates values, and creates myths. It is where we are told that things such as freedom and justice exist, maybe even inalienable rights, even though these concepts themselves are constructs of specific slices of time and space. These values and ideals do not exist outside the collective consciousness—certainly not in science. They are myths, stories we tell ourselves, rituals from our culture, which is also contextual.

And that’s ok… society would not, could not, exist without myths and rituals. Myths hold us together. So do common purpose and collaboration. But this also means that school, as vehicle for the transmission of these myths, isn’t eternal either. It does not exist in-itself, but for-itself. School is fiction. Thanks to COVID they don’t even have to occupy physical spaces anymore. School is something we create and perpetuate to serve a purpose*.

The problem that when individualism comes at the expense of other people or animals (and plants). The problem is when anthropocentrism drives our actions and affects other life forms. The problem is when our values say it’s ok not to consider (or go against) the welfare of the bio-collective. It’s even a selfish problem that individualistic motivations should seek to resolve since an imbalanced society and an unhealthy planet will come back to bite each of us, or at least our offspring (natural instinct to replicate DNA and all). 

So no, it doesn’t have to be all about saving the trees, but it does have to do with, in the longer-term, addressing the Big Three issues, working toward the welfare of the bio-collective. It is a value judgment to want to minimize, if not solve, socio-economic injustice and injustice. It is a value judgment to propose that all life is equal. It is a value judgment to consider climate disruption something worth ending (though that’s being generous given the scientific evidence). And that too is ok. If we want to create school experiences and purpose that fall within our value system, then let’s embrace it, let’s get to the root of the problem—anthropocentrism. If you don’t recognize or aren’t open to anthropocentrism as the biggest threat to life, then that’s ok too. Own it. Don’t change a thing to your school. I’m preaching to the converted or soon to be converted. This is a call to action aimed at those with similar values. We need to be brave. Those who benefit from the current socio-economic order or the exploitation of the planet or other living beings won’t support these ideas anyway. Governments won’t either, at least not most of the ones around.

Thinking and acting for the welfare of the bio-collective is a form of rebellion. 

Rebels should re-write the fiction of school (of everything, really!) to engender thought and action that value all life, that go beyond expanding “human freedoms while easing planetary pressures**”  and exist for the good of all living things. 

Maybe we can take the next step in student agency to encourage—no, systematically challenge—students to think, act, and produce to have impact on the self, others, and the world in ways that contribute to solving the Big Three. No matter what Steven Pinker writes, we can, and should, do better than sit around feeling good about ourselves in all our humanist glory. 

So what does this mean for school? How about we re-write school to shift our value set? How about having students, teachers, outside experts—learners of all sorts—come together or produce side by side, exercising agency with purpose, striving to make a positive impact, for good? How about abandoning standards and measures that don’t reflect what is needed in the workplace of today, much less of tomorrow, and that only tenuously equip students to address the Big Three issues? How about we assess our thoughts and actions based on the impact they have in the world beyond the classroom rather than indulge in this game that perpetuates the idea that curriculum is an end in itself?

If what we learn and do has no impact, then what is the point? It is like a tree that falls in the forest and there is no one around. It is potential energy that is never transformed into kinetic energy and therefore exists for nothing productive. We need to learn and do with purpose, for positive impact on the welfare of the bio-collective. We need to move beyond student-centered toward bio-centered. It’s the next chapter to be written for the Anthropocene.

*Though sometimes I am not sure if that is a common purpose. If we so seldom come together to agree on a common definition of  “learning,” how can we agree on a common purpose for school?

** A phrase peppered within the HDR report, but that may not go far enough to address the Big Three.

3 thoughts on “School is Fiction… Let’s Re-write its Story (and Purpose)

  1. Awesome reflection here. I like it. The loss of connection to Country also a barrier in the link between human and planet health awareness. I say, the more learning can be experienced outdoors in nature, the better!

    Liked by 1 person

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