Articles and Chapters
School Reform is not Enough
This essay was published in I Used to Think...And Now I Think, edited by
Richard F. Elmore (Harvard Education Press, 2011).
My involvement in the field of education has followed an unconventional, if not countercultural, path. I have never been a public school teacher or administrator, nor has my research focused on public school policy or practice. Since my undergraduate days, I have been concerned with broader, more holistic issues than curriculum or instruction. I have always sought to understand how the fundamental worldview of our civilization defines what we mean by “education” and what purposes we expect schools to serve. Setting aside commonly accepted assumptions about every facet of schooling, I have inquired into cultural understandings of human nature and human potential, core political themes across American history, and a wide range of dissident educational philosophies. After thinking about these questions for thirty years, I may now report that my perspective has changed very little. If anything, I am more convinced now than I was as a starry-eyed young scholar that the modernist system of schooling tends to inhibit rather than nourish the cultivation of human potential or the building of a humane, just, democratic society.
With all due respect (and a great deal of appreciation) for the progressive reformers, scholars, and professionals who have devoted their lives to the democratic ideal of an equitable and excellent system of public education, I remain convinced that schooling as we know it is an artifact of a technocratic civilization that has plundered the earth, exploited millions of people, and eroded the spiritual dimension of human existence. Asking a technocratic system to serve humane and democratic purposes is, I think, a futile endeavor. Reformers can have a modest impact on certain aspects of the system and even make a significant difference for some students, all of which is worth doing. But it is not enough, because the system as such fundamentally serves a worldview that is antithetical to humane and democratic values. I am aware that my thinking lies on the radical fringe, not only among the contributors to this volume but in relation to the entire education profession. Consider, however, that humanity is apparently entering a historical period of profound disturbance and possibly disintegration: economic collapse; climate chaos; peak oil, food, and water shortages; political and religious extremism; and other severe stresses may well represent the approaching end of the modernist era. It is possible that we on the fringe are noticing something on the horizon that demands attention.
In the 1980s, this orientation was decidedly countercultural; the 1960s had been repudiated, aggressive global capitalism was on the rise, and it was “morning in America.” Only a small group of radical ecologists, systems theorists, and New Age seekers so fully questioned the predominant worldview. I do not know why I was drawn to these interpretations. I was no youthful rebel and had grown up in a comfortable, privileged environment. Yet something about the notion of untapped human potential, in the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, spoke to me. Something about Thoreau’s existential critique of emerging modernity resonated. I plunged into studies of phenomenological psychology, Montessori education, the growing literature in holistic science (popularized, for example, by Fritjof Capra and Rupert Sheldrake) and the localist, human-scale vision found in Wendell Berry, E. F. Schumacher, and green politics. I was inspired by authors who drew fresh wisdom from spiritual traditions (Parker Palmer and Joanna Macy, to name only two), and revisited the libertarian pedagogy of the free schoolers and deschoolers of the 1960s—John Holt, Paul Goodman, George Dennison, Ivan Illich. These views all made sense to me, and they cohered in a philosophical outlook I identified as holistic education. In the 1980s, despite going hard against the Reaganist grain, it seemed to me that a fundamentally different way of thinking about education, one grounded in a fundamentally different worldview, was taking root and might begin to spread.
Years later, however, this alternative understanding is still uncommon and largely invisible. True, there are now many hundreds of Montessori, Waldorf, “democratic,” and other alternative schools, and many thousands of nonfundamentalist homeschoolers; some small minority of the public, inspired by holistic (or we could say “green” or “ecological”) ideas, has checked out of the increasingly standardized and technocratic school system. But this is hardly a mass movement, and in the visible world of federal and state policy, universities and think tanks, popular media, corporate influence, and large foundations, the dominant themes are curriculum standards, top-down management, accountability, and relentless measurement. These are not simply different educational priorities from those held by holistic dissidents; they reflect a fundamentally different vision of education. What we do in our tiny countercultural enclaves—beginning with an earnest focus on the individuality of every child and a consequent refusal to test them to oblivion—is incomprehensible to the technocratic vision. We are, as I said, invisible.
I used to think that a holistic worldview would increasingly make sense to people concerned about deteriorating social and economic conditions, but now I think that the dominant worldview of our technocratic culture is so tenacious and powerful that it will release its hold on our awareness only when the culture seriously descends into collapse. I don’t wish for the chaotic disintegration of the global economy, because that will lead to widespread dislocation, suffering, and violence. But it seems more apparent to me now that disintegration is inevitable. Because modernity has insisted on a high-consumption, high-impact lifestyle despite clear warnings that we are dangerously exceeding the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, there is going to come a crash. Our overshoot of the earth’s biotic capacity cannot continue indefinitely. No modernist ideology—liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist, technotopian or New Age—can explain away ecological realities. We will be forced to adopt a more modest lifestyle that respects environmental constraints and rhythms, that is more locally based, that is less about production and consumption and accountability to technocratic standards.
Some astute observers of this coming transition, such as Richard Heinberg, have begun referring to the emerging age as a postcarbon world. Life without cheap fossil fuel energy will be dramatically different from the world we are used to. Economic and social institutions that we take for granted will be impossible to maintain. Huge systems, including public schooling, will be replaced by local responses to local conditions. This is just what educational dissidents, particularly the libertarians of the 1960s, have advocated all along. Education, they have said, ought to be an organic relationship between the mature and the young, nestled in a vibrant community and the ecology of a particular place. Abstract, totalizing concepts such as curriculum, standards, and accountability are profoundly anti-organic. They replace a living, human-scale pedagogy with schooling that serves the interests of empire. We can try to bend an imperial system to serve democratic purposes, but, as we have rather clearly seen for the last 150 years, we will usually fail. We can replace a racist curriculum with an antiracist one, but it is still a curriculum, imposed by absentee policy makers. We can try to achieve equity by raising standards for every school across every social class, but they are still standards, enforced through technocratic measurement and management.
Educational dissidents as far back as Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau have warned us about the dangers of imperial schooling; the Transcendentalists had concerns about Horace Mann’s new system, which was, after all, influenced by the militaristic state of Prussia. In this age of voracious industrialism, dissident voices have been marginalized and dismissed. However, as we begin to realize that the empire is not sustainable, the visions of these various romantics and radicals sound increasingly prophetic and wise. A more organic education is not only morally and existentially preferable to technocratic schooling, in a relocalized world it will become essential.
These are the kinds of insights that emerge when one steps back from the consensus trance of the dominant worldview and examines its basic assumptions from a fresh perspective. Instead of reifying curriculum and taking its existence for granted, we can ask whether a preformed, mandated program of studies truly serves authentic learning, human development, or democracy. Rather than assuming that schools must be accountable to politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders, we can ask why they should not be accountable to, and controlled by, the educators, parents, and young people who are actually involved in the daily rhythms of teaching and learning.
To conventional thinking, these are wildly radical assertions outside the bounds of professional discourse. Nevertheless, over the last thirty years, I have visited dozens of alternative schools and talked with hundreds of families and holistic educators, and I have seen that education can be practiced organically with very positive results. Young people discover their callings and passions, they gain self-awareness and self-mastery, and they pursue learning diligently. In caring and respectful learning communities, young people are comfortable and confident around adults and supportive of each other. In other words, we don’t need to standardize and manage their learning in order to support their development into competent, socially engaged citizens. We can place more trust in the inherent human tendencies to learn, to seek understanding and connection. An organic education is one that trusts the inherent developmental wisdom of life. This is the root of its radical departure from the managerial worldview of technocratic empire.
I realize, of course, that public education must contend with an avalanche of intractable difficulties—including poverty, racism, substance abuse, gang violence, cultural and linguistic diversity, and differently abled learners—that the cozy islands of alternative schools and homeschooling networks are generally privileged to avoid. I am not suggesting that a public, democratic commitment to serving all youth, even in the most challenging circumstances, be replaced by a balkanized and elitist system of self-serving private schools. I propose, instead, that we combine the great democratic principles of human rights and equal opportunity with the organic principles of respect for individuality and natural human development into a concept of educational rights that includes both access and freedom, social responsibility, and recognition of the unique interior life of every individual. I do not claim that an organic education is a panacea for complex, entrenched social problems or the most troubling aspects of the human condition, only that a caring, respectful, individualized learning environment might prove to be more liberating than a tightly controlled, managed, authoritarian system. It is worth noting that both Montessori and Waldorf education originated not in exclusive suburban enclaves but as conscientious responses to the difficulties of impoverished and working-class communities.
In the postcarbon world, I envision a localized public education that provides diverse learning opportunities to all without the deadening burden of mechanical accountability or standardization. In the early part of my career, I used to think that the gradual historical march toward democracy and human rights would naturally lead toward this model. Now, however, after witnessing the march of global capitalism and consumerism toward ecological exhaustion, I think that the tiny experiments in educational democracy scattered across the landscape are the seedlings of a new local culture that will sprout amid the ruins of empire.