THE Existential Crisis in Public Education

I am sharing an existential “bump in the road” that I am experiencing.  Generally, I would not share my existential “issues”; however, this one (I feel) reflects a larger societal issue that deserves some reflection and directly impacts the work that we have undertaken together as education leaders.

When we talk about changing (or transforming) schooling,education, or learning, we are saddled with subconscious assumptions about our work and society.  Do we congratulate ourselves on proficient management of a process when we should be questioning the process itself? We (this is the “royal we”) gloss over significant discrepancies between our words and the results of our actions.  Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

When we talk about creating a learning ecosystem that does not have any DNA from the industrialized school system (and is created to“customize”) it is an exhilarating feeling. It is also a daunting task if you spend too much time thinking about it.  There is an exhilarating feeling when you think about the technical aspects of creating this new learning ecosystem.  Moving the focus of everything we do to the learner, de-emphasizing content, incorporating wiz-bang technology, hiring great people, training people, all of these things are in an education leader’s wheelhouse. It is also tangible.  We arrange the training; we create new systems; we purchase the technology; we then envision a time when all of these items are working together and our job is done. Whew…we have worked hard and now the world is a better place! We talk about test scores that have risen, we discuss how more kids are in college, and we have conversations about how the business community is happy.  These are words that leave our mouth like a hot wind.  The daunting question is this…what are the actual effects of higher test scores, more kids in college and a“happy” business community on our kids and society?

Hmm…is the world a better place because of our technically efficient leadership?  Shouldn’t we consider the existing world when thinking about the effects of our technical proficiency so we have a benchmark to compare our efforts in the future?  This is when we must think deeply about our society and our role in it.  The following is my take…it may be wrong, right or somewhere in between.

I am, at heart, an optimistic guy.  The glass is always half full.  I believe that individuals can make a difference in the world.  I believe that everyone has a soul that needs filled. I want to strip away the layers of unexamined conventions that envelope our society and how we educate kids and critically view society for what it actually is, based on actions of people. 

Our current society is hyper individualized and atomized. One is considered “soft” if you first consider your community when making policy decisions, or, God forbid, one encourages policies that help your fellow man.  Our economic system (let’s face it… our default religion) not only encourages poor behavior, but demands it. The heroes that we celebrate are those that have gathered (or stolen, or robbed, or swindled) the most money.  We want our heroes to be ruthlessly individualistic and “take no prisoners”.  The false doctrine of social Darwinism (false because Darwin never intended his theory to be used in the social sphere)creates a world of deep antipathy for our fellow man bordering on a pathology of callousness. Simply put, we live in a mean society.  Our political leaders keep us in a constant state of fear so as to divide us.  The media glorify war in all of our entertainment outlets (from video games to movies to online forums). You are viewed as politically incorrect (at best) or naïve (at worst) if you talk about wanting peace for your community and the world. 

The question that has been weighing on me for some time is how can we create a system of learning that does not perpetuate our current society?  There are good parts of our society that need to be replicated, let’s make sure they are incorporated; but we cannot ignore that there are features of our society that must be gone.  Society is like any biological organism, it is constantly evolving whether we consciously think about it or not.  Educators cannot abdicate our responsibility to have influence on the evolution of our society and education.  Let’s be very clear on this last point…educators have abdicated our responsibility to society. We have been complicit in a hostile takeover of our educational system by free-market zealots who glorify competition and hyper-individuality.  In the world of educational leaders, we celebrate (on the national, state and local levels)educators whose actions perpetuate the worst aspects of our current society (i.e.hyper individualism taught by ingraining competition into (and between) the schools).  Do we have the courage to create a system that not only challenges the most damaging dogmas of our current society, but offers hope that it can (and should) change.  This is not an academic question.  It is significant.  As Michael Snell says, we can all just “sit in a lawn chair in the front yard and wave as the world goes by”. And it is easy to do this! When we concentrate solely on the technical aspects of creating a new learning system, we are sitting on that lawn chair with smiles on our faces.  Not only are we sitting in those chairs, people will stop and congratulate us on our technical proficiency as we work on perpetuating our current society.

But have we changed anything? Have we improved the lives of those less fortunate than us?  Have we reached down and offered a hand to throw away kids (throw away kids are those so disengaged from the system that they are discarded)?  (Our current capitalistic education system has actually increased the number of throw away kids by the way…this is simply morally repugnant).  We can create something that will help our world. The basis for our work must be undertaken with the belief that we will leave a better world for our kids.  We must embrace our hopeful nature and nurture kids in a system that improves their lives.  The question is whether we will put the heavy mental lifting required to make it happen.  This is an open question that cannot be answered so easily…

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

Leave a Reply