Utopian Visions For Education Should Not Be Realized (But You MUST Still Try)

A friend and mentor of mine recently asked me a question. Basically, he wanted to know what I thought about his sharing that he believes the only way “transformation” will happen in schooling is if there is a separate system created where people can start from scratch.

Everyone who has put any thought into the direction of education has had the moment when they just want to get out of the “system” and start from scratch. That only proves you are human. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), we live in a society, and the cost of living in a society is the institutions we inherit from our forefathers (and mothers). Thomas Jefferson famously wanted our Constitution rewritten every 19 years so a new generation would not get saddled with the thinking of the previous generation. Jefferson believed that “the earth belongs to the living.”

Of course, his thinking was (and still is) naive on this point. Human society is built on the foundation of past experiences, and these experiences are both good and bad (something some politicians do not want to think about too hard). The urge to purge the past and start all over again in an attempt to outrun our past is strong but ultimately a fool’s errand.

I think what is happening when educators say something like, “I just want to open my own school from scratch with people I know will be great for kids,” is the frustration of not seeing your vision taking root in the way you think it should. In other words, we have our utopian vision of the education (schooling) world, and we sure would like to see it come to fruition before we leave this earth. We are working toward a utopian vision of the world.

I am not saying that working toward a utopian vision is bad, I think we should always strive toward a utopian future in our society, but the very definition of utopia means we will never reach it. There will always be human-created barriers that prevent a specific version of utopia from happening…and maybe that is not such a bad thing. In a pluralistic society, one person’s vision for the entire society should not become a reality. Period. Compromise is more than the art of getting things done…it’s essential in a democratic society.

James Madison famously argued in Federalist 10 that “factions” cannot be allowed to control the levers of power and subjugate people that do not belong to their faction. It seems to me the same principle applies to the way school reformers who are frustrated with “progress” of their reforms think when they say they want to “just start all over again.” They want their “faction” to dominate those outside their faction. Again, that goes against democratic principles.

I guess what I am talking myself into in this response is that we can’t just institute what we want in schools, or society, without considering other viewpoints and working through thorny problems is what makes America and our school system the best in the world!

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.
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