A few months ago, I was asked by a friend for my thoughts on the future of education, and I think he was surprised when I spoke to a shift in values and the kinds of lives this shift would produce. Most often, when people speak of the future of education, they do so in terms of technology; at the extreme, this has even led some in the field to question whether teaching as a profession will exist in ten years.
At present, Coronavirus has forced many teachers and students into a situation of online learning, and so we are getting a test run of such a futuristic vision. As the data have already shown, one unfortunate result is that those students without supportive parents and/or resources have fallen further behind, while their better equipped peers have continued apace. Furthermore, as I can attest from the visage of several high school students I am currently tutoring, regardless of their relative privilege students are bored; without interaction from their peers except in online spaces, the essential social-emotional dimension of learning has been relegated to memory.
Taking into consideration these two drawbacks to online learning, an important question to ask is: why did it never occur to policy officials to simply cancel school for the year of the pandemic? This begs a further question: why would such a decision be intuitively unthinkable?
The first reason can be offered by any parent currently working from home while their child engages in online learning: parents have neither the time nor the resources to be their children’s teachers, and so an essential function of school is daycare. That is, if school often seems to amount to nothing more than busywork, this is because school is in fact tasked with keeping students occupied while their parents draw income.
A second reason why canceling school would be unthinkable is less immediately visible, but no more important: in our current system, students are engaged in competition not only with other students at their same school, but also with students at other schools and, more broadly, with students across the global stage. For a moment, imagine that the United States had responded to Coronavirus by canceling school for the 2020-1 academic year. Instantly, much of the public would have decried this decision, pointing out that China was not taking off the year, neither was Russia, nor were any of the US’s other top global competitors. In our current system, students compete internationally as stand-ins for promises of GDP, a form of global arms race in which students and teachers comprise the front lines.
Before speaking to the shift in value I proposed when my friend asked my thoughts on education, I want first to delve into the value set that drives our current system. With such a value set in mind, my proposed changes will be both more intelligible and easier to enact.
If the ultimate product of our existing education system is a certain type of student, this is because schools, like so many other institutions in our society, are beholden to what Nancy Lesko calls the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of values that will be instantly recognizable to most readers upon description. In the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, among other attractions was a tableau of human types referred to as the Great Chain of Being, an evolutionary taxonomy in which white and male types were held forth as the most evolved, while dark-skinned and female types were denigrated as the least. Coupled with this human hierarchy, abstract qualities like nature, emotion, and superstition were associated with the “lower” types, while values like civilization, emotional regulation, and “reason” were associated with their counterparts. A modern-day term for this hierarchy of values is white supremacy, but the Great Chain of Being extended further than that: it also differentiated humans writ large from the remainder of the animal kingdom, designating humanity as the species to rule over and hence master nature. Charles Eisenstein has written of this vision as the “Ascent of Humanity,” one which very much coincides with online learning’s isolation of every student from every other student and its supplanting of physical community with technology.
While it is true that such a value set could be corrected by privileging types other than white and male—and indeed, this is happening through anti-racist and other inclusive curricula—my point is that, regardless of students’ type, the Great Chain of Being itself leaves them unhappy and without fundamental knowledge of how to live. That is, even white, male, and privileged students wind up adrift despite having achieved marks of success within this system.
For a tangible example, view my own life, in which I graduated with honors from a private college and have since taught and tutored in private and public school environments before returning for my graduate degree. Despite these successes, in my mid-twenties I noticed a growing awareness that I did not know how to make myself happy: I did not know how to understand or honor my own feelings, have healthy relationships, or be of service and achieve my purpose in the world. For these reasons, I sought out therapy, then developed a spiritual practice, a set of initiations which have brought me the meaning, purpose, emotional fulfillment, and comfort that academic achievement never could. Precisely through abandoning my pursuit of evolution up the Great Chain of Being, I found myself and a different set of values.
In my vision of education, students’ prime objective in school would be to know themselves through intimacy with all aspects of the Great Chain of Being. For a person marginalized by this hierarchy’s various -isms, this might mean abandoning the path that would otherwise lead them to increasingly white, male sites of power and away from their home communities; instead, this person might develop healthy relationships within and give back to their home community. Even for a white, male, privileged person like myself, an alternate vision of education might mean acquainting myself with those values the Great Chain of Being would have me forget, values such as emotionality, spirituality, relationship, and materiality. Through these reunions with the abjected self, students would develop wholeness and as such would cease to strive for the kind of success our dominant system proffers.
I would like to acknowledge two caveats to this vision, the first of which is that such a schooling system already exists in the guise of alternative schools like Waldorf and Montessori. While this is true, the problem with these schools is that they are not yet mainstream, are for the most part private, and as such are allotted generally to the wealthy; for this reason, unequal attendance of these school systems creates a psychic achievement gap if not a material one. That is, even in cases where students of public schools wind up materially more successful than their alternatively educated counterparts, Waldorf or Montessori school students have learned to trust their intuition, follow their passion, and live for more than just a job; for these reasons, these latter students stand a significantly better chance of being happy.
As a second caveat to my vision of a school system that reacquaints students with forgotten realms of being, it is as yet impossible to create such a system without reforming many other systems as well. To realize why, consider that one of the many ways the Great Chain of Being enforces alienation is that in our current school system, students involuntarily sit still until they lose organic relationship with their bodies; this is because the Great Chain of Being requires mental disassociation in order to privilege mind over body. Alternatively, a system intent on maintaining connection with all aspects of one’s being would encourage students to move around freely, perhaps even to leave school grounds if and when they choose. For these reasons, it would not be possible to implement such a school system unless laws against juvenile delinquency, as well as parents’ working conditions were changed as well; in order for the school system to sustainably change, everything else must change also.
Luckily, part of what the reversal of the Great Chain of Being tells us is that it may not be incumbent upon us to make such grandiose changes. If the ultimate product of the Great Chain of Being is the radical, isolated individual, what we yield from refamiliarizing ourselves with all aspects of the Chain is a sense that we are part of the larger whole, a system of energy that transcends and guides us in all moments. In the grip of this being, we do not need to do anything in order to effect the kind of education system we want to see; instead, we only need to submit to the education system which already wants to be born, one we can see in Coronavirus itself, the climate catastrophe, in our own interest in this kind of inquiry, in the nervous glance of every student who looks at their school work and feels a gaping void.
In order to invite in a school system in which students learn to be whole and happy, perhaps all we need to do is admit that such a system already lies within us.