Much has been written about the factory-like nature of modern schools and how public schools, co-emergent in the nineteenth century with the industrial revolution, took their organizational cue from the dominant mode of economic production: the assembly line. There’s also a widespread recognition that we need to move beyond the factory model, though, as a society, we lack the resolve to take action. We’re stuck.
I recently read the Omnivore’s Dilemma. The bestselling book by Michael Pollan resulted from his quest to answer the question, where does my food come from? What he found is that, for most Americans, food comes from an industrialized and globalized system of agriculture that is both unhealthy and unsustainable. It relies on monoculture which depletes the soil, which, in turn, requires the input of artificial nutrients, pesticides and herbicides based on petroleum. It crowds large numbers of animals into very close quarters, which breeds disease, which, in turn, requires regular dosing of antibiotics. And because the enormous volume of production drives prices down, the whole system requires government price supports and exerts continuous pressure on producers to increase the scale of every phase of the operation from farm to slaughterhouse to supermarket which, in turn, increases the distance between different phases of the system requiring enormous inputs of fuel to ship resources and products in a crazy back-and-forth zig-zag across the planet. An altogether depressing scenario.
But Pollan, writing in 2004, describes an emerging movement by farmers and consumers to de-industrialize farming by attuning farm practices more closely to the rhythms of nature. Natural grasses replace manufactured animal feed. Rotation of crops and herds replaces monoculture. Local and regional markets replace the global zig-zag, and, in general, a more thoughtful, more respectful (toward nature) ethic guides the work. Ten-plus years after the publication of Pollan’s book, most of us are now aware of this movement and many of us support farmer’s markets and think more about what we pull off the shelf at our supermarket. Where did it come from? What are the ingredients? How was it produced?
I’m thinking the post-industrial movement for sustainable agriculture suggests, by analogy, a way forward for post-industrial education. It can teach us a lot about educating children and youth. By shrinking the scale of operation, the focus in the sustainable agriculture movement shifts from standardization to quality. The sustainable farmer does not look for shiny tomatoes all the same size produced in massive quantity. Instead, she recognizes that her role is to nurture growth not control it. The work becomes sustainable, humane, in tune with natural biologic processes. So much changes: instead of “delivering” education, we create conditions for learning.
Here’s an exercise: try framing your thoughts about education today in terms of a gardening or small-farm metaphor, one where sustainability and respect for natural processes is a guiding principle. Notice whether it changes your frame of mind. And let me know.
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My new book is out from Rowman and Littlefield, “Why Teach? Notes and Questions from a Life in Education.” Why did I write this book?
We’re living through a dark age for education. In the course of 150 years, roughly since the Civil War, we’ve transformed child rearing into an industrial system. We’ve taken a wonderfully complex, intimate, relational, and fundamentally human enterprise and turned it into a system of mass production. In the process, we’ve robbed children and youth of the joy of learning and, with each successive generation, we diminish our creative capacity and collective intelligence as a society. It’s no surprise that we have an economy that’s all-war-all-the-time, enormous income inequality, scandalously bad public health, an unsustainable food chain, deep environmental damage, and a democracy in crisis.
I landed accidentally in teaching many years ago, and from my vantage point as teacher, I began to understand that the priorities for the system were order, control, and a kind of pseudo-efficiency. I decided to do what I could to change the system, or at least my little corner of it. And that’s what I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years doing.
I spent the first part of my career, the first 25 years, starting up new schools, schools that hew more closely to our biological and psychological makeup. Now I advocate for such schools. I observe and write about what I see, and I continue to teach. The audience for my writing these days is mostly other academics, which is okay, but I want to reach a wider audience. Most people won’t read research, but they’ll read a good story. So I’ve used the form of a personal narrative-- a story, my story-- to get at big, important issues in a way people will listen to. That’s my gamble anyway.
This book is a journey inside American education and a story of self-discovery that exposes the damaging impact of our industrialized system of schooling while showing there are other, better, more constructive paths. It is a book for clear-eyed realists who are nonetheless filled with hope and ready to roll up their sleeves. I hope you get as much from reading the book as I got from writing it.
Here’s the link to the book: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475820355