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.