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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Growth and Scarcity; Wisdom #12

Again, a response to a comment. After my first post about the Upo camp, Andy wrote the following:

"One thing you said really struck me, and probably is/could be the subject of books, "...and environmentalists need to protect the land and animals that can't protect themselves (and, because we depend on the ecosystem, this amounts to protecting us, too).[end of Andy quoting me]"

How absurd is it that the only people who care about whether or not we destroy the planet are labeled environmentalists, and often viewed as a little crazy? As you mentioned in your parenthetical comment, it is about much more than protecting plants and animals, it is protecting the way we have lived for thousands of years. How is it that the general population doesn't get it? Even more confounding is very smart people in politics actively campaigning against protecting the environment. WTF are they thinking?"

There are a few books that I know of that address this conundrum; some of them are explicitly about it. I've mentioned most of them before, but two are particularly relevant: Jensen's Endgame and Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness.

(Fortunately or unfortunately, the question seems to have everything to do with everything I've been reading and thinking about lately, and I'm not confident I can present my would-be-views coherently. Here's a shot:)

The absurdity Andy so rightly points out doesn't look so absurd if you buy into one thing that we all, at some level, buy into: growth is good. A tenet, an assumption, a piece of dogma, a pathology; call it what you will, it takes a brave and willing-to-be-ostracized soul to deny it. If you were to ask an alien watching us from above, an alien trying to divine our motives by analyzing our actions, "What is our society's primary goal?" it would be impossible for him/her/it to give any answer other than "to get bigger."* Presidents can weather the storms of infidelity discovered, lies exposed, debt expanded, soldiers lost; but can we doubt that if a president ever so much as whispered the phrase "GDP growth might not be an unmitigated good," (under his breath, to the First Lady, in the privacy of their own bedroom) we'd hear immediate calls for his impeachment? If there's one thing that the Blue States and Red States can all agree on, it's that a good year is a year in which the GDP grows, and a great year is a year in which it grows a lot.

GDP growth translates, on a personal level**, to an increase in the amount of money earned, and thus the amount of money available to spend. Thus, as crude as it may sound, a good year is a year in which we earned and spent more money than the last. Spent on what? On products that have themselves grown, if figuratively. As delightful, as expected, as natural as increases in the GDP are: increases in the size of our monitors, increases in the capacity and compactness of our iPods, increases in the speed of our processors, the length of our buffets, the horsepower of our engines, the range of exotic fruits available at the supermarket, the number of functions on our wristwatches, and the shininess of everything from refrigerators to pumpkins to BMWs.

To make more things available to more people - isn't this a noble goal? Isn't that the meaning of Democracy? Aren't we more free if there are more things that we're free to choose from? If you say yes (and we almost all do, implicitly), then of course you can't help but see people who want to slow, limit, or stop growth as ideological foes.
How can environmentalists claim to be defending people's well-being, when doing so depends on reducing the amount people consume and the amount people consume determines how well-off they feel?

I think most Americans are already aware, at some level, that their level of consumption is unsustainable. Even if you haven't seen the most powerful statistics - things like how it would take five earths for everyone to consumer like us, how we as five percent of the world's population use twenty-four percent of the world's resources***, how one American consumes as much as three hundred Ethiopians, how increased technological efficiency has historically led to more consumption of resources, not less, how getting calories from wheat is about 200 times more water-efficient than getting calories from beef, but how intensive wheat/rice/corn/soy production it itself a major cause of of our environmental crisis****, and the rest of the "dreary litany," as Gatto calls it - it's not too hard to figure out that fossil fuels are limited and depending on them for everything from necessities like food, heating, and transportation to luxuries like electronics and travel isn't a good idea.

So, the obvious question is, where does this "growth is good" mentality come from? Why is growth regarded as so good that we are willing to pursue it in the face of mounting evidence that it may just kill us all? It's too easy, too self-serving, to pin the blame on "human nature," theories of innate selfishness, or man-as-virus metaphors; such universal claims strike me as ways to dodge guilt, to avoid dealing with an issue which is, at bottom, a cultural one, one that we're responsible for. It's not true that all people, in all times, have been as ravenous, acquisitive, and growth-focused as we are. It's not true that our current dilemmas, however intractable they may appear, were predestined. Rather, they've come about as the result of certain decisions made and strategies pursued by political and business leaders in decades and centuries past.

Slater highlights one in particular: scarcity. In order to deal with an overabundance of goods and productive capacity, capitalists (I apologize for the vaguely, or, to be honest, overtly conspiratorial tone. I'm not well-versed enough in history to back up everything with names and dates, so if you want to know where I'm coming from, in addition to sources I've already mentioned, do check out footnote no.5
*****) had to turn people away from the easily-satisfied desires, towards more evasive ones:

"Hunger, thirst, and sexual desire in pure form can be slaked, but the desire for a body type that never existed but was invented by cartoonists cannot be slaked. Neither can the desire for fame, power, or wealth as such. These are inherently invidious needs; they are satisfied only in relation to the deprivation of others. Furthermore they are purely symbolic and hence have no logical consummation. A man hooked on fame or power will never stop striving because there is no way to gratify a desire with a symbol. One cannot eat, drink, or copulate with a Nobel Prize..."(100)

Desires for things like sustenance, community, friendship, sex, and love are relatively easily satisfied; all you need is another person, or a group of them. Furthermore, in contrast to the "invidious needs" above, these desires might be called "altruistic", since satisfaction of any one of them for one individual results in satisfaction for another as well. In this case, satisfaction of desire is free, complete, sustainable, and maybe even infinite. Now, though, in the interest of business, these desires have been largely - well, is there a word for "sublimated" but with the opposite connotation? "Displaced?" "Mediated?" "Alienated?" In any case, it is now products that promise us many of the satisfactions that, in reality, can only be granted to us by other humans - try to think of one product or one advertisement you've seen recently that doesn't play on the desire for sex, love, warmth, or pride, and how ridiculous the advertisements look when not done subtly enough.

Once we've fallen into the trap of identifying possession of and interaction with products as the source of satisfaction, we've implicitly accepted that, since the number of products isn't infinite, there's not enough happiness to go around. And, again, to quote Slater, "Once the concept exists that there is not enough, people will begin to deprive each other of what there is."(96) People are now willing to work - to do things that nobody in their right mind would ever do, if unconstrained - in order to get what satisfaction they can; and, even so, it isn't enough. Thus, we need Economic Growth, which provides a sort of temporary relief: insofar as we understand it as "lifting all boats," it allows us to believe that everybody must have become a little bit happier.

Of course, this is a farce, because we are trying to use symblols to satisfy real desires, we can't help but fail - the same desire we thought we had just satisfied will surface again next time we see another advertisement preying on the same perceived lack. And, because we perceive the amount of satisfaction to be limited, every winner generates a loser (my purchase of a 2011 Lexus decreases the value of all 2010 Lexuses, and I'll get my comeuppance in 2012). Lastly, even if our entire society wins by increasing GDP, this growth is only ever achieved by depleting natural resources, and generally by destroying the livelihoods of the people who live near them.

I don't believe that this kind of analysis is beyond most people. (Maybe I just don't want to believe it.) Even before I could articulate it, I remember feeling a vague, uneasy kind of emptiness when shopping for clothes in middle school; when fighting the hordes at Best Buy at Christmas; when thinking about what I wanted to buy with my money, and why I wanted it. We all recognize the shallowness, the silliness, the fruitlessness, and most of all, our own complicity. (I hope.)

So, to go back to Andy's question - why are environmentalists sometimes seen as a little crazy? If, as I just asserted, everybody has some inkling of it, why aren't those who articulate the problem and attempt to confront it hailed as speakers of truth rather than as wackos? Slater, one more time, writing about the 70s but strikingly relevant today:

"The same emphasis surrounds our fear of radicalism today. Draft resistance, peace demonstrations, black militance, hippie communes, and student protest are disturbing not because they provide a serious physical danger (equivalent to, say, driving a car) but because we fear having our secret doubts about the viability of our social system voiced aloud. It is not what happens abroad that generates hysteria, but rather what appears to be happening within ourselves....these considerations suggest that the fear of radical movements in America derives much of its intensity from the attraction that such movements have for their opponents - an attraction that must be stifled." (4,6)

If the environmentalists are right, if growth is wrong, then everything is wrong.
How you've been brought up has been wrong; the work you're doing now is wrong; the life you'll give your children will be wrong; and so on. Perhaps worse, if things are wrong, they need to change. Work needs to change. School needs to change. Food needs to change. Technology needs to change. Social arrangements need to change. If these are the real implications of environmentalism, the burden, in terms of cognitive dissonance, may just be too much to bear.

It's worth noting that this is not just an attack on conservatives or deniers; many environmentalists are caught up in this, too. In my opinion, anyone who thinks that sufficient change will be achieved by encouraging people to purchase new, "environmentally-friendly" or increasingly efficient products, is still failing to see the whole picture. A Prius is better than a Hummer, but a society in which people need, want, and expect Priuses is doomed just the same, if not quicker.

Does that bring us any closer to beginning to answer Andy's question? There're a lot of pretty brazen, controversial assertions in there, and perhaps even some leaps of logic. Call me out. I don't want to be right!
*This reminds me of the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: After observing the Earth from a distance, an alien comes to the conclusion that the world is primarily inhabited by automobiles, and names himself "Ford."

**Almost. Actually, as I think just about everyone reading this blog knows, the benefits of increased GDP accrue primarily to the people who already have extremely high incomes. Nonetheless, if the passage doesn't reflect the truth of the lower- and middle-classes, it represents their aspirations.

***Kudos to you if you noticed, as I just did, that those are actually the same statistic.

****Please read Lierre Kieth's The Vegetarian Myth. Don't swallow everything she says, but do read it.

***** At the risk of recommending one (four?) too many references, I suggest Adam Curtis' documentary series "The Century of the Self," which covers the ways that Freud's theories of the unconscious, by way of his nephew Edward Bernays, became the underpinning of modern marketing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I See Through You

I just made a cabbage and carrot curry so spicy that it took me about 25 minutes to eat one bowl. Between bites sand wiping my face off on my shirt, I watched a TED presentation on smiling. The presentation wasn't that interesting and kind of scratched me the wrong way, like so many TED talks do. Does this guy really deserve a standing ovation for taking seven minutes to tell us that people who smile more are longer-lived and better liked than people who smile less?

Anyway, at the end of it, I still hadn't finished my meal, so I perused the comments section and found an interesting link: Spot the Fake Smile, a test/experiment where you can gauge your ability to guess whether a given smile is genuine or faked.

Before you start trying to interpret the smiles, the test asks you: is your general worldview optimistic (1) or pessimistic (7)? How confident are you in your ability to judge correctly - low (1) to high (7)? After some debate, I answered 6 (pretty pessimistic) on the first and 5 (slightly confident) on the second. But then, I started thinking. What sort of statistics are they keeping these numbers for? Are they figuring out for themselves whether self-identified optimists or pessimists are better at interpreting faces? If so, I figured, pessimists would probably be worse. They're more wrapped up in their own problems, less likely to trust others, and less likely to see good things when they're there. I then guessed that I would get something like a 10 - i.e., as good as guessing - on the test.

To my surprise: "You got 18 out of 20 correct."

Possible explanations:
1) Most of the samples were fakes, so that my tendency to identify smiles as fakes was vindicated by the test's lack of balance. (Information provided after the test proved that this was not the case, though I won't tell you which, lest it interfere with your results).
2) My pessimism, agoraphobia, and constant eerie feeling that this or that person is a sham have some basis in reality.
3) Cumin, mustard seeds, ginger, cabbage, carrots, chili peppers, onions, or some combination thereof, greatly increases your ability to spot fakes.


4) Maybe optimists are better at picking out fake smiles, and I'm actually an optimist who just thinks he's a pessimist. Is there a word for this?

An interesting tidbit that comes up after the test:

"Most people are surprisingly bad at spotting fake smiles [I'd love to know what the average score is]. One possible explanation for this is that it may be easier for people to get along if they don't always know what others are really feeling.'

Amen to that!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kitchen Repertoire: Expanded

I know I sort of ended the last post abruptly, and I promise I'll get back to Grandpa Egret and his nefarious plan to free the minds of the youth, but for the moment I'd like to take a break from thinking too hard about education and the environment and focus on my other passion: scarfables.

One of my favorite things about the Green Consumers Alliance weekly Vegetarian Night (for the Good of the Earth), in addition to the simple pleasure of meeting the same people in the same place week after week and having the opportunity to talk without being pushed to buy anything, is that it gives me that little kick in the pants to try something new. It's too easy, when I'm home, to make the same old stuff: stir fried veg with noodles; curries; blended soups; mushroom and eggplant sandwiches; monster salads. When I'm cooking for others - and especially others that I regard as truly "other," that is, people with significantly different cultural backgrounds - I feel some slight obligation to impress them as much as I can, to expose them to things that they haven't yet encountered. To do this well, though, I myself often have to learn something new.*

This time around, I decided to continue experimenting with beans by making bean burgers. Despite coming up on 2 years vegetarian (tomorrow!), I've probably only made bean burgers about three times, and it must be said, they were pretty terrible. Beans themselves don't have a particularly good flavor, and mixing them with flour to get the right consistency resulted in an odd kind of super-fibrous donutish monstrosity, which I ate with a grimace and would be ashamed to feed to others.

So, I looked up a few recipes, did some experimenting with them in the days leading up to the event, and settled upon the following.

You need:
2 cups dried kidney beans / 4 cups cooked
Vegetables, 1 each: onion, slightly-smaller-than-medium potato and carrot, bell pepper, clove of garlic.
Spices: Whatever you want. I used cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper.
1 cup or so, bread crumbs (preferable) or flour.

You should:
1) Soak the beans in advance if necessary, then boil/pressure cook them until soft.
2) Dice and grate and crush the vegetables.
3) Stir-fry vegetables together with oil and spices until soft.
4) Puree the vegetables, smash the beans.
5) Combine beans, vegetables, and bread crumbs a bit at a time, and form burgers.
**Actually, the recipe above is a little too vegetable-heavy, but I tend to cook whole vegetables and eat leftovers (or just eat everything) rather than leaving half behind. I think about 2 parts beans to 1 part vegetables, in the final mix, is appropriate. The vegetables are so wet that if you put in too many, you'll have to restore dryness by adding flour an
6) Add oil to the skillet - to save washing, you can use the same pan you did the stir-fry in - and throw the burgers on on low. I like to drop the patties in, slosh them around a little to make sure the bottoms are coated with oil, then flip them over immediately to make sure that both sides get the treatment. Shake the burgers around every minute or so to make sure they don't get stuck, and flip them after three or four. Once it seems like the burgers have been warmed all the way through, turn up the heat to medium and sear both sides.
7) Plate, serve, feed, eat.

Steps 2-6

If done right, the burgers come out with a consistency similar to ground beef, though a bit dryer. Dense, grainy, charred on the outside, a bit crumbly to the bite. It occurs to me - if you're interested in reducing your meat intake, but not going all the way veg, why not just make these with beef instead of beans? I bet replacing half of the meat with sauteed, pureed vegetables would make the burgers both tastier and lighter.

The group is happy.

Curious about the sides?

Quinua salad: quinoa, cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, olive oil, lemon, salt, papper.

Roasted onion rings topped with garlic slices, stir-fried eggplants and mushrooms with Italian seasoning

Side-salad: about seven kinds of leaves, plus cukes, carrots, bell peppers, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, perilla seeds, and avocado oil.

Salsa: Suzie's recipe. Peeled tomatoes, cilantro, onions, garlic, bell peppers, all hand-diced.

Also, as another experiment, I froze a few of the burgers to test how they'd keep. The result, plated with a mushroom-asparagus sautee and some avocado:

I think next month I'll go for Italian. Risotto, minestrone, sesame leaf pesto, and some eggplant bake maybe? Suggestions welcome...


*OK, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about education, but does anyone else see an analogue here? When I don't have any particular motivation, it's hard for me to bother learning a new recipe; even my curiosity generally isn't strong enough to overcome the inertia. But as soon as the activity is linked to a meaningful event, purpose, or group of people, I'm happy to spend several hours figuring out something new. Schools are inefficient because they mostly fail to activate the sort of motivation that allows meaningful learning.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Upo Wetlands English Camp 2011: Context

After all these discussions about alternatives to school, I feel like now's a good time to post something I've been sitting on for about two months. Way back in December, a friend I met WWOOFing put me in touch with a woman, Sunny, who works as a wetlands conservationist and homeschool teacher in Busan. As if that weren't cool enough, she also speaks English perfectly and has a Master's in linguistics. Needless to say, the moment I met her, I knew she had something to teach me.

She told me about an old man, a retired school teacher name Mr. Lee - or "Grandpa Egret" if you'd like - who lives in the Upo Wetlands and is concerned about the tensions and conflicts between the locals, who have been fishing int the wetlands for generations and want to continue to do so; environmentalists, who want to protect both the land and the migratory birds it hosts every year; and the government, which, since it controls the dams (which control the water levels, which control the number and kinds of fish and birds in the region), has to act as an arbiter between them, deciding which group's interests are more important for the region.

The situation is complex, and to be honest I didn't ask about it as much as I should have (mostly because I was nervous about trying to do some real teaching, but I'll get to that later.) What I understand, though, is that President Lee's pet project, called "Four Great Rivers," - the goal of which is to build canals joining together some of Korea's largest waterways, thus allowing goods to be moved back and forth between Seoul, Busan, and everywhere in between, without increasing stress on the already-congested highway system - is having disastrous effects on the environment. The project requires building dams, rerouting streams, and, dredging out and deepening river beds, all of which interfere with natural water- and eco-systems. As water is harnessed so that humans and industry can use it, it's routed away from comparatively "useless" places like wetlands, which dry out, shrink up, and finally disappear. On top of that, deepening a river affects the speed of the water - recently, a dam broke due to the additional pressure, leaving the city of Gumi without water for four days - which determines both how the water interacts with the river banks and what sort of animals can live there.

In particular, Sunny and Grandpa Egret told me about birds: the combination of the Pan Korea Grand Waterway (as the project is known in English); standard industrialization and urbanization, which pollute water; and wetlands-reclamation projects like Saemangeum, leave migratory birds with fewer places to stay on their trip from Sibera to wherever it is they go down South. When the birds, left with few other options, congregate at higher densities, they wind up consuming so much of the aquatic life - whether animal, vegetable, or in between - that the ecosystem doesn't have a chance to regenerate to full capacity between when the birds leave and when they return again. After a few years like this, wetlands once teeming with life simply die (Silent Spring hits home here, too), leaving the birds with even fewer places to go, forcing them into even denser patterns of movement and overconsumption, and so on.

Thus, environmentalists pushed for the Upo Wetlands, which plays temporary home to a wide variety of migratory species, to become a protected area, a refuge for birds who have to fly further each day this year than they did last year, and will likely have to fly even further each year than the previous one in the foreseeable future. While the protective policies put in place, which include restricted access to the wetlands and bans on outsiders fishing for leisure, are probably good for the locals who have been fishing in Upo for generations, they also cause some problems. After all, as the cost of living goes up, and as it becomes impossible to provide directly for oneself those things that society presents to us as necessities - cars, computers, electronics - fishermen have two choices: try to remain content with whatever relatively low level of consumption their work permits them, or catch and sell more fish and keep up with the Joneses. Even if the fisherman is a hermit like me, chances are that his wife, children, and other forms of social pressure and shaming will all but force him to take the latter path.

So, how can the fisherman fish more? Having lived in Upo for generations, the fisherman know, more or less, what level of fishing is sustainable; they've probably been fishing at just about that level for generations. The only way to increase intake without compromising the long-term viability of the environment is...to change the environment. This means asking the government to open up dams, which will bring deeper water, and more and bigger fish.

Sounds good, except for two things. First, diverting the water from other sources, and even building the dams in question in the first place, has probably already adversely affected other wetlands, somewhere, meaning that the whole thing may just be a zero-sum game. Second, more water - oddly enough - means less* wetlands, since the area will come more and more to resemble a lake. The birds that come to Upo, though, don't need lakes. They're evolved to thrive in shallow waters - perhaps because they need to lay their eggs close to water, perhaps because of dietary preferences and limitations, or perhaps because of some other reason. In any case, wetlands birds like wetlands, and if Upo become a lake, the birds will go elsewhere, further exacerbating the problems I've already mentioned.

What's the answer here? Both groups have legitimate claims - fisherman need to protect their own livelihood, and environmentalists need to protect the land and animals that can't protect themselves (and, because we depend on the ecosystem, this amounts to protecting us, too). It's not exactly right to say that there is no one answer, since, clearly, there are things that the government can do that are good for everyone (including the animals), and things that aren't good for anyone. However, it is fair to say that no one decision will solve the problem. As long as there are fishermen, birds, and governments, this tension will persist.

Thus, what Upo needs - what all of us need, everywhere - is not only intelligent decision-making from those in power, but people who are knowledgeable about and who feel they have a stake in the health of their environment. Only if people like this exist, speak out, and act, is there any possibility that the conflict will be, if not resolved, then at least navigated successfully. The dedication that allows one to do this, though, seems to me to have only two sources: love and pain. Pain at seeing the land, plants, and animals you love vanishing; loving them so much that, rather than turning away from the pain, you acknowledge it and do what you can to stop it at the source.

So, how do you find or make or mold people like this? In our age of flashy fashion, manic cartoons, and portable entertainment, how do you convince people that the call of a bird and the scent of a pine needle are worth paying attention to, worth caring about, worth being willing to feel pain for? I have read that children in indigenous communities who grow up with a TV in the house find it easier to identify Disney characters than indigenous plants.** Certainly, most children (as I myself once did) would prefer an hour of Nintendo to an hour of bird watching. Overcoming these tendencies in ourselves is hard enough; how can we hope to do it in the young, too?

Grandpa Egret has an idea. And asked me for help. Knowing what I know, how could I refuse?


*Or "fewer?" What do you think, is wetlands a countable noun? Just in general, or in this sentence, too?

**Try it yourself - look out your window and name the first ten plants you see. And ones you planted or bought don't coun't. To make it harder - by which I mean, more realistic, more revealing of the knowledge we've lost - name things you can do with those plants, other than look at them or burn them for heat. Now, name five characters from your favorite TV show. Heck, I bet you can even name five characters from a TV show you hate. I haven't watched Frasier in ten years, but I still know that his brother's name is Niles, his dad's name is Martin, and that HIS DOG'S NAME IS EDDIE. Am I right or Am I right? WTF.

Monday, May 16, 2011

It Took A Week To Write This

Again, thanks to everyone for your input. There’s so much good stuff in the comments I just reposted, it seems like responding would be a full-time job, and I hardly even know where to start. I’ll try to do the best I can, though, taking on themes rather than individual comments.

The System Works, Mostly

This point is hard to combat convincingly, since it’s really about data, and you’ll have to read a fair amount before there’s anywhere near enough data to combat the prejudices and assumptions that schooling has built up in us. Some facts (if you’re willing to regard them as such) that struck me are:

  • Works like Paine’s Common Sense and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, both written before a unified school system existed, sold so well that we can be sure literacy rates were much higher than we usually assume. People were not illiterate before the creation of the public school system.

  • In the early twentieth century, it wasn’t strange for elementary schoolers to be reading Shakespeare, Thoreau, Twain, Franklin, and other such authors – none of whom, by the way, learned to read or write in a public school.

  • Children given the right kind of safe, supportive atmosphere can learn to read in about 30 hours. And yet,

  • The literacy rate is incredibly low in the US, despite official statistics putting it at 99%. Gatto provides data from the military, which tests incoming soldiers’ levels to make sure that they can read and follow instructions on varios devices. In 1932, 98% of those tested passed at at least 4th grade proficiency. In 1942, it was 96%. In 1951, 81% (yes, by the same standards.) In 1973, 73%. This despite the fact that the amount of teacher training, time spent in school, and money spent on students increased each year. Now, although the official rate is near-perfect, studies that don't involve asking people directly "can you read?" often result in rates of sixty percent or less.

  • Many other countries school their children less, spend less per child, and still achieve higher literacy rates. As did the United States, one hundred and fifty years ago.

  • The system itself was initially theorized, created, promoted, and funded by the titans of industry, for the good of their industries. Here’s a rather nefarious quotation from Rockefeller:

    • In our dreams...people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] fade from our minds and unhampered by tradition we work for our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science . We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters . We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors ,preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple---we will organize children...and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way. (Cited by Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 8)

Exceptions may reasonably be taken to this; maybe making literacy isn’t the best measure of whether or not our education system is doing what it should (but then what is?), or maybe other things, and not school are to blame. This is certainly true; it would be unfair to pin the whole problem (well, the whole host of problems) on only one aspect of our society. On the other hand, though, this almost leads one to a position of saying that we need schools to protect our kids from advertisements, drugs, television, violence, etc. Clearly, that’s not something they can do.

What Will Happen to Kids, and the Rest of Society Without School?

The fear that unschooled children will become wild, illiterate, unrefined, unemployable, hedonistic beggar adults is somewhat understandable, but doesn’t seem justified to me. First of all, “despite” our schooling, a frighteningly, despair-inducingly high proportion of individuals in our society turn out this way anyway.

Second, the fact that people who don’t undergo a formal system of preparation/indoctrination may be unprepared to do for society what we’d like them to is not something that a democratic society ought to be proud of. While I hesitate to support the original provocative quotation (which got us all into this beautiful mess) by turning to yet another provocative quotation – I think there’s something important in this passage from Philip Slater’s 1970 book The Pursuit of Loneliness, which blew my mind in much the same way as Jensen’s Endgame and Henry’s Culture Against Man.

“Some of this resistance [i.e. resistance to the changes in social structure proposed by the hippies and radicals of the late 60s] comes from the old culture’s dependence upon the substitutes and palliatives that its own pathology necessitates. ‘Without all these props, wires, crutches, and pills,’ it adherents ask, ‘how can I function? Without the “extensions of man” I am not even a person. If you take away my gas mask, how can I breathe this polluted air? How will I get to the hospital without the automobile that has made me unfit to walk?’ These questions are serious, since one cannot in fact live comfortably in our society without these props until radical changes have been made – until the diseases that necessitate these palliatives have been cured. Transitions are always fraught with risk and discomfort and insecurity, but we do not enjoy the luxury of postponement. No matter how difficult it seems to to engage in radical change when all is changing anyway, the risk must be taken.” (151)

We need the school system to keep our society on track, but the track itself leads us to results that are neither desirable nor sustainable. We shouldn’t let our fear and our instinctive latching on to the status quo blind us to these facts and prevent us from thinking about large-scale, thoroughly thought-out, constructive changes that can be made.

People Need to Get Educated, Somehow / Learning Only Happens in Schools

If people don’t go to school, how and where will they learn? A knee-jerk response to a straw man argument. Nobody, not even the most radical of writers, is suggesting that we outlaw education and encourage children to soak up TV all day long. Rather, we need stop thinking of schooling and education as equivalent, and to broaden our concept of the latter so that it includes things like playing with friends, participating in the management of a household, finding ways to amuse yourself during long days, creating your own projects, finding your own mentors, exploring your environment, and watching adults perform tasks that are personally rewarding and socially useful.

Insofar as there is a need for places dedicated to learning– which there certainly is - we don’t need a one-size-fits-all, monolithic institution bloated with rules and preconceptions about what’s worth learning, who’s ready to learn it, and how long it should take them to do so; we need an open, democratic one that allows communities (to the extent that they still exist) to decide what to teach their kids, and how, and when, and where.

It’s true that, if set free, kids may not start to intentionally devote their time to developing an integrated, whole self. Kids don’t need to, though – that sort of enterprise is for people who are already able to recognize that somehow, somewhere, they were fractured (ahem..). If given a fair shot, (which, yes, includes limiting access to TV and video games and other pernicious influences, though perhaps these things wouldn’t seem so stimulating if school weren’t so boring) kids will naturally and organically learn the things that are important to them. The very reason that we quickly learn to drive, flirt, and masturbate is because they activities whose values we experience directly. Kids need to be given a chance, though, to find out for themselves what is important. Once the motivation is there, they can learn just about anything.

The Burden’s On the Student / Kids Need Pressure

Paradoxically, this response was often placed in the vicinity of the one above. One the one hand, it is said, students need school to get an education; on the other, if schools don’t do it well, the kids should just try harder and make use of their other time to learn. This looks like me to blithely accepting the fact that many children are forced to waste away inside concrete buildings for at least ten years.

If individuals kids are responsible for their own education, though, why not let them be really responsible for it? Instead of saying “you’re responsible for learning what we think you should learn,” why not say “you’re responsible both for figuring out what it is that you need to learn, and then for actually learning it, too”?

Why should it be up to the student to make the best of a bad system? Why not let him, and his family, and the community that he’ll eventually be a part of, create a system that suits their needs? There’s a difference between being encouraged, or even forced, to practice piano by your parents, who know and love you, and by teachers who, through no fault of their own, can hardly help but ignore your emotional needs, and who may even blame themselves for this and then begin to resent you for making them feel that they’re not up to their task. We all know that even parents can push too hard and ruin a child’s desire to learn something; it seems to me like our system of schooling, based primarily on fear of failure and humiliation, mostly does the same.

It’s true that the onus is on the learner, in the sense that no learning will happen if the learner doesn’t want it to. But it’s on society, and the institutions of learning in particular, to make kids want to learn, which means showing them the value of education. Kids are smart, smarter than we think, and they see through the lies we tell them (and ourselves) about what they’re doing in school. They know, better than most of us like to admit, that their time in schools is largely being wasted by people who themselves didn’t reap the promised benefits of their own ten-to-twenty years spent preparing to take test after test. As long as this fundamental discontinuity exists, schooling is a farce; true learning is based on authenticity.

Anyway, The System Won’t Change

This assertion has some force behind it – the system is indeed gargantuan, and even if we admit it's in crisis, it seems that we’ve got so much invested in it that we can’t just throw it away. Better to undertake smaller changes, to chisel away the defects.

To quote Slater again, though: “An action program must thus consist of two parts: (1) a long-term thrust at altering motivation and (2) a short-term attempt to redirect existing institutions.” (153)

What this means to me is that we need both small, pragmatic changes like reorganizing desks, using different textbooks, training better teachers; and big, sweeping goals like rethinking the fundamental goals of the system, which may mean rethinking the fundamental goals of our society. There’s no point in chiseling away if we don’t have something beautiful in mind that we want to create.

Wow! A contender for the longest, most through, most thoughtful, most interactive, most rewarding post ever! I feel like I’ve gained a lot from writing it. Thanks, folks.

Vanishing Responses

I got several email copies of comments, but several of them appear not to have made it onto the blog. As the comments were all thought-provoking and informative, (and fodder for my next post), I'd like to respost them here.

From AZ:

I am moved by these last two posts, Kroy! (even more by your responses to the comments on your post, than by the initial post itself!) It all makes me want to have a hand in these changes, to think about how to re-make education, but where to begin? I had many of the same thoughts after reading the "Faulty Towers" article in The Nation about the crisis of higher education. It feels hopeless, even as there are these concrete ideas.

All this has also made me think about one of my favorite This American Life episodes of recent memory, Kid Politics. I actually loved all the stories in it, but was very stimulated by the one on the Brooklyn Free School. You should check it out.

From David:

Typical school day = 8 am -> 3 pm (minus an hour for lunch) = 6hrs.
24hrs per day - 8 for sleeping - 6 in school = 10 hrs of free time.
Even with a draconian 6 hour school day, that seems like a lot of free time to engage in free thinking, spiritual growth, and various caterpillar to butterfly transformations.

Whether it's due to society or due to 13-year-old brains, most high schoolers (let alone grade schoolers) aren't concerned with philosophy and unique personal development. They're interested in figuring out how to talk to girls, pass their driving test, and get the hang of masturbation (actually, most master (no pun intended) that pretty quickly). Most spend their 10 free hours per day playing video games and watching TV -- hardly the school system's fault.

The biggest factors in shaping our youth and creating free thinkers are parents and friends. Just look at us, whether it's Andy's cheapness, Mike's beardness, or Jeff's Jeffness our parents are to blame (or applaud?). The way to get a 10-year-old thinking is to turn off the TV and offer boardgames, a sketchbook, and/or a trip to the museum (or farmer's market, or community garden, etc).

Yes, it would be nice if schools taught about environmentalism and current events a little more (I'm pretty sure I blogged about that once upon a time), but a little good parenting goes a long way in ensuring everyone eventually finds their place in the world.

Finally, I feel like no matter how society "shapes" the first 18 years of someone's life, the true transformation will occur starting the day they hit their college campus, and is not complete until at least a decade later. I don't know a single person--myself included--that was not profoundly changed by their college, and early adult experiences.

College really isn't that different than high school--you need X number of units, everyone's graded, and competing, you're encouraged to show up to class, etc--yet we see the world in a completely different way in a short amount of time. I don't know the science behind it, but I'd image this has to do with our minds being fully developed, and poised to finally take in the world around.

Heck, I personally am still transitioning. The things that are most important to me continue to evolve, as are the ways I prefer to spend my time.

From Greg, who noticed the issue himself and reposted another comment, which looks like it's sticking around this time:

It's common sense to me.

My wife's brother is an agricultural engineer. He didn't fit into school and never did well but when he had the opportunity to get an apprenticeship to a farming machine company he really achieved. He work art time and studied engineering which required advanced math.

I have to politely disagree with what jefe said. I don't think Gatto wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If Gatto wanted to abolish the school system then I would agree with it. Gatto is speaking about making adjustments so we can fill other sectors of jobs with qualified applicants.

Its not really a matter if its about what Gatto wants or what we want. The truth is, are these changes necessary. I would say that they are not unnecessary but necessary either. But they need to come from somewhere wither from goverment or from business.

We have a lot of academically educated people with no jobs because the job sector for their jobs are unfilled. BUt we have a ton of demand for trade jobs.

The solution is good for children. My thinking these days is my own education, though its admirable what you are proposing for our children. Many of us had problems in school that we just had to deal with at the time. Some of us our looking for re-education and we can't get far.

Clinton had this to say about our structural problems. It is a pragmatic offering with what we have right now.

"For the first time in my lifetime, literally in my lifetime, when coming out of a recession, posted job openings -- that means they'll hire you tomorrow morning if you can do the job ... are going up at twice the rate of job hires. ...

There are two reasons for this. One is more than 10% of us are living in houses where the mortgage is worth more than the home, so we can't move. And that's cutting down on labor mobility, which has always been a big strength of America. But that's way the smaller problem.

By far the bigger problem is the jobs that are open don't have applicants that are qualified to do them. There's this huge skills mismatch. [There was a] huge college dropout in the last decade because costs went up 75% after inflation, and because the economy went down people had to drop out to work, and they cut back on a lot of intensive skills training.

We ought to have a list of every job that's been vacant for more than three weeks, by state, and just give 'em the money to train people immediately. And they ought to be able to do it while they're on unemployment. Give it to the employers if the community colleges and the vocational programs won't do it. ... You know how many jobs that is? Five million. The unemployment rate could go down under 7% if no bank made a single loan [and] if no corporation invested any of their surplus cash -- if we just made sure that tomorrow we had qualified applicants to go fill every posted job openin"

What is clear is that our lack of flexibility is hurting us and keeping many from going into professions that many of us would rather do or give us time to try on different things without a huge debt to pay off.

(My response will be posted shortly...)