Post-Carbon Schools: Back from Hell
SUMMARY: Creeping corporate influence on K-12 education promises to corrupt what little soul remains of our disintegrating industrial culture. As an alternative in the coming post-carbon era, I suggest here a curriculum centered on morals, community, and the Land Ethic -- with emphasis on practical skills -- as the foundations of our schools. Long live the sacred!
A TENUOUS PERIOD OF CALM
While we brace ourselves for the killing blows that finally topple the teetering behemoth of Industrial Civilization, the familiar structures of our lives are literally crumbling around us. Accelerating decay is becoming apparent everywhere: mounting job losses and financial ruin of families; bankruptcy of nations, states, and municipalities; increased social atomization and break-down of communities; un-checked looting of both our natural and financial resources by rapacious corporate entities; debilitating price-spikes and shortages of many key natural resources; a cresting of profound absurdity in the political realm; and mounting environmental degradation coupled with an ominous incipient climatic destabilization.
And as Chris Hedges chronicles in his excellent new book, this is truly an “Empire of Illusion” – the worse things get, the more un-real our lives must become. The general population, immersed in “the debauched revels of a dying civilization,” remains distracted and largely blinded to the true nature of the unfolding catastrophes -- as the corporations scramble to keep the Great-Machine-That-Consumes-the-Earth in motion just a little bit longer. (Note: I very highly recommend Hedges’ short, powerful book. Like Derrick Jensen’s work, it eloquently crystallizes the essence of the final stages of our civilization.)
What will arise from the ashes of industrial collapse? It may range from horrific to beautiful. (One can dream!) At best, it will probably be all those things at once. And since the ‘Time of Great Turbulence’ shall soon be upon us, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to use this tenuous period of calm to start thinking about what our schools should look like in the post-carbon era -- on the off-chance that we can cobble together some sort of livable, non-totalitarian, post-carbon civilization in this country; i.e. one in which real schools exist.
Writers such as David Orr and Wendell Berry (and others) have previously written eloquently on the subject of a saner form of land-based education. This essay is my humble contribution.
HELL ON EARTH (AND ITS ENTHUSIASTIC DISSEMINATORS)
What prompted me to the topic of post-carbon schools was a faculty meeting last week at the high-school where I teach. Such meetings are almost always ineffectual-but-harmless exercises in rah-rah team building – boring, sometimes ludicrous, but tolerable. This one, however, was different. This one had very ominous and explicit undertones of…well…evil. It was, so to speak, a meeting from hell.
Now, before I describe the meeting, let me explain what I mean by ‘hell.’ Whether or not you believe in the Christian version of Hell, I think it’s useful to think of the earthly ‘hell’ as the collection of very undesirable traits that persistently crop up in the human realm: violence and war; soul-crushing work and debilitating poverty; intolerance and hatred; physical and emotional abuse; atomization of individuals and destruction of communities; degradation of the biosphere; political repression and brutal totalitarian regimes. Nasty stuff like that – ‘hell on Earth.’
The chief proprietors and disseminators of earthly hell have, of course, been the monied corporations that have risen to supreme power both nationally and globally over the past 100 or so years. These profoundly sociopathic entities have been given (by themselves) the full constitutional rights of citizens. And they have used these rights in predictably sociopathic ways – to dismantle opponents, communities, local economies, democratic structures, and ecosystems with a cold, relentless efficiency.
The work of these corporations is, of course, well advanced at this stage. They have penetrated deep into every human organizational structure and every square centimeter of this Earth – smearing their soul-destroying, hellish defecations on everything they touch. But their work is not yet complete. There are some areas that have, so far, somewhat resisted complete envelopment by the corporate sphere -- public education being one of these.
But did I mention these corporations are relentless?
A MEETING FROM HELL
At the faculty meeting, our school superintendent outlined a techno-utopian vision for the future of our high-school. The vision essentially involves teachers ceding control of the classroom to students and their computers. After some general, perfunctory guidance from the teachers, the students will ‘dive’ into the internet and enact a ‘personal education plan’ that fits their needs and wants. After all, these kids are ‘wired differently’ than us (we are told), and no longer learn in the same ways as previous generations.
No more will our children be subject to the confining shackles of what the teacher thinks is correct or important. Instead of being taught and then guided through the Gas Laws, the students will (perhaps) discover them for themselves via a combination of their laptop, Google, any half-wit crank who’s ever posted something on the internet, and their own nascent experimentation skills. Heck, I bet they’ll even discover that they’ll need to revise some of those old fashioned Laws!
Teachers, we were told, might only need to actually come into work a few days a week – if that! We would be free to pad around in “comfy slippers” (actually said) while we updated an online course or two with a few clicks in our living room. Left unsaid, of course, was that perhaps a lower-salaried version of us on the Indian subcontinent could pad around in comfy slippers even more profitably. We would then have the freedom to pursue other professions entirely, as most of the US manufacturing sector has. Or maybe no profession at all -- true freedom in the workplace! Freedom to pad around PERMANENTLY in comfy slippers – maybe in a soup kitchen, or under a bridge perhaps.
At the grim climax of this frightening meeting, the superintendent actually had an entire auditorium of teachers and administrators howling in mocking laughter at a quote from the mid-1900’s that warned of the loss of core values of thrift and frugality as students use and thoughtlessly discard the newly-introduced ballpoint pens of the time. I literally shuddered. Good God! Why are these people laughing?! Do they completely miss the broader implications of this quote? Have we completely lost our minds?!
Such is, apparently, the hell-bound trajectory of our educational system. Did you parents realize this was going on? Well it is. And it’s gaining momentum along with the rest of our cultural disintegration -- here in the frenzied, delusional, waning days of a doomed civilization.
THE COLD TENTACLES OF HELL PROBE FOR CRACKS
The futuristic, pseudo-pedagogical nonsense shoveled out at the meeting might seem harmless enough – just a benignly-unrealistic vision of profession the school superintendent had never practiced herself and a future that will never come to pass. That is until you recognize that her lines of thought are merely tentacles of the hell-disseminating corporate-industrial machine now penetrating ever further into the cracks of our disintegrating culture – into semi-sacred places they had never before dared to go fully. In this instance, chillingly but not surprisingly, the tentacles probe down into the education of our children.
It is these very corporate tentacles, directly responsible for so much of the ‘hell’ we are now experiencing in this country and on this planet, that were very much ‘in the house’ at our superintendent’s rousing presentation. You could almost hear the delighted cackling of the computer and software manufacturers, profiteers of globalization, and high-salaried, non-teaching administrators as they tallied up their future profits, signed-off on another round of firings, and collected their bonuses. You could, of course, not hear any sounds from the corporations themselves, those sociopathic, immortal ‘citizens’ to whom we have ceded almost complete earthly power – for they are, as Wendell Berry says, merely “piles of money with the sole intention of becoming bigger piles of money.” But I did perhaps catch a whiff of brimstone in the air.
Had I had my wits about me (and a strong urge to be singled out for harassment or firing perhaps) I would have stood up and said this: Enough! This is balderdash! Nonsense! Your program simply amounts to replacing key parts of the public educational system that currently generate no profit for corporations with lower-quality modules that WILL generate profit. Your educational theories are ‘snake oil’ in every sense: there is no evidence that they work, all preliminary evidence suggests they don’t work, and their only salient feature is that they will make profit for corporations where there is none yet. Pure corporate snake oil, fresh from hell. Well we’re not buying! We will not sit mutely while corporations and their high-salaried minions corrupt what little soul is left of our educational system. Teachers cannot be replaced by computers. Books cannot be replaced by the internet. Knowledge cannot be replaced by information. And not everything in this world should be for sale. Shame on you!
PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST
So that was quite a lashing, huh? But now what? If I’m such a know-it-all-smarty-pants, maybe I should at least advance some ideas on what trajectory our post-carbon educational system should aim for. I’ll try to do that here.
Humans are curious creatures indeed. We are capable of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful acts, and the most depraved, horrific atrocities. Modern industrial civilization, in the name of corporate profits, has systematically discouraged the beautiful and encouraged the depraved – with predictable end results. If we are to re-make our civilization in the post-carbon era, we must reverse this perverse prioritization. We must re-work our organizational structures to consciously and actively promote the ‘beautiful’ and discourage the ‘depraved’ at every level – individuals, families, communities, schools, national and local economies, and in the political realm.
To allow or settle for anything less is to court the same disastrous fate of our current civilization on a smaller scale.
My favorite educational quote in this vein comes from Wendell Berry, in his wonderful little post-9/11 book, ‘In the Presence of Fear.’ In it, he says:
"The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first."
This quote, like all great quotes, challenges us. It challenges us to ask: What then should we put first? What are the key ideas around which we should construct our educational structures? This starting point is key, because if we screw up on this (as our present civilization has done), everything else comes out shit. And we’re up to our eyeballs in shit. Enough!
THREE CORNERSTONES: MORALITY, COMMUNITY, AND THE LAND ETHIC
I humbly suggest we adhere to three basic cornerstones to support the framework of a saner post-carbon educational system; cornerstones based on the essential features/tendencies of the human species that we must consciously promote. I propose these: morality, community, and stewardship of the environment (or the Land Ethic).
By morality, I mean the mental and behavioral patterns of our species that are most admirable: honesty, kindness, empathy, generosity, thrift, frugality, and forgiveness, among others. These ideas must be woven through every lesson in every unit in every subject taught in every grade of our schools – not as asides, or occasional features, but as key, indispensable parts of everything we teach. Our students should be bathed in morality daily. Nurturing a strong sense of morality in our youth is not only the sole path to ensuring a livable future, it is our only barrier protecting against the ever-present monstrous side of our nature. To neglect or pervert morality, as we have done, is to court and eventually ensure apocalypse.
By community, I mean the patterns of inter-dependent human interactions at the local level that bind us together in a common goal: the goal of thriving mentally and physically, as best as possible, in our everyday lives at our chosen place of residence. The studies of what factors contribute to strong communities are well-advanced and common-sensical: well-developed inter-personal and conflict-resolution skills, lack of ‘globilization’ distortions to the local economy, strong knowledge of (and sensitivity to the health of) local ecosystems, strong basic skill set for supplying basic necessities, robust mechanism for transferring knowledge down generations, etc.
The key factors that contribute to strong communities must be made explicit to children at a young age and consciously nurtured throughout their schooling years. Threats that tend to rip communities apart must also be made explicit and consciously guarded against.
We have lived for so long without coherent communities in our atomized industrial deserts that a strong conscious effort must be made to reinstate community-friendly patterns that were, for ages, second nature to everybody. The fossil-energy safety nets that have ‘protected’ us (smothered us?) for several generations will soon be gone, and it is only through the creation and conscious maintenance of strong communities that we can hope for resiliency in the trying times ahead.
For the third cornerstone, I used the phrase, “stewardship of the environment” above. By this, I simply mean a conscious and unwavering application of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic by every person to our chosen localities. This Land Ethic, as discussed by Leopold in his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, involves the extension of our ethical sphere to include not just humans, but all members of the local biotic community.
Leopold says: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. …[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."
And Leopold summarizes the ethic thusly: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
While it has been intuitively obvious to ‘primitive savages’ in many past civilizations, we in our ‘advanced’ industrial civilization have never quite wrapped our collective heads around the fact that to chip away (or blast away, as the case may be) at the ecological foundations of Life, is profoundly immoral; it is murder at first, and then ultimately suicide. In our collective insanity, we have given such destructive madness the name of ‘progress’ and put it on a pedestal. The results have played out predictably.
This Land Ethic has been expanded on eloquently by Wendell Berry (among others), and should be common knowledge to every child. We must immerse our children in the Land Ethic, just as we should for the more traditional human moralities discussed above. When obeyed, it holds incredible power to enrich our lives. When ignored or flouted, it guarantees destruction.
ENSURING KNOWLEDGE OF BASIC SKILLS
I am tempted to stop here with the three cornerstones, but there is something else weighing heavily on my mind concerning the education of our children.
I love my high-school students to death. Despite their occasional misdeeds, they are great kids. They make me laugh; they make me think; and (almost) every day they renew my oft-wavering faith that everything might just turn out semi-OK in the end.
But I have to admit, I’m a more than a little embarrassed for them.
These are 17 and 18 year-old biological-adults who have the life skills of 7-8 year-olds. Confronted with a rapidly approaching physical/cultural paradigm shift, they are as helpless as the plump beetle larvae I sometimes reveal when splitting firewood during the winter – full of potential, but helpless to deal with an unexpectedly-changed reality.
They have essentially zero knowledge on how one might secure the basic necessities of their species without, say, a credit card. Left to their own devices, these biological adults cannot obtain food, water, shelter, or manufacture any of the countless items they would need for even basic survival in their everyday lives.
It has reached the bizarre extreme where several generations of Americans are wholly disconnected from the sources of every single material thing they depend on to function as biological organisms.
This, of course, will no longer be possible as the fossil-fuel-based sources of our ‘material things’ abandon us. It must change, and it will change.
In light of this change, a fundamental part of our children’s post-carbon education must include hands-on experience with the essential life skills required of their species. This is not to say that every kid must become an expert gardener, seed saver, nutritionist, chef, composter/soil-builder, forester, miller, architect, and carpenter, etc., etc. But every kid should have learned the basics of each of those ‘basic life skills’ jobs (and many others) by actually doing them under some guidance.
This apprenticeship in basic skills should be a key part of every child’s education – not as a replacement for classroom-based studies of the natural and social sciences, math, etc, but as an essential supplement.
In addition to helping kids ‘find their true calling,’ incorporating this type of education with the more traditional classroom forms would arm our entire population with a basic skill-set. Such skills would ensure a strong resiliency within our population, enabling us to weather even severe disruptions to our infrastructure with minimized misery.
Because, if anything, our post-carbon world will be defined by the requirement to deal with rapidly and unpredictably changing circumstances – politically, socially, economically, and climatically. Monumental change will be the norm. Resilience will be crucial; basic skills essential.
The logistics of this basic-skill education would, of course, be complex, and it’s precise implementation would heavily depend on the still-unknown nature of our post-carbon civilization. But I think it’s worth thinking about now.
BACK FROM HELL
Mostly unnoticed by the general population, K-12 education drifts ever-further towards a narrow, amoral exercise in job-training; increasingly stressing profit for opportunistic corporations over quality of education. Thus, a final bastion of cultural sanity is succumbing to the cold tentacles of corporate-manufactured hell.
These trends, of course, are not surprising: The hyper-specialization of our doomed industrial economy requires that a small subset of the population know very much about very little. Also, the extreme destructiveness and immorality of the industrial economy requires that its moral underpinnings never be examined too closely. And, of course, everything in the industrial economy – no matter how sacred – is for sale; so why not the minds of our children?
By this perverse logic, the disturbing trends in industrial education make perfect sense.
Unfortunately, such a debased form of ‘education’ ensures not only the death of our culture and our economy, but the death of the very biosphere. It is the education of hell.
What will follow the demise of industrial civilization? We do not know. But one thing is certain: if we do not start putting “first things first” and reprioritize our educational system in the post-carbon era, a tragic replay of our current cultural, economic, and ecological disintegration is guaranteed.
In short, we must reclaim our education and culture from the grip of earthly hell and begin planting, so to speak, the seeds of heaven: morality, community, and environmental stewardship. Long live the sacred!