Thursday, September 25, 2008

Slouching toward Revolution

I’ve probably mentioned environmentalist and educator David Orr in other posts on another blog, but as I was scooting though my bookmarks looking for something else, I happened on an essay he wrote in 1991 for a special issue of In Context, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, and reprinted online in 1996. Orr's article called "What is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education and six new principles to replace them," and it appears in the the issue on The Learning Revolution: Education Innovations for Global Citizens. Although I don't agree with every author of every article, the issue provides interesting insights into the educational climate of the emerging global economy at the turn of the twenty-first century.

This is the situation the editors described seventeen years ago:

It takes only a glance at the newsstands to know that education is in deep trouble. In France, 250,000 students recently took to the streets to protest unsafe conditions and reduced education budgets. In the U.S., public schools in some parts of the country are being all but abandoned by those who can afford private alternatives. And around the world, education - preparing the next generation to lead productive and fulfilling lives - too often suffers from being on the short end of a dwindling resource stream.

Sound familiar? The editors then envisioned a revolution in learning that could meet the demands of a changing world; it wouldn't necessarily involve a huge economic investment in technology, but rather "a shift in the way we understand what it means to learn and to teach" and changes in "our ideas about learning."

The hope reflected in these articles, including Orr's, is palpable, and is grounded in a move away from long-held beliefs not only about education, but about economy in general. Education becomes not merely a means to becoming rich and famous, but toward something much more important and (the essays suggest) fulfilling.

But learning for what? We are already far too skilled in exploiting the Earth for human ends, yet we are still terribly ignorant about the real basics of life - how to live sustainably on this planet, and in peace with each other. So whether you consider yourself an educator, a learner, or a concerned citizen, this issue is for you; for if the insights and technologies gathered here were put to the service of healing our societies and the planet's life systems, they would spark a revolution of enormous - and beautiful - proportions. We hope you'll participate in making that vision a reality.

Needless to say, the revolution never seems to have arrived. What Alan AtKisson describes in his introductory essay is still very much the case:

We are in a time when the destructive power of our ignorance is casting cold shadows across our knowledge - and the integrity of many species, cultures, and natural systems is being eclipsed in the process.

David Orr's response (from a commencement address he delivered in 1990) remains current, and his observations could have been taken from this morning's headlines:

The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

Add to this a rapidly failing economy here in the United States (which promises to engulf much of the rest of the world unless it's properly addressed), and then make note, as Orr does, of the fact that these crises were not effected by uneducated people. The environmental and economic "challenges" (to use a word popular in educational circles today) have been wrought by a particular kind of ignorance against which our current forms of education do not insulate us.

People actually seem to be twigging to the idea that book-learning is not in itself the sole source of experience and wisdom. I can't help but blame the popularity of self-proclaimed populists like John McCain and Sarah Palin (and even George Bush) on the perception that those ivory-tower elites have gotten us into this mess (even if they were Conservative elites, they were still from Yale and Harvard). Never mind that we've had eight years of folksy leadership from a guy who was elected in part because he was the kind of fella you'd like to have a beer with, and we're considerably worse off as a result. It's the perception that counts, and it dogs candidates like Harvard-grad Barack Obama, who gets advice from pundits to "dumb it down." (I actually heard a commentator suggest this on Hardball the other night.)

It is rather ironic that some of our problems are actually grounded in knowledge, or at least in our tendency to read philosophy uncritically. Orr points to Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes as sources for our traditional separation of human beings from the natural world--and notes that these are the foundations of modern educational theory, "foundations now enshrined in myths we have come to accept without question." He goes on to discuss six: Ignorance is a solvable problem; with enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet Earth; knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness; we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled; the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success; and our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement. His careful explication of each of these presumptions is worth reading and considering.

Even though the revolution he was advocating in the '90s still hasn't occurred nearly twenty years later doesn't mean that the solutions he poses aren't still possible or necessary. The six principles he considers as solutions include these: All education is environmental education; the goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person (from the Greek notion of paideia); knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world; we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities; "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words are important (my variation on this principle is "you are what you do," and because we are by nature metaphor makers, example carries enormous weight); and the way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses.

I'm doing Orr an injustice by simply listing his problems and solutions. But I hope that by doing so, I will pique my readers' interest strongly enough for them to engage in a careful reading of his essay. And then, for homework, go on to read his book The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. It's an education in itself.

Photo credit: The abandoned Granger elementary school in Tucumcari, New Mexico, by Wordbuilder. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Education in the Kitchen

Sometimes parents seem to abandon common sense when it comes to feeding their children. In this country, for example, and in a growing number of developing countries throughout the world, breastfeeding is sadly not necessarily the first choice for feeding infants. In China, the increasing number of babies fed with formula has led to yet another food-contamination crisis--this time over formula tainted with melamine.

The inability to nurse a newborn is rare in cultures where breastfeeding is seen as appropriate, natural, and preferred, and where mothers have the unstinting support of their physicians, nurses, families, and communities. And while it's true that breastfeeding is on the rise in the United States, mothers still only nurse for a few months and are then anxious to wean their kids to solid foods, usually those promoted most heavily by Big Baby Food--even though breastfeeding exclusively for five months or so, and then very gradually introducing other foods, helps curb obesity and food allergies. (Statistics on the advantages, prevalence, and duration of breastfeeding in the U. S. are available through the Centers for Disease Control and through La Leche League International.)

What brought all this to mind, in addition to the increasingly alarming news from China, was an article in last Sunday's New York Times: Six Food Mistakes that Parents Make, by Tara Parker-Pope. In it she tells of a child whose preschool diet consisted of chocolate-laced "meals" of all varieties (just as some friends of ours once fed their daughter pizza almost exclusively)--because that's all he would eat. It turns out to be easier to feed your kids whatever they want in the interest of feeding them something rather than nothing.

Having picky eaters at all is, of course, a reflection of an affluent society with an overabundance of choices. Starving children eat anything they can; only the rich have children who demand chocolate for breakfast. But almost every parent experiences some degree of food-fussiness, and Parker-Hope's article is full of great suggestions on how to avoid conflicts.

Most of the advice is common sense, however, and if we were less concerned with just getting our kids to eat, and more concerned about what we're teaching them about the role of food in their lives, we'd probably have healthier, less demanding children. Of course, they'd have less fun manipulating their parents, too--but I think it would be far more enjoyable to interact with kids by teaching them how to choose and prepare foods wisely than by trying to force them into patterns that can lead to decidedly unhealthful ways of viewing food in general.

For example, kids--like all human beings--are metaphor makers. If we tell them to eat one way, but eat another ourselves, they arrive at an inevitable conclusion: my mother's a liar. By following the diet du jour, but insisting that our children eat something different (a more "balanced" meal while we have at the Atkins packaged dinners), we're falling into the old "do what I say, not what I do" trap, which has no consequence other than to make parents look as if they have no control over themselves.

My own biggest mistake was not being more generous in the kitchen; I tended to see it as my own domain, and seldom encouraged my kids to cook with me. Another was to follow a highly restricted diet, albeit for ethical and religious reasons. While my children were growing up I was a vegetarian; not only that, I kept a Kosher home, which further restricted the types of cheese and other products I bought for home consumption. I did have the good sense to pretty much let the children eat whatever they wanted outside of the house, but I knew the jig was up when they started hanging over the meat counter at the grocery store, drooling longingly over the steaks.

The compromise was happy chickens. I had abstained from meat not because I thought there was something morally wrong with eating it, but because I couldn't take the responsibility for killing it myself and therefore thought I had no right to eat it. The Kosher part was for community; I wanted any friends of any degree of Jewishness (or Gentility, as it were) to be able to eat at my table. Eventually, however, I realized that I could serve cold vegetable meals on glass plates to my Orthodox friends, and buy organic, free-range meat without suffering too much guilt. By that time, however, my children's habits were firmly in place, and I'll have to wait for grandchildren in order to do it right.

But anyone with small children can use mealtime as a teaching and learning experience, and not just about food. Maths can be taught through baking; history and geography can sneak into a meal based on a particular ethnic cuisine; even films and literature can provide foundations for a meal--through books like The Joyce of Cooking, the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and It Came From the Kitchen. Art history's a natural: try constructing a meal based on a painting, or dive into recipes from one of the many artists who loved food: Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet.

Common-sense eating can easily become part of a natural education: from the growing of food to understanding its history and culture. For background, parents can consult websites like The Food Timeline, Betty Fussel's, The Story of Corn, H. E. Jacob's Six Thousand Years of Bread. And then there are the likes of The Philosopher's Kitchen (Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook) by Francine Segan (who also wrote Movie Menus and Shakespeare's Kitchen), Jean Bottéro's The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, and James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (the link to the latter is to its first chapter). Simply having books like these on the shelves of one's house can prompt discussions about food, history, nutrition, culture, science, and any number of topics among parents and children.

Parker-Pope notes in her article that the more kids are involved in food preparation, the more likely they are to eat what they make, not only at home, but elsewhere. I can't think of a more powerful schoolroom, in fact, than a kitchen in which children are welcome, and a garden in which children help to grow what they eat. Home-schoolers have a wonderful opportunity to integrate all manner of learning while simply caring for home and hearth; but even kids in traditional schools can reap enormous benefits from being included in meal-planning and preparation, and from accompanying their parents to grocery stores and/or farmer's markets to help select the food they'll eventually eat.

As it turns out, cooking and eating provide not only the basic framework for survival in the world, but for learning about it as well. Think of how much smarter we'd all be if we actually mastered the skills necessary to plant, harvest, prepare, and cook most of what we eat--just like our pioneer ancestors had to. Sharing food among family and friends grounds community, and offers a deeply resonant metaphor for living, teaching, and learning well.

Images: A Helping Hand, by Eugen von Blaas, 1884; Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning Posts from Owl's Farm

Before I decided that I needed a separate blog on teaching and learning, I posted frequently on education at my first blog, Owl's Farm. Since its inception a little over a year ago, its focus has shifted from being primarily on William Morris, to being primarily on the ideas associated with what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls topophilia, or love of place, and on philosophical considerations regarding place and home. And although my interest in education is tangentially related to where I was born and how I was brought up, I finally decided to create a blog devoted entirely to the process of learning in and about the world.

And so, in order to avoid repeating myself too much (a tendency toward repetition is an unfortunate consequence of aging), I thought it might be helpful to post links to my educational remarks from the Farm, with small glosses on what they were about. In that way, both I and my readers can refer back to them if necessary, and they're all tidy and handily available, in chronological order.

Dismantling the Boy Farms (26 June 2007): a riff on William Morris's philosophy of education, grounded in his own experience at Marlborough.

Paying Attention
(15 September 2007): something of a rant on the inappropriate and/or expedient use of technology in the classroom.

The Assessment Obsession (23 December 2007): the first of several ruminations on the current trend in education to teach to the test, focus on assessment rather than content, and related issues.

Surviving Plutopia (22 April 2008): an Earth Day reflection on current conditions. I go off on several points here--including Philip Pullman's view of education.

Building a Better Schoolhouse (2 May 2008): inspired by the community-based education movement in England, which provides a preferable alternative to "No Child Left Behind."

The Age of Endarkenment (2 June 2008): a lament about the lack of curiosity among our young, and the growing lack of interest in knowing much.

The next couple of months were taken up by house-recycling efforts, but during that time the idea for The Owl of Athena started brewing and I eventually began to channel my educational musings over here. So far the feedback has been helpful, but I do hope to get more students involved, and direct the conversation toward the comments section of the blog, rather than casual conversations in the hallways.

The educational world is changing, both locally and globally, and I'm looking forward (and not always quaking in my boots) to seeing what happens over the next few months. It should be, as they say in China, interesting.

Images: A Roman relief of a school, and a woodcut from the title page of Wenceslaus Brack: Vocabularius rerum, 1487. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Telling and Doing

While reading Gary Snyder's book of essays, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995), I happened on one called "Amazing Grace," in which he talks about two kinds of learning: hearsay and experience.

The essay was originally written as the preface for Donald Philippi's translation of Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu (an aboriginal tribe in Japan). Snyder's primarily interested in the role of the oral tradition in preliterate societies, noting that it is "not memorized but remembered" (his emphasis) and thus that

. . . every telling is fresh and new, as the teller's mind's eye re-views the imagery of origins or journeys or loves or hunts. Themes and formulas are repeated as part of an ever-changing tapestry composed of both the familiar and the novel. Direct experience, generation by generation, feeds back into the tale told.

This "together hearing" partakes of both aspects of learning, bringing hearsay into the realm of experience, in the context of the group of listeners.

Of course, in many such societies, myth and "actuality" also meld, so that "myth" doesn't mean "lie" as it does in the technologized West. It's part of experience in that it helps a people understand who they are, how they became, and how they are related to the space they occupy. The process is, in fact, far more intellectually challenging, I think, than the kind of rote learning we teach our kids: memorize "facts" out of "textbooks" removed from history and experience and unrelated to what we do, except by some theoretical thread that asserts: "You'll need this in the real world."

In fact, mythically grounded people often seem to be much more learned about their environments and their traditions than we in the ultra-modern world are. I frequently ask my students how many of them could survive for two weeks in the wild, how many know anything about local flora, how many have ever seen the Milky Way or would recognize it if they did. Every time I ask, one or two answer positively, down from five or six a decade ago. While more of them seem to understand why we should recycle, and why fossil fuels are problematic, few of them understand the underlying problems themselves very deeply. Throwing plastic bottles into a recycle bin, and turning thermostats up in the summer and down in the winter are about as far as the real recognition goes.

Any education for the future must, therefore, involve re-familiarizing children (and all students) with the natural world. If we keep losing the connection--covering up experience with cloaks of synthetic fabrics or artificial heating and cooling--we lose one of our most important ways to learn. Not only that, but hearsay can't fill in the gaps, because the tellers have already removed themselves from first-hand experience. They've been driving cars and air conditioning their homes all their lives. One would hope that there have been a few camping experiences or walks on the beach, but in our increasingly urbanized and sub-urbanized environments, even those experiences are becoming less frequent.

One of my fondest memories when my son was young was a week-long stint as a counselor at an outdoor camp run by the school district. In order to make sure that he got to go, I volunteered to herd seven prepubescent boys through the week's activities, and to share a screened in cabin (open to all the elements but bugs) with them. For the entire time we walked everywhere, ate minimally prepared foods, picked apart owl pellets, swam in a lake, and learned about the prairie environment we all inhabit. There was more of it then, but the children came away with a much stronger physical sense of where they lived then. I hope it's still with them, as it is with me--but only a select few got to enjoy the experience, and I'm not sure it's still available to kids today.

Gas prices are currently limiting car travel, which in most cases is a good thing--but the situation is also driving more children into movie theaters and air-conditioned game rooms during the summers instead of allowing their parents to take them on camping trips or visits to national parks (like the one to Yellowstone I got to take with my grandparents when I was about seven). People's lives are now generally more crammed with work and scheduled activities as well, which diminishes the time kids can spend out of doors simply goofing off. And very few children have even the foggiest idea of where their food comes from, because they've never had a real garden--or if they did, it was filled with flowers and ornamental shrubs for reasons of property values.

I think this is why efforts like that of Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard program are so encouraging. If more children are provided with opportunities for first-hand experience in learning vital skills and ways of living, they will encourage their parents to do so as well. Just as the neighborhood kids in my town are significantly responsible for increasing their folks' participation in local recycling efforts, kids who learn about food production and growing processes can help re-introduce their families to traditions and values that are falling by the way as we insulate ourselves more and more from the natural world.

There's even a neologism that covers the phenomenon: Nature Deficit Disorder. Gardening is a great remedy for the affliction, and I can't think of anywhere better to start than by looking into what Alice Waters is doing, and taking a look at the gardening-with-children segments of the Heirloom Gardner blog.

If our kids can gain experience in providing real basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and community, they will learn more from acquiring the skills involved (such as soil preparation, cultivation, plant recognition, measuring and building, cooking, sewing) than they can from reading even the best textbooks in math and science. If they can learn to explore their own backyard environment, and spend some time looking at the night sky (both with the naked eye and with with tools such as binoculars and telescopes), they will be far richer than if some textbook author predigests the information for them and they have to spit facts back on a test.

Here's my homework assignment: invite Grandma or Grandpa or Great Aunt Matilda (or an elderly neighbor if you don't have grandparents handy) to dinner, and urge him or her to tell your children what it was like when they were little. Ask them what kinds of stories their parents told them, and what big events occurred when they were young. This probably won't work with your jaded teenagers, but the ten- and eleven-year-olds I shepherded through a week of outdoor learning were wide open for experiences and stories. There will never be a better time to start opening them up to different, more enriching possibilities.

And then, go out and plant a garden.

Image credits: John Everette Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870 (Tate Museum). Raphael depiction of the original bard, Homer, from the Parnassus, in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. Both from Wikimedia Commons.