Sharon March 17th, 2009
When I sat down to write _Depletion and Abundance_ I had to figure out what made my own emphasis different from any other book about Peak Oil or Climate Change. After all, if all I was going to do was a variant on Monbiot or Heinberg, what was the point?
I came to the conclusion that what had to separate out my book was my emphasis on things that most Peak Oil and Climate Change activists don’t talk about that much (there are some notable and important exceptions here, but broadly speaking) - the “social welfare” issues that most people put first on their list of most important priorities - but which often are left off discussions of future planning. Among these were Food Security (which does get a fair bit of attention) Health Care (which is starting to), Safety Nets for the poor, the disabled and the elderly (still under-discussed), and Education (way low on the priority list).
There were two reasons I thought these issues important. The first is that they are self-evidently important - that is, our quality of life depends in large part on the fact that when you get old, you don’t suffer, our sense of living in a decent nation depends on the idea that we care for those who are vulnerable, and that we are not bankrupted by our illnesses and that our kids have a future. The second is that these are things people care about *now* - that is, they don’t have to completely rethink their priorities. And that’s helpful for engaging the general populace - hooking ideas they are familiar with onto things they are not is part of the project.
The orphan step-child of this litany of subjects is education. Of course everyone knows, in the abstract, that education is important. But what is important in education is something else altogether, and in the face of potential food shortages or lack of access to basic medical care, the assumption is that we will cobble together something decent for education. It is generally not a priority, given the urgency of so many other issues.
I think this is a huge mistake - and a mistake with far reaching implications. We are presently paying the price for deep educational failures in the US and around the world. Some large part of our collective failure to understand the world around us can be given to the way we teach our kids to understand that world. By this I do not simply mean the obvious failures of our educational system, nor is this a call for more money - while I’m sure some school systems will fail in the end for lack of funds, our larger failure came not from insufficient funding across the board (inequitable funding, however is another issue), but from a more comprehensive inadequacy, one in which we are not able to see our world clearly because we spend so much time teaching our children that what they see is not what is.
Some years ago, I attended a family gathering for a long weekend. I was a new Mom and a graduate student in Literature, and among the family were cousins of mine still in high school. One of them was struggling with her English homework, and she asked me to help her. The homework involved reading several poems, finding examples of various literary devices (”foreshadowing” “”alliteration” “zeugma”…whatever) in them, and then “comparing and constrasting” two of the poems. All of the poems were broadly about trees.
My immediate reaction was “Oh, that’s why so many people think they hate literature.” The sheer monotony of checking off literary devices was sufficient to nearly drive me to hate the project, and I wasn’t a 16 year old. I helped her find examples, and then when she asked me for ideas for a paper, and was startled by her reaction to one suggestion.
I can’t recall what all the poems were, but two of them were Wordsworth’s “Nutting” and Frosts “Birches.” I suggested to her, figuring that teenagers are best engaged when they think themselves rebellious or edgy, that she talk about why it was that the sexual imagery in these poems was so explicit - why both Frost and Wordsworth seemed to have such blunt memories of masturbating in the woods.
You should have seen my young cousin’s face. “Masturbating!?!?! That’s not in there!!!” She was shocked - she actually said to me “Poems aren’t about sex.”
I had her read them out loud. We looked at Frost, who imagines first that the trees after an ice storm look like a girl on her hands and knees with their hair hanging over, and then writes,
“One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.”
Nope, no sex there. Couldn’t be. I asked her if she thought that he used the language of erections by accident - this man who used words as his entire profession. She protested that this was “a long time ago.” Wordsworth, she pointed out, was “hundreds” of years ago. He couldn’t have been writing about sex as he approached the trees,
“Tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung,/A virgin scene!”
This we are told as the boy approaches the trees, and then after lying for a while, cheek on a mossy stone, enjoying the pleasure of his “bower,” the boy rises up -
“Then up I rose,
And dragg’d to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage; and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower
Deform’d and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being”
The boy remembers feeling guilty about his “rape” of the landscape, and has couched it in deeply sexual terms. My cousin found it hard to believe that people in the 18th century, millions of years ago ;-), thought about sex, and in fact, used a lot of the same basic metaphors that we use.
Now this would be just a story, if it weren’t for one thing - my cousin is not an idiot, and she had read the poems. She read them several times, in fact. But she didn’t read what they said - this is not an unusually deep reading of mine - this material is right on the surface for any ordinary, dirty minded teenager (and I’ve met few other kinds) to look at. Instead, she failed to see what was in front of her nose simply because she “knew” that literature wasn’t sexual, or funny.
I’ve had the same problem trying to convince students that Shakespeare is funny - they know it to be art, they know it to be distant, noble, inaccessible. They find it very hard to look at literature as smutty, funny, angry or violent. And yet, literature is merely the expression of the human - the best poetry isn’t noble and pure, it is human and gloriously, passionately so. We don’t read Shakespeare because of his purity of heart - we read him because he was so perfectly and brilliantly impure.
My cousin’s education had taught her *not* to see what was right in front of her nose, and if she saw something that didn’t fit with what her education was supposed to be, she assumed she was wrong. But mostly, she had been taught not to even see it. Her excellent public education in a good school system had taught her to view the world in such a way as to erase the realities of history, the words in front of her face, and get her focused on whether there were instances of foreshadowing somewhere in the text.
My cousin’s example is not unusual - the whole school system is one of slight of hand, where meanings are prejudged and assumed, and the range of possible analyses decided before we even begin to think, and this doesn’t end at the schoolyard - it permeates every element of our assumptions about our society. As Ivan Illich points out in his _Deschooling Society_,
“The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safey, military poise for national security, the rat race fo productive world. Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavor are defined as little mroe than the performance of the institutions that claim to serve those ends.” (Illich, 3)
At no point in my cousin’s English education was she taught simply to read a poem - to really read it, to seek out appreciation in it. Instead, she was alternately bored and told not to see what was right in front of her. And this ran throughout her (and most people’s) education. The version of history she was taught was the sanitized general version in which a few famous people of the past stuck out, all icons of purity and nobility who never ate or went to the bathroom, or did anything besides ruling kingdoms, writing poetry and improving tractates, and were thus more alien to her than life on Mars could have been. History, thus, became irrelevant, a few pleasant stories about the past that can be relegated there, since the future is always what matters, and we, cleaner, busy with our lives, have nothing to do with them.
The fact the structure of her education resembles the public education most of us get from the mainstream media about current events is no accident, either - they are structurally similar for a reason - the media continues to educate us as we have been educated, teaching us what is important (celebrity life, one “content” story a night, minimal backstory) and getting us to look where it wants us to look, not where we need to go. This education of ours continues our whole lives, unless we are able to break free.
She was taught (I’ve asked) nothing of the skills of a citizen - not how to research a complex question, make a compelling argument in a letter to the editor, to seek out primary sources, or that between the black and white answers to political questions that our party system gives us there might be shades of grey. She was taught little about ecology and the world around her, nothing about philosophy or ethics or how to come to a conclusion in a complex situation. She learned much about the history of technical inventions, but nothing about the history of food or agriculture - despite the fact that she ate three times a day every day of her life.
She learned that science was science, and must remain unfettered, uncritiqued, that technology must march forward, that there can never be any point at which we choose anything other than to uncritically accept the next “advance.” She never learned that our sense of what constitutes an “advance” - and where we put our research energies and monies - is a cultural choice despite our sense that science simply is and does - that we prefer to think our future is in the stars rather than at home, or that technology outranks ecology is something she never learned to see as a choice, merely as an inevitability.
She learned little about money or wealth, or even economics - except that her job was to “succeed” in the global economy - something she wasn’t fully familiar with, and that she should plan to work her whole life, investing what extra she could find in housing and the markets. She watched television, complete with ads, in homeroom every morning, and was taught to be ironically critical of ads, in a superficial way, while buying what they told her to buy.
My cousin is a bright young woman - she got her education in what was widely considered a good public school system. She grew up to become an engaging and smart person, a teacher, actually - and an extraordinary one. To the extent she could, she exceeded the limits of her education, helped by the occasional brilliant teacher who stuck out the bureocracy and disheartening life, and also helped by the fact that her parents were affluent enough to send her to college, which for all its flaws, has a few more teachers who consider critical thinking a high priority and sneak it in around theology or political science or chemistry.
The problem is, not everyone can do this. Not everyone gets the teacher who survived the system engaged enough to truly teach. Not everyone can afford college - in fact, in its present form, I think we must admit that most families can’t afford college. Not everyone has the capacity to teach themselves what they need to know, or even to find the gaps in their knowledge. Surprisingly large numbers of people are able to do this - but they aren’t enough.
Many of our present difficulties come down, in the end, to our tendency to see what we are told to see, not what is actually in front of us. We are told to see the growing, globalizing economy - but not the growing global poor, displaced from their land into slums. We are told to see the bountiful products of technology - not the degradation both of the land and the people who live on it that too much affluence and technology create. We are told to see the future only in two colors - the bleak black of the apocalypse and the bright white of technological perfection - there is nothing between them to look at. Or so we are told endlessly.
Throwing off our lessons is a huge project for most of us adults - and the habit of unseeing comes back to smack us in the face at the most frustrating times. If the next generation is to face our oncoming future, they need something better - they need to be able to trust their eyes and their knowledge, they need to be able to read the poem as a poem, simply to see what it says and whether it has anything to say to them. They need an ecological and manual education, as well as a scientific one, and a scientific one that allows them to recognize that people rarely agree in science, and that conclusions are found by research - research that goes beyond “google it and read the first two articles.” And perhaps most of all, they need an ethical or moral education - and by this I do not mean an education in a particular faith, but the training to begin addressing the real questions that face us - the ones that all begin “what is the right thing to do.”
In the coming years, I suspect a combination of economic crisis and perhaps energy issues to put enormous strains on the school systems that we’ve created. Those systems have been consolidated for the era of cheap energy, set up for a society affluent enough to run extensive bus systems and to provide workers for an economy that is in the process of decompensating. Some of us will homeschool our children - but homeschooling is not enough. Because some parents can’t homeschool, or won’t - and your community will be made up of the grownups that come out of your public schools in large part. Your neighborhood will be filled not just with your homeschooled child, but with the children of people who lacked the time or ability or knowledge or willingness to do so. The future depends not just on a few well educated people, but a world full of them.
This is an opportunity as well as a crisis - an opportunity to ask ourselves what we want from an educational system. When I was a teacher, someone once asked me where we were supposed to find the time to teach critical thinking - was I prepared, I was asked, to see the students come to me completely unread, since we’d been spending the time on teaching them to analyze material? Was I willing to accept students who never read _Romeo and Juliet_.
Yup. Shakespeare is one of those glories you can come to at many times in your life. I value my field - I think that literature is enormously important to the world - it is through stories that we ultimately understand our lives, and through art that we find meaning. But you can live a good life without poetry - I want my children to have poetry and music in their heads that they know by heart, because no matter what happens, no one can take that from them. But I’d gladly sacrifice it if that was what it took, resting assured that children who know how to think will eventually find the words of people who think engaging.
But what we cannot afford are children who have been exposed roughly to things we call art, but are unequipped to view them, to think about them, even to understand what they say because they are trained not to see them. An empty brush past Shakespeare or Frost, Pope or Achebe is of no value at all, it is merely the acquisition of an empty reference point. Oh, we think, so that far away and distant incomprehensible things is the famous Wordsworth. Big whoop.
When our communities face up to the economic problems that they have, they will cut education budgets, slash resources. What they will not be inclined to do is rethink education overall - that’s what our job is - to say, ok, perhaps we need fewer of these things, perhaps we can’t afford all we need, but if we are to have anything, we need these resources. Because at a minimum, we need a next generation with their eyes open.