The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

Loneliness and Our Connection to Others

Cairns on Peaks Island

Peaks Island Cairns

There was this article posted in The Guardian that demonstrates the soul baring desperation that underlies loneliness, even in the midst of all the accoutrement of adulthood and family and work. It got me contemplating loneliness and considering my own relationship to it. Read the article, it’s good.

A warning: I’m about to spelunk into some serious naval-gazing.

I’ve lived for a number of years in relative solitude and had grown fairly accustomed to the sense of loneliness — to the point where I even fought internally against the concept of a long-term relationship and had to come to grips with the entirely wonderful idea that someone could be in my life unto marriage, that someone would be there every single day, loving me, forcing me to temper my long suffering loneliness into an entwinement that yes, would entail compromise and the sacrifice of idealistic, boyish visions of self-sufficiency.

Why had I so deeply resigned/consigned myself to perpetual loneliness? I think it was a manner of coping with who I was as a person. Even as a lad, I’ve always had “eclectic” tastes, meaning that I can be somewhat withdrawn, stubborn, and judgmental, and as I grew older, I refused to capitulate to the demeaning standard of bullshit that popular society deemed acceptable.

Given my personality, therefore, I had determined that I was destined for eternal loneliness, and thus sought for reconciliation with my natural state of being. Creative writingwithout a capitalistic purpose–had become an entrenched part of my existence (though my professional development has since necessitated some trimming of that sort of writing). An affection for mysticism has been part of this eclectic tendency. I like the philosophers of Zen, Sufiism, and holistic integralism of various Bohemian sorts. I fell in love with the passionate, drunken spirit-mind writing of Dostoevsky, Winterson, RumiDelillo, Pynchon, and whomever I happened to be reading at the moment. I found succor in running and hiking and reading and playing my djembe — activities that required no other to manifest enjoyment. I further discovered that going out to bars and clubs wasn’t about looking for sex or a soul-mate or any other person at all — it was about finding myself, and enjoying myself, and inviting others to come along for the ride.

Along this journey, from stubborn, eclectic individualism to marriage and a career, I’ve discovered that loneliness can be productive and beautiful, even as it dredges out a hollow in my heart. But I also rebel against the notion that artistic creativity is only produced from independent pursuits, and that things of beauty can only be created, Phoenix-like, out of despair. [Think of all of those poets of modernity, who killed themselves, seemingly out of creative consummation.] Rather, I think that what is created from the harmony and dissonance of relationships is simply different, and must be appreciated in it’s own context, apart and distinct from that which is a creation of loneliness. Times have changed, I believe, in the artistic sphere. Call it the Age of Aquarius or call it what you will, but there are too many talented and interesting individuals out there vying for attention for singular artists to dominate any one field in the manner Shakespeare, Picasso, and Davis once did. In some sense, the reality that has always been everpresent yet understated is becoming more definitive of our formal social reality: we are all artists, creating every single moment anew out of the materials of what has come before.

This freedom, this burden, of creative synthesis and production means that we all must become comfortable with the sense of loneliness and detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday surface society. Otherwise, we will be unable to define ourselves, and we will become lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the concerns of others. Finding yourself necessitates two paradoxical movements:

  • stepping away from society and social media and other outlets* (self-knowledge and spiritual understanding)
  • stepping into society and social media and other outlets (knowledge of others and sharing)

*a definition: by social media and other outlets, I mean any mechanism by which we can connect to other people, whether Facebook, the pub, or speed dating

A balance must therefore be discovered, a balance that is difficult for us to achieve. A balance between being comfortable with loneliness, and being comfortable compromising with others in ongoing relationships. A comfort with solitude, and a comfort in being around others. A comfort with poetry, and a comfort with Twitter. A comfort with knowing ourselves, and a comfort in constantly redefining ourselves.

The hardest thing, perhaps, is to truly know yourself in a crowd of people who don’t know themselves. Or maybe the hardest thing is to truly know another person when you don’t really know yourself. Or maybe it’s all the same problem, and the solution lies right before us.

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

Pushing the Walls Away

It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.

Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.

But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.

Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.

It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.

Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.

Progress Towards Goals

In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.

As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.

Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.

One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.

One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.

I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.

Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.

Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:

  • The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
  • The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
  • I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
  • Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part V

Gambier River

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post, I sought to balance the concept of achievement with the necessity of equity in education. Before I dive into curriculum (I know, I keep saying I will get into it), I would like to expound further on an analogy I made at the beginning of this series between ecology and public schools, and which has given the title to this series.

I’ve begun with the premise of schools as ecosystems. In any healthy ecosystem, there is a dynamic and interactive balance between all of the components of that ecosystem, from the trees, to the low lying shrubs, to the soil, to the bugs, the birds, the berries, the squirrels, the bears, and what have you. All components function to create an interconnected, interdependent system that naturally self-regulates to create sustainable conditions for the most productive life possible within that given environment.

Now that’s a “natural” ecosystem I’m discussing. Let’s explore the concept of a man-made ecosystem in order to better adapt that idea to schools. In a man-made ecosystem, such as a garden, the gardener works to recreate natural environments, but with a focus on a purpose that suits the gardener, such as food growth, or flower cultivation. Sometimes that focus is so monolithic that the gardener ends up in constant battle with nature, and must maintain their garden on life support infusions of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are methods of deliberately harnessing natural processes and dynamics to best serve our own selfish interests. When the gardener best recreates the conditions that will foster interconnectivity and diversity of life adapted to their environment, their garden will thrive.

Now let’s bring that idea back to schools. In education, instead of growing food or flowers, our work is to grow our kids’ minds. A lot of times, this effort of increasing achievement is presented as a type of competition, which is furthered through the use of punitive grading systems and high stakes testing. Sometimes the way we talk about it makes it seem like all we want to do is pump steroids into the minds of our youth. But we know that’s not what it’s about. Education is about nurturing, developing, instilling, guiding. And in terms of an ecosystem, the big idea is that ultimately, no one is really competing, even if it looks like that on the surface. Ultimately, we work to counterbalance each other and create an environment that best harnesses the resources available within that given community.

This all sounds relatively banal, even to me, but the reason I keep pushing this analogy between gardening and education is because I’m seeking to apply permacultural principles to the ecosystems of schools. Permaculture is a philosophy of cultivating land grounded in holistic and sustainable design practices. I believe the permacultural approach is not only necessary to counter current devastating ecological practices, but is in fact superior to traditional methods and approaches to land use.

I believe that one of the critical issues underlying education reform is that we are all too often seeking superficial means of enhancing student performance. In a garden, we might temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. In a school, we might temporarily raise student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors. But ultimately in both scenarios, we are only doing battle against nature and economy. In order to enhance productivity sustainably, we have to build up the foundations of our communities, our ecosystems. This requires targeted investments in the communities that most require it. There is no other way.

Growing Healthy Food and Children

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.