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.

Accepting the Bad

Eliminate the bad, extend the good. This could be said to be the mantra of humanity. It’s an understandable outlook, of course, given that it is in our biological nature. Problem is, people take it to the furthest extent possible, such that in doing away with all the bad (temporarily), we also end up eradicating the good things which originally and naturally kept the bad in check. We upset balances in favor of an idealistic and unachievable victory.

The problem is not simply that we are attempting to eliminate the bad—it is that we are attempting to address immediate symptoms instead of looking at the root causes. We do this in everything from agriculture to health care, from scientific research to judicial systems. Examples are:

1) In the attempt to eliminate all harmful insects from our food bearing crops, we blanket them with pesticides. We kill not only all bad insects, but also the good insects which prey upon them.
2) We attempt to eliminate all malevolent microbes by making everything as sterile as possible with toxic chemical solutions and through the flippant use of antibiotics. We destroy most of the microbes, for a short amount of time, until they mutate resistance, and then they come back even stronger than before.
3) We lock up poor adolescents who are selling drugs in the attempt to find means (as businessmen with little other option) of escaping the ghetto. We render all narcotic substances illegal, even if some narcotics have a proven medicinal use, or are simply relatively benign on their effects on society in comparison to accepted substances like tobacco and alcohol.
4) We incarcerate and marginalize prostitutes and people who are addicted to illegal substances, rendering their lives incredibly dangerous, as well as encouraging the spread of disease.
5) We go to doctors mainly to treat extreme sicknesses or injuries. They barely attempt to address underlying behavioral issues, diet change, and preventative care through education and a holistic approach. Rather, they have a tendency to be mere pill-pushers and organ vultures, as their main function is to treat immediate symptoms and then send you on your way.
6) We reduce and fight forest fires, upsetting natural cycles and balances, and creating extensive brush and fuel, such that we have generated a future of increasingly apocalyptic wildfires.

These are just a few examples of what the conventional outlook of “eliminate the bad, extend the good” results in. One could extend the idea yet further into issues such as rampant hydrocarbon use or conventional sewage systems.

This perspective is extremely childish, selfish, and short-sighted when seen for what it is. In taking a whole-systems, holistic approach to these issues, one begins to see that the simple treatment of immediate symptoms, and the attempt to eradicate all immediately manifested outbreaks of all things “bad”, only leads to deeper and broader problems. What must be done is to take a step back and look at the root causes, and seek a means to realign structures into a harmonized cyclical and balanced system.

Such an approach, of course, takes time and patience, and that is one thing most of us these days are in dire lack of. We want problems to be solved immediately. We are also overconfident in technology and man’s ability to eventually overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through breakthroughs in technological ingenuity and innovation. But no matter how many immediate problems we may solve through such means, the fact is that our essential outlook is still skewed, and eventually the rooted causes of our suffering will become so magnified as to destroy us completely. Because no matter how advanced we become, we will never be able to completely eradicate “bad” things such as disease, substance abuse, violence, or poverty.

However, in balanced and well-designed systems, we can achieve a sustainable harmony, in which these “bad” things are naturally regulated and subsumed to a greater whole; they can be accepted into the fold, temporary eddies rendered inconsequential by their eventual flow back into the main stream.

Take as an example a well-designed garden (as modeled on nature): when “pest” populations begin to rise and threaten the flowers and herbs, natural predators slim them back down before they can pose a threat. When diseases break out on a microbial level, the nutrient rich soil and humus—which is full of life so dense that it can’t even be fathomed by science—naturally fights back, just as a healthy immune system will work to set itself back into harmony after exposure to malevolent microbes.

The reason such a garden is healthy and balanced is because it fosters diversity (as opposed to monoculture), complex interconnectivity of independent systems, and natural cyclical processes (as opposed to enforced dependency on chemicals).

Now think of our society in terms of this garden, and you may begin to get some ideas on what some root causes might be underlying such immediate symptoms as illness, apathy, war, and poverty. . .

A List of Ways to Reduce Your Waste

The main problem right now in all of the world, including within each of our own lives, is waste. We waste our time, we waste our resources. Our social, economic, and political systems waste money, people, natural capital, time, and energy. We have all been taught to waste, because we have been taught—and we allow ourselves—to be blind, heedless, “good consumers”.

Businesses can strive to become closed loop production systems, in which they use a whole systems approach to reduce and eliminate waste. This ultimately saves them money and allows them to become increasingly efficient and agile in adapting to the market. So too in our individual lives we should strive to eliminate our output of waste as well as our input of short-term or function-less products.

People always seem to be confused about what they can do in their individual lives, aside from donating money to charity, to really enact change to regressive and repressive social, economic, and political systems. As in any grassroots movement, the real change comes from within. And then it begins to affect daily lives. And daily lives—the furthest downstream from centralized, sloth-like systems—affect everything.

So as an exercise, I thought it might be useful to attempt to compile a list of ways to reduce waste from our everyday personal lives. I don’t do many of these things myself yet, either, so take these as suggestions and goals. If you know of other ways that individuals can act to reduce their production and consumption of waste, please feel free to add more in the form of comments. Also, think of ways that you can mirror some of these actions within your community or workplace. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you could change.

Please note also that almost all of the items detailed below will ultimately save you money, in addition to the social and environmental benefits, so please get beyond the dismissive mentality of labeling me as a “treehugger” or “hippie”—that’s the kind of perspective that lends itself to further waste.

1) Purchase from local businesses and food sources as much as feasible.

2) Reduce or eliminate the use of a personal vehicle. Walk, bike, and utilize public transportation. Delimit the sphere of your personal social needs to as localized an area as feasible.

3) Utilize your free time for things that make you feel good, foster interaction with other people, and that are productive. Reduce or eliminate mindless activities such as TV watching. Learn new things. Take classes at your local community college. Check out books from your library.

4) Make exercise a part of your daily existence, such as in biking or walking to work, or biking or walking to a bar or bookstore or cafe. Try to eliminate the perception of exercise as an accessory chore or activity to become more desirable.

5) Cook your own food. Mend your own clothes. Make your own coffee or bring your own coffee mug to coffee houses. Utilize whatever resources you have to do your own thing.

6) Eliminate the use of plastic bags at stores. Bring along a tote bag or backpack to carry items in whenever you go shopping.

7) Stop buying water bottled from municipal sources. Get yourself a Brita filter and drink tap water.

8 ) Buy produce directly from local (preferably organic) farmers; attend farmer’s markets or join food coops.

9) Make your own household cleaning solutions

10) Purchase only energy star rated appliances and lighting systems; convert all of your lighting to compact florescents

11) Insulate your house with energy efficient windows

12) Convert your lawn to a natural food source

13) Compost your food and outdoor waste; utilize kitchen scraps for the making of stock

14) Harvest rainwater and utilize in shower and household use and/or garden irrigation

15) Design and implement a greywater system

16) Reduce your use of paper and wood products; reuse paper as much as possible (double-sided printing) or eliminate altogether through the use of a computer. Use alternative woods, reclaimed wood, or engineered wood products whenever possible when designing and building structures.

17) Take yourself off of junk mail lists; utilize e-mail notification services where possible for bank notices, cellphone bills, etc.

Knowing Nothing as the Center

“The path I have followed, this natural way of farming, which strikes most people as strange, was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing, farming out here in the country, is trying to show that humanity knows nothing. Because the world is moving with such furious energy in the opposite direction, it may appear that I have fallen behind the times, but I firmly believe that the path I have been following is the most sensible one. . . .
In general, people are only concerned with whether this kind of farming is an advance into the future or a revival of times past. Few are able to grasp correctly that natural farming arises from the unmoving and unchanging center of agricultural development.

To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, the centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed. I believe that even “returning-to-nature” and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the overdevelopment of the present age.

Nature does not change, although the way of viewing nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

Self Perpetuating Fear

Just so as in a field in which the soil has been upturned, baring subterranean life to the cruel face of another world, so too in society we unearth, endlessly, the depths of what we cannot consciously understand. We look at these strange unintelligible truths we have unearthed in our cultivation, these creatures of a world before sight, and we are afraid. Because what we are destroying through our shallow misconceptions are the roots of our survival. We are wholly dependent upon the most simple and basic aspects of the earth, and we are destroying these structures like a man kicking at the essential pillars holding up his roof. And then we evince shock when we see our illusions crumbling? Shock that this civilization based on the myth that the earth is ours, that our minds are ours, that our bodies are ours, is falling all around us, leaving us as mere blind destroyers, simpletons sitting in the ravaged dirt?

(But perhaps this is our very function as a part of Nature, to serve as murderous wardens of restrictive mentalities. The dark to counterbalance the light. This is not for us to determine, either way.)

Again, go back to the field, the plot of land that has been blindly cultivated following tradition and convention. Weeds spring up at every turn, like viruses in a weakened immune system, and manufactured chemicals must be sprayed relentlessly, as weeds attack viciously like barbarian hordes. All along when in reality weeds are simple seeds attempting to capitalize on an open market, a market opened wide by methodical devastation. Insects infect the crops, capable of instantaneous destruction if not immediately ridden with poison. Poison leveling beneficial and invasive alike, like carpet cluster bombs in a city, like radiation in a cancer patient.

By creating environments that are based on the illusion that human life is the pinnacle and cream of all creation, we have set ourselves directly on the path of addiction and self-destruction. And we watch with confusion the nightly news repeats of murder, war, famine, suicide, refusing to draw the connections that would render ourselves complicit in all of this madness. The line that would link us to perversion, terrorism, and murder. The line that connects the dots of the individual and the masses. The line that swaths a path direct from innocence to guilt. From hunger to power. From resources to capital.

There is a reason why we fear certain things. These certain things are what we have created through our ignorance, by our deliberate ignoring of all other life that we are wholly dependent upon to survive. It is ok to be afraid. But it is better to be at peace with death. To accept that life is not the central meaning of the universe. That we are in fact nothing in the face of what we are a part of.

Once this fact has been faced, then we can get on with the tasks of enjoying dancing, enjoying breathing, enjoying eating, enjoying shitting, enjoying being alive, and fuck all of this stupid shit like fear.