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Spiders and tigers and governors, Oh My!

May 8, 2013

Mr. Chris Christie
sat on his tushie,
Eating his curds and whey,
Along came a spider
And sat down beside him
And he squashed that motherfucker.

Ok, it’s really not that big a deal. Chris Christie squashed a spider in front of a bunch of school kids. But it does me a chance to tell a quick story. My younger daughter was homeschooled throughout her childhood until we put her in school one year when she was 7, so second grade I guess. It was a nice, community-oriented little rural school. She came home one day and was telling the story of the day to us, and she started to get emotional about something that had happened. She said that she and the other kids had seen a spider walking on the floor, and some people were freaked out (which annoyed her) and there was a variety of opinions about what to do with the spider. She told me that she had looked carefully at it and saw that it wasn’t a brown recluse or a black widow – which are the only poisonous spiders in our region – and she wanted the spider put outside. She started to cry and said the teacher had just smashed it. It was the first of many times that I saw her native sensitivity affronted by the culture of school.
When people say that kids should go to school, so they could learn to deal with “THE REAL WORLD,” I used to generally support that notion. But as I’ve gotten older and spent a lot of time with homeschooled kids, and seen their capacity to be kind and cooperative, and then studied and thought a lot about formal education, the more I’ve come to think that we have the causality reversed. What if it’s the institutional qualities of school, that help create so many of the sharp edges that we lament in “THE REAL WORLD?”
There is in Christie’s swift justice at least two notions worth calling out. One is that a high degree of biophobia is now endemic in the culture. We are made scared and nervous by exposure to nature. Biophobia is, in part, a side effect of not knowing where you live or who you live with, not knowing which species of things do what and who you should be concerned about. We are probably hard-wired for this kind of knowing, and I wonder if its absence creates a background sense of anxiety in us. I know that its presence creates tranquility and equanimity. Humans, who are probably biophilic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biophilia_hypothesis, that is, inherently predisposed and prepared to be fond or friendly to life, are being culturally shaped to be fearful of life. That bodes poorly for people who rely upon life, as we all do, because at the root, every culture is a subsistence culture, even though the outlandish veneer spreading over our earth tends to put that fact comfortably out of mind. But Mother Nature always bats last.
Secondly, there is in this story the notion that being an executive gives you the right to do what you please, to destroy life if you wish, arrogantly, and callously at that. Why not a moment of thought for the taking of a life, however small? Or a little prayer or gesture of respect? Why not take it outside? Are we really too busy to show a little kindness and respect? If we took the time to often take these small pauses of reflection or thoughtfulness, then what would changes might grow in our schools, businesses and lives? What if our leaders took the lead in modeling such behaviors? What’s the worst that could happen? SPIDERPOCALYPSE!!!! 😛

SPIDERS

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks, Mike, for the thoughtful post. I’ve killed a few spiders in my time, but when I recently did it, one of my colleagues said, “Where’s the Buddhist in you?” So, while it’s a struggle to not have a knee-jerk reaction to kill living things that do not serve as a threat to our lives (I assume the situation changes when there is a threat to our lives?), it’s worth an exercise of tolerance and respect in dealing with other living creatures.

    Your comments about the “institutional qualities of school” that create “sharp edges that we lament in society” really strike me. It strikes me because I’ve, of course, been doing a lot of thinking about what a high-quality school experience really looks like. Because we see schooling as a “system” in this country (as well as in many other countries) that is meant to perform a certain social function (these functions are debatable, but at least three include socialization, preparation of the future labor market, development of engaged and caring citizens) for large numbers of people, it’s difficult to get away from the “institutional feeling” of schools. Systems must be built and managed so they have capacity to serve these many groups of children.

    Then, we look at which systems have been considered “successful.” Or, put another way, which schools have been perceived to be “quality” or “good at what they do?” That leads to you ask, “By which metrics are you judging quality or success?” And that’s where your point comes in. Because we have a highly institutionalized system couched in an increasingly technocratic society that worships numbers (e.g. we have a fetish for measuring everything), we’re led down the rabbit hole of assuming that quality schools are the ones that produce students who can perform well on tests. Who cares about their connection to social justice issues? Who cares about sensitivity to living things? We just want them to perform well on tests, go on to college, and go use that degree to get a job / make money…and screw everyone else. The kinds of things that you’re talking about don’t necessarily factor in what we care about… Let’s also not fall into the trap of saying “screw formal curriculum” because, at the end of the day, kids still need to have a set of basic competencies when they exit school (ability to read, do math problems, understand they physics behind everyday life, comprehend complex political factors that impact our society, figure out solutions to complex problems, etc.).

    Now, you raise the issue of homeschooling. I will extend the homeschooling phenomenon to things like small / autonomous schools or even charter schools. You might even be able to put in Montessori into this mix. These kinds of schools, in some way, seek to challenge the current schooling system by playing with alternative learning environments, alternative approaches to teaching, and (in some cases) alternative approaches to measuring success. Some of these efforts have been successful, but some have not. So, just because they get away from “institutional qualities” doesn’t mean they’re going to do a better job of educating. BUT there’s promise in that framework. I would also raise the point about mass availability to these kinds of schooling arrangements. Who can afford to home school, enroll their children in alternative schools, etc.? Charters have attempted to “Experiment” (this is a loaded word, especially when talking about children of color and lower-income children…my apologies in advance) with different forms of education in inner-city environments, but the success has been mixed. And how many of them are interested in consciousness-raising endeavors? Perhaps these kinds of consciousness-raising activities are presumed to only be for a certain group in society who already have their basic needs met and can worry about those “higher” issues in life (Maslow-ish) like connection to nature, cooperative spirit, an understanding of why we have an unjust society, etc.

    I worry that without an institution (or a system) of schooling, we won’t be able to offer these experiences that you discuss in any kind of mass-delivery way. Our American public schooling system (whatever you think of it) was designed for everyone… Not just those who can afford it or have a certain ability-level. But, some people have “opted out” of it and chosen to do their own thing (private schools, homeschooling). I won’t get into that debate here, but the decentralized nature of our system creates many of the issues that we see in education (centralization isn’t necessarily the answer either…).

    Thanks for the thought-provoking note!

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  2. This got me thinking about the oft-referenced message from Abrahamic religious tradition, that we as humans are to have dominion over the natural world. There is an Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian, Christos Yannaras, who points out how far we have missed the mark on this one. He pulls from Orthodox tradition in stating that every creature has a logos – an expectation, a reason, a word, etc. As humans we are to serve as priests for all of nature, helping each creature to find their logos, their unique and divine purpose. And this says something of our own logos as humans. We certainly can’t take this on with fear, or arrogance. It’s gotta take deep familiarity at least, but also trust and knowledge, love. Thanks Mike, I’ll look forward to reading and thinking as you continue to write.

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  3. Gavin- I feel your issues here. I still struggle with having opted out of the system, that I philosophically believe in, because I could. And yeah, I also guardedly think that there are developmental holarchies that must to a certain extent be acknowledged in school design. I have the luxury, because of what my purpose and vision are, to not have to wrestle with the problem of mass education. My job seems to be to foment dissent and creative alternatives in the belief that that fermentation will ultimately grow the change that is needed. In the same way that it’s nigh impossible to grow a ecozoic economy and culture out of the currently industrial ones, that doesn’t that we don’t have to try. I guess I’m taking the “idealist pass” but that doesn’t that I don’t think my work or approach won’t have pragmatic impact- just that it won’t show up in the culture for 100 years or more.

    And thanks Patrick for that beautiful reflection. I don’t know that I’ve heard that emphasis on the individual logos (Buddha nature?) of each being. And I love what that says about our purpose here in the Creation. B/c I’m sure we have one- and in the age of the Anthropocene we better get clear on what it is and it better be beautiful and fertile! I know there’s part of Lakota prayer repeated often that says “Help us learn to increase the fertility and health of Grandfather’s creation.” Yeah, maybe we’d be doing better as a species if we knew, remembered, re-hear-sed and practiced our own logos of love.

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