Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.—Henrik Tikkanen
Will the kids forgive us? As the world burns the United States education system remains belligerently set on stuck, blinders securely in place, unapologetically preparing young people to assume America’s saleable roles in the production lines of the gritty industrial world that was, is, and should be no more.
Competition and attendant consumerism hasten planetary destruction and still competition in the global marketplace is doggedly heralded as education’s primary end goal, the very mark of success. Few question the skills, resources, and key attributes that kids need for the world of environmental degradation that they face, nor the factors that motivate them to seal learning, that is, meaningful, authentic, and applicable learning. Standardized test scores and conformity to educational standards surely will not prepare America’s students to address the global crisis we perpetuate to humanity’s demise in this 21st century. As Bill Goodling states, “If more testing were the answer to the problems in our schools, testing would have solved them a long time ago.” Testing, in vogue approximately every 15–20 years since the early 1900s, did not prepare former generations with the scientific and civic knowledge, the foresight, or the veracity to stop our engagement in ecocide. Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, solemnly warns that this may be “our last chance to save humanity.” Squandered?
Gerald W. Bracey, PhD, cited numerous abilities and dispositions that standardized tests cannot measure including “creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity.” At a time when kids most need to become creative, inter-disciplinary collaborators, and to act as ethical and wise world citizens, the top-down, coercive and repressive education system of today trumps student voice, arrogantly disregards their inherent talents and interests, restricts them from acquiring an informed worldview, and stifles essential values.
Children unnaturally detached from the outdoor world are busied, burdened, and entrapped in the fanatical and educationally specious reform movement. Snatched away is childhood liberty for spontaneous play. A child’s lively imagination, an integral tool for life’s artistry, innovation, and ability in problem solving, is devalued. (In fact, studies reveal a creativity crisis among American schoolchildren.) And the enchantingly profound intimacy children share among wondrous, sentient creatures of the land, sky, and waters is relinquished in favor of a sterile, rigid educational system, one allegedly “accountable.” John Dewey’s work, marketed as passé, contains these haunting words, now largely confined within a decades-old, musty book, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information . . . to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul?”
Soul. Wisdom. Balance. Chief Luther Standing Bear offered, “The old Lakota was wise. He knew that [people’s] heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” When does the American public hear from politicians, pundits, reformers, the education secretary, or the president that we shall work to protect and prepare young people for their future, to live within nature’s laws of order, and to preserve their right to childhood? Children need to be children, to go outside and play, to sense that they are part of the earth, dependent on it and growing as compassionate, responsible stewards. Play is their work, inseparable from valid learning.
Earth’s stewardship is not on the national agenda. Instead, capitalizing on an unsuspecting, diverse population swept into the 24/7 world of the Information Age, and inexpert in critical media literacy, corporate media and political powers consolidate in a brawny tightening of the American cultural lid, effectively diminishing citizen oversight and assuring that “we the people” store away any vexing thoughts about the state of the world we leave to our children. It hurts to think about it anyway. Like Scarlett O’Hara, we admit, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So we hum along, “Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see. “Que Sera, Sera.”
Denial prevails. After all, hard-working, busy Americans are necessarily distracted, struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, our collective corporate-controlled hand continues to shove us toward planetary system failure. And Mr. President (whose record demonstrates lack of hope and sleight of hand changes) refuses even his own children the environmental protection imperative for future sustainability, caving in to rapacious lobbyist demands and altering as much as 85% of EPA regulations.
If anyone were calculating the cumulative effects of our all-out assault on Mother Earth, how could citizens (and especially those who are parents) join the hubris cry to reduce education to the narrow, Big Business billion-dollar industry’s scheme to raise standardized test scores? Today’s education system callously steals away the innocence and delight of childhood, causing test anxiety illnesses, prompting students to abuse prescription drugs to enhance academic performance, increasing student dropout rates, and leaving countless young people feeling as if they are already failures. At the same time, we seize kids’ hope for the future through careless, materialistic, out of control behavior, our conventional and routine ruin of the ecosystem—our life support. Some “Race to the Top.” As Lily Tomlin says, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
Who will tell the kids that we’ve concocted an entire alphabet soup signaling environmental Armageddon in the here and now? Accelerating arctic melt-off, acidic, rising sea, the Asian brown cloud, bee colony collapse, BPA, brownfields, carbon emissions skyrocketing, coal as a killer to people and planet, corexit dispersants in the Gulf, deforestation, Depleted Uranium weaponry, e-waste garbage heaps dumped in the developing world, fracking hazards, Fukishima’s ongoing horror story, GMO poisoned food, glysophate risks—the new Agent Orange?, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, herbicide and pesticide threats to human health and the environment, industrial agriculture’s impacts, jet fuel in our bodies, our food and water, Keystone XL pipeline proposal to bisect the country transporting dirty oil from tar sands, light pollution, land grabs, melting and disappearing glaciers, melting permafrost and methane bubbles, methane plumes, mountaintop removal, nanotechnology, neurotoxins, nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, oil gushers in the deep, once blue sea, overpopulation, pharmaceutical waste in our water, plastic pollution, quakes of the earth from fracking, resource wars, the Sixth Great Extinction, Superfund sites, tropical rainforest destruction, uranium mining, VOC’s, war’s war on the environment, world water crisis eXtreme weather, yield failure, zones of oceans and waterways dead . . . and that’s not all, folks; the list is far from exhaustive.
While we’re harried actors busied with acquisition in the Story of Stuff, and seduced by decades of failed education reform promises, ominous reality lurks. Was Schweitzer right? “[Humans have] lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. [We] will end by destroying the earth.” More than a half century ago Rachel Carson wrote, “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Notices unheeded, this is the legacy we leave to our children.
Americans want a better life for our children, but the old future’s gone. “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time,” the old Rabbinical saying goes. The kids know that there is no planet B. The highest-flying test scorers, the kids lauded as scholars, even will be left behind, natural resources exploited, poisoned, destroyed; all young reform education “products” ill-equipped for facing the course ahead.
Our current education system may be categorized as one that “emphasizes theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.” Ellie Wiesel described this as the system out of which the Nazis rose to power. Human empowerment without the underpinnings of principles proves lethal. Discrete knowledge, academically prized, is supercilious, intellectually deceptive, and indeed convenient, however life threatening as set apart from interdependent realities.
“We the people” fail to see our planet becoming increasingly uninhabitable, our lifestyle unsustainable. “We the people” are technologically advanced, ecologically illiterate and improvident, deniers of science and of our humble place within Mother Nature’s laws of order. Our children have no choice but to do better than us. The education required for their survival is one that allows them to be as children—playful, innately curious, connected to the earth, and full of life’s biggest, most candid and intelligent questions.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
Mother Earth proves the urgency for a radical transformation of education and culture. Kids deserve a holistic education guided by respected, world-wise and conscious professionally trained teachers, that is, great teachers. Kids can be evaluated (and self-evaluate) for excellence in thinking and habits of mind, for the quality of questions they ask, and the value of what each has to contribute. They can become solutionaries, act as contextual learners, delve into the complexities of the ways the world works, think critically and creatively with an ecomind, and see with global perspective our common humanity crafted amidst the natural world. Perhaps today’s kids may pardon us yet if we are willing to go forth wisely, awakened, fully prepared to change. “Time before us is [our] own, to make amends in.”