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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Societal collapse and the role of education

Is it a duty to scratch our way through seemingly impenetrable walls in search of true understanding?

Today’s entry is about our system of education and its role, both as a contributing instrument to the current collapse of society, and as a potential path up and out of this collapse. Bear with me as I set this up. As in all matters, there’s no straight line from A to B.

I expect to win no friends today, but hope to lose none either.

Forty-five years ago, I enrolled in two literature theme courses. At the time, they seemed to me distinct and unrelated. It is clear to me now that they were not.

One course focused on the theme of the ‘rebel’, including review of the Albert Camus book by that name, L’Étranger. I considered myself a rebel at the time (and still do) and hoped to better understand the philosophical playing field. Please accept my thoughts today as an act of rebellion.

The other course held the theme of Utopia, with coverage including The Communist Manifesto, Lord of the Flies, and Walden II. Like most rebels, I was an idealist in my youth, in search of the elusive utopia. While I remain fatally idealistic today, I retain no residual hopes for utopia. As a friend once quoted, “If you’re not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.” Always one quick to avoid labels, I’m neither a socialist nor a conservative. I’ll let you be the judge on which organs I’m missing.

I’ve come to understand that a “real” rebel is compelled by society’s injustices toward what they perceive as a “better way” for rationale structure in a new form of society. There are other so-called rebels, perhaps better termed as rabble, unguided by any purity in motivation. They loot and they plunder and they march through the streets with tiki torches and hateful shouting, but they lead to no lofty destination. Guided only by fear and hatred, they mislead or are misled, and have nothing worthy to contribute to the conversation… except perhaps in the guidance, “let’s not go that way”.

Marx and Engels were real rebels, but misguided, favouring the collective over the individual. Golding, for me, was just depressing in his portrayal of core human nature as one of savagery. I prefer the more balanced Lincolnesque notion of “the better angels of our nature”. While I am convinced that utopia is as elusive as perpetual motion, I remain firm in the faith that we can work toward a better, if not “more perfect” union.

The social contract that lends legitimacy to our governments is breaking if not broken. Increasing numbers withhold the necessary consent for this social contract to be sustained. Greater numbers still offer their silent consent, but have, for the most part, lost trust in government and its institutions (including legislative, justice, defense, health care, and education – see, I told you this was about education!). It is in this loss of trust that the contract will be fully broken. When one party believes that the social contract is broken, it is broken. Perception is reality. Of course, this perception and its effect depend on numbers. What these numbers need to be to surpass Gladwell’s tipping point is anyone’s guess. If you place any stock in the predictive power of the Gini coefficient on disparity in wealth, we’re already on the precipice.

To properly articulate a case for the role of education in all of this, I need first to understand its creation, and the creation of our society as we are prompted to know it.

  • Democracy is not real. It’s an idea. It’s an ideal, presented by some as utopian, as perfect in the creation. I say it’s aspirational, but not real, and certainly not truly attainable.

  • Likewise, the free market is not real, not even close. Again, it’s aspirational. Unfettered by protective regulation, a free market will always tend toward oligopoly, in an increasing concentration of wealth and power. The playing field is not leveled by the removal of regulation, as we’re frequently told. Quite the opposite. Instead, it falls victim to a tipping point in the other direction.

  • Freedom of the individual, in isolation, is yet another mythical ideal. Again, a good story, but not real. I’ve written about this more times than I can count.

Before you hang up on me, I should strongly declare that I aspire to each of these three ideals as key components of the great experiment. I view them as constant goals on the horizon… but on a horizon which I will never reach.

These three ‘ideals’ are misused as the dangling trinkets of a very powerful narrative, designed not for the general good, but for the benefit of a very few.

Just as Skinner’s Walden II, created by one man’s vision, was doomed to fail because it was created by one man’s vision, any society has a limited shelf life by virtue of its flawed creation. As Elton John will tell you, we exist in a circle of life. Who… or what… will be the next Simba to hold up on display as our next great experiment? Well, that remains to be seen. To deny the inevitability of this circle is both naïve and delusional. If you reject the narrative of those on the other side of Gini’s coefficient, you must be unpatriotic. It’s a very powerful weapon, the accusation of being unpatriotic. Whenever I hear it, my ears perk up with the realization that someone’s “narrative” is being challenged.

I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, and I don’t believe that there’s a small group of old white men gathered somewhere in a back room in Davos plotting against us. I do believe that there are forces at play who listen to their own “lesser angels” and who benefit from maintaining the status quo in our “created” society.

I also believe that the only path out of our current collapse is for our “better angels”, in the provision of balanced holistic education, to play a more active role in protecting the good we live from the bad we live. This education, in my view, must include these three truths.

  • The notion of democracy does not include the purchase of influence by the few.

  • The notion of free market does not include commerce without protective regulatory restraint.

  • The notion of freedom of the individual, or if you will, individual rights, does not exist in the absence of responsibility to others. That coin has two sides. You cannot have one without the other.

In the simplest of terms, from where I sit, there is a narrative that has bastardized and abused these three lofty notions in pursuit of corrupt ambition that leaves us, as Barry McGuire put it, on the Eve of Destruction. This is a narrative that waves the flag of free speech in service on a path to corrupted legislation. This is a narrative that falsely describes protective regulation as government overreach, or worse yet, socialism. This narrative is presented, at the heart, only in aid of soulless plunder. This is a narrative that sees individual rights superseding the rights of the community in such a way that leads only to collapse of the community, and in turn, of the social contract.

Every society holds the eve of its destruction in the DNA of the seeds of its own flawed creation. Humankind is flawed. Nothing created by humankind is perfect. To think otherwise, as I say, is naïve and delusional.

Coming to my point, since the Industrial Revolution, we have served first and foremost the master of growth. I call once again on the beloved Jethro Tull as we persist in pursuit of growth: in population; of commerce and profits; and of overwhelming environmental devastation…

In the shuffling madness Of the locomotive breath Runs the all-time loser Headlong to his death

Oh, he feels the piston scraping Steam breaking on his brow Old Charlie stole the handle And the train it won't stop Oh no way to slow down

Our system of education (finally, he gets to the point!) was created in the 1830s in service of growth as its master. This farm-to-factory model had no purpose other than to ready a workforce: to show up when the bell rings; to sit in rows; and to perform the same task over and over. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there.”

As such, the seeds of destruction were planted in the creation of the institution of mass education. Although an admittedly evolving institution, our system of education, even today, bears the fruit of the poisonous tree of the Industrial Revolution.

Education is and should be about workforce preparation. There’s no disputing that. At the same time, education should be about so much more. When inordinate focus on this workforce readiness objective displaces the breadth and depth of potential for education, however, the seeds of destruction are nurtured. Unchecked and uncorrected for missing balance, collapse is predictable and inevitable.

At the outset, I posed the question:

Is it a duty to scratch our way through seemingly impenetrable walls in search of true understanding?

Emphatically, I say yes. Where we decline to search out the truth, we relinquish the claim to have been an unknowing, and thereby innocent, accomplice when matters run amiss. Not knowing is not an option.

In any and all things, it is our duty to ask why we do what we do. How much of what we do mimics the story of “Grandma’s Ham”? Google it if you aren’t familiar. Because we’ve always done it that way just doesn’t cut it. Never has. Never will. How much are we handcuffed to baggage that we don’t even know exists? To borrow from Socrates, the unexamined society is not worth sustaining. The same is true for everything, including our system of education. In a dynamic world, perhaps our greatest charge in preparing our children is for adaptability to change. How can we even dream of success in this if we, ourselves, are unprepared to constantly ask: What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? Does this still serve our children? Does this still serve society? Or are we stuck in 1830?

Is there a balance in our preparation of mind, body, and spirit… or is it 70:20:10… or some other mix? What is the right mix? Is there a right mix? Is there a mix at all, or are they consubstantial? What is the purpose of education? Why? Is this another Grandma’s Ham story, where we plod along a path because that’s what everyone before us has done? Our system of mass education is not timeless. As I say, it was born out of the 1830s with a very narrow specific purpose. Is this our purpose for education today? What went before the Industrial Revolution? What did the Greeks think? Well, as I see it (other than in Sparta), the classical Greek education was tasked with the development of good citizens. Maths, science, poetry, philosophy, music, art, pursuit of truth and harmony. It’s a whole picture. Are we really creating a whole picture in education today? Are we pursuing truth and harmony, or are we feeding the shuffling madness of Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath?

And the train it won't stop going No way to slow down

No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down No way to slow down

To the extent that we carry on carrying on, we play a role in what I consider the active collapse of society, collapse of the great experiment. The founders of this great experiment, while fallible like the rest of us, saw the merits of tweaking, of amendments along the path. While some try to marry us to the false narrative of perfection in creation, a cursory glance at history says it’s just not so.

Where is the examination of purpose in our society? Where is the examination of purpose in education? What about the search for meaning? Why is Viktor Frankl not required reading?

I will close today’s entry by sharing an excerpt, with permission, from an email I received just yesterday. It comes from Rod French, a new friend who reached out to me after sitting in on one of my results presentations. He’s a Board member at a school I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve never met in person, but based only on our exchanges over the past 24 hours, I feel like I’ve known him all of my life. He and his wife, together, have 32 years of university education. Think about that for a moment… and now the short excerpt:

My oldest son is doing a history degree in Calgary and LOVES it! Of course he says "but what will this 'qualify' me to do, Dad?" Well, in undergrad you learn how to think, how to communicate, what you like, what you don't like. And university is an infectious environment that we somehow lose later in life: you can try any new hobbies, clubs, relationships, clothing, hair colour that you want.......and you can 'FAIL' at all of it - but at the end of 4 years, unless you plagiarize (!!), you will get shot out the other end with a degree. And you will have a better, wiser sense of who you are. That is your only goal. The rest will take care of itself in time.

Thanks, Rod. I couldn’t have said it any better.

P.S.: Here’s the link to a wonderful talk Rod gave a number of years ago to students at Southridge School. Worth your time, for certain.

With respect,

Kevin Graham


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