School is a domain that has been referred to in ways that help and in ways that harm. I would like to propose an old-made-new-again metaphor, The Garden, that might help, but this time with a century of ecological knowledge included. I suggest education as permaculture.
School is a domain that has been referred to in ways that help and in ways that harm. I would like to propose an old-made-new-again metaphor, The Garden, that might help.
For the ancient Greeks, at least some of them, a Symposium was a dinner party.
Other ancient Greeks moved and walked while they discussed matters, in the peripatetic model.
For millennia Jewish students studied the Talmud in friendship pairs, chavrutah, carefully matched for their differences by the teacher. Their task was to struggle together.
At the same time, the synagogue was conceived as a school, a shul, in Eastern Europe—a place not only to worship but to learn.
In the early twentieth century, a battle ensued between progressive educators conceiving of schooling as a garden where students need nurturing and cultivation, and traditional educators conceiving it as a factory where inputs and outputs and assessments and uniformity reigned. Can you guess which won?
Talk with students and teachers and they will offer that school is war with battles and sides; school is a prison, with walls and identification cards and guards and metal detectors; school is a game where the goal is to accumulate points, to learn the arbitrary rules and master tricks that give an advantage.
Or school is the entirety of life, with all needs met and every aspect of a young person’s being included there. Sociologist Erving Goffman considered schools total institutions, just like hospitals and prisons.
Critics and workers alike sometimes see schools as machines: when all the components are well oiled and every part knows its place, it can go smoothly and without crisis.
Many administrators operate schools like businesses. The goal is the bottom line and the humans involved are simply one aspect of capital to be managed efficiently and flexibly.
I suggest that we rethink our metaphors for school, and bring back the metaphor of the garden, but this time with a century of ecological knowledge included. The metaphor that helps even more is of permaculture, a design system aiming for permanently sustainable results, producing no waste and benefiting from the diversity of needs and resources in a complex system.
Every aspect of the system would change. In my new book “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College I provide details of what this would look like.
But what is important is that there would be no wasted resources. Energies would be channeled usefully. It would be created with the goals of creating a diverse and self-sustaining system with something for everyone, able to withstand adversity and containing the characteristic that Taleb has termed antifragility.
It would be beautiful.
It would feed the mind, body, soul, soil, community.
It would look completely unlike the schools we have now.
There would be no misery; no sense of uselessness; no sense of conflict among elements. Instead of having students shove unwanted information into resisting minds, students would learn what they need or want and would use it. Students would no longer boast that they forget everything as soon as the exam is over. Some of the learning would sometimes involve teachers but that is beside the point. Schools would be integrated into the world and there would be opportunities to learn by doing; learn from fellow learners; learn by observing; learn in teams; learn completely alone. In short, learning would look like the way people learn in real life.
As the basic insight of permaculture rests on the basic premise of ecology, there is only this world and everything in it is connected to everything else.
This should be a welcome opportunity, not a dreaded fact fought with gates, doors, walls, trying to keep out the mess.
Just as in a garden the debris turns into nutrients, so the apparent distractions and diversions of school should be used as precious matter.
This radical rethinking is coming sooner than later, tried out in experiments grand and tiny. It has to. The old models—factory, prison, game, machine, business—cannot be sustained, just as huge industrial farms cannot ultimately be sustained.
Design for living fully has to be the guiding principle for raising up the young. Even in schools.