Escape velocity and the memorable incident

I’ve been reading about the origin of our present-day relationship to childhood, and in the course of it I came across a book by French historian Phillipé Aries called Centuries of Childhood. Aries writes, with regard to his research on the condition of childhood, “But how was I to discover, in the documents of the past, references to things which were too ordinary, too commonplace, too far removed from the memorable incident…”  I found myself distracted for the moment from own my research, intrigued by Aries’ predicament: popular ideas, thoughts, positions about children and childhood were too… everyday… to merit mention in historical documents. Too far removed from the memorable incident. 

We’re so used to conceiving of childhood the way we do, as a truth with a set of conditions and other truths attached to it, that we don’t talk much about it, the same way we don’t talk much about whether the contents of a traditional academic curriculum, beginning with its 3Rs and proceeding on toward algebra and expository writing, serve and prepare young people the way we trust them to.  We think about how we’re carrying out the details – whether we’re disciplining children properly and effectively; whether our methods of math instruction are any good – but we don’t tend to think about the conditions themselves.  We don’t tend to think of our ways of relating to young people, or of the automatic courses of instruction we require of children – as things that we choose, or have any agency in.  We think they just are and must be.

I’m reminded of the distinction Ken Robinson makes between theory and ideology, in Out of Our Minds, Learning to be Creative:

“Theory is conscious, ideology is unrecognized.  If you have a theory you know you have it and you can say what it is.  Theorizing is a conscious and deliberate attempt at explanation. I don’t just mean grand theory about the cosmos or the meaning of life: it may be a theory about why your favorite team is doing badly.  Ideology is something else. By ideology I mean the fundamental underlying attitudes on which our theories are based: like why you support the team in the first place.  I mean the assumptions, values and beliefs that constitute our taken-for-granted views of reality, our natural conception of the way things are.  We are all guided in our everyday lives by ideas, values, and beliefs that we simply take for granted.  They become so much a part of our way of seeing things – our worldview – that we come to think of them as simply common sense.  These are the ideologies on which we build our theories.  The dominant ideologies of education are now defeating their most urgent purpose: to develop people who can cope with and contribute to the breathless rate of change in the 21st century – people who are flexible, creative, and have found their talents.”

Schooling and education as we know them comprise the fabric of our young lives, the landscape of our memories of youth, to such a great extent that even when we recognize their shortcomings, our attempts to address them very often fail. No matter how good the theories that drive these attempts, it’s the ideologies that are ill-suited to the task.  I don’t mean ideologies at the level of, for example, believing that education is important.  I mean at the level of believing that we know what education is.  Of course we want full rich productive lives for children.  The ideology that limits our ability to make it possible for them to realize those lives is the one that says “this is what education looks like; these are the building blocks of being educated.” So we spend our energy reshaping all we can, by changing teaching methods, regrouping students, writing new textbooks.  Or we opt out and oppose, by homeschooling or unschooling. But very, very often the ideology keeps us in some degree of satellite to its gravitational force.

(When I got to this point in my draft of this post, I took a break to read for a few minutes and pulled out the Domino Project’s End Malaria, a collection of short essays about making things happen.  The essay I happened to open up to was about escape velocity, a phrase in physics that refers to the speed at which an object has to be moving in order to break away from the gravitational pull of another.  The author, Chris Brogan, uses the concept of escape velocity to talk about what it takes for people to overcome the pull of unworkable jobs and other habits.  He’s recommending a cobbling together of small accelerations away from unworkability that result in that ability to break free (because you can’t exactly just enter a desirable speed and press Go!).)

What, I wonder, will it take for us to reach escape velocity from our ideology of academic business as usual, such that we might build something entirely new, something that can tap into to the cognitive and preferential diversity of humanity and stand up to the complexity of present-day life? I suppose we’ll have to start with acknowledging that the ideology is no longer serving us (if it ever did) and that that constitutes a problem worth taking on.  Then, of course, we’ll have to muster the faith and courage to believe we can do better.

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One Response

  1. Meredith, I love this post, the Sir Ken quote, and I hadn’t heard of the End Malaria book (which I have to now go get).

    I don’t know if we ever know what the small do-able intermediate steps are to big change except in retrospect. How crucial was the Montgomery bus boycott to the Civil Rights Movement? What did participants know at the time about the importance of each of the steps they were taking? I wonder if change at this scale (like a whole paradigm shift in educating children) can be engineered.

    You are for sure part of that change. I feel I am too in my own tiny way letting my son be a free range learner. And then there is the desire we all have to connect to each other as we stumble down this alternate path (the one without clear signposts), which seems hopeful.

    We had dear friends over for dinner last night, people we love but don’t see much of, and they asked “so how IS your son DOING, do you think?” (he had been at the supper table participating in conversation but then wandered off to do his own thing). There was so much packed into that question I didn’t know how to answer it. They went on to ask about his “socialization” and said “he seemed very bright.” And I kept thinking, how would you ask this question if you were asking it of me — “how ARE you doing?” and it would mean a whole different thing as an adult. It wouldn’t carry all this evaluative, performative undertone. In the face of their questions I found I just wanted to say, “He’s well and happy” rather than to provide evidence that he is performing and developing according to some plan (ideology).

    I now have a kind of shorthand I use from your quote a few weeks ago of Saint-Exupery’s about “teaching them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” I said that’s what we were all after, I thought, to learn to find that longing and follow it, and that’s what our son was doing. Which turned the conversation around 180 degrees so that we were each talking about what our equivalent of the longing for the endless immensity of the sea is. That small shift in perspective over a dinner table among friends seems like one small piece. It’s not public policy, but it’s what most of us have access to in a daily way.

    We learn through love and longing (and play). Is there a way I wonder to use those ingredients in how we reach for change in education, to give the adults who run the process that sense of longing instead of their current duty of fixing?

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