The Long Game: Everything changes and so will the narrative of school

This article was published on IntrepidEd News on 4 Jan 2022.

I can’t keep track of how many conversations I have had where at some point my counterpart declared that something or other I’ve proposed “will never happen because…” I’m not suggesting I’m some kind of soothsayer or that I’m the holder of Truth. I do like to imagine possibilities and play around with what these might look like, but that still doesn’t mean I’m way far gone in fantasyland. I pay attention to weak and strong signals, substantiate with information and events, and make connections based on unfolding developments. 

What I’m thinking about right now is when people tell me that we can’t change school, that it’s the way it is, that any change is just utopian, not realistic. They tell me that parents want it, that universities want it, that it’s the way it’s always been. I’m thinking about people who recognize that school isn’t perfect, so maybe we just need more of the same, you know, do the the same, but better, with a tweak or a bolt on. To me, that’s not good enough. School is reaching the end of its product life cycle and we need to re-consider what it looks like. Heck, maybe even think of school—and learning experiences—as a non-commodity, imagine that.

While we can’t ever be sure of anything, we can look toward the fuzzy horizon, following trends coming from the past that continue beyond the present. Of course, the further out we look, the harder it is to see clearly, but then that8 also holds true for looking into the past. We exist at the point where past and future meet, where memories and predictions mix with a present reality that is unique to ourselves.

This is the flow of time, whether you conceptualize in linear, circular, or cyclical terms. (Quantum is a different case, but that would take us someplace else.)

Many of us studied History in school as a meta-narrative: the unfolding of events as stories driven by grand heroes, grand states, and grand exploits. Post-modernism questions these stories and provides a voice to the voiceless by splintering the dominant historical perspective (based on power) into a potentially infinite number of perspectives based on contexts (e.g. identitarian, local, epochal) There have been many inroads into providing multiple perspectives on History, but recent tensions in the US show the extent to which power structures grip onto meta-narratives.  

In quantum and living systems views, History unfolds through the interaction of an almost infinite number of wholes, parts, and subparts. Everything is nested into a larger whole. There is no meta-narrative because there is no deterministic force that shapes the universe. Everything has its place, of equal value (though perhaps not impact) and there is constant uncertainty because there is no linearity. After all, electrons jump unpredictably from one level to another, absorbing or emitting a packet of energy (this is called a quantum jump)*.

A living systems view not only understands that History unfolds through interactions, but it does so over a long term, a very long term—13 billion years. Nothing can exist that is not connected to and within the entire span of time from the Big Bang to the instant you are reading these lines**. 

The historian’s job is to periodize her investigations, to determine a point in time when it makes practical and intellectual sense to begin and end the story told in the investigation. This segment of time (bookended by a beginning and an end point) is always derived from the choice the historian makes (subjective) or the choices generally agreed upon by the collective field of historians (also subjective). These decisions on how to periodize are nothing more than simplified models. There is no reason we cannot—or should not—go back further in time to the Big Bang, but the farther we go back, the more unwieldy we make History (hence the need for models).

I have already written about how we should study History backwards, but I want to point to the risk of falling into the trap of a cause-effect (mechanistic/deterministic) approach to History. While History may—at least in linear thinking—be a sequence of events, there is nothing that determines the course of History unalterably. Just because something followed something else doesn’t mean it had to be so. That said, going backward allows us to tackle questions more easily as to why things have become what they are.

Let’s take a grossly oversimplified example. The First Industrial Revolution took off after James Watt improved on Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, which was itself enabled by the discoveries and intellectual and cultural liberalization of the Scientific Revolution. Juxtapose this with the advent of the limited liability corporation and the enclosure of the commons in the UK and you have a push for risk-taking and urbanization. The Scientific Revolution was able to come about once people started to question the primacy of the teachings of the Church, not just through Protestantism, but in the aftermath of the devastation of the Black Death, where one third of Europeans died (against theodicy: how could God let this happen?) and after which proto-doctors took an interest in physiology and pathology. This plague and others originated in Asia, arriving in Italian ports that took advantage of Europe’s weak economic production and integration, largely due to the isolation of communities during the Dark Ages. For centuries, Europe felt the aftershocks of the the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and its rule of law and infrastructure. Rome extended its culture and control across the continent, inspired by Greek intellectual, scientific, and religious traditions. The Greeks had been a thriving culture that, unlike their contemporaries, valued change over cultural preservation, probably due to the blending of culture of the Dorians and the Ionians with the locals they subdued, who mixed with Phoenician seafarers who found glory in exploration and trade…. I could continue back through Babylon, Homo Erectus, and, after a while, get to the Big Bang. 

My point is that history flows, everything flows, and we cannot control the course, only influence it. Every event, every interaction is a tributary to the flowing process of History, which does not stop. What happens now will influence what happens later. We have to listen for the weak and strong signals. We have to have a long term view of history. 

Things happen now that will have impact later, even if we don’t appreciate this just yet. The Spinning Jenny and the Cotton Gin, along with France’s defeat in the Seven Years War were  some of the 70 to 100 year contributing antecedents to the American Civil War.  History is a long game.

Nothing can determines the future either; there is no more certainty of how the future will unfold from this point onward than there is certainty in how History was going to unfold at a specific point in the past. The only certainty is that change always happens, at every moment, as a result of the interaction of the almost infinite parts of the universe as a whole. 

Let me get right down to it: this means that school as we know it will change. It will not be the same in 200 years as it is today. School is itself a fiction, a construct from its time. It is the outcome of the Industrial Revolution, yes, but also the mechanistic/Newtonian frameworks of the Scientific Revolution. There is nothing permanent about school as we know it and it is not and has never been the only place for learning. In fact, it isn’t and has never been the only place to acquire skills. School as we know it is an organizational model of time (the school day), space (the classroom), and power (curriculum, achievement, relationships). There is nothing sacrosanct about it. So when people tell me that things can’t change because such and such stakeholder wants this or because the other group wants that, I don’t buy it. Things change. Everything changes.

We, as Homo sapiens, have been learning through consciously-created and transmitted symbolic systems for at least 50,000 years†. School as we know it has only been around for 150 years and never mind that most of our learning takes place outside of school over the course of our lifetimes. This idea of schools developing lifelong learners is absurd because we are always learning—even unconsciously—through our every interaction with what is outside our consciousness or subconsciousness. If school has been around for 150 of the past 50,000 years of learning (0.3%), and remains absent in many “traditional” societies even in 2021, why do we treat school as if it were something permanent, immovable? Is it because we see it as the culmination of human progress, the cultural and organizational structure to maximize well-being, development, and higher standards of living?

The school system that has dominated our lives for 150 years has also molded the young minds of many whose thinking, decisions, and actions have created the mess we’re in today: climate crisis, a social divide, a spiritual divide… and though socio-economic injustice has been around since at least the Agricultural Revolution (around 12,000 years ago), this is the first time in human existence we can feed and house everyone on the planet but choose not to. Steven Pinker can write what he wants; the benefits and improvements that a rational, Humanist mind have brought make it all the worse that we tolerate starvation, homelessness, and extreme poverty through what is seemingly a collective lack of will. Starvation is threatening over one million people in Madagascar

“The thinking that got us to where we are is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be,” wrote Albert Einstein. 

People say that we need school, that we can’t get rid of it, that we have to have a place where children learn content, skills, 21st century skills, about sustainability, about how to have relationships. People say that we need a system where children can show they can achieve so that we can recognize the best and the brightest. (I think of Michael Sandell who wrote that meritocracy is the last form of socially acceptable discrimination and prejudice.) People say that kids won’t know what they’re interested in unless we show them new things, and that’s what schools are for, because kids will never know they like or are good at Physics and Geography unless we teach them the material—of course once they’re locked into the curriculum it’s tough to get out of a subject you really don’t like and aren’t good in, but never mind.

It’s not a question of getting rid of school all of a sudden and having it be the wild west. It’s not an all or nothing situation. 

It’s about seeing History as a long game, about understanding that nothing is permanent. 

Clinging on to the idea of school as it is today, to this particular story of how we organize and define learning, is to fail to appreciate the flow of History*. 

Rather than resist change, rather than refuse to see the change, it may be wise to go with the current, but also to influence its course. What kind of future do we want? What do we want to keep and what do we want to throw away? What do we want to change about school and how much?

Valerie Hannon says that school needs to exist because it provides the relational context we need to thrive. That makes sense to me. But that doesn’t mean that school has to be a place where meritocracy thrives, where we drag kids through a curriculum because we think we have identified what they need to know even though the future is not only uncertain, but it is theirs. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Technological developments always contribute to changing economic, social, and cultural relations (and it has since the Paleolithic Age), some more powerfully than others. Today, we are pulled between two worlds, literally. The digital world will continue to break down temporal, spatial, and cultural distances. The Metaverse—whose development is inevitable, but its structures of ownership can still be shaped—will open up to unimaginable possibilities (which I have nonetheless tried to imagine here). On the other hand, the environmental crisis might make our physical world smaller as we connect more with our regional contexts, sharing and regenerating its beauties and resources with all other living things. Perhaps our wanderlust can be quenched virtually so that our planet can exist physically††.

History is a long game. School is not static. Rather than thinking that “that will never happen because…”, we would do better to reframe our thinking and imaginations and ask “what is likely to become?” We may not always be right, but that doesn’t matter. The future is our imagination, and will never be real. 

School as we know it is just one form of social organization. Like everything, it will see its day (and there is even an argument to make that school is at the end of its product life cycle, because standardization has led to commodification) and that’s ok.

The importance is that we understand that History is a long game. The importance is that we go with the flow of History, of everything.  

History flows, history is long. Extending our time horizons is the best way to re-energize, to find hope knowing that school is part of a larger, ever-changing system. We can never be sure that something “will never happen because…” change happens all the time. There is no status quo over the long run. 

We are always at a crossroads of the future. Our thoughts, actions, impulses, and habits today shape events, and finding ourselves paralyzed by the perceived immovability of the system is to fall prey to the naysayers, to those whose interests are either the status quo or basking in their own lethargy. 

This is a call to change our perceptions of time, of opening up to our imagination because history is long and the futures are uncertain—and the reason for this uncertainty is the inevitability of change.

* Although researchers now claim to be able to tell when a jump is coming (so that jumps aren’t unpredictable), it remains unclear where they will land. 

** Again, not taking a quantum view of time as a non-linear, non-existent concept, but rather time as a human construct for making sense and meaning of our respective realities.

† I chose this marker because I distinguish accomplishments in human learning from those of other animals. A wolf cub learns to hunt from his mother and baby apes learn to survive from the adults in their bands, but these systems are not based on consciously-created and transmitted symbols. Learning is not unique to our species, but only our species creates and imparts symbols from one generation to the other through social organization. Humans developed the capacity for language at some point between the past 50,000 and 200,000. Language is constituted of symbols, but it is debatable whether they were consciously created or emerged, and other animals also have language, so that may not be enough to distinguish humans. Homo sapiens are, however, the only species to pass on religious symbols: Cro-Magnon’s cave paintings in Lascaux date 15,000 years and Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) decorated their dead with ocher pigments before burying them at least 50,000 years ago. Hence why I chose 50,000 years.

†† This means we need to find an environmentally sustainable, if not regenerative, way to feed the exponentially power hungry data centers.

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