The end of a school year, especially this one, prompts some thinking about the place of education in our collective life.
Those who have been the “front liners” in this year’s educational campaign – teachers, families, students – deserve our profound respect and appreciation for courageous and sacrificial efforts to “tend the garden of learning” on many levels.
What is seen by some as a “lost year” in terms of certain curricular objectives may turn out to be a year of significant learning on other levels that might not have happened in more “normal” circumstances.
Learning to adapt to new frameworks and discovering ways to engage in exploration and discovery without the familiar structures to support those efforts may be among the “life lessons” learned this year.
Another prompt at this point of our collective life is an evident distinction between “education” as a commodity that is gained from participation in formal “schooling” and education as a way of thinking about life and its challenging issues.
We can recall how the Babylonian exile of ancient Israel was the occasion for that community’s refinement of their understanding of the covenant in significant ways.
It may be that the “covidian exile” of the educational community will produce some significant refinements as well.
In my early years of trying to be a teacher, a dear friend and mentor gave me a book by Ivan Illich, titled Deschooling Society, which emphasized the distinction between the formal structures that support educational growth and the growth itself.
This framework has remained in my thinking through a half-century of work within those very structures.
That thinking and much of what is appearing in the conversation on the public stage have channeled another pattern of thought about whether our highly “educated” society actually engages in educational thinking as we respond to some of the features of our life together.
Watching and listening to much of the public dialogue lead one to wonder if “having an education” and “thinking educationally” are necessary companions.
The capacity to deliberate and discover new levels of understanding truth seems to have taken a back seat to a different kind of driver – a passionate defense of particular ways of thinking and their ideological products through a narrow lens with little or no efforts to look side to side at the rest of the landscape or its people.
As I write this, people are expressing shock that they never learned in school about the Tulsa race massacre, when a racist white mob killed hundreds of black residents in Tulsa’s once-thriving African American business community in 1921.
Meanwhile, some leaders are demanding and seeking to pass legislation to prohibit an effort to understand the place of racial injustice in our history, and the voices of extremists continue to fan the embers of fear and prejudice for political gain.
Ideological purity is what matters to certain segments of our society, and the opportunity to deepen understanding through honest inquiry and discovery is demonized by the epithets of the day.
Controversy is not surprising, given our history and its complexity.
While education cannot change or rewrite our corporate story, educational thinking can offer a way of thinking and responding that can be both honest and constructive for a healthier future.
Our history is filled with noble visions and catastrophic failures of implementation.
Educational thinking requires a cease-fire in a battle over who is right, a willingness to look honestly at what is there in our history, and a commitment to learn from its lessons.
While difficult, this process can reveal a way forward that will align with a trajectory toward the “more perfect union” of the noble vision.
An encouraging step carried out recently in our neighborhood points to the possibility of thinking educationally amid controversy.
Stone Mountain has been and remains an official monument to the Confederacy. A giant bas-relief carving on its north face and many other features of the park commemorate those who participated in one side of the Civil War.
For years, defenders of that part of history and advocates for the removal of its symbols have clashed, sometimes aggressively, in a controversy that has been fraught with both practical and political complexity.
Bill Stephens, CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, submitted a proposal to its board that would create an exhibit to “tell the truth” about the history of the mountain’s monuments, especially the massive carving with likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, as well as the site’s role in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.
The exhibit would be educational and would provide an honest context for understanding the past century’s claims and counterclaims. This, to me, is an example of “thinking educationally.”
Thinking educationally neither denies history nor embalms it into uncritical permanence. Rather, it enables history to teach its lessons and to become a creative partner in the educational process rather than an idol in place of it.
I’m not sure why, but the memory of an old bumper sticker has come to mind frequently in recent days: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”