I certainly hope that the saying “It’s always darkest before the dawn” has some validity today, especially concerning the prospects for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the younger generation. Perhaps my view is distorted by the achings of an aging warrior, one whose career has admittedly been fueled by fantasies of some miraculous Awakening that would result in complete reversal of fortunes for the down and out. I really did believe, as Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson wrote, that all that we needed in the ‘60s were “more idealists, more dreamers, more do-gooders…for ours was a generation under…[pressures] in a world that we did not make.” I completely bought into the notions that “the times they are a-changin,” as Dylan sang, and, as Sorenson concluded, “a single breaker may recede, but the tide [of transformation] is coming in.”
I certainly don’t want to be a Danny Downer here—I have, after all, made a career of talking up humanity’s prospects for continuous improvement—and yet I find it harder and harder these days to feel optimistic on anything more than a theoretical or philosophical level. Even ceasing to read or listen to the news on a regular basis hasn’t helped. I theorized that what was bringing me down was the constant barrage of ain’t-it-awful stories coming from places that were supposed to be fountains of hope and good will. But we can’t escape reality, bad or good, and we can’t really isolate ourselves from the world if we have any intention of trying to enjoy life, let alone to help reduce human suffering. Denial is not an option. So what is the alternative to feeling so much sadness and despair about “man’s inhumanity toward man?”
When asked how she could continue to serve the lepers before her when, if she looked up and saw how much pain and misery there was in the world and how the line at her door was endless, Mother Theresa responded by saying simply, “I don’t look up.” By implication, I assume, that also meant that she kept her focus on what she could do and let the rest go. That seems like a reasonable strategy, and certainly a psychologically healthy one. But what if one has learned to take a systems approach to life and believes that, if you attend to the root cause of a problem, you will have far greater impact on the whole situation than if you merely address the needs of one individual at a time? This is not in any way meant to discount the importance and the power of one-on-one attention. Working downstream to clean up the environment, for example, seems critical. It is to say, however, that moving upstream, to alleviate whatever is causing problems in the first place, seems like a good idea as well. The “problem” that I have sought to alleviate throughout my career has been the undermining of our natural humanity by well-intentioned (I hope) so-called educators. As I have written elsewhere, my professional journey began when I first read the opening lines of John Holt’s How Children Fail. It was by far the most therapeutic moment of my life. “My God,” I thought, “it’s not me; it’s the system! It’s not my fault that I feel stupid despite all of good grades. I’ve been conditioned to feel that sense of isolation from my true self, because that is what makes people easier to manipulate into compliance as workers, voters and consumers.” Even if the creators of our school systems didn’t—and still don’t—consciously work toward that agenda, the facts as I and many others see
them indicate that this is exactly what imposed schooling tends to do.
There have been times in my career when I thought that we “alternative” folks were actually gaining ground. That despite the occasional reversal of an undertow, the tide really was coming in. This was certainly the case during the era of the so-called free schools and open classrooms, when bookshelves were groaning under the weight of books advocating for “school reform” and providing for no end of prescriptions for accomplishing such. Then came a reactionary era that began with the Reagan Commission’s report in the early ‘80s, the one that popularized the phrase “A Nation at Risk” and claimed that if a foreign enemy had invaded the U.S. and imposed such a system of mediocrity as our current public schools had done, we would have considered it an act of war. Each of our next four presidents, representing both major political parties, followed with a game of “Can You Top This” as they implemented successively tighter and tighter controls on both teachers and administrators, and thus of course on students, in an effort to boost standardized test scores at the expense of human development.
Currently, depending upon your perspective, there is another resurgence of hope, at least in some quarters. Some public school parents have joined what is called the “Opt- Out” movement and have refused to allow their youths to be tested over and over again. Even a (very) few schools have dropped most such tests due to the refusal of their teachers either to administer them or teach to them as a priority. Other good news is the existence of both national and international organizations, such as The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) and The Alliance For Self-directed Education (ASDE), the latter led by my friend Peter Gray. AERO runs a summer conference that helps kindred spirits find solace in one another while learning new ways to keep their democratic schools and resource centers afloat. And some youngish souls (40-ish seems awfully young to me), like Ken Danford and Joel Hammon of Liberated Learners, are actively working to help others start learning centers similar to their own all around the country, so that when parents do decide to step out of the mainstream approach of teach-em/test-em forced schooling, they can find a place to go to find kindred spirits and peers for their young. (Open Connections, by the way, receives rave reviews from people who can appreciate it thanks only to the internet as well as numerous visits from around the country and, occasionally, from overseas.)
The fact is, however, that the number of youths involved in such programs, or even enjoying the benefits of unschooling or so-called relaxed homeschooling, are a small minority of their generation. Even adding in the youths in more humane private and public schools, such as those based on the principles of Progressive Education, isn’t enough to lead one (i.e. me) into thinking that the tide has turned. Far worse, there is the data of what continues to be the reality of inner city public schools, starting with our own fair city of Brotherly Love. Just in the past two weeks, I have spoken with parents whose stories would make you want to weep, as I do.
I don’t know how or where I first got the notion that people are inherently good and that we are wired in the womb to love, to create, and to enjoy life. Despite my current level of discouragement, I continue to hold onto that belief. Certainly immersing myself in healthy environments like OC, where the tools of Process Consciousness (compassionate listening, balanced responses, flexible thinking, etc.) have taken root helps me keep from losing all hope. And our successes so far at the Natural Creativity Center are proof that the theory of positive social change is valid. What I guess I am desperately seeking, however, is someone or something on a large-scale national level that lets me know that more than just a relatively few friends hold the same vision of what it takes to help onto the best of our humanity. We need OC-speak to go viral—into the hearts and minds of legislators and policymakers, business executives and anyone else in a position of power and authority who has significant impact on the lives of the general public. Think of it: What if every senator and congressperson adopted the use of the Balanced Response? What if they started every evaluation by first identifying what was good and right by each proposed law, and only then voiced their concerns, but/and as How-tos that invited collaborative problem solving, not as yeah-buts that put down their opponent’s plan?
That’s the world I ache for right now.
P.S. This essay was inspired by a recent listening of a favorite Phil Ochs song titled “When I’m Gone.” You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Greffl1UVYc