Chickens, Children and Capitalism

There she sat 6 years old, randomly playing the keyboard, enjoying the faces of the crowd seated on the ampitheather like lawn, taking in the dozens of smiling faces encouraging her on. Her variety show “act” was more about her awareness of others awareness of her…and she owned it. She smiled at the audience, she clinked on the keys, she scanned the view, then her fingers, then the view, she smiled at the audience and again for herself.  In those few and precious minutes I recognized and appreciated her experience as being deeply connected with her community, her teachers, her school mates and herself.

And on this beautiful evening I looked out across the horizon to see the beauty of the newly green Green Mountains. The blue sky and heaping white clouds. I breathed in fresh crisp slightly cooler air than what I was dressed for. I glanced at the chicken pen to see 3 large beautiful hens who have supplied eggs all year, which my kids have been sure to have collected.  I gazed out into the field, passed the climbing trees to the large black bat box the upper elementary aged kids had worked to build all year long and almost floating above the amazing garden that they had spent the last several months preparing and planting before the school year comes to a close. I connected to the daily experience my kids have at their school, one where they are known, and cared for intellectually, physically, spiritually and emotionally. And in those moments I again recognized that I had no such  similar experience in my k-12 education, and I was so happy to know that their educational experience is and will be vastly different.

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After I sent my kids out the door for school this morning, and after some breakfast I watched two talks, one on marketing in the food industry, the other… well let’s just say it was essentially about marketing in the education industry. Both of these talks were stunning, smart and powerful with ultimately the  same message. Neither of the topics are new to me, they are both infact part of the concerns that I fill my time pondering or studying. The first was likely less a talk really and more of a humane treatment for animals campaign… but the presentation was certainly unique and powerful, the second was a TEDx talk by a passionate school teacher peeling away skin exposing the reality of teaching and learning and corruption in our American public education system.

I frequently say “hamstrung teachers create hamstrung students” wondering how a system of education that is primarily concerned with data points and testing, one that is concerned with what kids should know verses what they do know or want to know can ever really be that effective at growing people. And part of growing people is also about how we nourish them in mind, body and spirit. What we feed on culturally creates our civic climate and our citizens, and what we have been feeding on is mostly compliance or at best a preferred state of heuristic ignore-ance. This is the way it is, this is the way it will be. “Suffer along until you get the right to make up your own mind…..I did”

At her  request my youngest daughter and I went to go see Rodger Hodgson of Supertramp fame in concert last fall. I was thrilled, my little girl connecting with the music of my youth, and in ways I had also connected with the lyrics. The Logical song and Dreamer… and her favorite Take the Long Way Home all about how we systematically dehumanize ourselves through living up to expectations that are prescribed for us. Expectations that frequently have little to do with who we are individually, our own personal proclivities and strengths, but more to do with what we believe will make us a stronger more profitable national at the cost of our personal and individual freedom and happiness. Our education system is appropriating the labor of not just our students, but the teachers and families as well.  And this, this is the breeding ground for the rat race mentality, our rising rates of depression for  younger and younger children, power stress for our teachers, and chronic stress for families.And to me this sound dangerously close the how Karl Marx describes the situation in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

In what, then, consists the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced–forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I truly understood what education could be. What is should be. A student centered experience facilitated and coached by individuals impassioned by their own curiosities. A field of play where instructor and student impacted the knowledge of the other. And why had it taken so long for me to return to the love of learning, to authentic curiosity, to an insatiable need to know that I experienced as kid in summer? After  I had completed  a year looking at Modernity and Feminist Marxist Alienation theory trying to understand the evolution of culture, the evolution of my personal experience in society and as a woman, a brilliant advisor of mine, Miwon Kwon, said to me “having an experience is not enough, you must understand the nature and history of the experience” It was like a pearl that dropped out of her mouth, a valuable gift that continues to remind me to question the status quo, to look at the history of something, deconstruct it for understanding rather than take it as a given or at face value. It is the experience of my own unique graduate experience that propels me away for this standardized, dehumanizing, systematic learning system for not only myself but also for my children.

Dr. Jorn Barmann writes:

Under the conditions of modern factory production, by contrast, the average worker is not much more than a replaceable cog in a gigantic and impersonal production apparatus. Where armies of hired operatives perform monotonous and closely supervised tasks, workers have essentially lost control over the process of production, over the products which they produce, and over the relationships they have with each other. As a consequence they have become estranged from their very human nature, which Marx understood to be free and productive activity. Human beings cannot be human under these conditions, and for this reason the implication was obvious for Marx: Capitalism has to be abolished as much as any political oppression if a society’s emancipation is to be complete. Capitalism is just as incompatible with self-determination as absolute monarchy or any other autocratic system. But while an absolute monarchy limits people’s autonomy by controlling them in the sphere of politics, Capitalism does so by controlling their workplaces and their economic life. A society of truly free citizens, according to Marx, must therefor not only be a political, but also an economic and social democracy.

Could we apply this theory to the current state of public education? Could we suggest that we have armies of hired teachers and indoctrinated students both performing monotonous and closely supervised tasks? Or that teachers and students have lost control over the process of education, over their “products” and over the relationships they have with each other?  Can we live in a capitalist society and have a education system that is compatible with self determination for all its participants? Can we have a publicly funded democratic education system? Is it even possible?

Can we stop treating children and teachers like industrialized farmed chickens? Can we come to terms with the fact that our capitalistic culture has marketed itself so well that we are conditioned and encouraged to choose to ignore the realities of alternatives, like knowing our authentic place in the world, by being connected to each other in the love of learning, discovery and meaning in our lives and work no matter how young…..

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She smiled at the audience, she clinked on the keys, she scanned the view, then her fingers, then the view, she smiled at the audience and again for herself.