The New Normal is not Normal/Healthy/Safe for our Children… A parent’s guide to raising healthy, curious learners

 Recent studies reveal that our young people in their pre-adolescent through college years are self-reporting dramatic increases in stress, anxiety and depression.  The incidence of suicides among young people in this age range has never been higher. Some months ago, Susan Clayton and I, separated by an international border and 3 times zones, decided to collaborate on a response to this increasingly alarming trend.  While not the only cause of such emotional stress, we decided to write for parents and focus on what we knew best… schools, schooling and learning.  Midway through our project, Susan’s husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer.  He died this past week. 

This piece is dedicated to Robert and Susan Clayton.  Throughout Robert’s treatment Susan remained steadfast in her love and support for both her husband and her children.  Her commitment and her concern for helping parents understand how they might positively support their children during this critical age remained  unchanged.  This piece reflects our combined thinking. The good thoughts come from Susan.  The mistakes in writing are solely mine.  

This is a long piece.  Readers familiar with my efforts here in this blog space will know that I try very hard not to waste yourt time.  My writings on leadership and my rants on the folly of the decades of misguided education reform pale in comparison with the importance of the challenges to the mental, social and emotional health of our children.  I hope you’ll hang in there. Thank you.

 What’s Lost When We Rush Kids Through Childhood”, Emily Kaplan – Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, September 4, 2019

We Have Ruined Childhood” – “For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert. Of course they’re miserable.”- Kim Brooks, NY Times Sunday Review, August 17, 2019

“Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright”, Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, November 2019.

Unfortunately, many parents see such headlines and are not surprised.  Far too many parents are living each day with the concerns reflected in this sampling of headlines.  Too many parents see their children floundering emotionally, socially and academically. They are feeling overwhelmed and are often at a loss about what they can do to help their children regain their emotional, social and academic balance.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We, both as educators and as parents, cannot continue to sacrifice the mental, social and emotional health of our children for a future that does not require intense test preparation for large scale assessments, an underdeveloped appreciation for the arts and little or no experience with unstructured play . The studies listed above and the research currently being explored are sending us signals that are both loud and clear. We’ve unintentionally allowed schooling to become something that was never intended. While this may have been understandable in the early 1900’s, given our current advances in brain research and learning, there is only one excuse for its continuation… our unwillingness to change what we’re used to, coupled with our acceptance of the notion that purpose of education is not learning , but primarily to serve the economy with qualified workers.

Our goal in writing this is to help us as adults, as parents, as educators respond to this change in the way our kids experience the world.  Our goal is both to sound an alarm and to offer concrete suggestions for actions.  We simply cannot continue to sacrifice the physical, social and emotional health of our children.

We decided in this work to focus on one part of each child’s life: time spent in school. This is not an attack on the educators, the people who care about and for your children. It’s what we know best and school-related issues surface regularly in discussions with young people as a major source of their emotional stress.

Context

The data about the alarming growth of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression frighten us.  We’ve all experienced school.  But most of us have experienced school in a very different way than the way our kids are now living it. This is an invitation for parents to re-think what has become of schooling and the purpose of schooling in children’s lives… a purpose that does not rob them of their childhood and push them towards depression and anxiety. Although there is general agreement that school is about learning and preparation for life, there is surprisingly little agreement about what learning actually is, how it occurs and the best ways for it to happen.  Based on our own learning experiences we’d like to invite you to treat this work as an interactive process, one which will both inform you and guide you to action-based responses.

You might consider reading the entire piece and then returning to do a little “homework” or you may just dive right in.  Your call.  How you chose to do this may tell you something about the way you feel you learn best.

We’ve considered this approach carefully. First we’ll start with the easy question… “What is learning?”  Wait! What? Everybody knows what learning is.  OK. So write down what you think.  For most of us, this just got a lot harder.  So many possibilities.

Here’s a suggestion. Take a few minutes to consider what you have learned or are currently learning; select 1-2 things. Think about how you came to know or are coming to know these things and if these things are useful, meaningful for your life? Now, answer the “what is learning”  question based on your personal learning. Write your response down and be aware of how your thinking likes coming out of your brain and onto paper – or word processor.  You may discover that, like me, you find the thinking part easier than the writing part.

The second question is equally big… “Is school the only place where learning occurs between the ages of 5 and 18? Well, that answer is kind of obvious, so maybe a better question might be “What’s the purpose of school?”

Try this: think of a time when you learned a skill or about an idea outside of school: (ride a bike, learn about worms while helping a parent garden, swim, make a blade of grass sing between your hands….) – how did you do that without the support of school? What were some of the conditions that helped you learn? Were you rushed into learning the skill or idea; who helped you? What did your mistakes tell you?  How did you feel when you realized you figured out worms, rode the bike a block without wobbling…realized that a 10 cent piece was smaller than a 5 cent piece but worth more…?

Now think of a time when you were in school and you were struggling or felt  overwhelmed – maybe the idea or skill was unfamiliar; maybe too many instructions coming all at once; maybe the teacher moved through the lesson too fast? Did you learn what you thought you were supposed to learn? If not, how did you feel?

What kids say…

I recently interviewed some high school students about what their learning experiences in school looked like. The kids were a cross section of the school’s enrollment…there were two kids enrolled in special needs programming, a couple of honor roll students, a couple of what I’ll affectionately describe as “ne’er-do-wells” – kids who spent a fair amount of time with the principal negotiating reductions in disciplinary reactions to their behaviors. The remaining 6 considered themselves “average”. After explaining that I was there to learn about their school, I asked them to pretend that they were the only people I would speak to in order to get a picture of their school and asked them to tell what it was important that I know.  I also told them that I would be sharing their descriptions with their teachers the following day (without identifying them, of course).

What did I hear from these consumers of schooling?  One of the special needs students began by sharing that she appreciated how good her teachers were about adjusting instruction to her needs, watching to see if she was “getting it” and offering more time/support if needed.  A young lady excitedly raised her hand and said, “You’re lucky! My teachers spend so much time getting us ready to take the big tests that they apologize for not having more time for our questions.”  Lots of head nodding followed by another young lady who shared how embarrassed she felt when she didn’t know an answer and how she was reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming stupid. More head nodding and no objections.  After a few seconds of silence a young man raised his hand and asked, “Why do we have to learn stuff that we just going to forget?”

My takeaway from this conversation… kids have only a limited sense of what Martin Luther King called “someoneness”” or sense of belonging.  They feel pressured by adult concerns. Beyond their circle of friends they feel isolated. They feel pressured to do well, while not having access to the conditions (safety, freedom to ask questions, choice in learning) to perform as expected.

On a personal level, do your children have these experiences like this in school? How does it make them feel? What if these feelings have become a part of their daily school experience? What if the feelings that some of us had as students some of time have become a constant in the lives of our children? What if the pressures that have accompanied our need not to be identified as “failing” have had a number of unintended consequences…an increase in pressure to perform on large scale assessments, an increase in the time spent on test preparation, a loss of experiences in the arts, an earlier introduction of “academic” focus at the expense of playtime, recess creating, inventing, solving problems etc.?

 The articles shared, as well as numerous others, make a clear connection between the practices identified above (that are responses to increased academic pressures) and the deterioration of the mental and emotional health of our children?  In spite of this growing awareness, we hang on to what we know, we feel most comfortable with the familiar.

But what if holding on to “the familiar” – i.e., school as we knew it – will just continue to place our kids at increasing risk of stress, anxiety, depression, etc.?  Is our fear of change, of venturing into the unfamiliar, greater than our concern for the well-being of our kids?  What percentage of kids experiencing anxiety and depression is sufficient to act? 60%, 70%, 80%?

Note that the Times article cites a study which revealed that 70% of teenagers characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem”. Is that enough?

 Doing the wrong thing “righter”

 We do not need to heap the kinds of pressures described here on our kids.  For the broadest view of this issue, I’ll begin with Russell Ackoff.  Prior to his death in 2009, Ackoff was a Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  He has offered a starting point for what we might consider in response to the threats impacting the emotional and social health of our children.  Ackoff is well-known for making the following distinction… There is a difference between ‘doing things right’ and ‘doing the right thing.’  Doing things right is about efficiency – i.e., how do we manage lots of kids in a school building safely and efficiently. We do this through the establishment of uniformity. We group kids by age not because they are similar but because it is convenient. We organize instruction by subject, not because the world is neatly organized by subject but because it is convenient (and because someone in 1893 decided we should). Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.

Our current system of education here in the U.S. is replete with stories of attempts to doing things right, school consolidation, common core standards, large-scale “accountability” assessments, etc.  As Ackoff points out, it should surprise no one that these efforts have born little fruit.  In his own words, Ackoff notes that focusing on doing things right just makes the situation “wronger”. After 30+ years of doing school right NAEP schools remain flat, ACT scores are falling, achievement gaps continue and instances of childhood stress, anxiety, and depression have reach nearly epidemic proportions!

But what is the right thing?

Here we’ll turn to Clark Aldrich who has suggested that there are three purposes for education… to help kids learn how to learn, to help kids learn how to do, and to help kids learn how to be.  These three things constitute Ackoff’s definition of doing the right thing.  In the context of our focus here, think ‘helping kids learn how to be.’  Obviously, given the current incidence of student and physician reported stress, anxiety and depression we need a shift in focus away from the ever increasing focus on higher academic achievement to the “how to be”.  In his film Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s title character describes her dilemma as follows… “I feel like I’m rebuilding a parachute while I’m falling. I’m one person when I sit with my friends at lunch in school, another when I’m in the car with my dad, another when I’m at a party with my friends, and even another when I’m on Facebook.”

Note: See Clark Aldrich, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.

For more background on the issue of stress, anxiety, depression in our kids and how school contributes, you might find Dr. David Gleason’s book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, useful.

For an interesting piece written by parents (Adam Grant, Allison Sweet Grant), you might be interested in Stop Trying to Raise Successful KidsAnd start raising kind ones.

While not specifically about stress and anxiety, the authors note that kids take their cues about what matters by watching what adults seem to value… most frequently identifying achievement as the most desirable accomplishment. They are particularly interested in the development of caring, kindness and empathy in what has been termed our “Age of Separation”.  The connection between their thinking and our focus on how we, as adults whether parent or educator, contribute to the rise of stress in their lives of our kids seems obvious.

But what can I do as a parent to insure that my child’s school is willing to explore the ways in which their policies, practices, and procedures may be unintentionally increasing the levels on stress and anxiety in students?

Leveraging Parental Concerns to Change Schooling – The “How To” section

In a time of increasing complexity, crammed schedules, split families, our own issues of separation, belonging and work pressures, we have been more than willing to turn over the 5-6 hours our kids are in school to the people who are charged by law with acting as their parents for that time.  By law, our schools are required to act “in loco parentis”… in the place of parents.  In trying to do things right, too many schools are doing things/creating environments that as parents, we would never do.  They continue to focus on test scores, orderly buildings, convenient practices, etc. while largely ignoring the impact these practices are having on our children.

Their pressures and schedules are frequently no less crammed and stressful than ours. As parents we need to begin the conversations needed to help us identify the right thing/move away from our preoccupation with doing things right to a focus on doing the right thing.  How do we do that?

Recognize that schools are part of a system and that change in systems grows increasingly more difficult the longer the system is in place.

Peter Senge in his best selling book, The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the process of changing systems. Senge notes that systems can be depicted as circles, the walls of which become thicker as the system ages.  He suggests that the thicker the walls of the system become, the harder it is to make.

As many of us can attest, trying to crash through the walls of a mature system results in a lot of bumps and bruises but very little change.  Senge offers a solution. He suggests that the walls of most systems are not uniformly thick… that in each system there exists a weakness in the wall that may allow the opportunity for leveraging that weakness into change or moving the system in a new direction.  Your concerns, your interest, your involvement are that weakness.  It’s hard for most schools to ignore concerned, well-informed, and well-intentioned parents.

Successful change efforts rely on finding ways to circumvent the natural response – i.e., to defend one’s position and to the reinforce such positions.  Research in this area reveals that the reliance on fact-based speeches rarely changes deeply held beliefs.  Successful change efforts have relied primarily on the creation of emotion-based experiences.  What is more emotional than the reality that our kids are suffering and experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in record numbers?

What Can I do?

Emotion-based responses in school systems are more effective when they make more use of numbers of people than the eloquent words of a single, well-informed parent.

Step 1: Explore the concerns about social/emotional health with friends. Enlist the interest/support of the local parent organization. Consider the benefits of a social media presence/exploration.

Step 2: Build a group of people who are willing to address these concerns with school leaders in a focused conversation or, finding little or no receptivity from the school/district leaders, move this conversation to the level of the board of education at a public meeting by requesting time, in advance, to address the members of the board.

Step 3: Ask questions!  Here are some critical sample questions that you might consider.

  • What are the outcomes, attributes, dispositions we seek to develop in our students?
  • Why do we have grades? – They are a largely meaningless convention, statistically invalid and unreliable.  Why don’t we use narratives instead?
  • What do we use as measures of success/achievement? Do we have a school-wide/district-wide consensus on the meaning of these terms?
  • What is the basis for grades in our school?
  • We know that kids develop at different rates and in different ways. Why do we group kids by age? –
  • What options are available for my child to obtain official recognition for learning done outside of school?
  • How many opportunities for self-directed learning are available in the school day?
  • Look at your school’s/district’s mission statement and ask what are the intentional practices aimed at the accomplishment of these goals? How is success measured?
  • What intentional responses have been developed to combat increasing stress, anxiety and depression in our students? What practices, policies, procedures have we eliminated or modified?

End Thoughts

While it seems clear to us that big changes are needed, not everyone is ready to just jump in. Dr. James Ryan in a commencement address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2016) offered a guide for exploring difficult/complex ideas.  He offered guidance for when we are faced with very disturbing information and seeking to engage others in discussion.

He notes that an expected response to what we have offered in this essay might be…”What? Wait!You mean that 70% of kids surveyed characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem!”  He suggests that productive discussions begin more often with questions than statements.  Here are his suggestions for your consideration and use.

I wonder what we are doing in our families, in our schools, in our society that is causing this dramatic rise among our youth. I wonder if my kids feel like they belong at their school? I wonder what school policies/practices my kids find stressful?

I wonder what we could do differently in our families, in our schools, in our society that could make a difference. I wonder why we still have grades, age grouped classes, separate subjects? I wonder what would happen if, like some schools, we tried to eliminate them?

Couldn’t we at least try? Should we just keep doing what we are doing even though we know it’s making kids anxious?

How can we help one another?

What really matters? If the mental, social, emtotional health of our kids really matter shouldn’t we be able to see intentional policies, practices, and procedures in our schools that mirror that importance?  

Thank you and be well.

A Time to Consider the Common Good…

One of the real joys (and I use that word advisedly) of writing a blog is the opportunity to come into contact with other writers.  The most inspirational of these for me is Jan Resseger. I have cited Jan’s work a number of times in my writing.  Her blog is a window into her soul and her commitment to addressing issues of equity.  Rather than take a chance on losing even a couple of readers by requiring them to click on a link, I asked Jan if I might publish a recent piece in its entirety.  She graciously consented. As always, I’d love to “hear” your reflections on her work.  Here’s the message that Jan includes with each post.

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

Be well.  Enjoy

Embracing Public Schools As the Very Definition of the Common Good

— Jan Resseger

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

Yea! We’ve Made It. Hatred Is Now Nonpartisan

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Farside Gallert – Gary Larson

Sometimes I write for me.  Sometimes I write in the hopes that someone will read it. Right now I’m trying to find a healthy place between the dystopian writings of Umair Haque and the more uplifting challenges of  Charles Eisenstein.  I like Eisenstein but fear Haque.  I want Eisenstein’s world, but I see Haque’s. Haque writes daily of the problems caused by the way in which capitalism has evolved here in the US and in countries that have sought to model their economies after ours.  He terms this “predatory capitalism” and describes the consequences that follow when the quest for profit overrides our commitment to the value of one another, of our societies and of our planet.  Headlines such as ““Why We Need an Economics of Well-Being”, April 10, 2018 or “Why the Future of Leadership Isn’t About (More) Patriarchy, Capitalism, and Supremacy”, Sept 4, 2019 are not unusual. In contrast, Eisenstein writes and urges us to consider the world of the possible. The title of one of his books says it all, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. His essay, “The Age of We Need Each Other” seems like a flash of the blindingly obvious.

In the midst of my existential pondering, someone called my attention to an interview about the impossible cost of a college education.  The article was actually a transcript of an interview conducted by Chris Hayes (of MSNBC fame) with Christine Zaloom, the author of the book, Indebted.  As a part of his introduction, Hayes described the (then) recent events surrounding the college admission scandal.  Here’s an excerpt…

One thing that was interesting about this story, it was one of those rare stories, the Jeffrey Epstein story is another one, where Americans of all political persuasions rejoiced. It united Americans across the ideological spectrum in their contempt for the people that had done this. The right hates elite academia and Hollywood. And this brought them together. The left hates the insane culture of inequality and corruption that’s represented by this, right?

So it’s like there was someone for everyone to hate….

Although Hayes seems to have had a lot of trouble in using words like fascism, concentration camps, liar, etc. to describe the ongoing descent of American politics, he seemed to have no trouble making sure that we knew how great it was that “hate” was now a nonpartisan reaction/motivation.

I see hate and fear as responses inhabiting the same space. The relationship reminds me of a vignette in which one man expresses his fear of falling behind as follows…. “My neighbor has a cow and I don’t. I want his to die.”

Haque’s picture of where we currently are on our journey both as a nation and as a species is painted in the “cow” terms of zero sum thinking, of scarcity, of competition, of separation and, yes, of hatred, vilification, and tribalism.  Eisenstein acknowledges both the presence and the dominance of this perspective.  More hopefully, however, he  focuses on the opportunity to write a new story… a story based on connectedness and empathy.

Being focused (and as one dimensional) as I am  of looking at things through the lens of education, I immediately turned this into an educational question.  What are the causes of hatred in our schools?  Maybe you object to the use of the term “hatred” being applied to our schools? I would. But would you also object to the acknowledgement of presence of zero sum thinking (when someone wins, someone else loses), scarcity (grades have to be distributed with a limited number of “A’s”), competition (one valedictorian), tribalism  (jocks, nerds, stoners, etc.), separation (alternate schools, remedial classes, college prep, AP, etc.)  What do we do in schools to intentionally offer kids alternatives to these things? What do we do unintentionally to reinforce fear, separation, vilification (i.e., seeds of hatred) as an acceptable emotional response?  Are there practices which subtly reinforce these among our colleagues, among our kids?  Do we wish to “own” the responsibility for helping kids klearn “how to be”? If I were still teaching, would I thank Chris Hayes for giving me a “lesson” to share with my kids?

I’ll end this with a questionnaire created by Wendell Berry that was recently shared with me.  Maybe you could make up a “What would happen if…” question about Berry’s work. One of mine is… What would happen if we reframed these questions around our work with kids – i.e., “For the sake of test scores, how many bad practices/mandates am I willing to implement?  Name them.” or “In the name of high AP test results, how many kids am I willing to allow to be stressed, anxiouss, depressed? Name them.”

Berry’s questions are painful.  I want to deny them.  I want to deny that they apply to me.  I want to deny them as much as I want to believe that it is possible to write the story that Charles describes as the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. I don’t want to believe that hatred is now acceptable because it has become “nonpartisan”.  But what if the more beautiful world is only possible if we are willing to ask Berry’s questions?

Couldn’t we at least try?

Be well.

QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

  1. How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade? Please name your preferred poisons.
  2. For the sake of goodness, how much evil are you willing to do? Fill in the following blanks with the names of your favorite evils and acts of hatred.
  3. What sacrifices are you prepared to make for culture and civilization? Please list the monuments, shrines, and works of art you would most willingly destroy.
  4. In the name of patriotism and the flag, how much of our beloved land are you willing to desecrate? List in the following spaces… the mountains, rivers, towns, farms you could most readily do without.
  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security, for which you would kill a child. Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.

Some Days Our Best Was None Too Good!

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FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

This is the month of unusual responses. Earlier this month I had posted a piece, “Why Are We So Angry?”. It dealt with beliefs and when reposted by a follower, a commenter suggested that the writer (me) was a jerk. Apparently, the family member (extended) who shared that observation either failed to notice the source of the piece or had been harboring long-festering disenchantment with my arrival in the family.   The second unusual response came earlier today when I had posted a comment on our Modern Learners site about the current topic… grading.  No. Will Richardson didn’t comment on my level of “jerkiness.”  Rather, he became the first reader of my reflections to see them sufficiently valuable to suggest that I post the comment on my blog. (BTW, I just learned that, if you’re one row off when typing, “blog” can become “blob”).  So here goes…

Time for an adult beverage…  I want to add a point for consideration to our discussion of grading.  It’s an economic one.  One that reaches beyond the concerns raised about the high costs of the test and punish reform culture which so captured the hearts of the reformers. I’ll attempt this by sharing several anecdotes. While these may be unique to my experience, I am certain that each of us could recite variations.  I’ll save the punch line to the end.  Enjoy your beverage. Spoiler alert:  If the prospect of wading through the context to get to the end is as exciting as crawling hoe over glass, you can skip to the last sentence where I accuse us all of fiscal malpractice.

When I first began teaching it was in a private boys’ high school.  Fresh out of college with a degree that included nothing about teaching, what I “knew” about teaching I had learned by sitting at a desk in the same type of school where I was now seated on the other side of a larger desk.  I was given the texts I was to use (5 preps) and a green grade book.

Having no idea what to do with the little green book that had lots of little squares in it, I asked an” experienced” colleague (he had started teaching the year before) what I should do with this grading thing.  I asked this in what passed for a faculty room and one of the older, much wiser, teachers responded quickly.  “Fill it with numbers.. The more numbers you have the less likely it will be that a parent challenges your grades.”  This proved to be sage advice as a couple of months later at parent night, I watched a colleague be challenged by a parent who asked in a fairly hostile manner, “How come my kid got a ‘D’?  Brandishing his grade book, my colleague quickly responded, “Look here at his grades.  You can see he wasn’t quite bad enough to get an ‘F’.”

Some years later, working in a rural public high school (by this time I had been to grad school and “learned about teaching”.  Sadly, this experience could have easily taken place in the faculty room of my first school.  Being pretty comfortable with kids, I soon became a sounding board for their complaints about schooling as well as their assessments of their various teachers.  Not surprising to any of today, the majority of the kids were not fans of what they considered the arbitrariness of their grades. Doing a little investigative work, I discovered neither I nor most of my colleagues knew how grades were given in other classes…even those in rooms right next door.

Fast forward a lot of years and I’m now the “traveling s.o.b. with slides” helping schools and districts with their school improvement efforts (tempting to add quotes around ‘helping’ and ‘improvement’).  At a district in Nevada, while working with an assistant superintendent for instruction, I noted that he had multiple screens hooked up to his computer… screens filled with numbers and spreadsheets.  I asked him what he was working on.  He shared with me an “exploration” he was pursuing after having a dinner table chat with his son who was a senior, wondering why his son was so adamant about getting a specific teacher for senior English. 

Since the district had an in-house data system, he was able to look at the grading practices of the various teachers.  All teachers were required to use a point based system for grading.  The areas eligible for assessment were home work, class participation, projects, test grades. Nothing terribly unusual… until he looked at the point distribution in various classes… in this case the sections of the same class (English 4) taught by different teachers… Parallel sections, common outcomes, district syllabus.  Here’s a quick summary of his findings… teacher #1 had a total of 1800 possible points roughly evenly distributed among the 4 areas of evaluation.  Teacher #2, 1100 points for projects, no points for homework, 500 for participation, 200 for tests.  Teacher #3, 1200 points for test grades, 300 for homework, 300 for participation, nothing for projects.

Getting to the punch line. Assuming most of us have attended more than our share of graduation ceremonies, we’ve heard a number of dramatic readings of the accumulated scholarship money earned by the graduating seniors.  Unless she/he has done the unthinkable and bitten the hand that feeds them, the valedictorian is honored with the title, the opportunity to share a talk (usually pre-approved) and has enjoyed more scholarship money for having earned the distinction of having secured the top spot in the class.

So here it comes… What if none of the calculations used to determine class rank, scholarship eligibility, community awards, etc. even approach statistical validity or reliability?  What if the class rank depends more on the ability to game the system than on the learning demonstrated by those honored? What if annually we proudly announce the award of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars with the caveat that, in addition to being a sham, the system of grading is actually preventing learning.

We need to say loud and clear that the process of awarding/assigning grades is inequitable. It is not only keeping our kids from learning, it is also budgetary malpractice!

What If This Could Be Our Next Last Chance?

student pic blog mental health 2018-08-19 at 3.17.42 PMWow! Did this one lead me down a rabbit hole!  Recently, I’ve been drawn to an offshoot of some of my thinking/writing on leadership.  In looking at the careers of a number of school leaders (an area with which I’m more familiar than, say, state or federal government), I’ve noticed that, as a nation, we seem to have what Andrew Bacevitch called a messianic complex… a belief in the power of a single individual to solve great problems and to do so quickly and decisively.  Bacevitch describes this in his book, The Limits of Power, as a dangerous path, leading to repeated disappointment when the plans/”fixes” of our newly anointed messiah don’t seem to work.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us.  One need look no further than the theater surrounding the selection of the next Democratic candidate for the presidency to see this pattern in action.  We have grown to value quick, decisive action in our leaders more than we do their ability to thoughtfully analyze situations to uncover root causes – i.e., actually have a chance at solving the problem.

Looking for alternatives to this in my field of interest and experience, I began to look more carefully at the various “solutions” offered during the span of my working years to fix education. I realized that, for a considerable length of time, I had been looking past the blindingly obvious.  As often as I had quoted Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff, I realized that there was a good chance that I had missed the point.   You may recall their assertion from earlier posts…

“There is a difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.” 

In more than 50 years as an educator, I realized that either as a leader or follower, I have been involved in a whole series of education improvement efforts… Outcomes Based Education, Comprehensive Achievement Monitoring, gifted and talented programming for underachievers, values clarification, formative assessment, standards based instruction and grading, soft skill development and assessment, oral proficiency based assessment for world languages, etc.  I also realized that almost all of these left no lasting footprints.  They came and went with remarkable frequency.  They were great examples of trying to do things right (assessment, instruction, learning, etc.) with no attention paid to whether or not they were aimed at the right thing – i.e., they lacked clear, understandable and desirable purpose.

Now I’m standing on the precipice of a rapidly enlarging rabbit hole. Do I just make the point about the critical importance of clear and clearly understood purpose (see Simon Sinek , Dan Pink  ) or do I try to see when we lost our way as a means of finding a path back?  The rabbit hole loomed.

I couldn’t stop myself.  So I went back and explored.  I’ll spare you the details (although I can’t resist adding some references in case you can’t help yourself and have to explore a bit more). But here’s the short form.

Prior to the 1890’s the purpose of education was kind of clear… it was for the wealthy the path to maintaining privilege and power. By the late 1800 this was beginning to unravel and, in 1893, The Committee of Ten Sponsored by the NEA (who knew that the NEA even existed in the 1800’s?) developed a plan that greatly expanded education access and included 4 different curricula, greatly liberalizing education in the country.  Ironically it was almost 100 years to the month that President Reagan’s National Committee on Excellence in Education released its report on the status of education in the US, A Nation At Risk. It was scathing and got a lot of attention, not to mention that it provided the rationale for the ed reform strategies that we’ve all come to know and love, LOL. But what received little attention was the subtle acceptance of connection between education and the economy which had taken place during the hundred years since the Committee of Ten’s work.

Jumping back from the rabbit hole, we fast forward.

Here we are with a continuing litany of failed “fixes”.  And what’s still missing?  A clear, understandable and agreed upon sense of purpose.

But what if the problem isn’t that we don’t have “a” purpose but that we have too many.  We have purposes that range from custodial (so parents can work) to those  that are job skill related (soft skills, 21stcentury skills, etc.). We have purposes that teach social-emotional skills. We have purposes that are academic (get into the best schools).  We have purpose after purpose designated as such by those whose interests are best served by selling their particular definition (and often, solultion/s).

How do we know if we’re doing the right thing (vs. doing things right) if we don’t know/agree about what that is?  I don’t think we do.  What if trying to do the wrong things “righter” just gets us further away from identifying and doing the right thing?

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EnterPhoto by Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Why should we consider this now?  Maybe because we need to reassess what matters.  Maybe loading as many kids as possible into AP courses is not the right thing. Maybe eliminating play and recess for kids so that there is more time to “better” prepare kindergartners for the rigors of academic first grade is not the right thing. Couldn’t we at least explore why current student engagement in school learning drops from 80+% in third grade to less than 40% by grade 11?

Maybe putting kids and their parents under significant pressure to attend four years colleges, only to discover that they can find no job in their major but have amassed huge student loan debt is not the right thing.  Couldn’t we at least explore why we have increasing studies that document the dramatic rise among our adolescents in stress, anxiety, and depression? In her op ed  entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” published just last week in the New York Times, Kim Brooks offers the following:

“A 2019 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between   2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by more than 60% among those ages 14 to 17, and 47% among those ages 12 to 13.”

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Could we at least consider that we have had a roll in this development? I have no illusions that we will have a conversation about this at the federal level.  If we can’t get Congress to return from “summer break” to deal with issues of gun safety, climate change or health care costs, what’s the likelihood of them rushing back to discuss education?

But what if we created the space in our communities for such conversations?  What if we tied all future strategic plans to the development of a community consensus about the purpose of education and our schools?

OK, so why am I writing this here?  As educators, we blew a chance to help our kids when we were conspicuously silent as our kids were subjected to increasing hours of testing and test preparation… of having their value determined by a test score, of having things like recess, art, music, and electives scrapped, of having important portions of the school budgets cut so that the district could afford the technology required to administer the tests.  Oh sure, we eventually spoke up… when the regulations included the use of standardized test results for teacher evaluation. That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it Rich? Yup! But I’m as guilty as anyone, more guilty than many.  My offices in the Department of Education approved the standards and designed the specs for the NCLB assessments. I didn’t object.  I tried to make them “better”. Talk about the folly of trying to do things right!

But we, many of us as educational leaders, have the chance to move beyond simply doing things right. We have the chance to ask the questions about what the right thing is for our kids.  Is it to continue to feed the economy with the workers? Or might it be something greater? What would our school look like if we focused on  education as the search for self, or education as the process by which we and our kids seek the road to a good life, a life of empathy, soul, honesty, and wisdom?

What if, right now in our country, we’re looking at the consequences of continued avoidance of these questions?  Couldn’t we at least try?

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“Why Are We So Angry?”

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When I was a grad student many moons ago, I was enrolled in a summer session course.  I was nearing the end of my degree program and many of the course titles and experiences have blended together in my memory.  But this one stood out… not because of the content but because of one exchange that occurred between the professor and a younger (than I) student.  After the prof had shared what he considered to be the salient facts about our upcoming experience, this young man asked the equivalent of “what will we have to do to get an “A”?  The professor looked at him in silence for what seemed like an eternity and then replied, “Son, I’ve seen your future.  It doesn’t work.”

During the past few years that exchange has crept into my thinking with increasing frequency. I find myself echoing the thinking of my grad professor and am becoming increasingly convinced that our “current” is not working and our future doesn’t look all that great either.

“Wait!”…”What?” Stock market’s up. Unemployment’s down. The economy continues to grow. GDP and GNP figures are good. By traditional quantitative measures, we’re doing swell. But what if traditional quantitative measures are the wrong measures? What if qualitative measures are not so great.  What if the things that make Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc. unimaginably wealthy are not the things that are improving the quality of life for the majority of us?  Do the quantitative measures matter to those whose life expectancy is dropping to levels unheard of for rich countries? How about rising levels infant mortality, rising medical costs, rising levels of indebtedness, loss of job/retirement security, shrinking middle class, increasing concerns about access to quality educational opportunities, or over 40 consecutive years of involvement in foreign wars, etc.?

What if the story of the American Dream is no longer a reality/possibility for an increasing number of Americans?

I find myself wondering why we aren’t asking these questions.  Why haven’t I been asking them? My answer is not one I’m proud of. The short form is this… these things didn’t touch me or at least they haven’t yet.  I earned good money, have a nice home, have a boat, have a somewhat dependable public retirement pension with paid health benefits and have a family whose members are also doing well.  I donated to some charities, volunteered here and there and learned (perhaps without realizing it) not to look too closely at those around me.

In short I was “fat and happy”.

Then along came the election of 2016.  I have always tended to pick and choose my ideologies… sometimes I identify with libertarian ideas that challenge the need for big government, at other times I think of myself as a fiscal conservative – i.e., don’t spend what you don’t have — and, at still other times(and perhaps most strongly), I tend to identify as a social liberal.  I am most certainly a pacifist, having never struck another person and shying away from most conflicts. But in the aftermath of 2016, I found myself perplexed.  It seemed as if the values that I grew up with and have accepted as guideposts for living were being challenged.  At one point I described the feeling that we were fighting a battle (more use of warfare language…more about that later) for the soul of a nation. Not finding the words I needed to express this out loud I decided to explore my response. I began to read more things outside of my “vocational” area of education.  My reading was pretty undisciplined and eclectic. I read people from very varied walks of life and perspectives. I read Marianne Williamson,  Umair Haque, Jon Kabat-Zinn,  Charles Eisenstein,  Will Richardson, among others.

What did I learn? 

I learned first and foremost that I needed to act.  I need to avoid the “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” trap. I need to “do something”. (BTW…This is one of those actions.)  I learned that 2016 wasn’t the year of the attack on American values.  The “American values” that were part of the story with which I grew up were, at best, embellished as a part of the “story of America” and, at worst, were mythical.

I revised my beliefs and, hopefully, my approach to responding to this awareness. I’m not certain that you will accept and/or share these beliefs.  I’ll leave that to you.  At this point, I wonder what will happen if we all at least spend some time examining what we believe, what has informed such beliefs and how such beliefs inform/limit our actions. I’ll start with my beliefs… beliefs that come not so much from reading the work of others but by working backwards from actions to discern the rationale for those actions. I find reinforcement for this approach in schools I have visited across he country during the last 15 years or so of my work.  In these experiences,  I’ve learned that the beliefs that guide a school or a school district are not found on the mission statement that are posted on the wall by the entrance. No. The beliefs are found by observing the practices, policies, and actions that guide everyday behavior. I hope you’ll scrutinize my beliefs using that same approach… how we act reveals what we believe.

To help with that reflection, here’s an example of the frequent disconnect between statements and actual beliefs.  Not infrequently one can find some variation of the following as a mission statement in most schools.

We are dedicated to the development of independent, responsible citizens who can contribute positively and creatively to our society.

Observations:

  • In not one school did I find a survey of former graduates to assess their contributions to the society they entered.
  • In virtually every school the policies, practices and procedures screamed compliance, not independence.
  • In the vast majority of these schools if one wanted to find practice in creativity, one better head for the art classroom.  Creativity building experiences were in short supply in most other places.

My beliefs:

But first:  You’ll notice that these beliefs are not very positive. That’s the point.  It’s not that we don’t all share positive beliefs, positive traits.  We are humans that share a basic goodness, a historical trajectory towards self improvement , an innate desire to help those less fortunate, but our actions have become driven by those that I list below. 

We are in the process of writing a new story and that new story, right now, is being shaped by beliefs that we have been reluctant to confront and, often, by a sense of our powerlessness to write a more positive story. This has a predictably bad end. My goal here is not to define an action but to create a space in which you might be able to reflect and choose an action that best fits you. 

We are a violent nation.  While we abhor the instances of mass shootings, we have relied on violence as a solution to problems from our very first landing on the shores. We continued this with our response to Native American resistance, with our normalization of slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese/Americans, and with wars fought to increase our holdings and/or expand our country.  We continue embrace a language of violence in our conversations, in our policies and practices, etc.  We wage “war” on drugs, poverty, illiteracy, etc. We refer to money raised by candidates to win elections as “war chests”. We “battle” for slots on the party ticket.  We make films that lionize the “reluctant” killer (see the Taken series, the Bourne movies, etc.) who grimaces in regret as he snaps the neck of a bad guy. We glorify violence and then we wonder why our children respond to emotional anguish with school shootings.  We spend unimaginable amounts on the defense our nation and our interests around the world and laugh at the suggestion of a candidate who proposes the creation of a cabinet level Department of Peace.

We are an arrogant nation. We have believed our own press clippings about American “exceptionalism”.  We are so convinced of our own national superiority that we are unable to even look for answers to issues of health care, retirement security, immigration, etc. in countries that have already resolved or have begun to resolve such issues. Our arrogance also extends to a belief that we can inflict significant damage to our planet, firm in the belief that when it gets bad enough we will pull another rabbit out of the hat and all will be well.

We are impatient.  We have little patience for deep problem analysis, gravitating instead to a reliance and faith in quick decisive action.  Andrew Bacevitch, in his book, Limits of Power, focuses on our tendency to be seduced by a reliance on the promises of messianic leaders… leaders who announce/sell their ability and commitment to resolve issues which have remained stubbornly resistant to previous, similar approaches.

We are a country founded on principles of patriarchy. We continue a culture of male superiority.  Almost without exception, females who rise to levels of corporate or political leadership have had to “out male” their male counterparts.  Strong willed, decisive men are characterized as leaders.  Women with similar traits are labeled as difficult.

We are a nation founded on the principle of white supremacy.  This is an inherited perspective.  In his book, The Imperial Cruise, James Bradley describes Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter’s cruise to the orient and the continuation of the European “mandate” to bring civilization to countries of other races.  While this cruise took place 40 years after the conclusion of the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves in our country, it reveals a deep-seated belief in the superiority of the  white, European race.   There has been much written about this notion of white supremacy in recent months and I have little of consequence to add to the story.  I see our relationship with peoples of other ethnicities and colors to be closely related to the belief I’ve included a few paragraphs from now about the transactional value of human life.

But these might not be the most critical of our national beliefs.  Perhaps most important is the acknowledgement that we have accepted, even as the richest nation on earth, that we live in a world of scarcity.  Life in our country is a zero sum game. In the wealthiest country the world has ever known, we feel we must continue to acquire because of the belief that there’s not enough for all of us.  Those who acquire much are praised and cited as proof of the reality of the American Dream.  But in a time of scarcity what someone else gains, I can’t have – i.e., we can’t give money to poor people; if we do I’ll have less. We believe that if someone gains, I must lose.   There are winners and losers.  Winners worked hard, losers not so much.  Those who didn’t achieve as much or perhaps not even enough to enjoy the middle class version of the American Dream have only themselves to blame.  They didn’t work hard enough.

Closely related to the zero-sum belief is the belief that life has no inherent value beyond its contribution to the economy– i.e., the value of life is measured by what one contributes to the economy. This, in effect, makes all life transactional, a part of the deal. A direct result of this belief is the consequence that the majority of people in our country report feeling unvalued. We need to at least consider that, increasingly as individuals,  we have simply become resources for profit driven quantitative measures of progress. In my own chosen field of work, education, we have come to value education not because of the contribution it makes to living a good life or how it contributes to the betterment of our society, but to the extent that “good” education (again measured in quantitative terms – i.e., large-scale assessments) provides good workers for the economy.  It is no accident that business leaders and business organizations – i.e., Chambers of Commerce – have become key policy setters in past several decades.

As I get close to wrapping this up, I’m going to add one final belief for your consideration.  I want to give credit for this to Charles Eisenstein.  Charles spoke about this at the gathering I attended and has written about it in his essay, The Age of We Need Each Other.

We are living in an Age of Separation.  Let me share more about this.

Over the course of my lifetime I have seen us grow increasingly separate from one another

  • It’s not uncommon for us not to know even basic information about our own neighbors, let alone people of different races or ethnicity.
  • We have become increasingly polarized in our opinions – i.e., the chasm between the position that our national security/identity is threatened by the current large influx of refugees vs. the reconciliation of such positions with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor – your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
  • We see increasing examples of our inability/unwillingness to engage in civil discourse with people with whom we disagree… better to circle the wagons of our own tribe.

I’ve seen us become increasingly separate from our institutions.

  • We no longer trust our schools.
  • We no longer trust our elected officials.
  • We even find it increasingly difficult to trust our clergy.

I have also see us become increasingly separate from our own planet.

  • We cannot agree on the threat of global warming or even the accuracy of the science.
  • We have eliminated a huge percentage of the insects on our planet… not acknowledging that if we kill something approaching half of the actual life on the planet, we may be placing our own survival at risk.
  • We continue to treat the planet as a source of unlimited natural resources – i.e., oil, precious metals, fresh water, forests, etc.

You might think this is a pretty dismal conclusion. But I’d suggest it’s not the conclusion. Rather it’s an observation. It’s not cast in stone, unless we opt to continue as observers in our own demise.

The conclusion is that we can forge a path that can be a positive response to these beliefs. It is the path that focuses on empathy rather than anger. It is the path that seeks connection rather than separation. It’s a path that moves the conversation beyond our agreement/disagreement with the actions of a single leader.  It a path that requires us to identify what matters and who we want to be. It’s a path that suggests that we answer questions such as…

  • I wonder why in the richest country on earth, we feel and act on a sense of scarcity?
  • I wonder what would happen if we were to seek answers to critical questions rather than respond with rigid ideologies?
  • Couldn’t we at least try make this a land of sufficiency for all?
  • What would happen if we acknowledged that solving problems is not aided by “win/lose” thinking?

The path to these questions requires an action… an action beyond seeing our future unfold on the nightly news or being shaped by the opinions of cable news pundits.  What that action is isn’t for me to define.  It’s for each of us… as an “each” and as an “us”.

Be well.

The Age of Separation…Who are we as a country? What is our direction? Who can/should we become?

Question #1 – Can empathy be the answer to separation?

Ithinker-28741_1280n my introductory post to this series, I shared that I found myself increasingly preoccupied with questions about who we are, who we are becoming, who do we want to be.  In this post I’m going to begin that exploration.   Today, I’m going to draw heavily on two essays by Charles Eisenstein. Why Charles Eisenstein you might ask (right after “who the hell is he?”)?  His essays will give you a pretty good picture. You can read them  here and here.

After reading his work and more about him, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to attend a 3-day “More Beautiful World Gathering”.  The program was built around Charles book, The more Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and was an expanded version of previous, smaller retreats led by Charles.  It was one of Charles’ first attempts to take his thinking and his successful appearance on Oprah’s  Super Soul Sunday to a larger audience (about 200).

One of my primary reasons for going to see Charles was that I was anxious to hear more about what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  I resonated with his thinking. While I have blogging and on-line community “friends” throughout the country and even outside of the US, I know only two of my neighbors even after a year of our move to this home.

This post will focus on what I sense to be a response to our increasing separation.

A few years ago when I was still actively consulting, I began to rely on the metaphor of “the story” to help communicate that we are in a time of significant change… change which has largely invalidated a story that many of us grew up with.  That story reads somewhat as follows…

If you follow a certain path conscientiously you will succeed in life. That path involved going to school, working hard, getting good grades, going to college, graduating, getting a good job, and enjoying a secure future (including retirement).  If you’re my age you heard this story fairly regularly. 

In my consultant work for the past few years I shared that, although we are still sharing this story, for many young people today, the story is a lie or, perhaps more charitably, a fable.  You don’t have to be a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, to accept that the “old story” is dead.  All you have to do to understand this on a very visceral level is know the parent of a child who has recently finished college, has accumulated massive debt, and can find no job in their chosen field.  All you have to be is a worker whose wages have been stagnant for several decades or a retiree whose pension no longer exists.  If the old story were still “alive” there would have been no need for the call to “Make America Great Again.

Whether or not we like it, we are now living in a time between stories.  And in that space we are growing increasingly isolated from one another… a growing sense of separation.  We see and hear obvious examples of the dead or dying old story.

While we grew up with a story that anyone could grow up to be a millionaire, and we read of stories about the Gates, Bezos, Musks, etc., we see increasing examples of people losing their homes to pay medical bills, we see decreasing longevity, high infant mortality rates, shrinking membership in the middle class and a growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few. It appears that we may be living the poorest wealthy country in history.

We appear to be in the process of writing a new story and this new story shapes up as an Age of Separation… a time when we have become increasingly separate from one another, separate from our institutions, and even separate from our planet.  I don’t think I have to dwell on that idea as I sense that, while we may not have used such a label, we have experienced a growing sense of such separation. While I have “friends” on Facebook, I don’t know my neighbors.

I imagine that, if we consider it for a bit, we each have stories about our own growing sense of separation, our own growing sense of distrust.  Can I trust big corporations like Facebook or Google with my personal data? What news outlet can I trust to provide me with accurate, factual information?   Do I sense that my elected officials (even those for whom I voted) are acting in my best interests?

What I like most about Eisenstein’s thinking and writing is that he is more than a chronicler of doom.  He offers options. The option he offers for separation is empathy.  Let me share a personal story…

Not long ago we needed some electrical work done on our “new” home.  The previous owner was great about leaving info about service providers and I contacted the person whose name the previous owner had written on the electrical panel.  The electrician arrived, did his work and then as we were settling up the bill, he approached me with a Hilary Clinton crying towel and the question, “Do you like Trump?” My first reaction was, “Oh, oh… back to the yellow pages.”

To avoid a clumsy ending to his visit, I shared that it was a bit early for me to judge his record but I was not comfortable with him as a person and his disdain for my values. Then I remembered Charles and his prescription… empathy… what is it like to be the other person.

So I invited the gentleman in for a cup of coffee and I asked him about his story.  While he certainly didn’t convince me to change my opinion of the president, he did help me understand why Trump seemed like a good choice to him.  We didn’t convert one another but I did manage to avoid a search in the yellow pages.  More importantly, I gained a respect for him and for the power of empathy.

I’ve realized that I am a notoriously slow learner.  I’m not proud of the fact that it’s taken so long for empathy to become a part of my working vocabulary.  My experience/epiphany hardly counts as a research study. Can you see empathy as an antidote for separation?  Can you recall (and share) some of your experiences with empathy (either on the giving or receiving end)?  My millions of followers would love to hear your experiences.

PS This isn’t about chest thumping.  You can share and still be humble.