What is to be done?

As I wrote in the last post, neoliberal market values, modernist assumptions, and government efforts to rationalize, standardize, measure, and control educational practice in the name of accountability significantly limit the ways we view and engage in educational practice at all levels. These underlying values and assumptions have resulted in regimes of accountability, testing, and control over what goes on in classrooms being removed from those closest to the educational process (local communities, teachers, students). The agendas, values, and interests of politicians, business leaders, educational administrators, and bureaucrats have taken precedence over the interests of educators and local communities in determining what is learned, how it is learned, and how it is assessed. It is anti-democratic and ultimately weakens local initiative, self-reliance, and community.

Much of the rhetoric about 21st century education, skills, and classrooms continues to serve narrow instrumental purposes to support economic productivity and growth, business interests, and further corporate and market intrusion into education. An example of this is offered in a recent Rethinking Schools article on the ways EdTPA teacher assessment system by Pearson, Inc. has entered into teacher education. There are other examples (also see this article by Joanne Barkan in Dissent or this article by Kristin Brennan in Sojourners).

The question is what is to be done. What alternatives are there?

As Grace Lee Boggs (1998) notes in Living for Change, “All over the world today we are obviously living in that in-between period of historical time when great numbers of people are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative.” More and more people are realizing that systems we have in place are no longer working and in fact are causing the problems we face. However, Boggs sees this as an opportunity to look at ourselves and reorder our priorities. Boggs envisions possibilities for new forms of grassroots politics in which new ways of thinking and relating to each other can be created in local struggles and actions. She believes that “the struggle to rebuild and control our communities is the wave of the future,” and argues that developing local strategies will transform human consciousness and people’s sense of political and social responsibility.

We need examples of alternatives, where we see local communities and teachers and students resisting corporate and state influence to determine and develop their own forms of education. We need to help each other imagine and create alternative futures. As Boggs notes, this requires people of widely differing views and backgrounds coming together around a vision. This vision must emerge from the ground up, from people doing things for themselves.

Like Boggs, I think this means reordering our priorities or creating new sets of values (or re-establishing older traditions and values) that enable people to develop their own creative potential and the social good. We need 21st century values to undergird 21st century education. In our book, James and I call for practices of relational cosmopolitanism in schools, grounded in a feminist ethics of care, concern, and connection as well as commitments to public deliberation in what Martha Nussbaum (1997) calls “communities of reason.” This is an ethic or set of values based on new relationships to the planet, to each other, to work, to community.

Pankaj Mishra, in his excellent book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, highlights the role of several Asian intellectuals (e.g., Tagore, Liang Qichao, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani) who saw Western-style politics, science, culture, and economics as unhealthily obsessed with material and technological progress and inherently violent and destructive to Asian cultures. This view of the destructiveness of Western modernity is aptly summed up by Mishra’s citation of Zhang Junmai:

The fundamental principles upon which our nation is founded are quietism, as opposed to [Western] activism; spiritual satisfaction, as opposed to the striving for material advantage; a self-sufficient agrarianism, as opposed to profit-seeking mercantilism; and a morally transforming sense of brotherhood rather than racial segregation…

Mishra notes these intellectuals dealt with the existential and cultural threat posed by Western imperialism by re-asserting and applying their own traditions and values to determine what to accept and what to reject from the West. Mishra highlights how these intellectuals responded to the West and we have much to learn from these examples.

We need to consider what values can similarly help us respond to, resist, and reject those forces that are threatening communities everywhere as well as the global community. I also had the opportunity to read Christopher Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, on the plane ride from the US back to Singapore. Lasch similarly sees the need to re-establish populist civic virtues that emphasize:

  • High standards of personal conduct (e.g., moral courage, honesty, mutual respect and trust, decency, responsibility, workmanship, sobriety, self-improvement);
  • The moral condemnation of excessive wealth, greed, unlimited accumulation, and extreme luxury;
  • Self-criticism and the discipline against self-righteousness;
  • Self-reliance (large-scale production, consumerism, and corporatization and centralization weaken self-reliance and local initiative);
  • Equality and egalitarianism as moral imperatives.

For Lasch,

A public philosophy for the 21st century will have to give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision. It will have to emphasize responsibilities rather than rights. It will have to find a better expression of the community than the welfare state. It will have to limit the scope of the market and the power of corporations without replacing them with a centralized bureaucracy.

Both Lasch and Boggs see the virtues essential to civic life (loyalty, trust, accountability, responsibility, etc.) as best developed in local communities where we are encouraged to make something of ourselves while being willing to impose difficult demands on ourselves and each other (to live satisfying lives). It is in communities that we learn to appreciate the satisfaction that is gained by service to ideals and to others. These communities enable more direct say in setting standards, setting necessary limits, and holding each other accountable in ways that benefit the public good.

In the 21st century we need to rethink and revise our values for the challenges we face. We must do this together, through deliberation in our communities. It is not enough to solely focus on so-called 21st century skills without considering the values that will guide how we want to live our lives, make life on earth sustainable, make moral and spiritual progress, and live according to a sense of justice. We need 21st century standards for justice, truth, mutual respect, community, and the common good. As Alasdair Macintyre notes, moral rules and values have to be understood in new ways in new contexts, with new forms of status, authority, and justification. This is what is really needed for education in the 21st century.

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