In an article on Al Jazeera published on September 1, Kathleen Siddell, a freelance writer and former teacher who lives in Southern California, made a compelling case concerning the question that many parents on the West Coast (and elsewhere) were concerned about at that moment of history. She sets the scene by evoking the atmosphere at the close of a “sundrenched pandemic summer” in the US. Siddell can be forgiven for not anticipating the sun-obscured skyscapes as a result of massive wildfires that only days later began to impose a foreboding darkness over much of the entire West Coast.
Siddell formulated the concern by asking four questions: “What will school look like? How will we manage work and school? Will we survive? How is this changing us?” This is not a trivial issue. The same dilemma is taking place across the globe. Siddell frames the existential question facing parents and their children as a strategic quandary: “how to balance academics, social-emotional health and work.”
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With flames engulfing vast swaths of the land, including homes and schools, some of Siddell’s California neighbors may feel that wondering about the methods of education in a post-pandemic world has become irrelevant. There are more urgent matters to address.
Fires burn out, pandemics abate and the transformation of the Earth into a furnace by the year 2300, as Live Science reported last week, at least theoretically leaves us some time to think. For many reasons, remodeling education should be at the top of our list of priorities, even as a response to climate change. Knowledge and understanding theoretically lead to problem-solving. Ignorance comforts the status quo.
Political leaders in the US still focus on how to keep inflating the defense budget that fuels the US economy. President Donald Trump is the prime offender, but Joe Biden has consistently backed increased defense spending. Education spending, not so much. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, wants to make access to education easier but appears to have no ideas about how to make it better or even prevent its collapse. Trump, on the other hand, positively prefers people being uneducated.
As a mother and a former teacher, Siddell has some important things to say. At a moment of history in which the authority of every institution appears to have collapsed, education can play in defining society’s values and ideals. The fire of educational dysfunction has been raging for decades and the damage it has caused partially explains our institutional failures. But only a few have taken the valuable time in their competitive lives even to think about how that fire might be put out.
Siddell identifies one of the major problems that afflict society at its core: “As another season wanes and back-to-school approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus has not reminded us to slow down, it has amplified our collective anxiety about keeping up.” School, she tells us, is where that anxiety is born and nourished.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The goal everyone in a competitive society is expected to adopt, which, when accepted, serves to produce collective anxiety based on the idea that there will always be some greater possession or higher position one must strive to attain simply because other people appear to have attained it
If we make the wild supposition that civilization will not already have collapsed by the time the world achieves a coveted state of herd immunity to COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — education may well be the one thing that requires our undivided attention. The mandatory lockdown and elaborate precautions now governing social interactions have already obliged most people to begin rethinking the three major issues that affect our daily lives: the nature of work, the source of stable revenue and education.
Many suppose the solutions for work will come from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Revenue can be solved with a universal basic income. But there’s no silver bullet in view for education, and certainly not distance learning on a screen, though it will be a prized component for access to content.
Siddell sums up what education has represented for most of the past century: “We have created an education system based on competition. We are teaching our kids how to become dutiful participants in the rat race.” The problem is that the rules that governed the 20th-century rat race economy have begun to change. Education hasn’t. The rat race alienated both adults and children from society and the world, isolating them in their competitive bubbles. Siddell complains that “the hyper-competitiveness of education seemed to be working directly against cultivating a genuine curiosity about the world and a love of learning. Students were burned out, stressed out and grade-obsessed.” She subversively suggests that “competition is counter-intuitive to learning” in a society where people have to learn to be competitive.
Our civilization must either rethink the role of education in society or simply confess its conviction that education has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with producing the collective anxiety caused when life itself is seen as a Darwinian fight for survival of the fittest (i.e., those with the best grades).
2020 appears to be the year collective anxiety across the globe reached a fever pitch so intense that the masquerade of our society functioning as a rational system finally became visible to all. COVID-19 may appear in history as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For the first reality has found a way of overtaking the increasingly elaborate hyperreality our society has been patiently building since the start of the industrial revolution. For many decades, effective hyperreality, the key to political control, was built on the “science” of marketing, advertising and industrially produced entertainment. Democratic politics itself became a simple sector of the consumer economy to be managed by unelected professionals. Some of them had names visible to the public, like Roger Stone, James Carville and Steve Bannon. But the system was fueled by armies of what could be called anonymous electoral engineers.
More recently, the hyperreal system integrated the tools of hypermodernity: big data, AI, capitalism’s “creative destruction,” Silicon Valley’s “disruptive innovation” and of course the powerful, increasingly concentrated corporate media’s supreme commitment to conflating news and entertainment. Hyperreal globalized capitalism became an economic and cultural juggernaut that brooked no opposition, achieving imperial conquest when the still nominally Marxist People’s Republic of China completed its apprenticeship of the black arts dedicated to managing human impulses through the control of consumerist ambitions and desires.
The only avenue left for reality to overcome hyperreality was through global catastrophe, the revenge of nature itself, not of subversive movements led by fragile human beings. Most people aware of the force of hyperreality expected global warming to do the job. But its effects were too gradual to create anything resembling an awakening. Thanks to the coronavirus, 2020 turned out to be the year the underlying trends finally became visible. Even political leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker committed to sustaining the hyperreal system, at one point appeared to admit defeat.
Kathleen Siddell believes that education should be less about grooming for competition and more about seeing the world as it is, which includes understanding the historical trends mentioned above. Perception and social exchange are the only legitimate starting point for learning. Instead, our reformers of education who have reacted to the crisis are proposing mechanical solutions.
Siddell complains that “the tutors and pods and micro-schools are just another reminder that none of these reforms has actually worked. In the American education game, it is still the richest who win.” She regrets that “we are staring at the pieces of a broken system and rushing to put it back exactly as it was before.”
That commitment to stasis is clearly the intention of those who continue to run the hyperreal show. But for someone living in California in September 2020, it may be time to pay attention to the warnings of another author, the late James Baldwin, who in 1963 correctly anticipated a future he would not see. The “next time” is already here. In 2020, it’s the fire this time.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.