Education’s Challenge: Don’t Play It Again Sam!

First a bit of history. I wrote this essay in 1971 when I was at the time finishing my Doctorate and was the Director of the University of Wisconsin Extension Service’s Regional Arts Program. I post it because when I recently came across it I was struck by how little the issues facing public school education  have changed since then. Credit and many thanks to: REGIONAL HISTORY CENTER NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY and: Margret Abbott, Assistant University Archivist, Regional History Center, Founders Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb Illinois 60115


Education’s Challenge: “Don’t Play It Again, Sam”

At a time when the world is crying out for relief from its social and environ-mental crisis our response must come in the form of radical departures from “business as usual” in the schools. Misplaced intelligence and well intentioned ignorance have made American schools like factories 1. With production came dehumanization and its consequences insensitivity to self, others and nature. The production view of education persists because of its appeal to those who fear human nature and who have deep needs for social control as well as for proof of status. At this moment the “in” euphemism for production .is “accountability”. Industrial conglomerates faced with dwindling business become the modem counterparts of the corporate management specialists and social efficiency experts of the early 1900’s. Schools are guaranteed results specified in advance this time through the application of space age technology. A new automated production line replaces the old piece-work methodology but the essential characteristics remain, Specified behavioral objectives are the stuff these dreams arc made of. Discrete bits of sanctified knowledge, neatly packaged, conveniently presented, and, above all, easily tested for are the substance of production. That children can be specified, designed produced, and quality-controlled like ball-bearings Is both the promise and the threat or these educational schemes. The children are to become dimensionally uniform – and as humane – as the perfect ball-bearings.

It is not that behavioral objectives are in themselves objectionable. The manner in which they are used to supersede the needs and intentions of individual persons is objectionable. When the goals of a few override the goals of individuals politically, we call it totalitarianism. When the goals of teachers and administrators similarly transcend the needs and intentions of children, it is called education. The more perfectly a school controls the behavior and training of its students the more favor it finds from those who have been conditioned to believe that this is all that is possible. As this cycle continues and the more deeply entrenched the ideas become, the greater the distance between man and his humane possibilities becomes. The more production-oriented the system, the more insensitive the “product” and the more remote the individual from the intricate and delicate interactions of nature.

Outdoor education is, at this point, in an enviable position. Educators are at the door asking for new behavioral objectives. At every conference the cry is, “Tell us what to teach and we’ll teach it.” The temptation is to haul out every-thing the outdoor educator has been trying to do for the past so many years.

Enormous lists of environmental concepts are being generated, card-filed, computerized, video-taped, cassette recorded, ad absurdum. And for what purpose? To replace old behavioral objectives with new one ? Objectives which are in step with the time and which would be proof positive that the     schools are keeping up and are responding to the environmental crisis? “Just give us the new specifications and we’ll get the new model on the assembly line.” Do we want to be party to this? Do we think the “new”. product will be more humane, more sensitive, or more responsive to the environment because the new specifications have been drawn up in our comer? If the present methodology does not work with present objectives (which, incidentally, are not so different from the new lists of environ-mental concepts) it isn’t going to work any better simply because the new objectives are more to our liking. The problem isn’t in the objectives but in the processes built into our educational systems from kindergarten to the universities.

All of us have had, at one time or another, experiences which reinforce this analysis. For instance, at a curriculum workshop conducted by a State Department of Instruction, my object was to help a group to define the terms concept, generalization, process, and evaluation. As we exchanged our views over these difficult words I remarked that, as human beings, “We are all process.” From birth to death, we are a synergistic collection of many and diverse processes. I was sharply rebutted by an elementary school principal, “I’m no process and that’s that!” It was difficult to convince him of what I took to be a self-evident truth. When we broke up the group, I could see that he was quite taken with this new perspective but for myself, I was deeply disturbed. As humans, especially in industrial societies, we have been so removed from a fundamental view of ourselves, from what we are as living organisms in the world, it is small wonder that we are capable of destroying our natural environment in so many ways. I am reminded of Lewis Mumford’s statement, in which he points out that in order for man to survive the dehumanized aspects of his work and existence he has had to tum his back on his more organic interests and become himself, a subsidiary machine.2

But nature knows no machines. Everything in nature from diatoms to mountain chains, from river beds to trilliums, everything is a process, a state of becoming. Nature knows no end products, no finalities. The remains of an extinct species fertilizes the earth so that new forms grow. Man, too, is both a process in himself and a part of the total process of the biosphere. It stands to reason then that when his actions violate this precious equation, disaster is the inevitable result. While few would argue this point with regard to Lake Erie or Los Angeles smog, fewer still would acknowledge the more pervasive but no less pernicious effects of mis-education.

What then is specifically amiss in modern education? Firstly, when people do not think of themselves as being a part of something, they are unable to respond to life in appropriate ways. When a relationship is based on conquering or having dominion over, be it social or environmental, it is not predisposed to loving interaction. When men feel that they are not themselves process, much less a part of a larger process, how can they feel nature, how can they help but be in conflict with the environment? They are already in conflict with themselves as individuals and as a species.

Before we can get at the root causes of environmental problems, then, education must take new forms-forms which are themselves consonant with natural processes. We must promote reforms of the fundamental concepts of public education away from production models, social control, and behavioral conditioning. We must find forms which respond to the needs of learners, which promote self-direction and self-control, which encourage community responsibility counting the environment (and all of the people and life in it) as an inseparable part of that community. The environmental problem has to be solved in the primary environment of human experience-the self. People must come to know themselves as fully functioning beings capable of influencing the circumstances of their lives before they can be expected to act in behalf of the natural environment which includes the forests, cities, marshes, and oceans. The environment which is to be cared for is what is around them and not something “over there” that some naturalist is concerned about. The ecosystem of a city slum is as much a part of the biosphere as Hell’s Canyon in Idaho. And outdoor education has a great and obvious responsibility to the inner city child just as it does to the preservation of the Blue Heron. Preserve one and not the other and you have nothing; love the child and preserve the Heron and you have everything. Give that child a view of himself as vital and capable, and then we will perhaps save the environment.

Outdoor educators concerned with self-image should recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, a great outdoor educator, “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines or rather indicates his fate.”3 Man polluted the environment and man must un-pollute it. We cannot solve the problem but at its source -and the source is self. REFERENCES 1. Kliebard, Herbert M., “Bureaucracy and Curriculum Theory,” Freedom, Bureaucracy, and Schooling, 1971 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2. Mumford, Lewis, Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 1952.            3. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden. The New American Library, 1960. from the opening essay entitled, “Economy”.



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