Changing Thinking

Deschooling Society CoverChanging Thinking (Reaction to Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society)

After reading the first chapter of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, I felt something like a cheerleader rooting for the home team. With no significant exceptions, I agreed with his characterizations about problematic schools created by and perpetuated within by a problematic society (thinking about the U.S. specifically). I concurred with his analysis and the presentation of his arguments regarding the economic wastes associated with schooling; the cycle of dependency that schools create within the society; the misplaced trust and reliance on credentials or certifications; the instilled presumption that children (and adults) must learn within the context of a school or else “learning” doesn’t take place; the inevitable and inarguable social divisions that schools exacerbate; and, perhaps most indicting, the fact that despite ever-increasing resources and expenditures, the gap continues to widen between the actual performance of schools compared to the expectations of the communities which support them.

However, after standing to cheer Illich for his “victory” in articulating the problems, I found myself dealing with a similar dissolution as I felt with Freire. Once again, I interpreted a major disconnect between the insightful diagnosis of a dire, perhaps intractable, institutional failing, and the resulting grand pronouncements of an ideologically-consistent but pragmatically- unworkable “non-starter” of a prescription. When I read Illich’s admission on page 73 that the “educational institutions I will propose, however, are meant to serve a society which does not now exist,” my inclination was to throw the book to the floor — so why even bother? At what point do these intellectually-gifted but reality-challenged revolutionary theorists acknowledge that they do not have the luxury of starting clean, without the dirty constraints of a real world peopled by real people who continue to act everyday in accordance with an established set of ideals, attitudes, presumptions, beliefs, expectations, and uncompromising demands?

Thankfully, and appreciatively, that point was exhibited yesterday in Bill Moyers’ interview with Myles Horton regarding his Highlander School. Rather than theorize about an idyllic prescription to manifest “the revolution,” Horton chose to take the approach that engineers might call a “prototype” or “proof of principle.” On a small scale, he implemented big ideas. He demonstrated in action the first necessary change required for “the revolution” — that people can learn to think differently from what they have been taught; indeed, they can learn to think for themselves, as themselves.

I don’t recall that Horton talked specifically about changing thinking, but I interpreted this from his comment that (paraphrasing) we’re about people, not institutions, and nothing will change until we change.

I immediately recalled the quote attributed to Einstein, in various forms, that I’ve noted as, “The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.” I believe that Myles Horton lived the principle that Einstein advocated; not only did he change the way he thought about problems, he taught (or facilitated) others to change their own thinking. I also infer from his comment to Moyers that Horton understood the abstract nature of what our language reifies as institutions. Institutions are created, perpetuated, and peopled by people. Therefore to change an institution, you have to change the people who people that institution. And the first step in the change process is to change the thinking.

Two recent experiences illustrate the effects of “institutional” thinking that has not changed because the thinking of individuals has not changed.

Yesterday morning I left my apartment at 6:45a to walk to the Santa Fe Depot to catch the train to Albuquerque. As soon as I stepped outside I heard a low-level humming noise that I first associated with a lawn mower. Within two blocks of the downtown post office, I located the noise source as a worker with a backpack-mounted gasoline-powered leaf blower who was clearing the employee parking lot on the north side of the post office. (I assume stronger-than-usual winds the night before could be blamed for whatever needed to be blown.) My first judgmental reaction was about the early morning noise pollution created by this worker, which caused me to ask myself rhetorically, “why couldn’t you just use a broom?” Not only would that not disturb the neighbors within a three-block radius, but you wouldn’t be wasting gasoline and burning more carbon.

I contemplated this question all the way to the Depot. I came to the conclusion that this worker, and undoubtedly his employer who contracted with whatever governmental entity managed the facilities for the post office, chose to use the gasoline-powered leaf blower because it was the most time- and cost-efficient solution. Assuming the parking lot needed to be leaf-free, the leaf blower might get the job done in a fraction of the time that it would take the same worker to sweep the leaves with a broom. For the contractor, the cost of the gasoline, the emissions, and the noise were insignificant as compared to his out-of-pocket hourly cost for the labor. With the more efficient blower, the contractor could offer the facility manager a good value proposition — for perhaps no more than $20 cost to the manager, the contractor would give her a leaf-free lot (assuming an hour of labor with applicable overheads and profit).

But I kept thinking, why not the broom? If it took the worker an hour with the leaf blower, would it take that much longer with a broom? Which led me to question the need for clearing the lot in the first place; how much was it really worth for the manager to have a leaf-free lot? Would she pay $1,000? Obviously not. Was it worth $50, if that’s what the broom method cost? Maybe, maybe not. So from the manager’s standpoint, there was only value to be gained from the work if the cost for the work was minimal. The leaf blower, powered by a small amount of affordable gasoline, provided the means for this value proposition to be satisfactory to all parties. Except me, of course, and perhaps a few of my sleep-deprived neighbors. What’s there to even think about?

Well, just last week Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” highlighted in brilliant, comedic detail the decades-old institutional thinking that has maintained and assured the value proposition for small gasoline engines — and big ones. The day after President Obama’s Oval Office declaration to the nation that “now is the moment” for this generation of Americans to “seize control of our own destiny” regarding foreign oil dependence, Stewart’s team pieced together video footage from each of the seven presidents preceding Obama who pronounced similar pablum about petroleum. Beginning with Nixon in 1974, who promised to “break the back of the energy crisis, to meet America’s needs from America’s resources,” each decried our dependence on foreign oil and extolled our can-do ability to break that dependence. For Nixon in 1974, the target date was 1980; for Ford in 1975, 1985; for Carter in 1979, 2000; for Bush in 2006, merely a 75% reduction by 2025. (Apparently, good things don’t always come to those who wait.) Each president touted new technologies, new ideas, new know-how, etc. But yet, if we can consider the U.S. demand for foreign oil as a cancerous pathology, rather than an addiction, it would seem the cancer has now metastasized beyond any foreseeable cure that would not, in turn, kill the patient.

I argue that this particular cancer is the result of self-serving, yet collaborative, institutional thinking by corporate entities that are too big to be displaced. Oil companies, natural gas companies, the drilling industries, the refineries, the automobile manufacturers, parts suppliers, and all the businesses, schools, and government tax bases that depend on petroleum cannot allow thinking that obviates their products and services. Without attributing any more nefarious motives to them other than self-interested profitability and desire to maintain the petroleum-based status quo, these corporate interests, together with their governmental accomplices, have facilitated the fallacious thinking that we can just “keep on keeping on” with respect to our “American way of life.”

The success of this institutionalized message/thought control is that, for many (most?) Americans, the post-BP spill national priority ought to simply be a return to “normal” as soon as possible. The thought that this type of thinking could be debated, or even considered, seems … unthinkable.

It’s ironic-to-me that in 1974, when Nixon first proposed energy independence as a national objective, there was nothing known as a “personal computer.” The following year, a small company in Albuquerque built a kit known as the Altair 8800 that was featured on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine. Two friends at Harvard, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, bought the magazine and rushed to Albuquerque to convince the Altair’s designer and owner, Ed Roberts, that they could write the software for the Altair. They eventually left to form their own company, Microsoft. In 1976, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs formed Apple Computer in California. Thus was born the personal computer industry.

So in the past 36 years, one industry —personal computing — was created and has grown beyond any realistic expectations, while another industry — petroleum — has steadily grown, despite repeated pronouncements by presidents that this cannot be sustained. So while our thinking about computers has changed dramatically, our thinking about petroleum — and all its economical, ecological, and environmental consequences — has not. It would seem that we Americans can adapt our thinking to assimilate new and inventive and innovative discontinuities (like personal computers), but we have a hard time accepting the inevitable discontinuities associated with displacing or obviating long-established institutions that have satisfactorily served us in the past, and at the present.

Therefore initiatives like Myles Horton’s Highlander School are needed now more than ever, with ever-increasing stakes, but for the same purpose — not to promote change that can be believed in, but change in thinking that inexorably necessitates action.