When Charles Darwin was hanging around the Galapagos Islands, theorizing about how species develop and what the mechanism for natural selection might be, I'm sure he never imagined that he would become the poster boy for the Industrial Age and the raison d'etre for a whole system of thinking based on that competitive "law of the jungle" mentality--Social Darwinism. We like to think that this sort of misappropriation of Darwin's ideas has gone the way of high-button shoes, but, alas, it keeps cropping up, cloaked in newer terms, in the midst of budget debates, policy debates, and even school reform debates. In fact, if we pull up the corners of the 21st century and look underneath, we will be amazed to find that these Victorian-era ideas about "survival of the fittest" underpin--at this very moment--the structure of society.
We can find the symptoms everywhere, from gun-toting "cowboys" in Southern Arizona to student bullies on Facebook, to corporate loopholes for avoiding taxes--to the very fact that we are afraid, as social beings, to let go of our competitiveness because we may be eaten alive, or more importantly, be ostracized from the group. The idea that "I'm rich, what's the matter with you?" is still the foundation for Western society is not so surprising when we realize that the go-go '80s with their emphasis on "conspicuous consumption" and the ludicrous concept of "trickle-down economics" have not yet faded from the public scene, no matter how far in the past the Industrial Revolution may be.
Thus, when schools are rife with bullying, when cyberbullying takes the fight for survival to an even more dangerous level, when kids take guns to school, when gangs, drop-outs, drugs, and disaffection continue to devour student populations--why are we not noticing that these issues are connected and tell us something troubling about our very social system? Surely, these are symptoms of our social dysfunction and part of our urgent need for large-scale change in our institutions, our habits, our ways of thinking.
As for the school debate, despite the rash of profiteers who want to cash in on charter schools, online learning, and bigger and better "standardized tests," at some point we need to say, "The Emperor has no clothes," and call for an end to the Darwinian fantasy that enmeshes us. (Sorry, Charles, you were just in the right place at the wrong time). I guess this is why I keep saying that "Changing the Schools Can Change the World," despite being labeled as a "visionary" (code word for impractical dreamer), an "idealist" (ditto), or utopian thinker (really?).
So just let me lay it out right here, succinctly: Our outdated school system that is based on dividing kids into statistical groups, academic tracks, social subgroups, racial groups, and competitive pecking orders is the very embodiment of Social Darwinism in action. The engine for this ongoing disconnect, separation, and have-vs.-have-not thinking is our overblown system of "standardized testing," a bureaucratic and corporate superstructure that has been growing exponentially (again, from the mid-'80s) as public "proof" not of our failures, but of our unwillingness to fit into tight little boxes anymore. Thus, it is not schools that are failing, but we who are failing schools.
If we want to create what the first George Bush liked to call "a kinder, gentler nation" (a phrase that I always thought out of character for a former CIA director), we must begin with changing the structure of our schools. This "visionary" foresees schools as community centers, in EVERY community, where teachers coach thinking and creativity, services are provided for families, students work to discover their gifts and hone their talents, and curriculum and instruction are based on connections among disciplines, teamwork, and the tools of technology. Schools are the foundation for social progress, so let's stop talking about statistics and make some changes that count . . . .
Small, personalized, collaborative venues create students and teachers (and parents, and communities) who care about each other, and that, my friends, is the antidote to all of the ills laboriously outlined above. No more dog-eat-dog, let's-all-compete-and-see-who-dies-first, if-I-can't-get-into-Harvard-I'm-going-to-kill-myself, who-makes-the-most-money-that's-where-I'm-going scenarios for our kids. It's a new millennium and way past time to move beyond the Industrialists' high-jacking of Darwin. The new road to human evolution leads to a much different place, where (yes, idealistically, all right!) we can work together to improve the planet, our lives, others' lives, and our children's future.