Learning to Live (and Living to Learn)

11 minute read (2292 words)

It’s a beautiful spring day and you’re walking through the streets of your hometown. Passing down the avenues of your childhood, you revel in the many sights and smells, nostalgic yet ever-familiar. In your wandering, you happen to find yourself at your old middle school, an imposing brick learning structure thrust upon the landscape with the typical architectural sensibilities of Cold War era infrastructure. Out of a sense of wistful curiosity, you walk up and take a peek into one of the windows, but what you find inside catches you off guard.

Rows of children sit in straight lines, crammed into desks. From the front of the room, a teacher drones unenthusiastically to a mostly distracted crowd. Some kids doodle. Some are passing notes. A few look engaged, but predominantly, it’s glazed eyes and blank stares. In contrast to the overwhelming drowsiness, you see a surprising amount of bouncing legs, belying an undercurrent of anxious energy. After a moment, you duck away from the window, but the scene sticks with you.

As you walk, you begin to question: What good is it doing those kids to be penned up like that all day? Is that really the best way we can think of to channel all that energy? The sun shines down, and you gaze at the beautiful day around you, but the streets feel strangely empty. As you sit with a growing sense of disquiet, you can’t help but wonder: What is education for?

“What is education for?

The ideal setting for learning, growth, and exploration. Sign me up!

Our educational system, as currently constructed, is the product of an industrialized society. When children turn five, we insert them into an educational model that more or less resembles an assembly line. Treated as commodities, students are given almost no agency as they progress down preordained pathways of learning. Knowledge is inserted into them as one would bolt hubcaps to a car. Growth and exploration are constricted by one-size-fits-all curricula that are imposed upon students by removed levels of bureaucracy. Just as the foreman completes routine checkups on workers, standardized testing is imposed to ensure adequate internalization of prescribed lesson plans. Year after year, class after class, child after child: the cycle persists. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Within this industrialized education, we are led to believe that our learning prepares us for diverse opportunities, but this is misleading. We are taught only assembly line diversity. And as with all assembly lines, there is a clear end-product in mind: a prius, or a minivan, or a truck. In our realm: a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer. Our education intentionally presents only these supposedly diverse, but inherently limited models of being, then tells us it is free will for us to pursue our choice of make and model.

Of course, these goals are not universally espoused for each student. Instead, institutional neglect and mistreatment of societal minorities fuels so-called achievement gaps. Untrained, these disadvantaged demographics are disproportionately funnelled off the Assembly Line of Success. Rather than luxury vehicles, they are instead coerced into contributing their bodies and labor to support the unending progression of industrial processes.

At the end of the line, the “successful” graduates of this system are thrust into the world as brand-spanking-new autos fully equipped with front-wheel drive, 0% APR, and turbo massage chairs for “superior luxury.” From there, perhaps for the first time in their lives, these young humans are institutionally liberated. Unbounded. However, this appearance of agency is an illusion. Although free from educational institutions, they are nonetheless subjected to immense social and economic pressure to follow the pre-existing pathways that education has prepared them for. Graduates are told they are now free to drive anywhere, but given their lack of off-road capabilities and pre-programmed GPS, they have little choice but to follow roads that already exist.

The box to box pipeline.

To summarize, present-day dominant educational systems are plagued by a number of fundamental issues. Mandatory schooling has the explicit purpose of preparing students for university, while university has the explicit purpose of preparing students for the workforce. As such, our cultural concept of “learning” is inextricably linked with growth-oriented societal goals. What’s more, this system is riddled with blindspots concerning the real skills and experiences that could serve to benefit and enrich a human life. One of the biggest shortcomings of assembly line education is that the system is inherently limited by its own cultural programming. Due to this lack of perspective, students are deprived of skills and knowledge that would help them to thrive outside of this capitalist dynamic.

“Our cultural concept of ‘learning’ is inextricably linked with growth-oriented societal goals.

That being said, the systems with which we’re familiar will not persist forever. Indeed, they will perhaps be around much shorter than many may assume. In the future, the concept of work will change significantly, and education will be forced to change with it. Depending on the speed and scale of inevitable societal simplification, we need far greater emphasis on skills that, as of now, have been completely disregarded. At the present moment, we have the choice to take education into our own hands, preparing ourselves and our communities with knowledge deemed unnecessary by the educational machine, but that we deem worthy by our own standards of meaningful and sensible action. In the following paragraphs, I will provide a handful of suggestions for what some of these skills might be, as well as a handful of ideas about how to amend these systemic educational deficits.

Learning for a Simpler Future

Today, there are a number of skills you can develop to better prepare yourself for a simpler future. A helpful thought experiment might be to visualize a day in your life and consider what aspects of your existence currently rely on industrialized infrastructure and resource flows. If you find yourself depending heavily upon society for any vital needs (food, transportation, communication, health, etc.), you know that these are skills worth investing in, or having friends who do.

Oftentimes this realization merely serves to enhance isolating tendencies (e.g. buying some guns and hunkering down in the countryside with gold bars and black beans). While this knee-jerk selfish reaction is admittedly understandable, it is not the only available option for those who wish to prepare for a simpler future. In fact, a wiser, more enjoyable, and certainly more accesible route is simply to invest in community. The natural diversity of human talent and ability is one of our greatest strengths in times of instability and change. With clear foresight and intentional action, capitalize on this human potential and support one another with your own unique skills as, together, we partake in a just transition to a better future. To put it plainly: the future will be simple, so try not to lean on industrial society too much. Learn to sustain yourself, and the future will be easier for you. Teach others to sustain themselves, and the future will be easier for us all.

“Learn to sustain yourself, and the future will be easier for you. Teach others to sustain themselves, and the future will be easier for us all.

Now for some suggestions:

Our educational system completely overlooks humanity’s relationship with the living world, espousing a false dichotomy between humans and nature. This supposed division is made believable by increasing degrees of separation between those in the global north, and the ecosystems which support them. As a result, thousands of students know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, but have had next to no practical contact with living organisms. That being said, when complex global supply chains inevitably simplify, and previously “rich” locations find themselves between an empty Costco box and a deer corn field with criminally overexploited soil, one might find it prudent to know how to feed oneself and one’s community.

Invest in gardening. Learn how to plant a crop, and do a soil test. Care for a plant and watch it grow. If possible, start a garden in your backyard, or a hydroponics system in your basement. If you happen to be in a temporary living situation, teach the next person who moves in how to care for it. Get connected with your community garden. Meet neighbors in the process. Consider working with organizations like WWOOF, which provides free, hands-on experience on organic farms around the world. Beyond farming, consider investing in your foraging and wilderness skills. Get to know the edible plants that grow in your region and how to identify them. Knowing that access to present-day medical infrastructure is likely transient, consider learning about herbal medicinal knowledge, or getting trained in wilderness first aid skills.

Depending on your present situation, take these suggestions at whatever scale and pace works best for you. Just, however possible, try to get back in touch with the land. Reclaim your connection to the world that sustains us. And, before it becomes necessary, stave off the learning curve about how to grow things. It will end up paying, not dividends, but tomatoes. And zucchini. And other wonderful things.

The tools of the future?

Similarly to our connection with living kin, our education system likewise undervalues students’ development of hands-on practical skills. This is clearly evidenced by the notable lack of shop classes in schools, replaced instead with media arts and other technological or “preparatory” programs. As a result, every year there are less and less repair people, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, and more and more PR consultants, bankers, network technicians, and search engine optimization specialists. The obvious shortcoming of this trend is that many of these jobs created by university degrees will likely evaporate alongside excessive surplus, while the need to make and fix things remains a persistent problem in human systems. Excepting some of these roles that might have less relevance in the future (available energy surplus for HVAC systems is a questionable proposition at best), the ability to use your hands to fix, manipulate, and repair the world around you is a vitally important skill, and will always be.

So,

Get resourceful. Become acquainted with using your hands to solve problems, and create solutions. When your clothes rip, sew them. When a chair leg snaps, make a new one. When your Playstation breaks, well, try to live without it. When you encounter an issue you don’t feel equipped to handle, don’t panic. Call a friend. Or capitalize on YouTube, where there are experienced and approachable walkthroughs of practically any and every imaginable skill. Try building something. It’s okay to start small. Find that lumber sitting in your parent’s basement, or your friend’s garage. Get to know how tools work, and how to use them. If you’re looking for more specific suggestions, think about investing in bike repair. Less energy in the future will likely make fuel-free transportation methods more necessary. Bikes are abundant, fast, and can carry much more than you may think. Consider getting a solar panel. Know how it works and how to fix it. Through this process, take control of the energy flows of your life. If you’re looking for an even more intense investment, consider going to trade school. Master a skill, then teach your friends. You will become an invaluable community member and mentor of the future.

If this white-bread-looking businessperson can do it, you can too!

Finally, think about where you are spending your money. Rather than investing your disposable income into products, invest in real capital. This can manifest in many ways. Beyond what we’ve already discussed, invest in social capital. Meet your neighbors by hosting a potluck, or starting a community garden. Get connected and share your resources. Beyond being good fun, having many friends with diverse talents is possibly the best thing you can have in hard times. Combat the constructed separation of industrialized society and invest in community.

“Combat the constructed separation of industrialized society and invest in community.

If you’re ready for a more consuming project than a garden, invest in land capital. Are you worried about long-term food stability, or concerned about the embodied energy in industrialized agricultural supply chains? Buy some land. Start a garden there. Then, start investing in built capital: maybe build a shack. Over time, turn your dollars into structures, and a greenhouse, and maybe even some solar panels. Obviously, this is not a viable option for everyone, but for those ready and able to take on the personal and financial commitment, strive to become independent of industrial society altogether.

Above all, invest in yourself. Try as they might to construct you as a commodity, you are not inert metal, waiting to be shaped on another’s whim. Despite the meddling of our educational system, you do not have to be the car of their construction. You can choose to be a bike. Or just to walk. The glorious untold story of these alternatives is that they free you up to explore entirely new trails. Rather than being ushered down the superhighway of conformity, when you walk, you get to go in the woods. And, if the name didn’t give it away, we’re big fans of the woods here at the Overstory Alliance.

So what exactly is education for? Dark classrooms on sunny days? Full notebooks and blank stares? At OSA, we ask: what else could education be for if not preparing us for informed and fulfilling lives? At the present moment, our current systems are failing us on both these fronts. Do not remain a passive victim of assembly line education. Strive to fill the gaps in your learning. Gain practical skills, make real friendships, and, as always, help those around you do the same.

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