Some thoughts

Dear readers, friends and all,

Some days it feels as though there’s nothing left to say—it’s all been said so many times. Reading the NY Times Sunday Review (March 30) was a revelation. There’s a great piece by Bruce Ackerman on Dignity. An interesting and important insight in a piece by Timothy Egan “A Mudslide, Foretold” that suggests a dismal ending. And Deborah Hargreaves on “Can We Close the Pay Gap?” (She points to an example of a German board consisting of half employees and half shareholders who voted for a pay cut for its CEOs.) It ends on a more optimist note, but…. the very idea of workers having a say on company policy would be a huge (utopian?) leap forward in the USA—a touch of democracy we view as utterly beyond our imaginations.

But best of all was an essay by Lewis Dartnell entitled “Civilization’s Starter Kit.” It reminded me of a personal story from long-ago. It was the 1950s when we were all protecting ourselves from the possibility of a world-wide atomic disaster. I was driving on Chicago’s “outer drive” from my south side habitat to the north side, along Lake Michigan. I imagined that the whole world was—almost—wiped out. The only remaining adults were me and some “primitive” islanders (this part of the story I had a little trouble with). Somehow we connected and, lo and behold, I was their one hope of trying to reconstruct the modern world rather than go through it all over again. There couldn’t be a better-educated but more useless remnant of a lost world to have survived “to tell” the story. I could tell them great literary stories and discuss literary theory, contemporary politics, even ancient history but… I had no idea how to help them with what they wanted—to re-invent electricity, or automobiles, or the telegraph or telephone, much less e-mail. I couldn’t even start a fire, or suggest better agricultural tools or methods. And alas, few if any of the graduates of the schools I was later to “invent” would have done much better.

That’s what astrobiologist Lewis Darnell takes up.

“My father,” he writes “used joke that I had three degrees, but didn’t know anything about anything, whereas he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Life.” He imagines my scenario—if he were a member of a small society of survivors. His degrees fit him to do research into what factors planets need to support life. How to pass that on, he asks. His list includes reinventing germ theory, and all that follows (like washing ones hands, etc). Then comes stockpiling staples so that they can be used later. Then, of course, the millstone. Tuning clay into bricks and fire-proof pots. Not to mention the invention of iron and steel knives. Or there’s “plain old glass” or its close kin —soap. Just a few “ordinary” substances” brought together in a certain ratio, et al. and – we have glass! The author indulged himself—by learning how to make glass. “I may never have to practice the alchemy that transform sand, soda and quicklime into this miraculous transparent membrane, but the world feels closer and more in focus for the knowing.”

There’s an aim that lies totally outside of our educational ideas—although actually John Dewey’s Lab School over a century ago dabbled in this kind of reconstruction! But, today? Imagine proposing such a list of essential practical knowledge, plus experience, into the so-called Common Core.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you for this column. You wrote, ” the very idea of workers having a say on company policy would be a huge (utopian?) leap forward in the USA—a touch of democracy we view as utterly beyond our imaginations.”

    For more than 20 years, EdVisions public schools in Minnesota and several other states have had boards of directors that included a majority of teachers who work in the school. The first of these schools, Minnesota New Country, was established by a group of people whose families had been involved in farm coops. They applied the same principle to public schools.
    More info here:

  2. I wouldn’t know how to grow food, build a house, make a bicycle. Dewey wanted to empower people. That is definitely not the vision of corporations pushing Common Core. They want to USE people.

  3. thank you for this piece. Like Mr. Nathan, I am hopeful that the new economy will include many more examples of worker coops and ownership structures that are much more democratic. Read Gar Alperovitz’s What Then Must We Do and Marjorie Kelly’s Owning Our Future for how this can be done.

    As this article discusses, I too thought that education was all about becoming a scholar and at 54, find myself, incredibly well-read but unemployed. Civilization today does need a starter kit and while, you may not be the one who they come to for answers on the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, at some point someone is going to ask questions and ponder big questions and civilization would be best served if you were at the table for that conversation.

    And yes, Common Core, is ill-suited for much of anything as Marion Brady ( has been telling us for some time. Even so, I can think of no better testament to your article than Mr. Gatto’s Curriculum of Necessity ( and Roger Schank’s Teaching Minds (

  4. Deb
    Keep writing! We love you and need you.
    Ann L.

  5. I am one of those useless ones and although I can start a fire there are plenty of people who are far more skilled in the practical arts than I. It would be wise not to waste scarce resources on me. Common Core tries to tell us the same thing, that there are essential skills for success and that anyone who cannot fit the CCSS mold is superfluous. I cannot see that the culture of CCSS will create a “richer” or more successful society.

  6. My apocalyptic scenario for the future envisions all Internet connectivity lost–there go music, books, instructions, money, and connection to loved ones far away. As for work, what would we possibly do at our desks? Just imagine transitioning back to a world without the Internet. The skills you describe, Deborah, seem all that more relevant.

  7. I’m not really worried about “them” — because education is such a complex biz that they can’t possibly do it right! Oops, I guess that’s the problem.

  8. Common Core is worse than “ill-suited”. That “we” even debate it suggests what’s wrong with “our” curriculum, — even if Deb is right that the good stuff has been written down in every generation, and will be again. So I ask: what is the interface between “us”, younger developing minds, and the kind of hierarchal Power does even scarier things than promote instrumental slave-socialization as “curriculum”?

    AND… do you really want to hem and haw about whether you might be an inadequate survivalist? I have a Libertarian friend who does — because he has never believed that anything bigger than a small group (like Christ and disciples) can produce anything social and good. I love talking and watching Shakespeare with his eldest of 4 kids, all home-schooled. But if you are concerned with “The Sixth Extinction,” or even Arne Duncan (U.S Ed policy), what do you teach and learn ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: