EDITORIAL: Saving Ourselves, Part Two

Read Part One

In an increasingly globalized world, there are often pressures for communities and regions to subordinate themselves to the dominant economic models and to devalue their local cultural identity, traditions and history in preference to a flashily marketed homogeneity.

— Laurie Lane-Zucker, writing in the introduction to the book, Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, by David Sobel

Educational consultant James Lewicki gave a presentation last night in the rural community of Pagosa Springs, aimed mainly at professional educators who might be interested in our community’s new public charter school — Pagosa Peak Open School, scheduled to open its doors in September.

The presentation focused largely on the idea of “Place-Based Education.”

Place-Based Education — as I understand it — often has two components, as utilized in a public school setting. On the one hand, it promotes learning that is rooted in what is local — the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. That is to say, lessons and activities focus on what is happening and what exists in the students’ own “place” — in their school, in their neighborhood, in their town. According to the proponents of this pedagogy, students — especially elementary school students — often lose what place-based educators call their “sense of place” through focusing too quickly or exclusively on national or global concepts and issues.

Which is not to say that international and national issues are unimportant… but shouldn’t students first have a firm grounding in the history, culture and ecology of their surrounding environment… before moving on to broader subjects?

The second component of Place-Based Education, especially in the upper grades, involves a commitment to not only learn about the local community, but also to participate — where feasible — in helping to research, publicize and ultimately address the community’s own local problems.

I’ve been writing about education here in the Daily Post, for the past decade, and — in my role as a local muckraker — I’ve often questioned the negative effects brought about by state and federal legislation. The Colorado Constitution specifically assigns a certain level of power to local school boards, as suggested here:

The general assembly shall, by law, provide for organization of school districts of convenient size, in each of which shall be established a board of education, to consist of three or more directors to be elected by the qualified electors of the district. Said directors shall have control of instruction in the public schools of their respective districts.

That constitutionally mandated “local control of instruction” has been become a rather meaningless phrase, as the result of state and federal legislation that allows Denver and Washington bureaucrats to control, to a large degree, what kind of instruction actually takes place in a Pagosa Springs public school.

We are talking here about education, not merely because it’s an interesting topic to write about, but also because centrally-controlled bureaucratic decisions about public education have been integral to the way our American culture has evolved over the past 100 years — and how it is now evolving.

When children spend 13 years of their young lives isolated from the surrounding town, experiencing only minimal exposure to the actual life of their community — and studying, in an abstract way, subjects that have little or no direct connection to the very place where they live, or to the productive activities taking place round the corner from their school building — how can we expect them to care deeply about their own community?

Here’s a curious take on the subject of education, from E.F. Schumacher’s 1972 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered:

The whole matter can be summed up in one question: what is education for? I think it was the Chinese, before World War II, who calculated that it took the work of thirty peasants to keep one man or woman at a university. If that person at the university took a five-year course, by the time he was finished he would have consumed 150 peasant-work-years.

How can this be justified? Who has the right to appropriate 150 years of peasant to keep one person at the university for five years, and what do the peasants get back for it?

These questions lead us to a parting of the ways. Is education to be a “passport to privilege” or is it something that people take upon themselves almost like a monastic vow, a sacred obligation to serve the people?

Mr. Schumacher was here specifically addressing the problems of the developing world — the ‘Third World’ — and the growing gap between the educated Rich and the uneducated Poor. That gap was of concern to caring people, back in 1972.

We are now seeing the same gap slowly developing here in America. Except that, we can’t actually see it.

In a recent conversation with Frank Rich, comedian Chris Rock explained the situation… according to a 2015 article in Scientific American, written by reporter Nicholas Fritz.

“Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.”

The findings of several recent studies suggest that Mr. Rock is right: we — the American Poor — have no idea how unequal our society has become. In a study published in 2014, researchers Michael Norton and Sorapop Kiatpongsan asked 55,000 people from 40 countries to estimate how much corporate CEOs and unskilled workers earned. They then asked people how much CEOs and workers should earn.

The average American estimated that the CEO-to-worker pay-ratio was 30-to-1, and that ideally, it should be 7-to-1. The actual ratio is closer to 354-to-1. Fifty years ago, it was about 20-to-1.

From Mr. Fritz’ article:

But while Americans acknowledge that the gap between the rich and poor has widened over the last decade, very few see it as a serious issue. Just five percent of Americans think that inequality is a major problem in need of attention. While the occupy movement may have a tangible legacy, Americans aren’t rioting in the streets.

We are willing to accept inequality, so long as we don’t really understand its full extent… and also, because we recognize that the poorest Americans — in 2017 — have access to a level of material goods that even the wealthiest humans lacked, 500 years ago.

What is distressing me at the moment, however, is the direction we are heading. The gap between the wealthy CEO and the unskilled American worker, 50 years ago, was 20-to-1. Today, it’s 354-to-1.

And things are not getting better.

Read Part Three…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.