But I'm now beginning to think that if we want to know what living in a dystopia feels like, we don't need to turn to dystopian literature. If we want to see the effects of a world deprived of both the humanities and humanity, all we have to do is take a clear-eyed, honest look around us. The dystopia has already happened. We are living it. It's not the imagined future of a sci-fi writer. We are already there.
I'm not going to make a harebrained argument that we can stop this out-of-control gun violence by teaching literature or history. That would be incredibly stupid to say. Or that the frightening appeal of a rising political demagogue is caused by a decline in school music programs. Equally stupid. In fact, I think it's tacky as hell when people respond to tragedies and social injustices in a purely politicized, opportunistic way. So I'm seriously trying not to do that here.
Yet at the same time, I think what's happening right now is a crisis of values--and in that respect, the question of what we foster in our educational system becomes clearly relevant. What kind of people are we? Who do we want to be, both individually and collectively? What kind of society do we want to have? The kind of society that says "every man for himself," and that nothing matters more than profit margins, making money, getting ahead, looking out for number one--in the process commodifying human beings, reducing us to our roles as producers and consumers?
Because if that's what we've decided is important, we'll design an educational system that is geared toward preparing us to function in those roles alone--with questions of meaning, value, ethics, purpose and compassion relegated to the private sphere. We won't develop a shared cultural conversation about those matters. We'll function in an atomistic way.
Which will make it all too easy to head down a path in which those who profit from weaponry will have more say than those who prioritize nonviolence. And too easy for people to remain in various "bubbles" of supposedly like-minded people, buying into the notion that people who are different from themselves are less valuable than they are, less than human, less worthy of life. And too easy to avoid the big questions by distracting ourselves with noise and trivia. Too easy to avoid the work of building community by fostering dissent and disagreement. Too easy to perpetuate a culture grounded in fear--a primal emotion which triggers the fight-or-flight responses of anger and avoidance. Too much rage, too much apathy. The poet Yeats said it well: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Fear translates easily into anger. Anger (especially when combined with too-easy access to war-grade weaponry) culminates in days like this ... creating more heartbreak, more fear. More anger. More spiraling downward. More scapegoating. More ugliness.
I don't want that fear and anger to be the foundation on which we build our society. I'm trying to imagine (and it's hard today, but I'm trying), a society built on a strong sense of community, one that is engaged in conversations about ethics, meaning, values, and compassion. And that's a risk. One that requires us to move beyond fear.
And if that's what we want, we will build an educational system that prioritizes those things. Training people in the skills they need to make their livings is crucial and will always need to happen. But we also need to start talking about how we live our lives, and what we value as a people. We need to realize--and I mean "realize" in a really deep, powerful, turn-your-life-around way--that the lives of other human beings are as valuable as our own. And we need to start creating a world grounded in that awareness.
No, we can't get to utopia. The world is never going to be perfect. Not all violence can be prevented. Not all prejudice can be uprooted. I sometimes sound like an idealist, but I'm actually a pragmatically grounded idealist. I know we can't solve all our problems. We're human beings, and human beings are instrinsically flawed. We act out of self-interest--all of us. So we'll always have stuff to work on, both as individuals and as societies. It's never going to be perfect.
And you know what? The fact that we can't create a perfect world is a pretty lame argument for not trying to create a better one.
We might not be able to prevent all traffic accidents, but we don't throw up our hands, tear out all the streetlights, eradicate all the speed limits and remove safety features from vehicles and roadways, throwing up our hands at the futility of preventing "all" accidents. We do what we can and recognize that even when we can't reach "perfect," there's something to be said for at least doing "better."
And we have to do better. My God, we just have to do better. How much more of this? How much more?
Why, right now, does compassion seem to be so hard? Why does it seem so difficult for some people to not kill their fellow human beings? Why do some people resort so easily to cheap and easy scapegoating that just perpetuates the cycle of fear and dehumanization, while resolving nothing?
I know we can't be perfect. But why can't we be better?
There's so much we have to do right now as a society, and none of us can do everything. We each need to play our part. I'm an educator, so I have to go with what I know, and what I feel able to do. Obviously, education isn't the whole answer here. We have a lot of problems, and we need to find a lot of solutions.
I do strongly believe that developing an educational system grounded in the humanities--the deep consideration of what it means to be human, not just for ourselves individually but for all these people with whom we share this planet--has to be one angle (among many) that we address. Conversations about our collective values, about how we conceptualize "self" and "other," about how we manage differences, about how we get to "better"--they can't be relegated just to the religious sphere or to the private sphere. Those conversations need to be part of every classroom, K through PhD, and we need to recognize that a purely utilitarian approach to education is probably going to create ... well, a world eerily similar to the one we're seeing around us now, in which we're growing increasingly numb to violence and dehumanization.
Yeah, we all need to worry about how we make our livings, and that is part of what education is for. But what use will those "livings" be, if we lose our very lives? How much will it matter whether or not we have trained for "livelihoods" if we don't collectively learn how to value this thing called life?
My deepest condolences to all the loved ones affected by the massacre in Orlando...and every other massacre (too many to name here), and to all who are bereaved and frightened and frustrated and saddened and angry. Enough. This is enough. We need to start doing better. And there's so, so much that we need to do.
We each must start by doing whatever we can--however small that may seem.