The title of my talk suggests that this year is a historical milestone for the educational alternatives movement; it is, and I’ll get around to that. But I also want to look a little deeper, to consider the history of the past 50 years as a way of understanding the situation that educators, and our entire culture, are facing today. I want to draw some lessons from my own career, which took place during 30 of these past 50 years.
I’m going to make two basic points. One is that alternative educational ideas and practices will not be adopted on a wide scale until our culture as a whole changes significantly. Nothing new there; I’ve said this in many of my talks and writings.
But my other point is new: After all that I have seen and learned during the three decades I worked in this field, I no longer hold out much hope that our culture is going to change in positive meaningful ways; I am more inclined now to think that it is going to continue on its insane and destructive course until it collapses from its own excesses. At least, though, this collapse will provide the opening for building a new culture, the seeds of which the educational alternatives movement has been diligently planting all these years.
In 2010 I decided to retire from my work in holistic education after 30 years in this field. I was only 54, and might have been expected to continue for another ten or twenty years. I might have followed the inspiring example of Jerry Mintz’s lifelong passion for this cause. But my passion for it had run dry.
I’ve been reflecting on this ever since, and I’ve concluded that two concurrent forces, one internal and psychological, the other external and historical, brought me to this personal crisis. I won’t take up your time this evening by dwelling on my internal process, except to say that I was feeling completely ungrounded; I realized that I’d gone into this work as a starry-eyed young idealist, entranced by the human potential and New Age literature I was reading in the early ’80s (does anyone here remember The Aquarian Conspiracy?). I was convinced that it was possible to radically change the world, to transcend 5,000 years of humanity’s violent history, and that a global movement to do just that was underway; I wanted to be part of it. Three decades later, I awakened from this trance and reluctantly, painfully acknowledged that the world was not very much moved by my idealism.
The external part of my awakening was my discovery of another, very different literature that was emerging in the early years of this new century. I started reading the increasingly ominous and urgent reports about climate change and peak oil, as well as eye-opening critiques of America’s increasingly outrageous imperial state and war on terror. I discovered the severe and bleak perspectives of writers like Derrick Jensen, Paul Kingsnorth, James Howard Kunstler, and John Michael Greer, who have responded to these developments by suggesting that modern civilization is in serious trouble and may, in fact, be on the verge of collapse.
This is sometimes called doomer literature, and it does not make for light or uplifting reading. Yet I was drawn to it and fascinated by it, perhaps because my deflated idealism had left me vulnerable. I could no longer maintain my belief in the continual evolutionary progress of humankind and could now imagine that the future might well be much worse, rather than much better, than the present.
As a holistic thinker, I know that this gloomy perspective is only one way of looking at the hugely complex reality of the world, and that there are certainly more optimistic assessments of humanity’s possibilities. Many serious people are convinced that technology and innovation and entrepreneurial enterprise will ultimately save the day. There are dedicated people working within existing institutions, from education to business to government, to make significant change happen. So if I sound a little too pessimistic, you don’t need to take what I am saying too seriously. I am only reporting what I’ve been thinking about these last few years, because once I fully took in the possibility of decline and collapse, I began to look at my work in holistic education in a somewhat different light.
As a radical historian, as a scholar who always sought to give the educational alternatives movement a solid and thorough intellectual foundation, I want to reflect on what we might make of these warnings about collapse. As I have explained in many of my writings, the radical education movement cannot be understood outside the historical context of social, political, and cultural movements that erupted in the 1960s. What was the fate of those movements? What might we learn by comparing the primary concerns, and the idealism, and the enthusiastic energies of that time with the more somber and austere vision of the future that some of today’s would-be prophets are bringing to us?
So let’s look back. The year 1964 was a critical one in the rise of the social movements we associate with the ’60s—including the movement for educational alternatives. Let’s begin the story by considering Mississippi Freedom Summer, whose 50th anniversary is right now—this weekend—being commemorated in Jackson by today’s civil rights activists. Freedom Summer was conceived by an activist from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) named Bob Moses (you may know of him from his much later work in the educational world—he developed the Algebra Project).
Exactly 50 years ago, in June 1964, hundreds of students from northern colleges were preparing to join the civil rights struggle in one of the most intransigent and violent racist enclaves in the country. Eventually, more than 1,000 volunteers—most of them, but not all, white college students from the North—went to Mississippi in an effort to register black voters and encourage black communities.
Among other things, they organized about 40 Freedom Schools, which reached more than 3,000 people, from the very young to the very old, teaching African Americans about their heritage and their rights as American citizens. Their pedagogy was emancipatory and democratic: “It is not our purpose to impose a particular set of conclusions. . . . Our purpose is to encourage the asking of questions, and the hope that society can be improved.” Clearly this approach to education resonates with core ideas in the alternatives movement, and indeed the Freedom Schools were an important influence on the rise of the free school movement in subsequent years.
Another result of Freedom Summer was the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an interracial alliance that challenged the segregated state representation at that year’s Democratic national convention. Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to alienate southern white support by allowing the challengers to be seated was a turning point for the civil rights movement, as younger activists, such as those in SNCC, became disenchanted with the political process and began a more militant campaign for Black Power.
Freedom Summer volunteers were also radicalized because they, as well as African American citizens who were seen as too receptive to them, were harassed by drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson; people were spied on, fired from jobs, or evicted from their homes, including Fannie Lou Hamer, the courageous sharecropper who became an eloquent leader of the Mississippi Freedom party. There were more than 1,000 arrests; police were often sympathetic to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and in many communities their membership overlapped. There were several murders, including the infamous killings of Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The participation, especially the deaths, of northern whites like Goodman and Schwerner focused national attention on segregation in Mississippi. Because of severe resistance, few voters were actually registered that summer, but the movement created the political space that enabled passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Freedom Summer contributed directly to the national explosion of student activism that swept this country for the rest of the 1960s. It inspired and radicalized those who had participated and had witnessed American injustice first hand. One of these was a graduate student at the University of California named Mario Savio. He had taught at a Freedom School, and when he returned to Berkeley in the fall, he wanted to raise money for the SNCC but found that the university had banned all political activity and fund-raising. He later asked, “Are we on the side of the civil rights movement? Or have we gotten back to the comfort and security of Berkeley, California, and can we forget the sharecroppers whom we worked with just a few weeks back? Well we couldn’t forget.”
Savio became the fiery leader of the Free Speech movement, in which 4,000 students gathered to protest university and police suppression of student political activity. They ultimately prevailed, and this emboldened them to continue raising questions about the political and educational establishment. By the following year, they responded to the escalation of the Vietnam war with massive protests that went on for years. According to one student activist, the Free Speech movement was “the decisive beginning of the educational revolution in the U.S… the first time that students articulated a basic dissatisfaction with the forms and essence of our education.”
The same momentous year of 1964 saw a writer from an entirely different background publish what would become a bestselling book that expressed the same dissatisfaction with the educational system. The writer was John Holt, and his book was called How Children Fail. Holt was not a student activist but a 41-year-old Navy veteran of World War II who had been teaching in private schools. An astute observer of children’s learning experiences, Holt argued that schooling creates a climate of fear and self-doubt that severely impairs the natural human ability to learn.
Other critics and educators had reached this conclusion before; A. S. Neill, for example, had published a book about his Summerhill School in 1960 and was already inspiring followers in the United States. But How Children Fail appeared at a fortuitous historical moment: freedom was looming large in the cultural zeitgeist that year—Freedom Summer and Free Speech; the Civil Rights Act had been passed that year; even the students who supported the presidential campaign of libertarian conservative Barry Goldwater called themselves Young Americans for Freedom, though their idea of it was quite different.
Something was stirring in this culture in 1964 that brought stale institutions and conventional authority into question, and it would make the next five or six years among the most turbulent in our history. So, while there were previous rumblings of a radical education movement, I think the student activist had a point in calling 1964 “the decisive beginning” of this revolution. Happy Fiftieth Birthday, everyone!
John Holt had struck a subliminal chord in modern society, and he was swamped with letters from parents and educators and young people who resonated with the truths he was speaking about the reality of schooling. Over the next several years he traveled widely, meeting with many hundreds of people, and he published articles and books that reached thousands of readers. Neill’s book Summerhill also achieved extraordinary popularity, as radical students and disenchanted educators were swept up in a great countercultural yearning for freedom and authenticity. By 1967, a free school movement had emerged, with hundreds of small experimental schools, as well as publications and conferences, challenging the dominant culture’s assumptions about teaching and learning and social management.
The mid-sixties were a time of great optimism. Alongside the rising youth movement, the United States had an activist government. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and Chief Justice Earl Warren’s unusually liberal Supreme Court promised a more prosperous, fair, and just society. Racial injustice began to recede, even in Mississippi. The war on poverty looked like another crusade that might be won. In fact, the economy was growing robustly, giving government the resources it needed for these endeavors. And the space program—the most audacious engineering project humankind had ever attempted—promised that we would soon reach the moon and someday the stars as well.
This optimism and confidence led, in some quarters, to a giddy belief in the possibility of unlimited progress and cultural transformation. One exemplary proponent of this belief was the perceptive and inquisitive editor of the popular Look magazine, George Leonard. A white man who had grown up in the south, Leonard was deeply moved by the civil rights movement. He reflected in his memoir that if a dramatic shift in southern race relations were possible, “then what was not possible? . . . Now people of all races, all of us, needed to start liberating ourselves from the unacknowledged, unseen oppression that keeps us from achieving our potential . . .” Leonard got involved with folks who were exploring the frontiers of consciousness (indeed, some of them considered themselves to be “psychonauts,” as bold as America’s astronaut heroes), and in 1965 he tagged this phenomenon the “human potential movement.” He became its leading popularizer. Always interested in education, in 1968 he published his book Education and Ecstasy, whose very title, let alone its contents, reflected the giddiness of a belief in unlimited human potential.
Many idealistic seekers were swept up in this enthusiasm. They began talking about humanistic psychology and humanistic education, and then, wanting to embrace a more spiritual perspective, transpersonal psychology and education. In 1979 and 1980, groups of these enthusiasts, including Leonard himself, gathered at conferences in California where they proclaimed a “human revolution” that in their words “may well be the most important movement of our time.” They called this revolution holistic education.
I wasn’t there, and didn’t even know about these meetings until my doctoral research a few years later, but I was moving along the same track a little ways behind them, because I was a generation younger. In 1979 I received my master’s degree concentrating in one variation of humanistic theory called phenomenological psychology, and the following year I entered Montessori teacher training.
Maria Montessori’s own idealistic vision is reflected in the titles of two of her lesser-known books: To Educate the Human Potential, and Education for a New World, phrases that resonated with the countercultural worldview that I and others found so inspiring. It was only a short time into my teaching career, however, when I realized that the modern Montessori movement, ensconced in prosperous suburban communities, didn’t always live up to these soaring aspirations. I responded by writing my first professional article, published in a Montessori teachers’ journal in 1981 and titled “Montessori in the Humanist Tradition,” in which I placed the Montessori movement in the context of a wider radical worldview. After I returned to graduate school in 1983, I began to call this worldview “holistic.”
Meanwhile, however, in the world outside my idealist bubble, the revolution hadn’t gone very well. The dominant culture that the young protesters and radical educators had so passionately criticized was not ready to just fold up and go away. The Vietnam War went on and on despite the protests, because the American imperial state, the military-industrial complex, was much too deeply entrenched to overcome. Heroes were assassinated. Cities were burned. In frustration, protests became violent, with groups like the Weathermen and Black Panthers promising to tear down the establishment. In 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president after promising that he would restore law and order. His constituency was the “silent majority”—the patriotic, middle-class Americans who weren’t protesting in the streets, along with whites north and south who were still uncomfortable with integration. Ronald Reagan had been elected governor of California in 1966 on the same promise.
Historians refer to the ensuing period as the “conservative restoration.” Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 brought about the repudiation of Great Society liberalism in many ways; in education, four words captured the essence of this cultural turnaround: A Nation at Risk. That was the 1983 report of a presidential commission that urgently called for a more standardized, authoritarian, corporate-friendly educational policy. That report set the stage for decades of oppressive, technocratic schooling, with which all of you are quite familiar.
It turned out, then, that holistic education was not “the most important movement of our time.” In retrospect, I think that honor belongs to the onslaught of privatization and globalization that was unleashed by Reagan’s revolution and by his colleague in Great Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. What we have seen since 1980 is the recolonization of the underdeveloped world and renewed exploitation of the middle and working classes for the exclusive benefit of transnational corporations and the overlords of Wall Street. From third-world sweatshops and the crumbling American rust belt to the Citizens United decision and for-profit prisons, from the patenting of seeds and the appropriation of land, to mountaintop removal and tar sands extraction, we see how the planet is now run by an all-consuming empire, with dire consequences for millions of people and for the planet’s biosphere.
While the political and social effects of this corporate empire are outrageous and urgently need to be addressed, I’m thinking that the exhaustion of the biosphere is what will ultimately determine our fate. Again, it was in the 1960s that some in our culture started to consider the possibility that industrial civilization could ruin the planet, first with Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Springin 1962, and then, toward the end of the decade when disastrous oil spills, burning rivers, and choking air pollution caught the public’s attention.
In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson adapted the campus protest method of the teach-in to propose a national event called Earth Day; he wanted to enlist the public in the environmental and conservation issues he had been raising for years, and he succeeded: 20 million Americans participated in teach-ins and demonstrations on the first Earth Day, and Congress responded with a series of environmental bills and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Even President Nixon went along with them.
This was a start, but it would turn out that the ecology crisis involved more than pollution. In 1972, a research team at MIT published its groundbreaking report, The Limits to Growth. Using newly developed computer models, they had looked at numerous global trends and determined that the planet’s resources could not support economic growth indefinitely. They recommended that nations and industries begin planning for a more sustainable system, a steady-state economy that would conserve resources. Their findings were highlighted the following year, when the energy crisis, caused by Middle Eastern nations drastically reducing oil exports in response to the Arab-Israeli war, quadrupled the price of oil, leading to shortages, rationing, and a serious economic recession.
Some people, especially those still connected to the fading counterculture, took these warning signs seriously, and a sustainability movement began to form. The quest for renewable energy got underway. The Whole Earth Catalog was one popular source of these ideas, and in 1973 British economist E. F. Schumacher published his important book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. His ideas gave rise to an interest in what was called “appropriate technology”—small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. (This sounds like alternative education; in fact, Ivan Illich’s ideas about deschooling grew out of his own critique of technological imperialism.)
Later in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter tried to prepare the nation for a future of limited resources, and symbolically placed a solar collector on the White House. But Reagan’s election in 1980 reversed this attitude. He scoffed at the very idea of limits, and took the solar panels down. He relaxed enforcement of environmental regulations so as not to impede economic growth and sought to open new sources of oil production. The ’80s and ’90s would become the heyday of cowboy capitalism, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union gave the American corporate empire global dominance.
But as Bill McKibben likes to say, the laws of physics and biology trump all of our political and economic preferences. The authors of The Limits to Growth had identified a very simple truth: this planet contains a finite, not an infinite, supply of the resources needed by industrial society. At some point we will run up against those limits whether we want to or not. And because we stopped planning for a sustainable future 30 years ago, it will be much harder to do so now. One major reason is that there won’t be as much energy available in the future because we have squandered so much of it.
About ten to fifteen years ago, a few oil industry analysts started to realize that the world was approaching the point of maximum petroleum production, a point from which production could only decline. They called this “peak oil.” Geologist M. King Hubbert had seen in the 1950s that production of petroleum from each well, each field, each nation, and finally the planet, follows a bell curve pattern. When around half of the reserves are extracted, production rather steadily declines because remaining reserves are harder to get, the rate of new discoveries falls, and older wells dry up. Hubbert correctly predicted the peak of U.S. oil production, which arrived on schedule in 1970, and then predicted that world oil production would max out in the early 21st century. Many analysts believe that we are in fact at that point right now.
Why does this matter? Why am I spending precious time at an alternative education conference talking about this? Well, I think the answer is in the title of journalist Richard Heinberg’s first book on this subject (2003): The Party’s Over. Our entire way of life depends on the availability of cheap and abundant energy that only fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, can provide. As energy becomes more difficult and expensive to obtain, our economy and agriculture and health care and, indeed, all our large and complex systems will strain to hold together, and will eventually disintegrate. Heinberg says, “We are entering a new era, as different from the industrial era as the latter was from medieval times.” He and others call this the “Postcarbon Era.”
Although this is an unsettling vision of the future, there is a bright side: the empire will no longer be able to continue to dominate the world, and its collapse may well provide the best chance for our ideas about education, and many other democratic, countercultural impulses to become accepted and adopted on a wide scale in a refreshingly relocalized world. So I would like to review a bit of the so-called “doomer” literature to explore this possibility.
Heinberg’s thoughtful, well-researched writings offer a coherent introduction to this analysis. In The End of Growth (2011), he concludes that “The economic crisis that began in 2007–08 was both foreseeable and inevitable, and it marks a permanent, fundamental break from past decades. . . . There are now fundamental barriers to ongoing economic expansion, and the world is colliding with those barriers.” He is referring to the ecological limits to perpetual growth, and he is particularly concerned about peak oil. “Through the one-time-only process of extracting and burning hundreds of millions of years’ worth of chemically stored sunlight, we built what appeared (for a brief shining moment) to be a perpetual growth machine. We learned to take what was in fact an extraordinary situation for granted. It became normal.”
This is the shocking exposé contained in the doomer literature: the institutions and advances and amenities of modern industrial civilization are not historically normal, and they are not permanent. As the supply of fossil fuels dwindles, we are going to live very differently. We are, says Heinberg, at “a watershed moment in the history of our species. . . . The end of growth is a very big deal indeed. It means the end of an era, and of our current ways of organizing economics, politics and daily life.”
I have found similar arguments in many of the books I’ve been reading these last few years. One of the other writers who has most impressed me is John Michael Greer, an independent scholar with an astounding grasp of the history of civilizations. In several books published since 2008, such as The Long Descent, The Ecotechnic Future, and his latest, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, Greer argues that the end of the fossil fuel age means a gradual and permanent return to preindustrial society. He urges us to rebuild local communities and economies and to relearn the wide array of skills that enabled humans to live quite successfully on earth without modern technology for thousands of years. (He says that the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s had exactly the right idea and needs to be revived.)
Above all, Greer tries to dispel the myth of progress that drives modern civilization—the belief that we have mastered the secrets of nature and can expect endless improvement from this point on. Not so, he says. “The collapse of civilizations is a natural process. . . . They have a life cycle like that of other living things, and when it’s over, they die.” Now, he might be way off base, and completely wrong in his conclusions. Remember—be skeptical of what I’m reporting to you. Yet his reasoning and evidence have persuaded me that our imperial civilization probably is entering the terminal phase of its life cycle.
Derrick Jensen referred to this, in the title of his 2006 book, as our civilization’s Endgame. Jensen is one of the most shockingly provocative thinkers I have ever read (and if you know my work, you know I’ve drawn on some pretty off-the-wall theorists). His basic thesis is that civilization as such was a big mistake, and that humanity would have been much happier remaining in tribal cultures. Civilization, he says, is essentially hierarchical and exploitative and functions to guarantee wealth and power to those at the top through well-coordinated violence. That’s not just the result of our current economic and political arrangements, something we might be able to fix—it’s inherent in the nature of civilization itself. But now we have truly gone too far, he says. “It should be clear to everyone by now—even those with a vested interest in ignorance—that industrial civilization is killing the planet.” He argues that this culture will not voluntarily stop exploiting human beings or destroying the natural world. If we cannot force it to stop (and he frequently suggests that we might start by blowing up dams), it will vastly diminish the possibilities for life on earth. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, it will collapse first.
At first I didn’t know what to do with Jensen’s thesis. Relinquish all of civilization? Really? But I haven’t been able to dispel a sense that at some very deep level, Jensen and other so-called “primitivists” (like John Zerzan) are revealing a dark, fundamental truth about the modern world. Among so many other indicators, for example, what are we to make of the epidemic of depression, mental illness, and drug consumption in our culture? I began to entertain the possibility that the collapse of industrial civilization, as difficult and destructive as it would be in so many ways, might in the long run be a good thing, not only for the survival of the biosphere, but for human happiness as well.
I think many of the young activists of the 1960s glimpsed this deep dark truth. Many of their speeches and writings are laced with an existential anguish that went beyond criticism of economic and political systems. Take a look at the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society. Take a look at Theodore Roszak’s insightful study The Making of a Counterculture (1969), or Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (published in 1970), along with many other works that explained why modern technocratic society is fundamentally at odds with a more natural, authentic human existence.
I know that John Holt wondered about this too. Although he is not remembered for it today, his thinking went well beyond a deconstruction of schooling. He criticized what he once called “the American disease, a belief in unlimited progress, unlimited growth, unlimited greed”; he argued that the modern economic system “has lost all touch with reality, with human nature and human needs,” that it “dehumanizes and trivializes people.” In a widely read 1970 New York Times Magazine article, which I discuss in the chapter on John Holt’s legacy in my book Free Schools, Free People, Holt asserted: “To our students and young, who cannot tolerate our society as it is, we only offer more and more of what they can’t stand. Bigger, noisier, dirtier cities, more war, more exploitation, more corruption, more cruelty, more ugliness, more depersonalization, and at the end of it, the virtual certainty that if the world is not destroyed by war it will be made uninhabitable by the waste products of an ever larger gross national product.” Had Holt lived into this century, he would not have been surprised by climate change, peak oil, or the economic collapse of 2008. I think he would find Heinberg, Jensen, Greer, and the others to be kindred spirits.
On the subject of education, Jensen has written, “In order to continue moving ‘forward,’ each child must be made to forget what it means to be human and to learn instead what it means to be civilized.” While his language is more extreme than Holt’s—I don’t think Holt ever expressed disdain for civilization as such—I think they share a similar understanding that our modern industrial civilization is antithetical to nurturing, child-centered learning environments. It is not interested in democratic education—indeed, it is not seriously committed to genuine democracy at all. As long as this civilization stands, those of us who believe in educating for genuine humanity will be on the outside looking in; our ideas will be “alternative.”
This doesn’t mean that our work—well, your work—isn’t vitally, crucially important. You are the worthy heirs of Freedom Summer and the Free Speech movement, courageously standing for human freedom, dignity, and authenticity. You are holding the vision of a better world, and building the authentic communities that we’re going to need, whatever happens. You are empowering young people to be confident and adaptable enough to meet whatever challenges lie ahead, to learn the hands-on skills they’ll need if the world de-industrializes. You are nurturing individual human beings in ways that modern civilization does not, and every young person you touch is a victory for our humanity and a ray of hope for the future. I have not lost that hope.
Where I have lost my hope is in the expectation that a few good ideas would make our civilization better. The last published writing of my career, in 2011, was a chapter in a book edited by Harvard education professor Richard Elmore, who had asked a number of educational scholars to reflect on how our thinking had changed since the beginning of our careers. How appropriate for me to write this at the very end of mine. Here is what I wrote:
I used to think that a holistic worldview would increasingly make sense to people concerned about deteriorating social and economic conditions, but now I think that the dominant worldview of our technocratic culture is so tenacious and powerful that it will release its hold on our awareness only when the culture seriously descends into collapse. I don’t wish for the chaotic disintegration of the global economy, because that will lead to widespread dislocation, suffering, and violence. But it seems more apparent to me now that disintegration is inevitable. Because modernity has insisted on a high-consumption, high-impact lifestyle despite clear warnings that we are dangerously exceeding the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, there is going to come a crash.
The crash is going to be hard, but maybe it will also be liberating. I suspect that the days of standardized learning are as numbered as the days of cheap fossil fuel.