A GRAND UNIFIED THEORY OF WHAT WE NEED TO ACCOMPLISH
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director (This post originally appeared in the ICG’s October 2017 newsletter.)
I admit to being in the midst of something like a crisis of faith, a periodic disorder that I suspect assails many of us in the highly idealistic world of education. It’s even more painful against the backdrop of the current political scene, in which a narrative of eroded democratic institutions and trampled values is shouting down our best hopes for the future.
I need a Grand Unified Theory to keep everything in perspective. It’s easy to enumerate the social and ethical goals that we share, but at the moment I’m struck by the number of well-intentioned people and organizations that are working in parallel but not in unison. As the ravages of racism, economic inequity, silenced voices, Industrial-Age schooling, climatic disruption, and partisan extremism take their toll on individuals, schools, and whole communities—with a perhaps inevitably disastrous effect on the world as a whole—we don’t seem to have figured out how to articulate with one voice and in one key the deep human connection and deep moral need that underlies all the work we’re trying to do. Emotionally I find myself leaping from bubble to bubble in a floating Venn diagram of challenges, but I can’t seem to conceptualize a singular unifying force—an idea, a policy, even a problem statement—that connects the bubbles into even a tiny shared area.
Maybe I’m over-stating or over-romanticizing the mission here. But if we can figure out a way to provide an educational system that goes straight at and then transcends and defeats oppression in all its forms, that draws forth from each student the very best they have to offer, that connects each learner with the fundamental elements of their lives in family and community, and that allows each kid to explore multiple pathways until they find the one that is their own—all of these things at once and in equal measure for every child, in ways that honor and nurture their physical and social selves, then we’ve got it. It seems to take one helluva sentence to express it all—somewhere my past English teachers are weeping—but that’s the size of the challenge.
It might also seem silly that I see this as a matter of faith—I’ve been scolded by a reader for suggesting that very thing. But I find the world a discouraging place some days, and I’ve got to believe in something. An idealized conception of education’s purpose seems to work for me.
And perhaps I’ve even come a little closer to that Grand Unified Theory. Now if we can just find ways to work together effectively and toward the common goal implicit in the theory, we can realize our common dream in all its elements, and my Venn Diagram may yet become a single perfect circle.