We don’t just have an education crisis; we have a meaning crisis

Photo: Children in the classroom

When I was young and my friends and I had just discovered the joys of prank calling, I remember dialing 0 and asking the operator if she liked her job. I did this more than once, actually. Kids have probably called operators to ask silly questions since telephones were first invented, but this time I didn’t mean it as a prank, I was just curious.

Once or twice I got an indulgent, “sure, sweetie” but usually I got a surprised or angry, “no.” This was incomprehensible to me. Why would you do something you didn’t like? Sometimes I asked them that directly, but they never stayed on the line long enough to tell me their life story.

I remember shortly afterwards when a pair of shoes came for me in the mail. I stared at the invoice and realized how much work went into those pair of shoes. Someone had to make them. Someone had to make the catalogue they were printed in. Someone had to man the phones to sell them. Someone had to write the invoice for them. Was there really a person whose whole job was just sitting there writing invoices for shoes? I felt bad for them, and I wondered – what would happen if everyone who hated their job suddenly quit?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should only do things we feel like doing. Certain sacrifices are necessary from all of us in order for society to function harmoniously. But these days, we seem to be making more sacrifices for less harmony. So why do we keep doing it?

Throughout history there have always been people who worked hard, and did the jobs that no one else wanted to do. The problem isn’t that we sometimes have to suck it up and do unpleasant or difficult work. The problem is that our occupations have become divorced from the practical realities of life on earth. Human beings have a need for meaning. We need to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. When we’re forced – by social pressure or economic necessity – to give the majority of the hours in our waking life over to a job that has little or no meaning for us, we go crazy. We need to understand our place in society and the place of our society in the wider society of earth. Then, our work becomes purposeful. When we see the positive results of our actions, work becomes a value in itself, even if it is sometimes hard or unpleasant.

In old Hawaiian society, communities were structured by the shape of the land. The divisions were called ahupua’a, and they generally ran in a wedge shape from the top of the local volcano and extended a few miles into the sea. Within that area, certain divisions of labor arose naturally. Some people grew upland crops and some grew lowland crops. Some gathered food and materials from the forest and some from the sea. Some knew canoe building and navigation. Some knew how to beat tapa cloth and weave lauhala. Some knew rituals and prayer. Within the divisions of the ahupua’a, each group of people cooperated amongst each other in order to contribute to a harmonious society. A person’s identity and place in the community was bound up with his or her work. It wasn’t just a job. It was a livelihood in the truest sense.

As I wrote previously, in praise of school gardens, children need to see how what they’re learning will help them contribute to their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their family or community. Growing healthy food and learning how to interact with the earth in a mutually sustaining way is a basic foundational relationship that will help place all other learning and knowledge into it’s proper context. This is just common sense. Education is not just the process of passing on knowledge. Education is the process of making knowledge relevant.

We should remember: all children are mini-geniuses. The amount of information they are processing and retaining, and the number of connections they are making daily is astronomically higher than adults. They are constantly absorbing new facts about the world, and integrating those facts into their picture of the universe. However, instead of giving them the whole picture, we try to teach them certain skills in isolation. We divide up the world into nonsensical and arbitrary divisions called “social studies” and “science,” which hold no practical relevance for their daily life, and we’re shocked when they don’t care.

We have an education crisis in this country. It’s been building for years, and various solutions have been proposed and applied. But we won’t be able to fix the problem until we take a long, hard, honest look at how deep that problem goes. We don’t just have an education crisis. We have a meaning crisis. We’re neglecting to teach children the basic common sense concepts and skills they need to negotiate life in a sane and healthy manner not out of malice, but because we ourselves don’t know them.

When we give children an artificial education, we prepare them for an artificial job and an artificial life. Whether they get a GED that prepares them to fill invoices for shoes or a PhD that prepares them to study the reproductive life of insects, eventually they will crave to do something that has real, tangible meaning. Not every child needs or wants to be a farmer. But every child should understand and appreciate that someone has to farm in order for everyone to eat. And every child should have a basic understanding of how food is grown, and where energy comes from before they flick the light switch and where water comes from before they turn on the tap. 

Do you think these things are too mundane to teach? Or are you ashamed to admit that you don’t know the answer either?