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Dismantling a Dehumanizing System

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

This week's post is part one in a two-part post. Over the past two years, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on a palpable feeling of misalignment pervading most aspects of our society, including our public schools. That reflection led to a deeper investigation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with a focus on self-actualization, which Maslow placed at the top of this hierarchy (see important note at the end of this post). Self-actualization is defined as, "the complete realization of one's potential, and the full development of one's abilities and appreciation for life."


If we still value Maslow’s model, we must ask ourselves if our public schools are designed to bring about self-actualization or instead alienate students from themselves, primarily promoting a vision of themselves as a market commodity. When our students ask us why they should excel in school, what is our response? What is the purpose of education that we sell to children? Is it to truly know themselves or to prepare them to be cogs in the machinery of our global economy, acquiring degrees solely for financial purposes rather than personal development and edification? In The End of Education, Neil Postman deeply examines the purpose of a public education. He writes, “The question is not, Does or doesn't public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatsoever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.” As we consider which narratives are now prioritized, we must identify who controls the narratives and what their objectives are. What serves those people best: self-actualized students or students who are so alienated from themselves that they can only find meaning in the acquisition of the material items produced by those who are in control? Most of us, including me, are so caught up in this system, so alienated from nature and ourselves, so far removed from our "species-essence" that we have become conditioned to accept our objectification and powerlessness. Yet we sense our misalignment. We sense it in our workplaces, our government, our systems of education, and our society at large. We attempt to distract ourselves from this misalignment with sports, entertainment, alcohol, drugs, social media, etc. But we know it's there, and since self-actualization was never fostered within us, we have no clue how to deconstruct the system that traps us and rebuild a new one. Pete Stone, Chester Education Association President, alludes to the misalignment felt by educators and students in this brilliant video.

Freire characterized this misalignment as being adapted to the reality in which we find ourselves rather than integrated. Thoreau wrote about living lives of quiet desperation rather than sucking the marrow out of life. Great thinkers from diverse perspectives note how hard it is to live in a society that tends to focus on productivity and conformity, rather than realizing our greatest innate potential. Schools, whether intentional or not, reinforce this misalignment. This is because our systems of education were designed to meet the needs of power structures --economic, political, social)-- rather than individual humans. As a result, teachers, the humans tasked with helping other humans develop, find their students and themselves increasingly toxified by this system. Before the pandemic hit, we saw the harm caused by the accountability movement and education reformers who framed their initiatives with vacuous aphorisms like "No Child Left Behind" or "Race to the Top." Educational initiatives have often been framed by "reformers" in ways that mask the underlying dehumanizing paradigm. As they promote their reforms, they position themselves as the ones finally putting "students first," as opposed to the educators on the front lines, who the public then infers have been "leaving children behind." Consider the 2010 Davis Guggenheim documentary "Waiting for Superman." The title alone cast teachers and teachers’ unions as the villains. The film pinned the systemic issues in public education on the very people fighting to save public education, but educators are as much victims of this dehumanizing system as their students. The dehumanizing aspects of the system became calcified by politicians on both sides of the aisle who viewed standardized testing as the superhero that would fix problems that were first highlighted after the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Our supposed falling behind international peers and the “achievement gap,” which would more accurately be termed an “opportunity gap,” were supposed to be ameliorated by increased accountability in the form of bubble-in tests. The goal was to ensure that schools created a more competitive national workforce. The entire system soon warped itself to maximize test scores, setting up an insipid and miserable game that neither educators nor students ever wanted to play. As teachers saw the system become increasingly dehumanized, in an effort to appease the standardized testing "Gods," they became increasingly demoralized.

In subsequent decades, inadequate funding, increased workloads, lagging teacher pay, and deteriorating working conditions added to the toxicity experienced by educators, so they began leaving the profession in record numbers to rid themselves of the poison. Now the pandemic has laid bare just how dehumanized our public education system has become. In South Carolina, we have seen 17,000+ students contract COVID-19 in the first few weeks of this school year. Three students have died along with dozens of educators and support staff. And what has been the response from our state leaders? They won't even allow local districts to do what is needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect human lives! If this isn’t proof of just how dehumanized the system has become, I don't know what is. Throughout my life, as I've wondered out loud about broken systems and illogical policies, I've always been told to follow the money. This helps us understand exactly what our leaders value, and I think that advice applies here. The health of our economy seems to always supersede the health of the people. When the purpose of life is reduced to a quest for material gain, success is then measured by the numbers on our bank statements, the value of our homes and cars, and our ability to purchase everything we are convinced we NEED to be happier.

As the purpose of public education became aligned with these materialistic ends, our educational systems began deifying test scores. If the success of an adult is the number on a paycheck, the value of a student is their score on a high stakes test. And the worth of an educator, a school, or district is tied directly to these test results. Because it is solely based upon externally imposed metrics, this system forces students and educators to adapt rather than integrate. It alienates us from ourselves, preventing self-actualization. And, sadly, it has largely led to lives of quiet desperation. This system has to be attacked and deconstructed at its roots. Until we recognize that our problems primarily stem from this toxic system, our advocacy efforts will remain mostly palliative. We will perpetually be treating the symptoms of the diseased system rather than dismantling the system itself. We will grasp at technology, "innovative" methods, and interventions with the sole purpose of playing the game better rather than deconstructing it. We will be led to believe that kids just need more time in school, more access to technology, and more rigor. We will see state leaders continue to ignore the voices of educators. We will see more legislation that prioritizes the economy over the health, safety, and well-being of the people. And the destructive game will go on, driven by arbitrary goals created by people who value dollars more than humanity. This week we identified the problem and what needs to be dismantled. In part two, coming next week, we will identify some potential solutions and ways we can build the schools our students deserve. ​*Self-actualization has been taught as the pinnacle of Maslow's Hierarchy, but before he died, he wanted to add a higher piece, self-transcendence. Rather than stray too far from the overall point of this post, you can read about this here or watch the video below.

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