By Denny Olson

We are social animals, and our ‘kind’ – the pack (or village) animals (wolves, chimpanzees, gorillas, orcas, etc.) — are almost desperate to know where they fit in their social environment. Of course, social animals receive conformity messages from the pack or herd or club. But in most cases, there is still a specific (and appreciated) niche that individuals fill. The balance between conformity to social rules and creative contribution to the welfare of the group changes with climate, food availability, or political leadership – depending on which species we are. In our species, our schools express the wishes of our culture, and therefore the location of that critical fulcrum between creativity and conformity. To some, schools function largely for compliance and thought control. To others, they appear as “failing” to prepare future workers for their necessary “productivity” (read: becoming good consumers).

The real problem with schools could be the definition of “school”. In our culture, school is thought of as a confined location, usually indoors, with strict rules of status, a rigid “subject area” schedule which promotes disjointed thinking, a sense of “community” based largely on competitive sports accomplishments, a place of preparation for life in an environment which has far too little in common with life outside of the building, and a place where many busy parents can abdicate responsibilities for child-rearing while they work. After school, television, smart phones, and video games sometimes allow the same work-exhausted parents to continue their abdication at home.

Many politicians think of school as preparation for a generic job market through obedience training. Yet it is also convenient for them to promote the perception that schools (not voters, not media, not parents) should have the responsibility when a kid “goes wrong”.

In reality, schools mirror the expectations of the culture at large. Politicians follow (often lagging back a considerable distance) those cultural expectations – and they often protect their jobs by resisting change. Leadership has always been about anticipation of change and courage to promote the changes, even if a constituency resists hearing about the work and adjustments involved. This quality flies in the face of winning popularity contests (elections). Re-thinking and restructuring schools is a grass-roots job for educators, parents, mentors, spiritual leaders and the larger community of concerned people (including Flathead Audubon!). It is too important to leave in the hands of those who spend much more time on personal image management and campaigning, than on vision and leading.

Using my own childhood as my closest-to-home example, school is not a confined location, with narrow opportunities for status based on Darwinian principles of inherited talent and behavioral conformity. School is a process. “Schooling” is about finding a place to belong in an arena of ever-broadening opportunities. “School” in its present form (an indoor location, almost totally isolated from the real communities of nature and our society) will never be able to reduce the culture shock that graduates feel, because actual participation in the larger society, and in the spaceship in which we travel called “Earth”, is discouraged by the very structure of school. How much do our graduates personally and directly know and feel about the local, natural world that sustains them – that allows them to live in the world?

“As you go out into the world…” – the common phrase of commencement addresses – speaks volumes about the disengagement of “schools” and therefore children, from nature and the rest of society. After the adrenaline rush of the ceremony, that deer-in-the-headlights, “Now what?” look is all too common among graduates. Flathead Audubon and like-minded organizations are about re-integrating schooling with the real world, and vice versa – from infancy to adulthood. We are about “As you continue your involvement and participation in the world…” as a logical, desirable, and necessary alternative catch-phrase. Graduation from school should be no big deal. It should be just another milestone in the life-long process of schooling, a landmark that reinforces children’s already strong sense of place in the world.

The safety net for disempowered dropouts, for the embarrassing relationships between poverty and achievement in a superpower nation, is all of us – as constant teachers and constant students – taking personal responsibility for the condition of our world. To sustain our species, to sustain the viability of our natural, economic, political, spiritual and common world, demands both the courage to re-think how our children develop, and our active participation in that process. To leave “field trips” out of that equation is educational negligence. Nothing less.

Not that I have an opinion about that …