Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Beautiful Tower of Babel

Last night I watched a TED Talks video posted by a friend on Facebook, discussing the philosophy behind modern education, and why it has become both inadequate to serving the world's continued economic interests, and the personal holistic interests of children. The speaker's (Ken Robinson) main point was that education is designed around a "factory mentality" born out of the first industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century, and in conjunction with similar ideas brewing around personal freedoms and the connection between an individual and society.

One of many points that struck me was Robinson's emphasis that one of education's struggles is to balance teaching cultural identity to students, while teaching them globalization. It's the same struggle that hums at the core of public education–that effort to standardize, to make the many into one. In some ways, this is just what education should do, as no society can function at the most basic level without some shared beliefs and structures.

The flip side to this, however, is the reality of human complexity, and the inescapable fact that as multidimensional beings of infinite capability, we don't always fit into one mold. And perhaps we shouldn't.

Modern western culture teaches that at once both diversity and globalization are desirable virtues; but how can both exist simultaneously? At some point, one has to give in to the other.

The story of the tower of Babel is that originally, humans tried to build a tower up to God's level in order to make themselves all-powerful, and were punished by having this tower struck, and the people all on it, scattered to the four corners of the earth. Diversity of language, culture, and thought, supposedly comes from this original "punishment." Separation, or individuality, therefore, is the result of our confounded efforts to be one.

Of course this is just a slim interpretation of a cultural myth loaded with symbolism, and many scholars do not even apply a concept of punishment to the original story, so much as that of an etiology tale of how civilization came about. But my point is that Babel is beautiful. Our children's Babel is beautiful, and the Babel told in Egypt, Norway, and Malaysia, and in tiny, remote Amazon villages, is also beautiful.

Globalization teaches us to see each other as "one," and that is so important an idea–and yet, it makes me worry that the universality that we supposedly believe we are reaching for, is not universal and is not as liberating as we think. It's a dominant culture (undeniably often the West) that, for better or for worse, is spreading around the globe, and potentially eradicating other sounds of Babel, and even potentially squelching them in its own offspring.

Instead of seeing globalization, like education, as an opportunity to engage in a multi-voiced dialectic, it is so often pushed as a single truth, or to quote the TED Talk lecture, "There's only one right answer…and it's in the back of the book." In American public education, curriculums geared towards standardized testing heavily outweigh approaches more contextually designed around individual classrooms.

In the age of standardized testing, there's no longer an active search for truth, only the dead declaration that wonderful One-ness is coming (but it's our One and not yours). It's the same age that is drugging up so many kids with dangerous ADHD meds, obsessively tracking their academic progress in ridiculously unhelpful charts and numbers, and then continues to cut music, art, science, and recess. I can't think of anything more destructive to our economy than teaching our children to stop being creative, to stop innovating, to stop taking in information with five senses and to process it, play with it, imagine what it could become. You think a strong economy is built on a generation of people who simply learned how to regurgitate answers in Scantrons?

So I guess this has me both thinking about our attitudes towards educating our own children, and how we "educate" the world. I think globalization is inescapable at this point, but I don't mean to say that's a bad thing. In so many hopeful ways it is inspiring. But it makes me wonder what happens to diversity and individuality, as One-ness takes over. I hope it will be a One-ness built on all of Babel, not just some.

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it's not just for the classroom!