As I mark papers for Sociology, I assign marks, giving numerical value to the work of the students in my class. Doing so, I am reminded of the first precept of Deep Ecology:
The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have intrinsic value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
This means, of course, to refer to the equal inherent value of every form of life, but for just a minute I want to focus on young people in our society, youngsters in school. The school system that I work for assigns grades. I am happy that I work in a high school, with sixteen-year-olds. According to the law they are no longer obligated to be in school, so I can make the argument that they are choosing this system, and therefore giving their tacit approval of the grading system.
This, however, belies the fact that they are each a product of their society, their socialization, which places a stigma on not finishing school and in many circles not finishing university. Assuming their free choice also ignores the peer pressure and pressure from familial norms, and sanctions in the form of exclusion or derision if they do not go to school. It does not address the fact that if they were to leave school, in this society, there is nothing for them to do- even basic jobs require a high school degree. Going out on your own, especially without support from family or other social groups, is a difficult venture, and there are few young people who can manage it. So as much as we say they have a choice to be in school or not, they do not; the culture and society around them will devalue them if they do not finish school.
And so, these students stress and struggle and sometimes excel, as measured by the grading system. And I participate in this valuing. What I long to say to them, what I am desperate to say to them, is that this mark on a paper is not a value of their worth, that every human and non-human life on earth has value in itself. That they have intrinsic value in themselves, inherent value in simply being alive.
How often do we tell our young people that? How often do we even think it? And what error, or even violence may there be in saying it, when the culture at large does not honor it and indeed will punish it? My recourse is to say it, all the while reminding them that society doesn’t particularly see it that way. They do have a choice, to remain within the system or to buck it, but bucking it would be difficult, financially hazardous and sometimes painful, though if done consciously and creatively it just might lead to growth experiences as well. If they do choose to be in the system, as they mostly do, they have a choice to accept the valuing of the system, or as I hope they do, to do their best within the system while knowing, understanding, and acknowledging that their worth is not defined by the system, but by the act of living itself.
These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
The value of each young person, and indeed of each person, must also be independent of their usefulness in society, and especially independent of their usefulness to the economic models we have established. When we as a society come to understand this, we will be ready to embrace the myriad of possibilities that can be made available to young people. We can begin to look at a slew of other options beyond, besides, and alongside traditional schooling. When we uncouple school from fiscal usefulness, from financial worth and from preparation for economic contribution, we will find its intrinsic usefulness in nurturing young beings toward their natural full potential. We can begin to embrace Deep Ecology’s second principle, that
Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
So too, do the diversity of choices in a society contribute to the realization of the regeneration of society. Diversity is a result of embracing the multiplicity of life, in nature and in our youth as well. Embracing diversity will rightly mean that we can no longer do ‘school as usual’. Much will have to open up if we will genuinely facilitate the right of children to grow and develop both at their own pace and in their own directions. This will entail that students are not in rows or desks, or perhaps even in rooms. It will entail that learning is completely redesigned, as are teachers’ roles, availability of materials, access to spaces and to nature, choice of activity, blending of ages and more. Diversity ultimately opens up an ecosystem to development and evolution; so it will be with our schools and our children. Opening up to diversity and the richness in our children’s potential will also call for us to re-evaluate evaluation.
What does deep evaluation look like, in a diverse and rich ecology of school?
Suffice it to say it will not be impersonal. This is not to say it will not be rigorous, or demanding, or perhaps even strict. All societies have methods and means of correcting and shaping the development of the children and young people in their care. Indigenous societies paid a great deal of attention to the socialization of their children, and the response, or evaluation if you will, could be swift and even strict. The biggest difference overall, I think, is that evaluation before the advent of institutionalized schooling happened in relationship, in network, in community, and often face to face.
What evaluation in our schools today has lost, besides a relevance to life as it is lived, which is a discussion on its own, is the ability to spend time face to face with a child or young person. We are missing the opportunity to explain, to discuss and cooperatively determine an evaluation, and then to creatively explore and collaboratively apply the means for growth. Of course, if a child is failing or conversely, is motivated to seek the teacher out, this face to face conversation may take place, but these are often not collaborative and on the whole, because of the press of so many classes, so many students, a good deal of evaluation for ‘regular’ students is done on paper, and increasingly, online on educational platforms.
If we reflect on the past while forging a route to the future, and take the good with the good, our new, deep evaluation can combine individual potential and individual agency with personalized, deeply effective mentor, peer, and self- evaluation, and with feedback and direction in face to face settings, as well as in smaller groups and community. The cost of these smaller groups and one on one time can only be criticized if we continue to tie ourselves to a monetized worth, if we do not understand values beyond economic spreadsheets, and the value of the children themselves to our society as a whole. This too must change as we move toward deep evaluation.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
Humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of a child’s nature and growth, except to satisfy vital needs. ‘Vital’ here is not economic gain or social uniformity or conformity to tradition or norms. Vital here refers to survival, and the ironic truth is that at this juncture in our society what we are coming to understand is that what is most vital, most imperative for our survival as a society and perhaps as a species as well, is that we do not reduce, but instead promote the richness and diversity of our world, of multitude species, as well as of our children and young people. In doing that, I believe that it is also vital, as in essential to survival, that we nurture deep ecological awareness and understanding in our children and in society as. I believe it is vital that we all adopt inter-being as a way of seeing the world.
Finally, it is vital that we create the types of synergisms that can lead to the emergence of the new societal structures which will help us to continue to survive and thrive as a species. These synergisms are forged through diversity, in relationship, and in affirming the unique potential and agency of each element in a synergistic expression. Synergism, the essence of a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, is the process that will bring forth the emergence of new social structures, the more elegantly ordered complexity that is evolution. It is an evolution of social structure, a new phase shift in identity, relationship, cooperation, and mutual benefit, that is vital for our species to survive. Clearly our vital needs are to promote the richness and diversity of life rather than to hinder it. I believe this can be most efficiently and quickly through a reform of schools that promotes biophilia, eco-literacy, and the internal structures, networks, relationships, and values that are in themselves reflections of natural growth, synergism and emergence. I call these ‘emergent schools’.
But right now, locked in a pile of paper that is designed to evaluate success or failure, I would settle for the simple understanding: every living thing on Earth has value in itself. These children and young people have value in themselves. Tell them that.