Living in the Now, And Looking for Balance

In the last post, I asked “why now?” regarding the growth of homeschooling in my lifetime. I sited Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas about the outdated industrial-era model of our current education system. I also discussed Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock; I quoted some of his ideas about storage vs. flow systems in currency and economic structures, and I related these ideas to education systems.

But the impetus behind the growth of homeschooling is more subtle and nuanced than the economic and technological irrelevance of our present schools in the digital age. It seems to me the trend has something to do with being… present. Again and again, when I talk to my mom about her motivations to homeschool, a core motive has to do with a presentness in the experience of learning and living, an attention on the now.

Which brings me back to the book Present Shock—in which the theme of time is central. Rushkoff describes the twentieth century as obsessed with the future, an obsession that got us to the technological point where we find ourselves today. He argues that the envisioned future has arrived, and that the digital era is one of continuos “now.” He presents a familiar list of examples of digital acceleration: email giving way to texting, blogs giving way to twitter feeds, narrative collapsing into reality TV, the shift in attention from investing in a company’s future to winning on the trade itself. Rushkoff states:

“And while this phenomenon is clearly ‘of the moment,’ it’s not quite as in the moment as we may have expected.”

The critiques I shared in my last post by Sugata Mitra were focused on the future-biased, storage-biased, linear and top-down nature of our current schools. The outdated nature of today’s education structure is due to a massive system’s inability to structurally evolve to embrace the digital-era’s flow-biased opportunities. To the extent that the system is evolving in line with our times, it often seems more in the direction of data-collection and data-driven policies — standardized curricula and testing that mostly teach the same old things in the same old ways.

So when we talk about outdated, industrial-era schools that no longer prepare kids for the new and changing digital-era economy, it is an important critique. Still, I think there is a tricky and delicate middle-ground between the twentieth century’s future-focus and our twenty-first century orientation of continuous “now.”

Rushkoff talks about the idea of “time-binding” as a significant quality of the human experience. As he frames it, plants can bind energy through photosynthesis, and animals bind space through moving around, using resources from a larger area than can a rooted plant. And humans can “bind time.” Through language and symbols, we pass on knowledge from generation to generation:

“Each new generation can begin where the former generation left off. … In the space of one childhood, we can learn what it took humanity many centuries to figure out. … The danger of such a position is that we can forget to put our own feet on the ground. We end up relating to maps as if they were the territory itself instead of just representations. Depending solely on the time binding of fellow symbol makers, we lose access to the space binding of our fellow animals, or the energy binding of nature. … [W]e attempt to operate solely through our symbol systems, never getting any real feedback from the world. It’s like flying a plane without a visible horizon, depending solely on the information coming from the flight instruments.

What we really need is access to both: we want to take advantage of all the time that has been bound for us as well as stay attuned to the real-world feedback we get from living in the now.”

Although Rushkoff was not commenting on education, that passage speaks to me about a perceivable imbalance in our current systems of learning. I have seen both teachers and students struggle to contextualize school work and tests that are disassociated from the students’ lives in the real world. I think that the homeschooling movement is, in part, a reaction to these imbalances in the education system – but I think it is also a reaction to a broader societal imbalance.

El Anatsui monumental installation work, Brooklyn Museum

El Anatsui’s monumental works installation, handmade out of bottle-caps, Brooklyn Museum

For a while now, I’ve been feeling some amorphous connection between the growth of homeschooling and other movements of our time. I have been thinking of homeschooling in relationship to seemingly disparate things including the local food movement, the handmade-item resurgence (Etsy, etc.) and DYI trends, even the Greek experiment in “favor banking” in response to their recent economic collapse. All these things seem related to me as an attempt to balance the tremendous efficiency and interconnectivity of the world with our own biological-localness in time and space, experience and even material needs. These things attempt to, in an interconnected world and globalized-efficiency-economy, return us to a more localized, more present-in-the-now, more rooted-in-the-real-world experience.

But, as Rushkoff states, we need both. And I think homeschooling attempts and often succeeds at harnessing both the opportunities of interconnectivity and information that has been time-bound for us, and the presentness of now, here, in the real world.

Of course, one of the great anxieties facing our society today, which will motivate changes and updates to our education models, is meeting the needs of a new and changing job economy. On this point, Rushkoff calls one of the downsides of our technological interconnectivity and efficiency “overwinding.”

“Even when we consume and dispose of resources at a pace that threatens the ability of our environment to sustain human life, we can’t consume rapidly enough to meet the demands of the market for growth.

In America, certainly, there is already more than enough stuff to go around. […] We are so good at making stuff and providing services that we no longer require all of us to do it. As we are confronted by bounty, our main reason to create jobs is merely to have some justification for distributing all the stuff that is actually in abundance. Failing that, we simply deny what is available to those in need, on principle.

Rushkoff puts it this way: not only is time money, but money is time. He discusses “un-winding” some of our globalized and digitized efficiency. This, again, resonates to me as an impetus of the cultural trend toward locally grown, locally made, DIY, and peer-to-peer platforms. These trends are less about efficiency and more about the human-time-scales of here-and-now.

And what could be more local, more un-wound—even inefficient—than homeschooling?