Friday, April 25, 2008

Two Cheers for Parochialism

Last night, I was listening to On Point on NPR. Their guests were talking about the troubles faced by the airline industry: older fleets, increasing fuel costs, congested air routes and airports, and so on. They suggested that air travel might well become significantly more expensive in the near future, and that the Federal government might have a role to play in holding down airfares because we've come to expect that flying should be "democratic," available to almost everyone regardless of social class.

And I thought to myself, it was only fifty years ago that commercial passenger flights were rare. The idea of a working-class family piling the kids on a plane to go for a week at EPCOT would have been unheard of; you'd have gotten in the camper and driven up to Silver Lake State Park instead.

I don't know that we, as a society, were unhappier.

One of the core beliefs of Modernism (and of Postmodernism as well -- it's one of the most stable things we have) is that progress is objective. We can define it and measure it and it's incontrovertible. The GDP is growing? Progress. Your new computer is faster and smaller than your last one? Progress. Your house is bigger than your parents' house? Progress.

Let's leave aside for a second that quality of life is messier and more contentious than standard of living. One of the side beliefs of objectivity is that if a thing is true in one case, it's likely to be true in another. Truth doesn't change from one context to another. So the standards we apply to progress in Iowa are the same as those we apply in India. Back in the Cold War era, we used to talk about third-world countries, meaning those places that the first world (the democratic West) and the second world (the Soviets and their allies) fought over. Nowadays, the more common terminology is "developed nations" and "developing nations." Again, the implication is that progress is defined similarly and desired equally in every location.

We also imagine that, if we know what progress means, we have a proven set of tools to get us there... again, without regard to context. So a high school in Cleveland looks just like a high school in Calgary, because we "know what works" and have an efficient scheme for providing it.

One of the other elements of progress, closely related, is that we have skills that we can take anywhere. A software engineer or architect or pharmacist would do the same work in the same way regardless of her location. This allows for smaller local businesses to be overcome by larger national and international businesses that can have greater economies of scale.

So we have uniform definitions of progress, an increasingly diminished set of tools for getting us there, provided by people who have no inherent relationship to any particular place. If you're a fan of this, you call it globalization. If you're not, you call it placelessness.

Even though I've personally benefitted from radical mobility, I'm not a fan. It has emotional costs and social costs that we don't often consider.

I know some people in rural areas who've never been more than a few counties away from their homes. I've heard that in New England, being "a local" is a status connoted only on those with four generations in the cemetery. We can decry their parochial views on things, but there's a way in which these people know their community, their landscapes, their ecosystems, and their places within it all that us jet-setters can never achieve. By objective measures, they don't necessarily have much. But if someone gets sick, ten people will magically appear, bringing food and stacking firewood and tending the horses.

My partner and I have developed a curriculum model called Local Learning. Our premise is that the setting of the school -- its ecological, social, economic and cultural context -- ought to be the ground upon which learning is based. You can have local history, local literature, local government, local biology and climatology, local cultural geography and migration patterns, and on and on. It makes the content knowledge into a tool that we can actually see and use to modify our conditions. It helps us make informed decisions about what it means to be a member of a community. (And, I'd argue, it actually benefits those who leave as well, because knowing how to know local systems is a transportable skill valuable everywhere.)

But it doesn't work in the context of state (and increasingly national) standards for what must be learned at each grade level. We worry about what happens with a curriculum that would vary from place to place. What happens when a family moves to a new school district? How would we know that an architect licensed in Nebraska is good enough to work in New Jersey? But these questions are also rooted in our modernism. We structure things with a bias in favor of those who move over those who stay. The student who is likely to leave a school district has more influence over the curriculum than the student who remains in the same place; NCARB has more control over the definition of your architectural practice than those people who know their community and its history; the American Planning Association has more control over your street layouts than your mayor.

So let the airlines collapse, let gasoline hit $8.75 a gallon, let No Child Left Behind and its uniform definition of learning become part of our embarassing history. Let's find out what happens if we stay put.

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