Regardless of your political persuasion, the color of your skin, your age, or where you happen to be living, life is appreciably different at the start of 2021 from just a year ago. One of my new favorite writers, Scott Galloway (and others), is arguing that while the calendar ticked off one year in 2020, changes that were just starting to make inroads into our lives accelerated the equivalent of five or maybe even 10 years last year.
And none of it feels like it’s slowing down, does it?
The challenges we face today are existential. We’re grappling with deep, systemic, long-term issues around race. The climate crisis is no longer on the horizon; it’s inside the walls. Here in the U.S., our very understanding of democracy is being put to the test. And the pandemic has exposed inequities and ineptitude that tear at the very fabric of our society.
These are not minor problems requiring a few expert roundtables and some policy tweaks to repair. Taken together, they create a moment of reckoning instead. They tell us in plain terms that the time has come to get our collective houses in order…and fast.
Schools of all stripes will not escape their own reckoning at this moment. Under siege are time worn narratives and mental models of what an education is, how we acquire it, and what value it holds longer term. Like so many other institutions, we find ourselves in the angsty in-between as our old stories fade and we begin, perhaps because of the events of last year, to write new stories for a much more uncertain future.
And at the heart is the difficult and daunting question: To what extent have the practices and systems we’ve been living in schools contributed to the fraught moment we all now find ourselves in?
A truthful interrogation of that question leads to some uncomfortable answers. It’s hard to explain away the inequity, the inertia, and the growing irrelevance of the school experience today. These and other “unpleasant truths” as I’ve been calling them have been festering just below the surface for decades.
But 2020 uncovered them all. And our moment of reckoning has arrived.
Yet, as much as we may be keen to “innovate” our way out of this, that is not the best path forward. We can’t fix our own crises or our more global crises with a new technology or a different classroom architecture or a revised mission statement. Instead, this moment calls us to revisit the foundational underpinnings of our work, to ask existential questions of ourselves. Who are we now? And, what do we aspire to become given the difficult challenges that we and our students face today and into the future?
Despite all of the ambiguity of this moment, what is absolutely clear is that despite a strong urge to do so, there is no going “back to normal” for any of us, for in so many ways, “normal” wasn’t that great to begin with. Instead, we are entering an age of “no-normal” in which the world will be continually buffeted by challenges and change. We will need a new approach.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold out hope, or that there won’t be new, powerful opportunities to pursue. Restorative justice activist and educator Mariame Kaba famously said, “Hope is a discipline,” calling for a commitment to the future that must manifest as action. Amidst such hope, this is no time to give it up.
But we who care deeply about children and learning are going to have to get our own school house in order if we’re to fully take advantage of the opportunities ahead. In the weeks and months to come, I hope to explore ways that we can do that so 2021 and beyond will be a time for us to thrive, not just survive.
Hope you’ll join me on that journey.