Drawing by a student in teacher Glen Chamberlin's first grade class at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, Great Barrington

Education and the future of humanity

The real and fatal failure of our educational system is that we are educating the humanity out of humans.

Editor’s note: We are happy to welcome Cheryl Heller, Ph.D., to The Edge as a columnist. Heller is an artist, writer, designer and entrepreneur who works with leaders at every level to imagine and manifest elegant new ideas, programs and realities that summon the best of humans and nature together.

Bald eagles’ nests, called aeries, are some of the most impressive in the avian world, typically four to six feet in diameter, three feet deep and weighing (literally) a ton. First graders in one class at the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School are undaunted by this grandiosity, however. Each year they make a trip outside to collect sticks so they can “see what it takes” to build an aerie of their own. According to their teacher, Glen Chamberlin, they “quickly realize the eagles are better at it than we are.” In that one exercise, these young people practice thinking about nature, engineering, experimentation, resourcefulness, planning, and perhaps even humility and respect for other beings. In Chamberlin’s class, first graders are put in situations where they have to work together, evolving from “independent operators” to learners with skills for communicating with peers and classmates, who listen and think about what other people are saying. They also write captivating, incisive poems about life that are both real and thoughtfully original. (Used as illustrations above and throughout this article.)

“The biggest thing I think about for students as they leave me,” Chamberlin says, “is that — and this gets to all the big problems in the world— somehow they can make good decisions about their lives even when there are so many overpowering things that get in the way.” He does this by teaching kids how not to give up or shy away when things get tricky or complicated. For him, perseverance is connected to the idea that his students can decide what they want to do with their lives and go for it.

The college and graduate students that I teach are unpracticed at self-reflection and out of touch with originality. They do not get out in nature, have no time for experimentation or play. They are consumed by pressure to succeed, to rack up the right number of the right credits, get good grades, get an internship, make the right connections, get a job and make enough money to pay off their loans. They are highly uncomfortable when I present them with an unstructured challenge for which they need to determine the best path forward instead of having the steps to success laid out for them, and in situations where there is no single “right” answer. A colleague at Georgetown University tells of graduate students who are far more nervous than prior generations; who don’t do well with uncertainty and are deflated by an even slightly less than perfect grade (“I got a horrible grade — an A-“). These are students who no longer want or are willing to leave their computers to do things in person when they can work through the filter of social media, and would rather rely on a single piece of data from Google than talk to real people with all their complexities.

Something unfortunate happens to American learners between their first and final years of school.

Many of the ways in which education fails learners — and all of us — are, sadly, too familiar to need space here: the inequitable price of the pandemic; a shrinking pool of qualified K-12 teachers; way too many 13-year-olds who say they “never or hardly ever” read for fun; falling test scores; a growing gap between what employers want and schools teach; staggering college debt; a growing mental health crisis among high school and college students with no end in sight; growing disconnection from nature and each other.

Yet these are all only symptoms of the real and fatal failure of our educational system: that we are educating the humanity out of humans.

This drawing features the Dan Quayle spelling of “potato.”

I’ve experienced many forms and flavors of education; large and public, exclusive and private, STEM, liberal arts, professional, domestic and international. I’ve seen it at its most inspiring (yes, Finland), and torn my hair out over its stupid, impenetrable bureaucracies. What I never did, until a few months ago, was explore what education looks like close to home. What I’ve learned offers real cause for hope. There is ample evidence that, in this part of the world we’re lucky enough to inhabit, there is a caring, visionary community working to educate whole and healthy human beings.

In addition to Glen Chamberlin’s Muddy Brook class, the Southern Berkshires Regional School’s Robotics Team, led by Chris Thompson, teaches students to determine their own roles, team leaders and processes for successful collaboration (on winning teams); the Student Adult Advisory Board (SAAB), at Monument Valley High brings students into the conversation about their future; exemplary experiential courses at Williams College, like the Mystic Program that offers embodied learning by living the challenges of the real maritime world.

Two influencers in particular have changed the landscape and outcomes of learning in the greater Berkshires. The first is the Flying Cloud Institute, founded in 1980 by Jane and Lawrence Burke and specializing in “environmental education, energy and land conservation, and the arts.” Since its beginning, Flying Cloud’s integration of STEM and art has influenced many thousands of people to think about the world more holistically, who are now passing along that potential to their own students and kids.

The second transformational agent in these parts (and globally through OSUN, the Open Society University Network), is Bard College, which calls itself “a private college for the public good.” Bard is the hub of a growing network modeling enlightened, principled education that erases boundaries between traditional disciplines, between art and life, technology and humanity, political, cultural and economic divisions. Through the Institute for Writing & Thinking, for example, students who have not had access to education, sometimes where they have been conditioned not to express individual opinions, learn about themselves through writing and develop their voice. Closer to home, at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, students benefit from transdiscplinary, experiential programs, like the one on regenerative agriculture where they learn about ecological and agricultural science while growing food, raising chickens and keeping bees.

The educator Howard Gardner proposed that the K-12 education that every child deserves would be based on three core principles: truth, beauty and goodness. And, that those principles can be taught through three subjects — the theory of evolution, the music of Mozart, and the lessons of the Holocaust. It’s an elegant idea for developing both brains and humanity that could apply not only to K-12 but throughout our lives.

Something needs to change the way we educate in this country. It’s very possible that disruption will come from AI and the crisis ensuing from loss of work and purpose. I hope we don’t wait to find out — that we measure and prove the value of educating healthy, creative, compassionate humans as the foundation of our future before it’s too late. The novelist William Gibson said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” I hope the future of education, as evidenced by the greater Berkshires, can be distributed without delay to the rest of the country and world.

Thanks to all those who took time to talk about what you do: Jonathan Becker, Heather Bellow, Monique Bosch, Leon Botstein, Jane Burke, Glen Chamberlin, Paula Consolini, Deirdre D’Albertis, Peter Dillon, Susan Engel, Kristina Farina, Laura Freid, Sherri Gorelick, Rock Jones, Erica Kaufman, Lindy Marcel, Rob Navarino, Tim Newman, Christopher Nye, Beth Regulbuto, Chris Thompson, Dwayne Todd, Wendy Zajack.

If you think you should have been on this list or just have something to say about education in our part of the world, I’d love to hear from you. https://www.linkedin.com/in/cherylheller/