Lessons from Harvey – What Kind of Public is Created?

Once again, I find myself writing about an extremely controversial stance on a current event in the news. I don’t mean to be contrarian, I don’t consider myself a person who plays Devil’s Advocate just to play the role. I feel that today’s world presents opportune circumstances to stop and reflect on our mindsets, and to look back at the educational system that created them. After all, “The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create?” as Postman informed us.

My family lives, part-time, in Houston, so I have been following Hurricane Harvey’s path of destruction closely. It’s terrible; homes have been lost, tens of thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and lives have been taken. Yet, as one disaster mental health worker with Red Cross who worked during Katrina put it, “it’s heads and tails above Katrina” in terms of the organization and positive outcome of the emergency response. Shelters are up and running, volunteers are helping, and money is being raised to support what was lost. Of course, it’s not enough to undo the damage. But it’s a whole lot given historic perspectives on a natural disaster like this.

As one volunteer said, “you see the depth of humanity,” through a tragedy like Harvey. And I can’t help but be struck by the awesomeness of that depth (in many cases), and also the shallowness of that depth (in some). One person in a shelter because of a completely lost home said “We’ve started from scratch before; we can do it again.” Others complained about how they had to wait in line to receive food, shoes, or to use the bathroom. How does one get to the point that while at a free shelter run by volunteer relief workers for the good of a community in desperate need, they complain about waiting in line or that it’s taking too long for someone to clean the bathrooms for them? The follow-up to Postman’s question above is: “The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?”

Kurt Hahn, co-founder of Outward Bound and thought leader behind Expeditionary Learning Schools, ran two schools in Europe between 1920 and 1953: first the Salem school in Germany until he was exiled for publicly speaking against Hitler, and then at Gordonstoun in Scotland. Though he ran both schools very similarly, it was at Gordonstoun that Hahn developed the ideas of Outward Bound because of, according to Educational Historian Thomas James, observations coming back from the war – the younger, inexperienced soldiers were drowning more easily in cases of disaster at sea, whereas the more experienced soldiers had a ‘hardiness’ to them and were more resilient to the sinking of a ship (a disaster situation). Thus, Outward Bound was created to teach the young the skills they needed to survive during a time of hardship – skills like gaining ‘an undefeatable spirit, readiness for sensible self denial, tenacity in pursuit, and above all, compassion.’ Hahn believed these same characteristics should be taught in schools – talk about creating a public imbued with confidence and a sense of purpose!

I teach in an Expeditionary Learning School now, and one that specifically tries to step away from marketing and return to the roots of what Kurt Hahn believed in, so of course my opinion is biased. But it seems to me that Hahn held at least part of the key to creating the right kind of a public through his pedagogy. Though we live in a world where it’s easy to get overwhelmingly frustrated when a plane charges for Wi-Fi that is slow, it’s important to have a grounding in what is real in this world, and to be ready for when our daily lives of convenience and customer services are disrupted by the forces of nature or an uncommon humanity. A poster from a project done by a Middle School student on the Great Depression hangs in our school – it has a photo of a woman who was interviewed for having gone through the Depression and a quote “When you go through something like that, it makes you stronger.” This woman understood what I hope that the public we create will understand: that more so than any external circumstances, how we interpret events that happen to us creates our happiness and purpose in this world. How she interpreted the event was to shift the negative bias (‘wow, this sucks to go through something like this…’) to a positive outcome (‘I’m going to be a lot stronger for having gone through it!’). Likewise, Viktor Frankl found meaning despite his circumstances; I want my students to be able to shift negative bias to positive outcome to find purpose and confidence in their lives as well.

So let’s do a bit of that right now. My negative bias is that Harvey sucked. The positive outcomes are twofold: first, my ELOB Crew is discussing the possibility of planning a trip to Houston in the spring to help play our part in rebuild efforts and giving back. I think this is purposeful and really cool. Secondly, I think the views from Harvey spread an overall message of hope and a public largely imbued with confidence, but the voices that don’t convey that are a message to schools across the country to create that type of a public, and a few points to keep in mind while doing it are as follows:
-Training for rescue services can create ‘readiness for sensible self-denial,’ ‘tenacity in pursuit,’ and compassion as the ‘master motive.’
-You are not entitled to anything. The only thing you own is your attention, and where you choose to focus it. Everything else is a gift, and not one you just ‘get.’ Work for it. Einstein wrote “From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other – above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
-Shift the negative bias to a positive outcome. This takes consistent Practice (with a capital P).
-Give your time and energy to others. Not for Karma’s sake – for your sake.
-What else would you like to add?

One thought on “Lessons from Harvey – What Kind of Public is Created?

  1. Nicely said! I, too, spent sometime reflecting on the complaining being done at shelters… I think most people were extremely grateful but I was struck by those tones of entitlement. The hurricane happened, it sucks, but it did happen- in life things happen. I can’t imagine losing my home or life in that way. But the habit of complaint (or at least misdirected complaint here: I think people realized you can’t complain at the hurricane because its a natural disaster, so they find in the aid of others something to complain about). It has left me wondering what the role of complaining has in our society at large and I believe I will make a post that focuses on it. But in the mean time: How, does it seem to me, that in the richest society that has ever existed are our youth filled with so much to complain about?


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