By Jack Schneider
I live a few miles away from Middlesex Fells Reservation — 2,500 acres of protected land in the Boston area. On warm days, my daughter and I go walking there. She likes to spot birds; I like to sit by the pond.
Over the centuries, demands on the land in this area have been intense. And today, Middlesex County is the most populous in New England — home to 1,800 people per square mile. Yet the Fells has been protected, and I’m grateful for that.
When it comes to land, the idea of conservation — manifest so clearly in places like the Fells — causes us to think within a framework best described as humility-in-action. This is a vital counterweight to our impulse to aggressively master the land for our narrow purposes. Because while there is much that can be done to the land, the consequences of those actions are often hard to anticipate. Given the interconnectedness of ecological systems, even the most targeted intervention will inevitably ripple across the entire network.
Education, however, lacks a conservation ethos. To extend the analogy, schools are in a constant and unrelenting state of transformation. There is no guiding philosophical counterweight to the spirit of intervention.
To be clear, my point is not that we should leave schools alone. As we all know, much work has to be done when it comes to equally and adequately meeting the needs of all children. But the ethos of reform that guides most policy making efforts makes us think too uni-dimensionally about schools. The result is that we rarely consider the long term, we are too little concerned with complexity, we fail to adequately define our limits, and we often lose sight of the full range of what we value in education.
For schools, this plays out in a constant churn of narrow-minded interventions. To return to the analogy, reformers build dams and dump fertilizer on the soil. They plant new species and clear swaths of land for grazing. They expect their ecosystems to thrive. They are naïve. And worse, they arrogantly criticize their opposition for obstructionism. Lost, then, is a vision of something more stable and more varied — the cultivation of spaces richer and deeper in value.
The reform movement in American education isn’t going away. And that’s fine as long as it exists in tension with an ethos of conservation. In order for that to happen, however, we have to begin pulling harder in the direction of a new vision.
What I am proposing is a new way of thinking about education — framing schools as conservation lands. That means working slowly on caring for the soil, planting native seeds, thinking broadly about all parts of the ecosystem, and acting with the greatest humility in the hope that what we care for will endure. As ecologist Aldo Leopold sagely put it: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This is a very different vision for schools, and it’s a vision badly needed. Because without it, we will create an educational future that is narrow, homogeneous, and uninspiring. We will create a future that is unsustainable.