Dennis Littky, radical educator and co-founder of Big Picture Learning, wowed everyone with his TEDxNYED speech on Saturday. The man with the colorful kufi and grey beard might have struck the unsuspecting (and uninformed) as discordant in contrast to the business casual of the rest of the crowd or aloof because of their own prejudices, but he removed all doubt of his passion and intelligence without so much as one PowerPoint slide or high-tech wizardry. TEDxNYED is wont to having the fanciful and aesthetic come before any audience member could glean anything from a speech.
Not so with Dennis.
While I’m intentionally not recapping his speech here (for fear that I’ll totally misquote him), I’ll give you the last jewel he bartered to the rest of us:
“If you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Perfect words in the now crowded discussion about education in this country. What’s happened is less about solutions and more about regurgitating problems. For those keeping track, the same problems with the current education system are the same problems with the education system of every decade for the better part of the last century. The huge attention drawn to K-12 education has a whole nation of soundbite kings with fold-able podiums in their suitcases, ready to sell us their schemes for education.
Yet, No Child Left Behind still leaves an entire generation of children ill-prepared to answer the set of daunting problems facing this world, much less answering some of the questions we’ve already answered. Governors stripping the rights of local workers to come together and bargain cry echoes of hypocrisy as they don’t even wince at the idea that a corporation as a “person” exists to place them upon their seats. Media heads nudge the most common reporter to hysteria, and help brand anyone who speaks for the people with McCarthyist fervor. Entertainment and marketing execs have our whole country hypnotized into a dilapidated culture of values, urging youth to adult-erate and the old to act oppositional but never reciprocate, and balance is off-key.
All the while, people like me across the nation stand in the middle of this teeming mass of confounders, getting a chance to jump above the fray to see people actually near the edge, where the rest of us need to be.
It’s not that I think all mainstream people are somehow corrupt, misguided, or uncaring. Some are. Many just don’t see it the way I do. Or some of you do. But the edge is where all the action happens. It’s where the proverbial beginning of human civilization happened. It’s where disasters naturally occur and the place where wars begin in earnest. It’s where people found ways to make unknown territories into horrors unforeseen. It’s where we fear what keeps us grounded the most. The gravity and courage it takes to get to the edge cannot be overstated.
It’s also the place where we built things that connected more of us together.
Those who find their way to the edge know the landscape better than anyone, and now that the mainstream has been forced into this corporatist vision for education, we have to live on the edge. We have to speak up and out about what we believe is a wrongheaded version of the story. We have to dissent against those who insist on separating us by age, class, race, and gender. We have to show more than outrage for the ways our children have been pushed by this system into virtual and real prisons for private profit. Those of us on the edge have to speak up about the overwhelming majority who may not have the words for it, but nod their heads knowing that something just ain’t right.
Those of us with a present and future voice who only point out problems run the risk of running in circles or, worse, running off the edge with Wile E. Coyote. If we’re willing to innovate enough to find solutions and humble ourselves enough to support others with good solutions, then we see the edge. Once that edge becomes clear, let us stand together while we draw the lay of the land, drawing less on paper and more on each other’s passion for this.