Last night, I wrote about the benefits of environmental transformation that could come through the simple mechanism of attaching a wetland to every school in the Okanagan. It’s worth elaborating on, because the concept is vital. So, let’s dive in.
In the culture politically and socially dominant in the Okanagan Valley today, it is commonly accepted that schools are where children will be educated, that they will be educated in groups, along certain subject areas, and by professional teachers. In many cases, the work done in these schools is inspired. In many cases, the children who go there are inspired. Nonetheless, these institutions embody cultural choices, not human verities, and they come with costs.
2. What about classrooms ?
Culturally, schools today are divided into a number of rooms, each with approximately 30 students, a professional teacher, and, depending on the class mix, one or more assistants to help with students unable to thrive independently in the classroom environment. The goal of the classrooms is to help each student realize their full individual potential, with oversight from a professional trained in multiple modes of learning, with time to adapt instruction to the individual needs of each child. The goal is also to make this process affordable for society, by grouping students together for this work. Much of classroom time is accordingly spent managing the social dynamics of this concentration of students within this particular instructional model. This is one of the costs and benefits of the system: so much attention is devoted to social dynamics that they become a prime educational tool and even a goal of the educational process. The assumption is that the social skills learned in this immersive process will be expressed in the adult society of which the students will ultimately be a part. That is all admirable. Nonetheless, these rooms do a few other things: they divide children into manageable groups, they align them by age and subject of study, they often place adults in positions of authority, curriculum is set at a distance (not in particulars but structurally), and they are reliant on imported representations of the world: books, videos, reports, tweets, photographs, and so on. This is a cultural choice, not a human verity. It is also not the cultural choice of traditional (Syilx) cultures in this valley.
3. What is this cultural choice?
The cultural choice is ultimately scientific. It employs the profoundly powerful scientific method of breaking unified experience down into abstract categories, which can be simplified to a high degree, logically understood, and reassembled into new world views with a bias towards intervention, management, and industrialization. Given that Okanagan culture is a part of a larger capitalist culture, ultimately these world views are developed in order to be capitalized, either as public infrastructure or for private profit. It is a model that matches the classroom model.
4. What about “culture”?
Indeed. Much of contemporary Okanagan understanding of how water, wind, air, soil and sun work in the valley is based upon the detailed work and powerful methods of this approach. Much of contemporary Okanagan art and literature is also based on this method. A typical poem within the valley’s dominant culture, for example, dissects or reimagines experience, “proves” it with personal observation, and ends in a moment of transcendance, in which this dissection, reimagination and presence is unified in a powerful image of the living, unified earth, as an expression of human understanding, or of urban space unified with logical understanding. These objects can be very moving. Then they end.
5. What’s wrong with that?
This particular cultural choice does not allow for points of view which start at the moment of unity, because that moment goes against the basic principle of the cultural method: to take things apart so that they can be put together in a new form. In other words, this cultural choice transgresses the root understandings of syilx (indigenous) culture and teaches in the main a process of dissection, coupled with a creative process of reassembly, which uses two materials: dissected material and human physical experience. This is a perfect map of colonial experience. It contains profound, innately racist social choices which are, at least, essential to talk about, if Canada, and the Okanagan, are to be unified societies. If they are to be disunitied societies, God help us all. Furthermore, if the method is displaying itself in these subjects in this way it is likely doing so in science as well.
7. Why Syilx?
Apart from the essential point, that a study of the culture that grew up with this landscape and maintained it for 4,000 years, in schooling situations that did not centre around classrooms, would be invaluable for the continued sustainability of human culture in this place, and the secondary point that the current lack of productivity of the natural landscapes reflects a 160-year-old turning-away from such knowledge, syilx culture is an invaluable doorway for fulfilling the current directives of the Ministry of Education of British Columbia for mandated inclusion of First Nations knowledge into the schooling curriculum. Applying a non-classroom model, centred around wetlands, would fulfill a major part of this mandate. Other benefits of a wetland-based learning area would connect the wetland with culture, history, environment, food production, and understandings of the relationships between people and the earth. Not only would such a model fulfill the Ministry’s mandate, but it would fulfill many other areas of education at the same time, without descending to a special class on Indigenous studies, without significant opportunities for it to enrich the conversation of the school with society as a whole. Besides, have you ever met any syilx people? I just plain like them.
8. Why a wetland classroom?
Schools aren’t classrooms. Classrooms are schools. Marshall McLuhan said it perhaps best: “The medium is the message.” To translate his slogan into the present, across more than half a century:
Where an action takes place determines the nature of the action.
In other words, if you have water on your mind, have the experience of water as your frame. To explain that a little more, as I mentioned last night, classrooms are courses within schools. What I meant was that the placement of children in classrooms teaches them about classification and abstraction, how to think in groups and how to put their words into sentences. That is actually the outcome of the course. Should an understanding of the environment, the earth, its air and its water, its living things and its rocks and mountains, be a desired outcome, that material has to be brought into the classroom in a broken form, and abstractly reconstructed in childrens’ heads. No one is building a mountain on the teacher’s desk. Better to make it the teacher’s desk.
Nonetheless, bringing material in abstracted form into a classroom is not entirely a bad thing, of course, because it is one means of teaching invaluable and much-needed abstract reasoning skills. Nonetheless, it is a cultural choice, and does not represent the breadth and depth of responses to and relationships with the environment which we will need to survive here in the long term, or to have a living earth to survive in. This is where the idea of a wetland classroom in every school comes in: if the room is the outcome of the course, and an improved or different outcome is desired, change the room. If we want children to solve our water issues (and, boy, we have them) twenty years from now, it starts with a wetland classroom now. That will be their environment. They will know more than we ever did, and will have relationships most of us today, and most likely almost all of our engineers, do not have. If we wait five years, the outcome will be delayed five years, if not more.
9. What kind of thinking can we expect?
Well, ultimately I would love every single child to have an intimate, unmediated experience with water that they will remember for their entire lives and which will inspire them towards dance, science, agriculture, mathematics, hydrology, family life, canoeing, literature, urban design… and on and on and on. I want the children to lead us, by their delight and wonder and I want them to have this experience when they are young enough that what they experience is not limited by, or pre-determined by, words and structured experience, whether in film, books, lectures, explanations, scientific diagrams, and so on, because as wondrous as those are, and as powerful and necessary as they are, they should come after the moment that changes childrens’ lives; if they come before it they will determine the shape of that moment in accordance with existing knowledge, and what we need right now is new knowledge. We need our children.We need them to teach us wonder and to help us live on the earth.
10. What about creativity?
In the book-classroom-dissection model of contemporary dominant culture, creativity is the practice of reassembling cognitively examined segments of continuous experience into a new understanding, which is a way of saying “assembling them into a new self.” That is a culturally-specific process, as I noted above, and not determined by human nature. I went on in my discussion last night with the observation that if wetlands became the natural habitat of our children, as they were here 150 years ago (and, heck, 50 years ago I was splashing through them, too, watching dippers dive under the water and rise out of it again in a splash of light, chasing tadpoles, and marvelling at little minnows frozen in the winter ice.), and surprising things might happen. I can image this, in this dry, dry climate, which is only dry because we have turned our collective knowledge away from the wetlands that stretch the entire length of the valley in an unbroken chain. Here’s what I said:
We could have a wetland city, in this dry climate, 400 miles long. We could work to extend water rather than to extend roads and parking lots, and could work hard to find room, here and there, for roads, as we now do for water.
First the water, then the water. It’s that simple. We don’t have to reimagine anything — none of our infrastructure, not a thing. We just have to give our children water to live in, teachers to guide them, and let them become the water keepers, like the beaver of Conconully above. There will be time for the hard questions. This has been the time for the vision. Welcome home.