Mike Kersten and I shared our vision for social conscience education at the TEDx “Inspired Education” on May 31st at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, Hong Kong. In this talk, we suggest that an inspired education needs to take into account two dual concerns: the stress that students are under and the assault upon the earth. In response, our remedy is “Humanities I in Action,” a course that aims to simultaneously provide meaning and purpose to students and to bring healing to the community.
Mike: How can we as educators heal the people-planet divide that has become a mark of our time?
Marty: Consider this: The World Health Organization has made the rather dire prediction that by 2030, the leading disease burden worldwide will be depression.
Mike: In fact, depression is already the top cause of illness and disability for 10-19 years olds around the world.
Mike: Meanwhile, all of us are fed a daily diet of disturbing news from the world around us. These headlines from the past couple months show a litany of global challenges that have become an all-to-familiar refrain.
Marty: The frequent reminders of poverty, climate change, war, and inequality create an aura of apathy about our collective global future. For us as high school teachers, these two trends paint a disturbing image for us as we walk into the classroom to work with teenagers each day.
Mike: People are hurting individually while the planet is suffering globally. It’s a dual crisis that seems to be unfolding ever more rapidly on both fronts.
Marty: If we are to reverse this trend, we believe that inspired education is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, by and large, that’s not really happening.
Mike: Our educational institutions remain trapped in an industrial model that is not seeking to inspire students to become whole and change the world but rather to become highly functioning cogs in the fast-paced modern machine. Kids are still organized into batches and moved through school in assembly line fashion. In this model, students are reduced to widgets in a factory and teachers are simply the quality assurance agents, making sure each one is trimmed and fitted, then stamped with the right label — A, B, or C — before sending them down the line. Is it any wonder that so many of us are becoming sick while the planet groans under our weight?
Marty: This model isn’t working and you have to empathize with those that are brave enough to stand up off the conveyor belt and beg for something that really matters.
Marty: In the face of such a challenge to people and the planet, Einstein urges us to dig deeper. “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.”
In the mid-1990’s as a young teacher I was looking for a new way of thinking. But it didn’t seem to be happening in my classroom. That was when I began to notice the transformative impact that service trips were having on my students. After a week at an orphanage in China, one of my students, Bethany, wrote in her journal: “Service scars you in the most beautiful way possible.” This profound insight became the heart of a new course called Humanities in Action.
Mike: Today, we’re excited to share Humanities in Action with you — the content we teach, the experiences we provide, and what students have to say about social conscience curriculum. Listen to a couple of our students talking about what they were like before they entered our course (0:30-1:01):
Marty: When we have asked students why they don’t have a social conscience, they describe themselves as self-focused and disconnected from life’s realities. The most common metaphor they use to talk about themselves is that they live in a bubble.
Mike: This is the bubble that separates people and the planet. It’s the result of our old method of education and it’s not going to work for another century. In our new way of thinking then, the first step of social conscience education is to the pop the bubble.
Marty: Over the years, students have consistently highlighted three areas of study that have served as an effective needle. All are contemporary events.
Mike: The first, and sharpest, is looking at the horrors of genocide. We have found the beautiful paradox that exploring humanity’s darkest moments doesn’t lead us deeper into despair, but into a spirit of hope and endurance.
Marty: The second major idea that drives our curriculum is globalization. Many of our students divide the world’s people into two separate groups. Those with “normal” lives – themselves – and everyone else — the “unfortunate” people.
Marty: Finally, students want to study the environmental crisis, and to reconsider our relationship with Planet Earth. They seem to understand intuitively that earth is our one and only home.
Mike: As we study each of these issues, we press deeper to look at the question of why through the lens of our human nature.
Marty: Why do we think and behave as we do, both individually and as groups?
Mike: How could perpetrators of genocide cut down their neighbors in cold blood?
Marty: How could a survivor find the strength to live on and the will to forgive?
Mike: What prevents us from giving up our habits of consumption and disposal?
Marty: And what would it take for us to make heroic changes in our lifestyle?
Mike: Indeed, from the first day of class, we make that exploration explicit by openly asking the biggest questions about ourselves that we can imagine. Examining our worldview about these “big questions” becomes the backbone of our course.
Marty: As the journey goes on, students wrestle with these questions, and in time a new worldview, or philosophy of life, begins to emerge.
Mike: As we interact with each other every day, our own personal lives provide a fertile case study for our exploration.
Mike: With each contemporary issue, our study plays back and forth across levels of depth and students get to the most fundamental questions of human existence: who am I, why am I here, and, yes, Calvin, what is the ultimate point of it all?
Marty: But all this isn’t just a head trip.
Mike: It’s a heart trip as well.
Marty: And to do that, we have to get out of the classroom.
Mike: Service experiences are a laboratory for the self where we can try out our hypotheses about our human nature and form conclusions that direct the next step of the journey.
Marty: Social conscience is field tested and when the report comes back we find that there is more that needs to be explored and more that needs to be done.
Mike: This is the heart of our course; the place where people and planet intersect not just intellectually, but experientially as well (3:50-4:20).
Marty: Social conscience education raises student awareness about issues that matter most to them – and then engages their hearts through in-class study and out-of-class experiences. When that happens, students want to do something about it. They come to believe that this world is not static, but within our power to change. It’s an experience that can be truly transformative for high school students (8:13-8:50).
Mike: In a world with hurting people and a hurting planet, social conscience education knits together the head, heart, and hands in a way that connects students to a world desperately in need of wholeness. Whole people for a whole world.
Marty: We would like to send you off with one final student voice. Throughout her high school career, Tiffany took our courses and went on many service trips. Here is an excerpt of an essay she wrote as a senior about her journey of social conscience:
“It was a slow stirring of my soul, an insistent urging to go further out, to see more, to do more, feel more, give more, empathize more with the rest of the world. My journey began at the draw of a window curtain, at the flick of a light switch, at the light of a matchstick. It was, ultimately, the ignition of a fire that I hope will never cease to burn.”
Mike: People can change, the planet can change and our education system can change as well. It has been put in our hearts and hands to make it happen.