A Flower in the Grim City

| May 14, 2010

OK, so I googled myself. But it was over breakfast, so maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, it was down time.

Google introduced me to an essay I had written a few years ago, and which made for a nice read to go with my coffee. Turns out, with this whole “internet” thing, the pdf is just sitting right there. Who knew this would be how we would “find ourselves?”

Anyway, once enough time has passed to sufficiently forget oneself, it presents an odd dilemma. If one is unduly impressed by past efforts, then one is certainly sliding. One’s best work, surely, is behind oneself. But if you find that what you wrote was hopelessly naive, then, well, that’s you you are talking about.

Let’s just say I was intrigued by what I wrote…

In many ways that article formed many of the paths I’m still following. It marked the moment of discovery—I remember it now—when the pattern first started emerging: cities, we’re always talking about cities in education! It’s a strange thought, since it seems patently untrue. I mean, there’s urban education, but that’s by its nature ghettoized, right? But for the most part, educational discourse seems focussed on other things.

But here it was. Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, the heavy hitters of education, all—seemingly at critical junctures of their philosophy—talking about cities. And apparently not too thrilled by what they found. It turns out to be complex, but this much was obvious: the city was the site of a central educational problem.

I was teaching a course on Urban Environmental Education at the time. And so the paradox showed itself that way. Urban Environmental Education was doubly an oxymoron. The Urban marking not only the problematic limit of the environment, but also of education. To teach here was to save souls AND save the planet. From the clutches of the city.

Reading all of this now, it is striking to see how clearly this problematic presented itself, even with just a few touchpoints. What I know better now, is how deeply it runs. This educational narrative of descent into a hellish city, to emerge as an educated and responsible citizen is developed well before Plato gives it its modern mantle, and is still hard at work in our collective imagery today: No Child Left Behind, and the Race to the Top.

It strikes me that it is so difficult to “know oneself,” as Socrates would have it. We are so busy living this narrative of education and cities, that we can hardly recognize it. It’s as if we have to catch ourselves unawares, out of the corner of our eyes.

Or maybe google ourselves over breakfast…