By Gisele Huff, Founder and President of Fund for Humanity
I despair. Because of the extraordinary, devastating circumstances in which we find ourselves, we have a once in several lifetimes opportunity to remake our world. And most of us are wearing blinders. Much like the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, we are chained to its bottom, unable to turn, watching images parading in front of us that are reflections of objects being manipulated behind us by people we cannot see. And we think these images are real, we think they are the lives we live.
This article is a reality check. It’s equivalent to the few who are able to break the chains, walk out of the Cave. At first, they get blinded by the light until their eyes adjust and they understand that this is the real world infinitely more beautiful than the cave. Until all of us can do that, we can try to loosen the chains a bit, wriggle in our discomfort, commiserate with each other about how blurred the images are getting from time to time, start enough of a fuss for the manipulators to make minor adjustments to the objects they are parading. But we’re still in the Cave.
Right now, we are arguing vociferously about how many links are on the chain, how hard the ground is, how much light there is in the Cave, which of the images are worthy of our support instead of looking for the root causes of our enormous discomfort. The manipulators revel in our focus on minutia, they encourage our endless arguments. Like the gods on Olympus, they chuckle at our feeble efforts to challenge the control they put in place some 10,000 years ago when “civilization” started.
So how do we get out of the Cave at this most opportune moment to question everything? By getting to the root causes of what ails us, not the manifestations enshrined in our way of life as if they were delivered from above on a tablet. No, the laws, institutions, mores, societal norms that pervade our lives were man-made (nary a woman among them) and people can rewrite them.
I am going to discuss in very broad terms two areas where premises must be addressed and transformational action must be taken, the economy and education.
Let’s start with the economy because that’s where we really live, where we have organized ourselves over the millennia to survive. Up until now, the basic premise of this function has been that we live in an age of scarcity where fear must drive human beings to do the work required (slaves, serfs, wage earners) because of very limited resources and Herculean efforts to wrest necessities from nature.
Every step of the way to the 21st century, human beings have used their ingenuity to create and harness technology to lighten the burden, from the plow to the steam engine to artificial intelligence. That is why the 7.8 billion people in the world today are immeasurably better off than their ancestors on a very important number of criteria. Where technology has taken us is at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which has the potential of ushering us into an age of abundance where human suffering or sacrifice will no longer be necessary.
Our economic system is built on that fear and on the valuation of only tangible goods as reflected in the unreal GDP, an image that leaves out many of the essential interactions that our real lives depend on, raising children, unpaid “work,” creativity, opportunity. With the probability of replenishing many of the currently exhaustible resources that have underpinned our progress with technological breakthroughs (think nanotechnology), we have to change the incentive that has gotten us where we are to one of joy (thanks to Scott Santens and Monsters, Inc.).
That shift is already gaining a foothold. COVID-19 has shown us how working from home increases productivity and lowers stress in people who no longer need to battle traffic twice daily. It has shown us that the most essential people in the pandemic are those we never paid any attention to before, not the hedge fund managers, not the bankers, not the paper shufflers. Generations Y and Z are looking for meaning in their lives and demanding social consciousness from the companies they work for. The very definition of work is being questioned and well it should because in the age of abundance, it doesn’t have the same meaning as it had in any other time in history.
Our founding documents mention “the pursuit of happiness” and “a more perfect union” and those are aspirations that are actually within our grasp if we make sure that technology benefits everyone and we recognize how interconnected we are. Our economic system must value everyone’s contribution because everyone makes the wheels turn.
The levels of technology we have achieved could never have happened were it not for education. The transfer of knowledge has been the bedrock upon which the amazing creations of the human mind were built. Imagine if each generation had to start anew without being able to stand on the shoulders of giants — and the labor of billions of people who translated those ideas into the world’s marvels.
However, in 2020 and forever more, the access to all the world’s knowledge is now contained in the device in the pockets of more than 5 billion people. It is more extensive and accessible by orders of magnitude than being able to connect with all the teachers in the world put together. The transfer of knowledge can no longer be the principal function of education.
In the United States, since public education started in Massachusetts in 1837, an ever more elaborate system involving three different levels of government, local, state and federal each with its own set of regulations has grown exponentially. Almost half of the funding for K-12 is generated at the local level so your Zip code is your destiny.
On top of the onerous compliance requirements, the education system has imposed a curriculum based on the work of the Committee of Ten in 1893 and codified by Andrew Carnegie through the use of Carnegie Units in 1906. It has developed a standardized, inexorable testing regimen on the cheap (overwhelmingly multiple choice, evaluating essay answers is very expensive) that it administers to children arranged in age cohorts, marching in lockstep to the pacing guide that the teachers must follow.
Not only the basic premise has lost its credibility in the 21st century but the apparatus built to implement it is moribund. It is still delivering what it was created to deliver by the manipulators, 15% of people who are marked for leadership in every field and 85% who are trained to be compliant and “fit in.” If you are a square peg in the immutable round holes of the educational experience, you are either shaved down or thrown away. There are, of course, exceptions and they become legends, trotted out to prove that, indeed, we are created equal and this is the land of opportunity.
The purpose of education must now be to produce thinking, caring, creative human beings who learn where and how to acquire knowledge, how to evaluate it, and how to use it effectively to solve whatever problems arise collaboratively. It must give the learners agency as early as kindergarten so that children understand how to make decisions and how those decisions have consequences.
Nothing short of a mind shift of the sort that led to women’s suffrage (70 years in the making) and gay marriage (50 years in the making) will enable us to break out of the paradigms that hold us prisoners. We have to understand that all of us make the world what it is and that we can remake it in our own true image. We have to get to work — the future is in the balance.