How Can We Walk Lightly Through the Portal?

Of all of the millions of words that have been written by thousands of authors trying to make sense of this historic moment we’re living through, none have had as big an impact on our thinking and on our work as a powerful essay by the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy titled The Pandemic is a Portal. And while the entire essay offers an important perspective on the somewhat early days of the virus’s spread, it’s the final three paragraphs which have continually kept us focused on the crucial choices we as educators are making in this moment.


She writes:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.


Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.


We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

An Unprecedented Moment


It’s not hyperbolic to say that we are living through one of the most pivotal moments in human history. The confluence of events, especially here in the United States, may in fact be unprecedented. Not only are we in the midst of a pandemic, we are also in an economic recession, a surging, widespread social uprising around racial justice, an incredibly contentious presidential election, a looming climate catastrophe, and a growing “infodemic” of widely shared lies and misstatements that are making it increasingly difficult to discern fact and truth about the previous five topics and anything else.


No wonder everyone seems so exhausted, stressed, and anxious.


The portalThat said, we’re currently thinking about the BIG question of what comes after? In that regard,  we’ve found the metaphor of a portal extremely compelling. Especially in the way that Roy articulates the stark choice that is staring all of us, educators especially, in the face. As we’ve been working with groups of educational leaders to identify what John Hagel calls the “opportunity narratives” that this moment may present, we keep returning to that choice: what carcasses and dead ideas should we be leaving behind? And what sacred aspects of school should we carry with us to the other side? What are the new stories that we imagine for our work in the future, ones that we are willing to fight for?


The “Dead Ideas” of School


Obviously, these are challenging discussions. Just naming some of the carcasses that we’ve been dragging around in education for decades is difficult because the required honesty – a radical honesty – forces us to acknowledge how much of the current educational experience makes little or no sense. So many of the “grammars of school” as Larry Cuban calls them qualify as “dead ideas,” things that we do in the name of efficiency at the expense of real learning: siloed subjects, grouping kids by age, standardized tests, the use of grades as motivation, lack of student agency, 50-minute blocks…the list goes on and on.


But the easy part is naming those things that we find sacred about the school experience, those things that will allow us to “walk lightly” through the portal. The relationships we build with children. The ethic of care for each of them as individuals. The sense of community and belonging. The curiosity and creativity and joy that comes with truly deep and powerful learning.


To see the portal in front of us is to see the opportunity of this moment. If you haven’t realized it already, old stories are breaking all around us. In the “no-normal” of the future, nothing will be as it was. All of us, our children included, will have to learn our way to a reimagination of much of how we live our lives and how our institutions operate. Schools are no exception. We have, as Charles Eisensten writes, “a million forking paths” in front of us. We choose, right now, which path we take. And we choose, right now, what we want to carry with us on that path.


Our task is to choose wisely, to choose a new narrative of school and education that we can absolutely fight for in the way it serves children, communities, and learning. That means summoning up the courage not just to engage in navigating this unique, fraught moment in human history. It also means having the courage to leave so much of that history behind.


Homa and Will

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    I am pretty sure that we cannot use the pandemic as a tool for anything. I do agree that it has exposed most of the blindspots that are part of our existing system. I am not sure whether portals are all that helpful as a metaphor or as a narrative. Anything less than a reconsideration of our role on the planet itself is not enough. If you want to explore “dead ideas” I think you need to go back a ways to someone like A.N. Whitehead, a real serious thinker about the issues you raise. He called them “inert ideas” or as some have called them “received ideas”. “”Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful–Corruptio optimi, pessima.” One of the biggest problems with inert ideas is that they trim the million forks you refer to, the adjacent possibilities as Stuart Kauffman termed them, down to next to nada. Here is a page scanned from Whitehead’s “The Aims of Education” (6) :

    And there is a very nice Zen koan there as well to ponder: the problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.” Koans are the opposite of received wisdom. You must work your way through them not parrot them. Have at it.


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