On “Toxic Nostalgia” in Schools

Every now and then I come across a phrase that kinda stops me in my tracks. Like the other day when I was reading an essay about the reasons behind the war in Ukraine and the author mentioned "toxic nostalgia" as one of the main causes.


It's not hard to suss out the meaning: a desire to go back to the way things were despite the negative or harmful implications of doing so. Seems like an appropriate phrase not just for Russia's incursion but for so much of how we seem to be reacting to this "in-between worlds" moment.


And, obviously, in schools, it's not hard to see this playing out. In the U.S. (and elsewhere), a lot of parents and politicians are railing against anything in the curriculum or in pedagogy that attempts to move us away from a kind of Wonder Years of homogeneity and simplicity. We're going "back to basics" again, even though the basics are filled with inequity and injustice and a basic ignorance of how the world actually operates right now.


And in doing so, we continue to ignore or gloss over the real problems that our planetary transition is now challenging us to come to terms with and solve. As we continue to prop up an education narrative that serves the individual over the collective, that rewards compliance over creativity, and that fosters competition over collaboration and co-operation, the whole enterprise becomes more toxic. Anxious, stressed, and depressed students. The "Great Resignation" of teachers. A real struggle to find personal meaning in a world driven by making more and more money and accumulating things without any consideration for the cost of the damage all of it is inflicting on whatever is left of "the natural world" that ultimately sustains us.


In times of existential change, we want what's comfortable. But what's comfortable is what has pushed us to the brink, not just environmentally but human-ly. In so many ways, seeking "comfortable" or "going back to normal" is "toxic." It disabuses progress. It narrows opportunities to find solutions to our challenges. It ignores how connected we are with all of life on the planet. And it doesn't prepare our children for a very abnormal and uncomfortable stretch that we're facing in the decades ahead.


The reality is that we're uncovering many of the downsides of the "good old days." They may have felt good for some of us, but they were a bit of a fairy tale that we didn't want to end. But they're ending. We have to write new stories to aspire to now, especially in schools. Stories that pull us into a better future, and compel us to leave the past behind.


Feels like that's the most important work to do right now.

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