Have you heard the story of stone soup? There are many versions and several cultural variations describing the tale of a village that is deeply divided, overcome with fear and famine. A stranger comes to the village and is greeted with slammed doors and closed curtains. Using a large pot and some stones, the stranger makes a fire and begins making stone soup. The residents remain in hiding, at first watching as the fire beneath the pot grows red hot. The stranger attentively stirs the soup that’s just beginning to boil. Soon the observers grow curious and one by one begin to abandon the security of their dwellings. Dipping a ladle into the pot and bringing it to his lips, the stranger whispers to himself, “Mmm, it tastes good, but it may be missing something.” A little girl with dirt-stained curls speaks up from the crowd, “I was digging onions in the garden this morning. I will run and get some for the soup.” The pot cooks the onions, and again the stranger dips his ladle and brings the broth to his mouth. “Mmm, tastes good, but it may be missing something,” he says. A drifter with thread-bare trousers steps out from the shadows and without speaking reaches into a torn pocket for a small bag. His weathered hands reach over the pot, and tiny salt crystals drop and dissolve on the clear surface. Mothers, proprietors, farmers, and grandfathers decide to bring something to add to the pot: cabbage, chicken legs, carrots, potatoes, spices, herbs, and so forth. Before long, they have a delicious soup brewing. As the villagers sit and eat and talk, their hunger is satiated and friendships ripen. The soup warms them, and they learn how coming together and contributing can withstand famine and chase away the darkest of fears.
I begin with this familiar childhood fable because it illustrates the dynamic between the individual and the greater community. This book, seemingly about education, is actually about much more.
While I have written it for a broad audience, some theorists may think that the writing is too impassioned. Teachers and school officials may say that it is too academic. Education analysts may complain that it didn’t support their models. This book is not the recipe. It is the stone. Ultimately, what becomes of our children and our schools is answered in what becomes of you individually and all of us collectively.
It is the nature of humanity to test the boundaries of our control and to exercise power by knowing its limitations. The challenge of today’s citizenry is mitigating fear and freedom. The freer we become, the greater the uncertainties. As we exercise greater control over society and human beings, we lessen the fear, and we also lesson our freedom. We are constantly negotiating the balance between controlling the outcomes and preserving independence.
Over the centuries, humankind has sought to control nature—the nature of the world, nature of animals, and the nature of men and women. In many cases, humankind has been successful. We have captured wind and sun and rain. We have tamed the beast. We have shaped mountains and eradicated them. We have stopped the rivers and channeled the sea. We have sacrificed, imprisoned, owned, and traded human beings. We have, in countless instances, directed our own future.
It is the elements still beyond our control and the ambiguity of an uncertain tomorrow that compel so many today. Everywhere we see forces working to mechanize, systemize, standardize, and industrialize. The ability to measure and quantify leads us to believe that once calculated we can control the natural variables, even the human ones. The same themes in education are prevalent in health care, environment, economics, and social politics.
The drive to control and manipulate the future has strengthened societies, and it has destroyed them. Ultimately, we as a democratic society must choose between the discomfort of freedom or the safety of constraint.
This isn’t just a book about improving our schools and preparing our future. This is a book about how a society grows. This is a story about humankind and our advancement both individually and collectively.
Recently I attended a state council meeting. A trust had provided $5 million to answer the questions about improving the quality and accessibility of children’s health care. These were good people with good intentions, but they were answering the same questions that were answered five years ago and fifteen. I watched as the words, “systems building, data analysis, outcome evaluation, project development, and technology management” rolled around in the presenter’s mouth. As he clicked to the next Power Point presentation titled “Outcomes,” I thought of my elementary school nurse, Mrs. Flood. It wasn’t so long ago that she wore the pressed, white dress and the comfortable leather nursing shoes now replaced by neon-colored Crocs.
As the topic moved to increasing children’s immunizations through an expanded database, I was wondering how a list of names or a column of numbers would ensure that children got the medical services they needed? In my school it was Mrs. Flood who made the calls home to parents. In fact, my school nurse met six of the eight objectives on this council’s list, including oral and medical health care, increased number of children with health care coverage, home/coordinated approach, and fewer uninsured children. Through health care education and preventative examinations for head lice, scoliosis, and cavities, it was the school nurse who attended to our health. She also diagnosed my mononucleosis, called me at home three times during chicken pox, and saw that I got to the hospital after a broken finger. School nurses are a thing of the past. Recent legislative testimony revealed that the ratio of school district nurses is one nurse to two thousand students. It’s the school secretaries who now tend to our children’s injuries and infections, administer medications, and watch for physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.
As the last Power Point slide comes into focus, I try and imagine five years from now. Will we still be spending our money on Power Points, conversations, and advisory councils, even though school nurses are cheaper and more effective? Will we be engrossed with controlling the outcomes, or improving them? Will we be tracking the children, or treating them? Now let’s turn to the subject of education and bring a spoon.