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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Learning, Localism and Love in the Anthropocene

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Localism versus Globalism in the Anthropocene

I spend time in Collier County, Florida.

Collier County is Deep Red. Collier is home to the 17th richest zip code in the United States. It went 2:1 for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Approximately 35%

Collier County

of the residents are either people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community. To my knowledge, no representative of these communities has ever been elected to an official position.

The School Board in Collier County recently elected a majority of member who campaigned on an unfailing commitment to MAGA thinking and objectives. One describes his educational agenda as “God, Family and Flag.” Big words from a guy with a small mind. They are thoroughly committed to Governor Ron DeSantis’ authoritarian agenda for education.

Through mutual agreement, the new Board’s first official act was to oversee the exit of Superintendent Kamela Patton, a 2022 finalist in the national Superintendent of the Year competition. They stumped against her. They didn’t like her philosophy and beliefs. They called her a “dictator.”

The Board winnowed a field of 45 applicants to succeed her down to two finalists, one of whom asserted that the “moral decline of the nation over the last two or three generations is the result of people being ‘unchurched.’” His remark was met with applause by a number of the people in attendance at the interview. While that candidate was ultimately not chosen, his Christian nationalism has widespread support here.

Being an educator by training and a secular liberal in social orientation, I speak up during the public comments section of its the School Board meetings. I also listen closely to others who address the Board. One who spoke recently approached the podium wearing an American flag t-shirt with “These Colors Don’t Run!” on the back.

“Oh God, here we go!” I thought as he began to speak:

I’m sick and tired of having the Federal government get involved in every single aspect of life! Take food. Our kids should be learning how to grow their own food. Every school ought to have a community garden, where some of the food our kids eat for lunch would be cultivated. Plus, they’d learn a skill they’d be able to draw on their whole lives. We’ve got a terrible national debt. We can take small action at the local level that will reduce our dependency on the Feds and make for smaller government.

As he finished, I surprised myself. I wanted to “reach across the aisle” to shake his hand. Even though there are many domains in which I support governmental intervention, I agreed with him whole heartedly!

It is true that there is so much that used to happen and could happen now at the community level that has been assumed as a responsibility of a distant and frequently disengaged and seemingly uncaring government. On the other hand, there is so much that needs to be done and wouldn’t be done, if government didn’t step in. Who ought to decide what: people with local knowledge and credibility or office holders either trained to taking a wider perspective or implementing laws and regulations supposedly based on the broader view? This strikes me as the heart of the Libertarian/Liberal divide so prominent in America and elsewhere at this stage of the Anthropocene. Who’s responsible for taking care of business? When should individuals and local communities be in control of their destiny and when do larger and more formal governmental units have to regulate behavior in the service of larger social objectives?

Noticing my knee jerk anticipation of what this other school board meeting attendee was going to say caused me to reflect more deeply on a question that’s been on my mind for many years. I expected his to present the kind of reactionary authoritarianism that fears and rejects the diversity of thought and action that is implicit to the Anthropocene. I wasn’t going to agree with anything he said. But I did. Can an exploration of the contradictions I experienced at that moment help me to become a more effective and inclusive communitarian?

Education is the Cornerstone of Community

The sociologist, Amitai Etzioni, was an important student of and theorist regarding communitarianism. He asserted that a “moral voice” – a shared set of collectively held norms and standards upon which members of a community agree – is key to a strong sense of community.

Make America Great Again! is a movement that longs for the “good old days,” a time when generally like-minded people felt a strong sense of unity. Implicit bonds of trust, safety, caring and belonging existed between people. They didn’t have to be explained or codified. People knew who is and who isn’t a part of their community, who shares their values and who violates them. Like-minded people don’t need or want government telling them what to do. They already know*.

There are many authoritarian movements like MAGA on the march globally. There is no question that, for their members, they do constitute strong communities and they seek to impose their version of community on others.

The MAGA world view isn’t very American. As described by Jay Winik in The Great Upheaval, the anti-authoritarian views of Founders of the United States shook the imperial world order of that era to its core. Their thinking was deeply influenced by The Enlightenment. They embraced the idea of a “civil religion:”

a belief in America’s special mission as a society based on equality before the law, freedom of conscience, religious tolerance, and the spirit of voluntary service.

Implicit in that kind of pluralistic thinking is an America and a democratic form of governance that is radically different than authoritarianism, even if those who held to it 250 years ago would be astonished and shocked with some of what has resulted from it.

George Washington aka the Bookworm-in-Chief

An expansive notion of education’s objectives was fundamental to the evolution of the society the Founders envisioned.

As described by U.S. History Scene, George Washington was among the founders of the

United States who saw public education as a fundamental building block of the American community, a new democratic society based on an informed and engaged citizenry:

Washington’s Farewell Address instructed American leaders to:

“promote… institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

Washington saw the importance of educating the American public as a generator of economic growth and a way to create a well-informed populace to participate in America’s newly founded democracy.

Schools and schooling, in whatever form, perform a critical role in the socializing young people into the expectations of thought and behavior held by the communities into which they are born.

Well into the 1800s in the United States (and continuing today in many localities, cultures, and societies around the globe), education was conducted by religious and/or other non-public authorities. Mostly it was done in families working with pre-existing sources of information (e.g., the King James version of the Bible) and traditions. In many settings, there was and/or is little support for the state to manage and oversee anything like an open-minded education. Even those like Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who advocated for public education, held a perspective on what that education ought to be that seems very foreign to any modern democracy:

In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. The government of schools like the government of private families should be arbitrary…. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that enthusiasm for Massachusetts’ Horace Mann’s idea of a common school, open to all classes of Americans and designed to break down class distinctions, turned into a national movement. Mann held that a system of common education was the best way to ensure social and national unity. Over time, some form of standardized public education has become integral to every American community.

Mann certainly reflected the assumptions of his day when he said an education of the public leading to class mobility and national unity is far better than the kind of class-based society that existed in Europe in the early 1800s when compared to “any Christian standard of morals, or any of the better sort of heathen standards.”

Apparently, Mann’s version of an enlightened and educated community extended only so far.

Public schools are a key battleground on which the struggle between the maintenance of the standards of local communities comes into conflict with the needs of American society as a totality as defined by national or state government. government. Action on climate change, attitudes toward gender identity, healthcare, reproductive rights, opinions about and behavior toward immigrants, legislation supporting or opposing linkages between taxation and social justice, and internationalism versus nationalism are other examples of flash points that ignite tensions between the Federal and state governments and local communities. In each domain different versions of community values and appropriate behavior compete.

I believe that the goals of education – including education of how to be a member of a civil democracy – is the substrate undergirding all these polarities. Education is fundamentally concerned with epistemology, i.e., how we know. “Knowing” is not only having expertise about a particular field or technology; it’s about knowing how to know about something…anything. Having good epistemological training is the way we know what is real and what is not, how opinion differs from is fact, how to study information and assess its reliability and comprehensiveness.

The Anthropocene demands educational processes and systems that support multidimensional awareness and consciousness across a variety of domains. It requires that enrollees in educational institutions of any sort to acquire an epistemology that enables them to learn how to learn, to think critically, and to acquire an adequate level of self-reflection to engage with others effectively. Anyone who has no clue of to how to know is vulnerable to every sort of disinformation. Not knowing how to know makes individuals and entire societies vulnerable to eagerly embracing every imaginable kind of absolute crap. Many misinformation manipulators like Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Alex Jones, and Donald Trump are frothing at the bit to use artificial intelligence in their pursuit of very creepy and dangerous objectives.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky provides useful commentary on what it means to be an educated person who has learned how to learn:

[It] is the ability to inquire, to create constructively and independently of external controls. It is not what a course covers that is important. What is important is what you discover. What do you learn about engaging in inquiry on the basis of the resources that are available to you. Do you know where to look, how to formulate serious questions, and how to develop a path to pursue those questions? Can you proceed independently in dealing with the challenges the world presents to you and develop your capacity for self-education and investigation?

The ability to learn free of constraints designed to prevent open minded inquiry has never been more important as a societal and planetary need. The future relies upon people who know how to think and to feel.

Is Bigotry an Integral Component Community?

We are a long way from meeting the capacity for learning that the Anthropocene requires.

Tragically, local prejudices of many different sorts pervade the learning that goes on in communities everywhere. Sometimes discriminatory attitudes are reflected mildly and covertly and, in other contexts, virulently and aggressively. Regardless of the geographic setting or the ideology supporting these biases, irrational and deeply held prejudices take an enormous toll on the ability of our species to recognize and adapt to the polycrises condition increasing in urgency daily here on Earth. Cataloging the range and variety of hatreds within and between cultures and subcultures over the course of human history could fill up a brand-new Wikipedia sized website!

Uninspected and unchallenged bias creates what Jonathan Rauch describes as an “epistemological crisis.” It obscures clear, evidence-based thinking at a point in planetary history when it has never been more needed.

Many forms of bias and hatred are grounded in racial stereotyping. That is certainly the case in the United States when it comes to Black people. Statistics indicate that many white Americans are uncomfortable with discussing the ingrained nature of racial bigotry. For example, Brookings found that 56% of white people say that America has made a lot of progress on racial issues, compared to just 19% of Black people. Drilling down further, 71% of Republicans say that a great deal of progress has been made in race relations.

6 year old Ruby Bridges Integrates the New Orleans Public Schools in 1960

Given the scope of racial bigotry in the United States, it is almost understandable that white folk don’t want to talk about it. To paraphrase Sen. Mitch McConnell, “I don’t think anyone is that concerned about what happened 150 years ago.”

The impact of bigotry and slavery on Black education cannot be overstated.

As detailed by the Oakland Literacy Coalition, Southern slave states enacted many anti-literacy laws that prohibited anyone from teaching enslaved and free people of color to read or write. Frederick Douglass reports how his owner, Hugh Auld, reacted after discovering that his wife was teaching the boy Douglass to read:

He should know nothing but the will of his master and learn to obey it. As to himself, learning will do him no good, but a great deal of harm, making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.

Films like 12 Years a Slave and books like Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution dramatize the horror of American slavery. However, I don’t think it is truly possible for any American, and especially for white people who benefit from the existence of that institution, to comprehend how truly awful it was and how it affected the educational attainment of 4,000,000 people who were enslaved, their descendants, and Black people living outside the South, who were still not treated as first class citizens.

Here’s an example of the anti-literacy laws that were pervasive in the South:

And be it further enacted, That if any slave, negro, or free person of colour, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro, or free person of colour, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of colour or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping at the discretion of the court; and if a white person so offending, he, she, or they shall be punished with a fine, not exceeding five hundred dollars, and imprisonment in the common jail at the discretion of the court before whom said offender is tried.

And, as if the slave system itself weren’t enough to keep Black folk down, Jim Crow maintained their legal inferiority for another 100 years subsequent to the official end of slavery and notwithstanding the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Here’s an example from Alabama:

[N]othing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense, nor as limiting the authority and duty of the legislature, in furthering or providing for education, to require or impose conditions or procedures deemed necessary to the preservation of peace and order.

— Alabama Constitution of 1901, Amendment 111

Kyle Whitmore

In other words, the State of Alabama was under no obligation to educate anyone it didn’t want to educate. As Kyle Whitmore detailed in his 2023 Pulitzer Prize winning series, State of Denial, while the words have change somewhat, the bigoted spirit of Alabama’s constitution, and that of other state constitutions in the South, remains the same.

The legacy and consequences of these discriminatory practices in education has been devastating to large segments of the Black population. Here are two graphics showing the persistence of the gap between white and Black achievement in reading and math.

Black kids are consistently and persistently underperforming white ones, despite the fact that there are many, many examples that demonstrate that Black kids do just as well as white ones on these kinds of measures when they playing field of family economic strata and educational opportunity is leveled#.

It’s challenging enough to navigate the Anthropocene under any sociological circumstance. Ignorant and unfounded biases make it worse.

Does Government Have to Step in When Community Fails?

The inability of community to address problems that cross cultural, economic and ecological boundaries is one way to understand the growth of government.

Here’s my quick and very incomplete survey of American history and the expansion of the Federal government that has accompanies it:

  1. English absolutism and its mercantilism provoked the American revolution and required the creation of a national army to achieve victory. From 1774 and through 1789, when the Constitution took effect, the American economy (GDP per capita) shrank by close to 30 percent. The creation of the Federal system was adopted after having been widely debated in part as a way to get the economy on a track for success.

  2. The slave-based economy of the agrarian South was both a moral abomination and a threat to free labor system that had taken root in the North. These two factors combined into the passion and the systematic mobilization of the Union that led to the unconditional defeat of the South and the loss of many hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides.

  3. Untrammeled capitalist industrialization proceeded primarily in the North between 1865 and 1929, punctuated by periodic depressions, extensive corruption, America’s assumption of great power status on the world stage in the wake of WWI, and the growing strength of labor unions in the face of violent opposition from industrialists.

  4. The Great Depression of the 1930s demonstrated that the version of the capitalist economic system that existed at and before that time had failed utterly. That catastrophic period ushered in a monumental expansion of Federal power that saved and reformed capitalism.

  5. The courage and organizational capabilities of the Civil Rights movement once again called attention to the atrocious conditions faced by Blacks in the South and required Federal intervention and on-going monitoring in many domains, including the expansion of the Department of Education.

  6. The increasing political and economic power of women called attention to the immorality and absurdity of their second-class citizenship and led to many governmental interventions to protect and expand their human and civil rights.

  7. Beginning in the Reagan era, an assertion of populism at the local level took many forms in as an expression of a backlash against this government interventions in support of minority rights.

  8. The appearance of climate change as an existential challenge to all life supercharged the role of science in the establishment of political and economic policies with universal implications.

  9. The election of the uber-capitalist, Donald Trump, an open racist and misogynist, crystallized the opposition of Christian nationalist whites toward cultural trends that were initiated in the 1930s. The present culture wars also have an economic component because certain sectors, e.g., the fossil fuel industry, will be benefit and maintain their dominance in many/most policy making arenas.

As demonstrated by the ascension of many autocratic politicians, such as Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, education is a particular focus of populist vitriol, with many members of the Republican Party calling for the “annihilation of the Department of Education on Day 1” of a new federal administration. Social Emotional Learning (SEL), anything having to do with sex education and/or the realities of white racism are particular foci of their incessant attacks on the so-called “left wing indoctrination” dominating “government schools.” Scores of proposals are being passed or are under consideration in over 25 states that seeking to expand “parental control” over information that would expand the horizon of young people past anything that their parents or their parents’ churches would approve of.

Here’s an example from Oklahoma of the lengths that scared legislators are willing to go to forbid social emotional learning:

teaching anything that addresses noncognitive social factors including but not limited to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, and other attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, feelings, emotions, mind-sets, metacognitive learning skills, motivation, grit, self-regulation, tenacity, perseverance, resilience, and intrapersonal resources.

In other words, education shouldn’t help you understand your feelings or those of anybody else. That kind of learning would be the responsibility of the family, religious institutions, and “trustworthy” governmental agencies like the military.

Analysts like Brett Geier express legitimate concern that, despite having spent billions of tax payer dollars, the Department of Education is a bloated, bureaucratic and heavy-handed mess that has “usurped local control” without achieving truly breakthrough results for disadvantaged populations, i.e., largely people of color and particularly people of color living in cities like Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi.

I would argue that the breakthrough hasn’t occurred because there is inadequate to no remorse for the sin of slavery or reparations being paid to its victims that would seriously redress the economic imbalances that institution created and perpetuated. There is little to no willingness to stand in the well of truth and consider who bears responsibility for what the past and the present look like and how to create a more just future. Hell, America can’t even agree on the legitimacy of affirmative action, which is a mild antidote to long standing imbalances!

Many American communities refuse to acknowledge the legacy and consequences of slavery, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.. They are certainly not alone in this sort of denial.

Step outside of the US, and you’ll find moral turpitude and aggressive rejection of responsibility in any and every society. Many believe that in-group bias is a central feature of human nature. Unfortunately, our species has so weaponized its hatreds and so vigorously fought the deep understanding that a multi-dimensional education can provide that our species is on the edge of extinction. Take your pick: climate change, nuclear war, untrammeled artificial intelligence, pandemics combined with the rejection of science, collapse of international infrastructure under the weight of 9,000,000,000 people, traumas to be named at game time …. all of the above! You name it, a variety of predictable crises threatens the survival of our species is in grave jeopardy, and we might well take all other life on Earth with us. Only the cockroaches will survive.

Bucky Fuller

Facing this set of clear and present dangers without the kind of unbiased education that supports inquisitiveness and the ability see, understand, and feel the Big Picture puts humanity, let alone liberal democracy, in extremely hazardous condition. As Bucky Fuller said, humanity is facing its final exam, and, so far, we are flunking. Failure to seize the opportunity for profound enlightenment that the Anthropocene offers us would be such a complete tragedy that no one would even be left to document it.

Love and Consciousness in the Anthropocene

What is the ingredient of deep understanding that would lead us to abandon outdated prejudices and immerse ourselves into the passion for curiosity and learning our era beseeches us to adopt?

Education in the Anthropocene requires the wide-spread acquisition of a consciousness that, to date, is unusual, maybe exceptional. It’s an objective consciousness that can think and feel at the same time, that distinguishes from superficial and specialized intelligence and a deep discernment of the Anthropocene’s multifaceted context.

I believe, to quote Elton John and Bernie Taupin, that ‘love is the opening door/Love is what we came here for.” It is the pathway to a knowing that “surpasseth understanding.”

Although I am influenced by my personal inclinations and by Judaism, the creed of my forbears, I’m not a strong devotee of any religion or philosophy. However, the message of 1 Corinthians 13 makes a lot of sense to me when I consider the kind of deep learning consciousness infused with love I’m trying to describe that humanity needs as we stand at the gates of the AnthropoceneΔ:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It is love that would enable me to labor proudly and happily in a community garden wearing my Fight Fascism! t-shirt standing next to my friend whose Colors Don’t Run.


* I used to deliver tables, chairs and other products working on a truck with Fritz, a long-standing member of the Teamsters Union. I was 18 and Fritz was about 60. He was a man of few words. On one occasion, apropos of nothing, Fritz said to me: “I want to tell you something. A lot of people go on about ‘the good old days.’ I don’t want you to forget this: There were no ‘good old days.’”

# Given Howard Gardner’s convincing research and theory regarding multiple intelligences, the hypothesized distinctions in achievement based on race become even more ludicrous.

The average net worth of white, non-Hispanic Americans is approximately 7 times greater than that of non-Hispanic Black people.

Δ Anytime I write lines having to do with gates, I’m reminded of this.

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