The Parable of The City

Once upon a time, in the city of Melbourne, civilised life very nearly came to an end. The streets were littered with gum, cigarettes, cans, and dirt; but nobody was there to clean them. The air, rivers and stream were all polluted but nobody was there to cleanse them. The schools were run down but nobody believed in them.

The passing of each day was another etch in the wall of a jail cell, another notch on the belt of hardship; each day brought another strike, more layoffs, less work, less money. Crime, strife, disorder and rudeness were to be found on every corner. The poor fought the wealthy, the young fought the old, the workers fought the employers, and students fought administrators. The city was bankrupt financially and spiritually. The city was falling apart.

At their most desperate moment, the city council met once more to consider the problem. Imaginations dulled by hatred and confusion, one man’s offer quickly rebutted by another’s as they sat in a circle of conversational captivity and imaginative castration.

The Mayor of the city decided something drastic had to be done so he declared a state of emergency. He had done this before during flooding and state wide blackouts but felt even more justified now.

“Our city”, the Mayor said to the council, “is under attack. Our enemies are not those that can be struck down with blade or gun barrel. Our enemies do not come from outside the city walls, but from within our hearts. Our enemies are our vice, our indifference and our hatred”.

A wise Mayor indeed, but despite his perspicacious attitude, he could not suggest any remedies for the problems beseeching his city. There was already a state of emergency, declaring it to be so, while having no ways to act on it, meant the situation got neither better nor worse, until something extraordinary happened.

Sensing the imminent destruction of his city, one of the Mayor’s aides had prepared to leave for the country with his wife and children. Preparing for his trip, he began to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While reading, a certain passage struck him:

Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than but at once trying the experiment of living?

The aide, who for some reason only read standing up, had to sit down, so struck he was by the brilliant simplicity of this idea. He sought an audience with the Mayor. He showed him the passage, a wise man indeed, but incredibly irate and in no mood for esoteric wisdom read to him in hundred year old books.

“What does it mean”, the Mayor snapped angrily.

“Nothing less”, replied the aide, “than the means to our salvation”.

The aide, who had conveniently majored in university in semantics, explained to the mayor that what we call problems, can easily be solutions if we just change how we talk about them. The aide continued, “sir, the students do not attend school as they find it bothersome; or they come and do not pay attention, or they come and leave halfway through class. We say that these students, who now make up 80% of the school cohort, are the problem. Perhaps we should think of them as the answer, an answer to a question we have not bothered to ask”. The aide stopped as the Mayor lifted his left brow with a severe, questioning gaze, but in his silence, the aid continued, “Students skipping school tell us not that they are the problem, but that the solution is to take school outside of the classroom. There are 500,000 young, able bodied men and women who we can help give an education and, if done right, make the city liveable again”.

“How can they help make the city liveable again, and what of their education”, asked the mayor.

The aide replied, “The students will find their education in the process of saving their city. The notion that education must happen inside the walls of a classroom between the hours of 9-3, 5 days a week, is an administrative reason, not an educative one. Plus, we have ample evidence that the students are not attending class, so they can only gain from this experience”.

The aide showed the Mayor statistics of how few students are attending classes, and the money spent yearly on repairing broken walls and windows.

“Yes, I know”, remarked the Mayor woefully. “It is such an overwhelming problem”.

“Wrong”, replied the aide. “It is the solution, not the problem. The destruction wrought by this pent up energy can be channelled in a positive way to help rebuild the city”.

Unconvinced, but himself out of any ideas, the Mayor appointed the aide the chairman of the Emergency Education Committee. At once, the aide removed 500,000 students from their dreary classrooms and even drearier lessons, so that their energy and talents could be used to help repair the desecrated environments of the city.

Once these plans became known to the general public, there was a great miasma of resentment for it is often the case that people will prefer a familiar problem over an unfamiliar solution.

The politicians complained that such a plan will leave children unprepared once they leave school. Humoured, the aide responded that schools teach in exclusionary classrooms, cut off from the experience of living. By bringing education into the real world, this is the highest form of education the students could receive.

The teachers complained that their contracts did not contain provision for such unusual procedures. To this, the aid responded that the spirit of their contract compelled them to educate the youth and that education can take a variety of forms and can be conducted in many placed. “I must have skipped the class on epistemology”, the aide observed, “that says education must occur in a small room on plastic chairs”.

The parents complained that compelling children to go out into the city and help restore it is un-Australian as it takes away their freedom. To this, the aide’s reply was two-fold. He remarked, “it is no good having freedom, without a society in which that freedom can be enjoyed. Furthermore, schools have always compelled. It has never been a question of whether they do or do not, but rather, which things ought to be and ought not be compelled”.

There were children who complained. They said that it was an affront to the personal dignity as human beings that they could not sit on uncomfortable plastic chairs for 5 or so hours, 5 days a week, under fluorescent lights, boxed in tiny rooms. They said they wanted their education to be nothing more than repeating what was written down, learning history, maths and English but nothing of the world right outside the classroom. They demanded their right to be stuck in class.

Not really. No children ever said that.

And so, after a week of planning, the curriculum of the city of Melbourne changed, all children, from seventh to twelfth grade became part of the movement to save their society. Here are some of the things they were obliged to do:

Every Monday, 500,000 students had to help clean up their own neighbourhoods. The swept the streets, raked the leaves, canned the garbage, removed the litter from gutters and empty parking lots, and hosed down the graffiti and dust from empty walls. Monday’s were dedicated to removing something bad.

Every Wednesday, 500,000 students went around beautifying the city. Students planted trees, bushes, flowers and shrubs. The architecturally inclined students helped determine the most aesthetically pleasing layouts, while the more hands on students got down in the dirt and did the planting. This happened under the supervision of a teacher who taught them about the different plants, how they interact, and the value of ecosystems. For an education in engineering and design, students were tasked with repairing broken down buildings (starting with their own schools), and for an education in visual arts, students painted train stations, post-boxes, garbage cans and other eye-sores. Wednesdays were dedicated to adding something good.

Every Monday to Friday, on a rotating roster, 10,000 students from year’s ten to twelve were given a variety of responsibilities. Students assisted in day care centres teaching basic arithmetic, doing face paint, playing games, freeing up mothers to find gainful employment elsewhere. Because this was the student’s education, they were not paid and therefore, money from day-care centres used to pay staff was put elsewhere.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, on a rotating roster, 100,000 students from years ten to twelve would travel to primary schools to teach the other students how to read, write, and do arithmetic as part of a buddy program. Along with this, 50,000 students were asked to substitute, on one afternoon a week, for certain adults whose jobs the students could do to an equally high standard. This allowed those adults to be free to work, study, or even help the students save the city.

The students were assigned to publish a newspaper for every neighbourhood in the city with the understanding they would have to provide as much information that good citizens would need to have. Students organised science fairs, fetes, arts exhibitions, musical events and theatrical performances.

Students entering year 12 were encouraged to spend one day a week in public institutions that helped make society a better place. Some worked in public hospitals, others worked in nursing homes, and some helped to register voters, while other produced radio programs on local news.

Seeing all these fantastic things happening around their city, university students began feeling inspired. These university students, on their days off, were permitted to organise seminars and lectures for students in schools. Classes on biology, chemistry, physics, English, mathematics and geography, to name a few, were taught to students (and anybody else who was interested) in seminars held every day from 3:00-8:00pm.

Not every problem in the city was solved, and not every solution was perfect. There were even problems that would result from these solutions that could not have been foreseen. This does not mean that it should not be done. Rather, it means no solution is ever perfect and we must never cease in our quest for improvement.

Despite the problems that would or could happen, several extraordinary things did happen that are worth remarking. The city began to come alive. The students, by being compelled to take responsibility for their city, began to feel a part of it and by working with so many others, a part of something much bigger than themselves. It filled them with meaning and with purpose. People who felt alienated and separate from their environment began to take a very real interest in it.

The older people who regarded the young as unruly, rude and disrespectful began to assume an attitude of respect for the young who were doing so much for their city, and through their work at nursing homes and hospitals, for them. With this came a revival of courtesy to one’s fellow man.

Amazingly, although none of the students received an ‘education’, they received an adequate one nonetheless. They lived their geography lessons when they read maps, navigated neighbourhoods and had to walk from place to place following signs. They lived their biology and environmental lessons when they were planting trees, bushes and shrubbery; and when they were tended to vegetable gardens. They lived their social studies by experiencing city life as it happens. They also learnt things that are far more abstract. They learnt the values of responsibility, community and respect; and that we all must work together to create a liveable environment.

There were knowledge gaps arising from this new type of education. For instance, thousands of children would not know the connecting rivers of the Mekong Delta, or the political history of the Ukraine. Teachers would feel like their training was wasted because they were not used to educating children outside of a classroom. Worst of all, because of the lived-learning of the students, it became increasingly difficult to mark and test students, so grades pretty much disappeared. This made many people unhappy, most of all because one could not tell the smart children from the dumb.

The Mayor promised that the old way of things would be restored once the state of emergency was over. Meanwhile, all the people in the city lived happily ever-after, in a state of emergency, but happy nonetheless.

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