Most modern human social, cultural, political and economic institutions including schools are based on a fundamental belief about the nature of reality. Philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls this belief the story of separation and in his wonderful book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, describes this story as going something like this:

  • Each of us is separate from each other and the world around us.
  • We are programed by our genetics to fight for our own individual survival; it is, after all, a dog-eat-dog world.
  • The purpose of life is for each of us is to get what we can for ourselves. Since there’s only so much to go around, what’s good for you is probably bad for me.
  • We may have evolved from animals but are now better than them. We can and have shaped the world as we have liked, becoming the masters of our planet. The best thing for us to do is to complete our conquest.

Operating under this story of separation leads us to pursue our own self-interest, often at the expense of others. For example, when I enact this story when I am driving a car in traffic, I do everything I can to get where I am going as quickly as possible including actions that put others at risk like tailgating to pressure others to pull over and zigzagging through traffic. Of course we need rules and laws to keep people operating under this story from killing each other in our pursuit of our own self-interest. And of course rules require rulers to make up those rules, enforcers to enforce them, and followers to follow them. Systems like this, where rulers make up rules enforced by enforcers on followers are called authoritarian hierarchies.

Together, this story of separation and the authoritarian structures that go with it, pit us against each other, our communities, and our planet and leave us with at best a strange feeling of doubt—does life really need to be this lonely and difficult?

In schools, this story and type of structure leads to lots of rules to get kids to do what society wants them to do and to prepare them for a lifetime of doing what they’re supposed to do. This story also leads schools to organize curriculum to ensure that students all learn the same things (this is called standards-based curriculum) so that they can grow up knowing what they need to know in order to be interchangeable parts of society. And, in schools, the teachers are, of course, forced to be the enforcers leading to lots of conflicts between students and their teachers.

One day I walked into a classroom to teach math to a group of children. Several of the kids were very engaged in playing a fantasy game; they had set up imaginary shops and were selling imaginary goods. As they saw me enter the room several kids called out in unison, “can we keep playing store?” My mind immediately went to my responsibility to the school to teach them math and the first answer that leapt into my mind was, “no, it’s time for math.”

The children’s desire to engage in an activity that was interesting to them and to use their imaginations had run up against their teacher’s self-perceived duty to stick to his lesson plan to make his students learn math. What I had forgotten for a moment was that our approach to learning together at The Farm School rejects the myth of separation and the authoritarian structures and practices that put this story to work.

If this myth and authoritarian methods pit teachers against students, what kind of worldview and group processes might instead support a situation where young and old can joyfully learn together? We believe that even teachers like me that have been trained to behave as despots in the classroom can help children learn naturally and joyfully by reeducating ourselves to hold a very different worldview and use very different methods.

Charles Eisenstein, calls this alternative worldview a story of “Interbeing.” This story goes something like this:

  • Each of us is inseparable from each other and the world around us.
  • We, like every living thing, are made up of parts that go together to make us and are a part of many things larger than us.
  • Each of us is gifted.
  • The purpose of life is for each of us is to express our gifts and share them with the world. The more we give the more there is.
  • We share the world with millions of species of living beings. The best thing for us to do is to join with all those species in sharing our gifts for the betterment of each of us, humanity, and the planet as a whole.

This story emphasizes deep interdependency between all beings and the idea that all beings are gifted and that sharing our gifts is the purpose of life. Biologists call this concept cooperative integration and use it to describe life at all levels from biomolecules coming together to form subcellular organelles to ecosystems coming together to form Gaia, the earth system taken as a whole.

Just as the story of separation has an associated set of structures so does this story of interbeing and collaborative integration. We call groups whose organization is based on this story, holarchical communities. System’s theorist, Arthur Koestler, coined the term holarchy to describe systems where everything is both a part of a larger whole and a whole composed of parts. For example, an individual can be seen as both a semi-autonomous whole and as part of a group. David Spangler, philosopher and spiritual teacher, further developed the concept as applied to humans to contrast authoritarian hierarchies and holarchical social groups. “… In a hierarchy, participants can be compared and evaluated on the basis of position, rank, relative power, seniority, and the like. But in a holarchy each person’s value comes from his or her individuality and uniqueness and the capacity to engage and interact with others to make the fruits of that uniqueness available.”

Holarchical communities implement a world view of connection and interbeing by using alternative group processes including honoring the contributions of each unique participant, voluntary participation, non-violent communication, mediation, participatory decision-making, bi-directional flow of power and resources, flexibility, and a permaculture approach to observing and imitating natural processes in our gathering and cultivating of food. In a holarchy, our different points of view become a benefit. Under this form of group organization, the needs of individuals, groups, and our planet are synergistic. What is best for all of us is acting as self-actualizing individuals who see themselves as a part of the world around them and are free to express themselves fully as part of a collective where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s’ point of view honored, and everyone has the opportunity to be part of the decision making process.

–After my moment of thinking like a dictator I reconnected with our belief that we’re all in this together and said, “Of course you can play store.” I threw my lesson plan out a metaphorical window and watched as the kids played. As I watched, I began to come up with some ideas about how to provide some structure to the game of store so that the kids’ could continue this activity that was meaningful to them and learn math while they were at it. Five years later Store is a central part of our emergent, responsive, and negotiated math curriculum.

Our belief in the rich interconnections and interdependencies between everything and our commitment to holarchical groups structures lead us to abandon one-size-fits-all standards and other authoritarian structures, and to design and nurture a learning environment where individuals can develop their unique viewpoints and gifts in ways that enrich their communities. Moving into this vision is a process of continual improvement. We have not arrived at a place where our actions are always guided by our vision. We are on a path heading in that direction. The idea that we are each individuals who, when we put our differences together, can be so much wiser than we are alone is like a signpost on our journey.

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