Peter Block – Restoring the Commons

Peter Block: My assignment, since I chose to accept it is some thoughts about education, since this is theoretically an education oriented conference. So here’s what I’ve learned from Ward: When you take a learner and turn them into a performer, you steal their humanity.” Then it has a codicil that says, “If you steal someone’s humanity, they end up thinking you owe them something” That to me is an organizing framework for thinking about education. Our educational system is one that is becoming more and more sophisticated in stealing humanity from the next generation. Its unstated but main purpose is to provide custodial care and produce docility.

We organize and design most educational K-12 as a way to produce docile citizens. When Mrs. Shay told me in the 2nd Grade, second semester, on my report card, that Peter is a very dependable boy; I took that as a message from god. I decided if that’s the game, I’m going to win at it. So you become docile. You hide your feelings, you become a dependable boy, you become responsible. Most of our educational structure has got that in mind: some place to park my children in the morning, pick them up at night, and during the day, I want you to perform all fundamental child raising activities; not only teach them content, but teach them character, teach them values, you teach them about sex, you teach them about abstinence, you teach them about their health; you teach them about crime, you teach them about drugs… So in my city, you can’t lock your lockers, because they do surprise drug inspections, because we’ve outsourced to the police, in partnership with the school, the monitoring of my children’s drug activities. And if you smoke or do drugs, you are fast streamed into the correctional system. So we create a great “minor league” to fill all the jail cells that we built around the world. And that’s education.

We also have a conversation of “race to the top,” which means we’re interested in you if you’re the best, and if you’re not the best, it’s your problem – we call you a dropout; this is why Meg Wheatley’s book, Move Over, is so powerful. And then we scar you for life, You see adults all over the place saying they only went to the 12th grade; “I’m a college dropout.” And then we have billboard in Cincinnati that says, if you go to college and graduate, you’re going to make 1.4 million dollars more in your lifetime, which is a hell of a promise. That’s all about recruiting. It’s all about getting the best and the brightest. All of this steals our humanity.

It prepares us for the workplace. Basically school is a feeder system for either a correctional institution– depending on your skin color and the neighborhood you are from; your zip code. Your skin color in Cincinnati, either aims you towards the correctional future, or if you’ve got the right skin color, the corporate future. There it is the same process – where consistency, and control and predictability are our dominant values. Where speed, ease… efficiency, are gods. Those schools that do a good job of feeding that world, we think are high performing schools.

And then you look everywhere in the consumer society, and you’ll see people can purchase anything; everything is purchasable, my safety, my health, better living through chemistry… To me, if you step back and see the fabric of this culture, it is about, the privatization of the soul. It’s about the individualization of all of us. So we believe in competition. If it’s a race to the top, it means somebody is going to loose, because we know there’s not a lot of room at the top. As a result we have “deep parenting”: it takes on the form of a child management services bureau. A parent these days spends the most part of everyday managing services to their children. They are required to do very little work, very few things that were useful. They are just supposed to do well in school, and their “extra-curriculars” are always measured against the best and the brightest – Brazilian soccer players, Chinese cellists. Parenting these days, is managing the achievement dimensions of our children. And this is what Ward is up against in running a classroom.

What you’re doing here (at Mount Madonna) is creating an alternative to this world. What’s the alternative to this individualism? What’s the alternative to this notion that I’m not enough? If you listen to Walter (Breuggemann) talk about the Old Testament and Pharaoh’s economy, basically the message is, “No matter what you produce, it’s not enough – we’ve got your cows, we’ve got your land, we own you. We used to give you straw, but now you’ve got to make your own.”

In modern times, same thing: right now, no matter how much you work, it’s not enough. Everybody’s working hard, we give away nights and weekends. I got a plug, a piece of technology stuck into all of my orifices, and if you take one of them out, I get nervous. Take away my cell phone, “oh my god, where is it?” I go all over the place looking for it. To me, this is the patterning that you’re here to create an alternative for; not to fight it, but create the alternative. Education is about producing the experience of a communal restoration. I see this as a restorative conference; a conference on restoring the experience of our humanity. And to me that is what you’re doing here.

That is what this room represents. That’s why you have banners going to the ceiling. This is access to god, that’s what the steeple is about, that is what it is about – to create space, the teepee, the temple, the church; all of that is allowing the presence and access to god. This is a restorative process. I like the notion that the technology that we lack, is the communal restoration – this is the future that I’m giving my life to.

What would it mean? There’s something called restorative justice – the police chief in Longmont, Colorado in the past 20 years, has had 2500 criminals not go to jail, because he provided for them a restorative alternative. They’ve laid this out and nailed it. And it’s right up there with AA, as far as a great methodology. And the victim is asked, “Are you open to restorative process that could end up in the forgiveness of this offender?” And they say, “Yes.” And the offender, “you interested in the alternative to the judicial system where you don’t go to court. But if you show up for this, you’ve got to admit that you did it.”

In the retributive system, the first thing a lawyer tells you, is “don’t say anything. Don’t admit anything.” (If you are asked) “Were you awake on June 12?” “Don’t answer it.” Alright? “And for god’s sake,” the lawyer will tell you, “don’t talk to the other side.” It is the worst thing you can do for your case in the retributive system, is talk to the other side, and to own up to anything.

The restorative system says to the offender, “We are going to have a conversation between you, the victim, the families of both, and the community. You are going to be in the room together. Step one is you’ve got to show up and say, “I did it.” No waffling about that.” Just like the king said in the forest, “I’m not interested in you going to jail for 20 years, I want your life. The next thing you have to do is say I’m sorry. And the community and the victim hear that. And you ask the victim, “Do you believe that?” And if they say “yes,” then you go to the next step, which is, “I promise not to do it again.” Do you believe that? Yes.” Then the fourth is restitution – “What will you do to compensate to the community and the victim for the crime that you committed?” Then you ask the victim and the community, “You agree to that?” If they say. “yes,” then off you go. So Mike Butler has 2500 people in Longmont, Colorado that have gone successfully through this. It tells me that restorative processes are what education is about. I know restorative processes always require a communal experience. I can’t do it as an individual, I can’t do it one to one.

The work of education is to provide restorative experiences for people who come in the door. Another thing that I learned from Ward, is the Maturana’s notion that the way you learn math is to have people learn how to live together in the presence of a math instructor. That’s the idea. I know that relationships among learners is where learning occurs and it takes place in the presence of someone with content. To me that says we need restorative processes for whatever domain that we want to enter.

What we’re up against is a patterning by certain disciplines. If you look at a college and all the disciplines there are, there are a few that are more patterning to our way of being together than others. One is economics. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations. And he wrote it as an act of service and generosity. And he said peasants ought to be able to live as well as royalty. He lived in Glasgow, where they imported cotton from the south of the US, where labor costs were low – smart, ok; slave labor. And he said, “Look at it, if we allow people to make over and over, and over, and over again, what they’re good at, and sell it all over the place, everybody’s standard of living will rise.” He was right. Peasants in Ireland and Scotland, now had lace curtains; where before it was only for the royalty. Economics brought in the notion that efficiency, repetition, consistency, was good – and the luddites bombed the machines. They were against this technology – Amish won’t drive cars. Why? They weren’t against progress, they were against the breakdown in community. They knew that industrialization was going to centralize control, and it was going to break up family. It was going to break up community and tradition. So modernism has been an ongoing assault of tradition. If any of you in the world consult or train people, and you all do, you always hear the question: “what’s next?” So I’ve been saying for years, I have an answer to that question: “nothing!”

That’s what you create an alternative to, this modernist notion that efficiency matters. The corporatization of a culture is another way to think about it. Not evil, but a corporatization of a classroom.

Peter Block
Peter Block

We have to rethink economics. Economics is the allocation of scarce resources. Olivia Saunders, and Mark Anielski and a bunch of other economists are saying, “That is not true, it’s just something that we made up. Why don’t we create an economics of abundant resources? Why don’t we decide there is enough.” When the Jews left Egypt – Moses had great ambivalence, The Jews had great ambivalence; they asked, “What’s that desert you want me to go to? Cross over this body of water. How are we going to get across? None of us have a captain’s license.” They finally get across, and they say, “Well what’s the desert like?” Well it’s a place with no visible means of support. “Damn. That’s a hell of a promise – that’s right up there with you’re going to lose your life if you don’t get the question right; or I’m the ugliest thing in the world, so kiss me you fool.” …..And so they went, and what did they discover, in Sinai? They discovered, they had enough. Of course as soon as they were there, they started to recreate Egypt – they said, “You know, we have more food than we need tonight. Let’s store it away in case Yahweh doesn’t take care of us tomorrow.”

That to me is part of the work, part of the education of our children – tell them the economic system we live under is predatory; it works but it’s reached its limit, it’s not evil, it’s just limited. And you talk about the economics of abundance. And so Edgar Cahn has invented an economy of generosity. This is what you get interested in. Every time you do an act of generosity in 30 cities in America and 20 other countries, you get an hour of generosity in your bank account. When you need something, you say, I need somebody to pick up groceries, watch my kids, fix my car… Somebody who is looking to increase their assets of generosity hours says, “I’ll do that for you, but it’s going to take me ten hours” It says that everybody’s hours are worth the same, whether you walk my dog, or fix my rocket, you get one hour per labor.

You start looking for these structures. This becomes a curriculum for education – content based on abundance; content based on cooperation. This is what Ward is doing in the classroom. The tenets of the marketing mindset, are individualism, competition, scarcity – something only has value when it’s scarce. What we’re in search of is the alternative to that. And it all comes down to how we manage the room that we’re in at the moment.

The other patterning, belief system, is religion. We needed a religious belief system that supported the economic system. So we have this notion of scarcity in religion, of original sin in religion. We have religious institutions; we have the notion of judgment from god, an unforgiving and difficult god; we have a whole set of beliefs… So you start to teach, you say, well what’s education about? It’s giving them belief systems that aren’t based on competition and efficiency. But basically the religious message is there’s something wrong with you; you better watch out, you better not cry – Santa Claus, or God, or Jesus are coming tonight. It means I have to change my thinking.

There ought to be a conversation we can have about god, as a god of generosity. I asked Olivia, “Why did you get interested in economics of abundance?” And she says, “When I was young, I was interested in my own spiritual development, and I was interested in economics. They were in conflict with each other because I learned of a generous god, and a scarce economy.” And so the scarce economy means always that poverty is inevitable.

The third discipline is architecture. Basically modern architecture – the ten winning building designs, every year – the top ten year after year, are places that nobody wants to inhabit. They’re just good looking, square, boxy, modern, soaring sightlines, glass, and steel buildings. The same with landscape architecture – the top ten winners of landscape modern architecture don’t allow people to mess up the landscape. So you go in cities, and you see spikes where people might sit. “No loitering.” People who loiter in the city are now branded “homeless.” And we scrub them. In Cincinnati and New York, when they want to clean up a neighborhood, they do sweeps. They take homeless and poor people and sweep them out of sight – like dust. This is the mindset.

The alternative is to say, what’s the architecture of abundance – how will we design a room, a building, a chair, a park, a space, to support the idea that what we have is enough. That is to me is what we’re doing here; that is what this room shape is like, it’s not round, but it’s close enough. You say, “Let’s sit in circles, let’s sit on the floor, grounded.” People move around. Ward has transformed his role statement from teacher to consultant. To me, that’s what these three days are an example of.

Then it can get very concrete, very specific. I know, Valerio taught me that if you give a talk on the internet, if you can’t say it in five minutes, you’ve lost the world. So I’d argue with him for about the first half of lunch, and the second half I took his side. I said, “Sold. You’re right. What must be true for the internet must be true for the classroom also.”

We were saying earlier, most of the conferences we go to are all about content. We get called in all the time to give a talk. Then we have time for a Q and A, which is the interactive element of patriarchy. In some places they won’t even let you stand up and speak the question. You’ve got to write it in, as a screening device against disloyalty. I did with Bell Labs once – and so they kept handing a little card with a question, and it was piped into other locations. After it was over, I said, “Any questions you didn’t give me?” And the guy said, “Yeah one.” I said, “What was that?” Somebody wrote in, “Where did you get this guy?” Which was the only interesting question.

So that is the invention, the social invention you’re participating in. It is to devise alternative structures, which honor the peer to peer conversation as the place where all transformation occurs – Not some of it, not most of it. The idea of a master teacher piped into seven locations, it’s a defense against reform.

There are two conversations won’t take us anywhere: one is the “reform conversation.” It’s all about money, class size, teacher competence. None of it is about letting community take back the raising of my children. The alternative is let teachers do what they do in the classroom. But when it comes to health, and values, and character, when it comes to crime and drugs, and all those things, I have to provide that for my children – the neighborhood has to do that. That’s part of the work. It is to get neighborhood competent again; communities competent again. Not more services, but more citizen engagement. What would that look like? Well everybody in your block should know the name of your child. If I was raising children now, I would introduce them to everybody on the block – “This is my daughter, this is my child, this is her name. if you see her doing funny stuff, come talk to me.”

Let go of the notion of education reform, it won’t; financial reform, it won’t; more controls never reformed anything. Government control – less government is going to help us? The argument for less government is the argument for individualism, and individual rights. I would say the purpose of education is to restore our appreciation for the commons; that the job of teachers is to restore care for the common good. The question you ask every student, is, “To what extent are you investing the well being of everybody in this room?” And we get rid of the normal curve. Which means if I got an A, somebody got an F. Reform will never occur through more controls, more consistency; healthcare reform will not occur through better management on the part of the health professionals. They only account for 10% or so of my health. The other 90% is on us.

I think restoration is the business that you’re in. So this is a group of 50 people gathered together to experience and invent restorative processes, so that learning and surprise occur. As Angeles asks “when was I challenged. when you were last surprised, what are you learning about love?” This is what education is about. That is so beautiful what you say.

Now the one thing you have to let go of – my last thought – is the notion of development. If you think about it, development carries the message, “human development, personal development, employee development, student development, economic development, land development,” all says, “that what we got isn’t enough, that you’re not enough. You’re an empty vessel, and we’re going to do our best to spend a lot of money filling.” So we convince you that you’re a work in progress. I consider myself a completed work. I’m done. It’s not pretty, but this is it.

One of the things in religion that offers us – why we need to talk about god, we need to talk about religion or ‘not god,’ it doesn’t matter. We need to create space for religion, because it honors fallibility. In religion, we know we’re fallible. To believe you’re infallible is a sin against god. I like the notion of fallibility. Doesn’t mean I haven’t got there yet, it means, I’m not going to get there. And I have 73 years of evidence that I’m not going to get there. I’ve been working on this thing for a long time, and I’ve had a lot of help. All the people that love me have taken me on as a project. Results are deeply disappointing.

The idea of development is a patriarchal kind of language, it’s a colonial language. The idea that you know what’s best for me is colonial act. So the restorative education would not talk about the development of a child. It would instead say how do we understand who these children are? This is my experience with my kids, with Jennifer. So here in her 40’s, I’m finally getting a glimpse of who she is. In all the early years you spend worrying about how they’re going to turn out. And you manage them, and you guide them, reward them, punish them; and then you discover all you really needed to do is find out who they were.

So development, land development, if you talk about land developers, they’ll tell you if you can’t build on this land, you’ve rendered the land useless. What does it mean, “Land, god’s earth has no use, has no value, because we can’t build on it?” We go to other countries. We went to Africa, the British went to India, we go to Latin America – we’re going to develop you; help you become what they call “developing countries.” We used to call them “third world.” We’ve gotten more sophisticated in our colonialism. Now we call them developing countries. Now several of them are richer, smarter, stronger than we are. We’re a little cranky about that. So the word “development,” you let go of that because it is a deficiency based conversation. You say, “well restorative practices help to find out what people are good at.”

The purpose of education, in my mind is help people discover what they’re good at, what they know how to do. Now there is some content they need, but fine, be present with that content in the process of them discovering with each other what they’re good at, and how to make contact. It always becomes concrete in the social architecture of the moment. You try to help people give support for an inversion of our thinking. Restorative education is to help people realize you are cause, and we as teachers are effect. My children created me; I didn’t create them. That’s ridiculous. Students create teachers; audience creates performance. It’s an inversion.

One of the thoughts that Walter (Breuggemann) talks about in social structure, is about “royal protocols.” Most of our ways of gathering are based on a patriarchal, colonial, a royal based world. Race to the top means, “We’re here to produce kings and queens,” and all of you won’t make it. Every college freshmen class is told, look to the two people near you – they won’t be here. And they say it with pride. So all the conversation about bottom line, my child is a product – you’re going to Mount Madonna, what kind of product are we turning out here? When did my child become a product? So the language of product, bottom line, return on my social investment… All the philanthropists in Cincinnati want a return on their social investment. Well that’s really quite generous – I’m giving you this money, but I want to see some results. It implies that people doing social service are not interesting in measuring. It takes my wealth to generate the measurement, accountability. It’s not that you don’t want accountability, it’s just, why wouldn’t we want to know how we’re doing? He calls that the royal protocol.

A royal protocol is power point, what powers the point. The royal protocol is to run a class where you know what the outcomes are going to be by the end. If they are my students, I have tell the board of education and the state legislature, “Here’s what they’ll be able to do at the end of the year; I’m going to predict for every one of my students what they’re going to leave with.” That’s a factory model. What Larry (Inchausti) has given me, is an alternative protocol, which is a “plebian” protocol, a neighborly protocol. We need a set of protocols. And I like protocols because it takes the pressure off of leadership. It means the style doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in teacher behaviors; teacher pedagogy, teacher’s style – not interested. It’s overrated Whatever it is, it’s not going to change. The problem with schools in the urban center is not that the teachers are incompetent. The problem with the schools in the urban center is the kids are poor. The reason that colleges promise a million and a half dollars is they’re mostly training pretty rich kids. Those kids are going to make $1.5 more in their lifetime with or without college. The social economic status is the only predictor of school performance: charter schools, regular schools, voucher schools, no difference in performance.

The idea is to develop some plebian protocol – Larry’s going to explain to us later what that means, I just love that word – because it means that basically it’s the “credentialed” conversation that produces the transformation. You start saying, “Well who do we authorize to speak in this classroom?” Right now we authorize the teacher to speak; right now you’re authorizing me, and Angeles to speak. The narrative work says we have to engage in a process of reauthorization. Part of Ward’s assignment, and you in the classroom is to say, “Well who’s voices should we be listening to?” I know it’s not top management, and I know it’s not professors at major universities… And if I want anything new, why would I go to Harvard to find it? People ask me, “Well don’t you think boards of directors should innovate a whole new set of controls?” And I thought, “If you want to be surprised and find something new, why would you ever go to the board of directors? That’s a place where surprise is illegal.” You’re trying to invert that, and say that we want to re-authorize, and finding your voice is all part of that.

That’s the idea that we come together, restoratively to create a set of protocols which is a way of speaking to each other. The language of the royal protocol is a question, what are you going to do? Pharaoh was only interested in what the Jews could produce. He had no interest in their life experience. Every time you ask somebody. “What are you going to do about it, you’re colonizing them.” You’re saying, “I’m only interested in you and your utility. What are you going to do about it?” You say, “Well neighborly protocol, what did that mean to you? How did you feel about that? What did it cost to you?” That to me is a way of describing the world.

Those are some thoughts. Communal, restorative – I think the successor to the modern age, will be the age of restoration. And we’ll see restorative justice – we will restore the earth with buildings like this; we’ll restore our relatedness to each other, because the patriarchal – economy isolates us from each other. It’s stunning to me how hungry I am to make contact with anybody. Every time you do one of these and you break people into small groups, after eleven minutes, you say, what struck you? “I don’t know, I saw myself and another human being.” Which means until those eleven minutes I was pretty lonely. And I am. So restorative is to restore our connectedness to each other, and let go of all the work in progress. This is it. This is as good as it gets. Religion brings mystery into the conversation. Not that I haven’t found anything out yet. It’s just that certain things are unknowable. The idea that I can know you, profile you, test you, describe you, is all part of the royal protocol, and that becomes the work. So let me stop here. . What should we do now? I think small groups always comes to mind.