The Problem in a Nutshell (Pod)

A friend sent me a message asking for some “quick thoughts” on learning pods.

“Quick thoughts” is a trap.  Learning our way through the pandemic in this society/culture is a complex, nuanced topic. The quickest I could make it: We are innovatively tap dancing our way through a minefield of unintended consequences, interpretations of which vary depending on unit of analysis and caste.

That sentence deserves more explanation.

“Learning pods” is a misnomer. People have been getting together to learn from each other since time immemorial. But in today’s marketing culture, we are compelled to give this a catchy name that sounds non-threatening and familiar. Fun, even. Learning is fun, so that’s easy. But what exactly is a pod? In most dictionaries, you’ve got to wade through groups of marine mammals, parts of tools, insect eggs, and peas before you get to “detachable container of some kind.”

Detachable container. That’s the problem in a nutshell (pod). We can’t afford to be any more detached from each other than we already are. For decades we have indulged in corrosive ideas: government is bad, taxes are a waste, votes don’t matter. NIMBYism.

Except that now, people are opening their backyards and hosting invitation-only school. This seems reasonable when school campuses aren’t safe, the federal government has turned policy planning into a riotous, untrustworthy clusterfuck, and children need inspiration, guidance, and each other.

Learning pods are a clever idea. Americans put a premium on cleverness. This is evident in our reverence for technology (the word comes from “techne,” the Ancient Greek word for cleverness) and in the way we admire getting the edge in everything: sports, avoiding taxes, persuading a court.

But cleverness is amoral. Tools and strategies are agnostic. A surgeon can use a scalpel to save a life; anyone can use the same piece of sharp metal to take a life.

Learning pods have no context, vision, theoretical framework, no reason for existing, except as responses to a crisis.

Many people don’t care about this sort of argument. They have the resources, and it feels good, so STFU. That’s a problem in our society. Without a discussion of what’s not seen, we can’t begin to properly understand what we see. If you don’t know anything about Vygotsky or Krashen, Dewey or Freire, Maslow or Erickson, Hunter or Skinner, school just looks like a place to warehouse and distribute meals and textbooks to poor, semi-feral young people while their parents work.

With regard to learning pods, Dewey in particular comes to mind: “The school must be a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons.”

We can no longer afford to isolate school from the deeper conversations about our social contracts as they are instantiated in systems: families, communities, organizations, and institutions such as education, health care, and the law.

Students’ learning can and should be active investigations of the rich, interdisciplinary life that awaits them after graduation, investigations that enhance our mental, physical, civic, spiritual, and technical fitness: the coronavirus, the societal impacts of pandemics past and present, policy and politics, the environment. We all have interdisciplinary questions based on our immediate concerns: Why hasn’t our government simply paid working families to stay home, or issued millions of masks with a clear mandate to wear them, so that we can beat down the pandemic and get on with life?

Whether or not we treat this as a gap year or try to imitate school, young people are going to learn from this moment. Most of what they remember will have nothing to do with the school curriculum. They will learn how to regard the office of the President of the United States, and the role of the police in their community. They will learn how their parents are valued in this country and how to value themselves – based on what they do for a living, where they live, what they believe, and the color of their skin.

“Who in their right mind,” I can picture the average white upper-middle class parent indignantly asking, “would oppose children safely congregating in my backyard or at my private school (a larger learning pod)?!”

That question limits the unit of analysis to the parent’s own child, or to the clique of families (presumably) agreeing to test and trace and mask and social distance.

When we consider the larger community, though, damage is being done. Learning Pod People (LPP) are separating themselves in ways that feel comfortable inside the bubble but appear selfish and elitist to Non-Learning Pod People (NLPP). For their part, LPP children experience an entirely different “new normal” than NLPP children. This is antithetical to the entire purpose of public education as the microcosm of our society envisioned by Mann, and Dewey, and others. School — in whatever form it exists, including/especially virtual – should be a space where young people can experience diversity and divergent thinking, so as to develop the thinking and interpersonal skills that a citizen of our country needs in order to properly function as an adult.

The problem with cleverness is that it requires capital, builds power, but bears no responsibility. The capital of cleverness is both seen and unseen. A person must have real estate capital – a backyard or outdoor space; social capital – peers and friends to validate the idea and agree to participate; intellectual capital – knowledge to design lessons and learning experiences; and the psychological capital that creates power through confidence (that is much easier to develop when you have the security of knowing you won’t be attacked, beaten, or shot by an authority figure who is supposed to protect you).

Clever people innovate and tell us all about their ideas without apology. Oppressed people do not.

The learning pod, the network, the neighborhood, the classroom. These are not things. They are organisms, systems, open or closed, comprised of the people who coexist and communicate within them, reinforcing and reshaping them as they establish values, norms, functions, and relationships.

In her brilliant new book Caste, Isabelle Wilkerson writes, “Only recently have geophysicists had technology sensitive enough to detect the unseen stirrings deeper in the earth’s core. They are called silent earthquakes. And only recently have circumstances forced us, in this current era of human rupture, to search for the unseen stirrings of the human heart, to discover the origins of our discontents.”

If you think for a moment that learning pods are merely the innocent, clever, best efforts of suburban families, you are missing the big picture. They are silent earthquakes. A learning pod that doesn’t include Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and every other conceivable person available is an echo chamber, a physical manifestation of the filter bubble that appears to validate our world view by conveniently excluding everything that might challenge it. That is not an education. It is an illusory, distilled ignorance that further frays the republic. To attempt escape and save ourselves is to sacrifice the very idea of America as we teach it to our children. There is everything right with learning; there is everything wrong with learning in homogenous isolation.

E pluribus unum. At this point in history, there is no more them. Only us. If we are serious about learning our way through this, we will do it together.