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Wild rivers

My daughter recently graduated from high school. After years of suffering, the day of her last exam arrived and one month ago she said goodbye to her classroom, the place she had spent countless hours getting patronized and pressured, far too often feeling either overwhelmed or bored. The time has come to celebrate the end of this agony and the beginning of a new journey. A time to be free and happy. Finally!

But there’s also something deeply wrong and disturbing about my daughter’s relief. Shouldn’t 18-year-olds be sad when they leave school? After all, school could be remembered as a precious time of learning, inspiring teachers and many valuable lessons that serve us a lifetime. Most educational institutions and curriculums, however, are everything but inspiring. Why is that?

Perhaps the recent flood disaster in Northern Europe can offer an explanation. What happened during the last days – a short drive from my hometown in Germany, little streams turning into violent rivers within a few hours – is a tragedy and those who are affected need all the help they can get. But unfortunately, those things aren’t uncommon – in other parts of the world, similar and much bigger catastrophes happen on a regular basis. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better either.

There are different reasons why such a massive inundation could occur: the climate and environmental crisis leading to more intense weather phenomena, just as predicted forty years ago; settlers, home buyers and town planners ignoring the fact that there’s a high risk of flooding if you live near a river; and probably also some bad luck, being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

From a philosophical perspective, a big problem seems to be that we’re taking up too much space. Since I was born, 45 years ago, the global population has doubled, growing from 4 billion to almost 8 billion today. A friend told me the other day that, of all the people who have ever lived, half of them are alive today. There are so many of us! And seeing as we are not treating our host very nicely, we’re actually becoming a parasite. A virus.

As we’ve colonized the globe, we’ve stopped adapting to nature, and instead started to adapt nature to us. In Europe, only 0.7% of all forest is still primary forest. The rest is controlled by us. Natural wilderness is on its last breath.

A natural river curves a lot, spills across floodplains and leaks into wetlands; it’s alive, moving like a snake, finding its way through the millennia. It changes all the time and is part of a highly complex ecosystem. And what do we do? We straighten it, because the river interferes with our plans. The river needs to obey!

Nature is incredibly patient and kind, but even nature’s patience isn’t unlimited. At some point, she fights back. She’s not vicious, it’s just her own survival instinct.

So what does all this have to do with schools? While there are of course good examples, far too many schools do to students what we do to rivers: They take away the wildness, straightening out any curves and peculiarities so that each and every one fits into box A, B or C. But what happens when we try to control wildness? Eventually, all the constrained energy erupts and explodes. A flood, a storm, a disaster. A revolution.

REVOLUTION: A very important change in the way that people do things.

I think the revolution is inevitable. In fact, I think it has already started. How will it end? That depends on what we believe in. Because in order to change things for the better, we need to believe that it is indeed possible to make things better. That it’s possible to create inspiring schools and to have thriving societies without destroying wild rivers.

I believe a better world is possible. But is it probable?


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