?"A Plague on Both your Houses?"
Ken Lebensold on the Clash of Arms
Between Ron Miller and John Gatto
(from a Letter to the Editor in the Summer 1993 issue of SKOLE)

… As to the exchange between John Gatto and Ron Miller (which now includes a fairly lengthy reply from Gatto to Miller's book review, published in Holistic Education Review), it is tempting to join the fray and give my views about whether the solutions to our political ills lie in families and small communities, social action on a broader scale, or the degree to which these should be proportioned. I am not at a loss for such ideas. My experience and gut feelings, however, tell me that the real issue here is that Miller and Gatto are squandering their mental resources in carrying on this exchange.

It is evident to me that Gatto is performing a great service in revealing in a very effective way the spirit of today's public schooling. Miller, in his own way, is bringing a great deal of insight to this same question. I realize that pitting beautiful ideas against each other in scholarly combat is the scholarly ideal of the search for truth, but if one sees the almost inevitable results, one would approach this business much more cautiously. (Believe me, I am a very slow learner; I continue to squander my own intellectual energies in similar pursuits). The highly probable results are:
1) debate (not really dialogue) as a state of affairs which is fed indefinitely rather than a pathway to greater understanding;
2) the weakening of the ideas being debated through continual attack and defense;
3) an increasing conviction that the conflict between these ideas is itself the truth;
4) reinforcing of the scholarly error that the truth is boundlessly complex rather than simple at a higher level of order.
A similar situation entails in many debates over issues. Abortion is an obvious one. The reality of the abortion debate, as I see and feel it, is an intense separation between two groups of people, most of whom are not pregnant women and none of whom are unborn children, supposedly on behalf of one of these groups. I do not see either women or unborn children as beneficiaries of this confrontation; I suspect both groups are worse off by any reasonable measure as a result of it. I have to wonder, in view of this, whether the avid participants on both sides have really checked their own purpose in their involvement, for what they have created is a far different thing than what they profess to be fighting for.
I believe that treating ideas as competing entities which must prove themselves worthy in (logical) battle is similar to treating economic or personal success as a competition between suitors, students, companies, or whatever. There is a place for it in the scheme of things, but not by far the dominant place it now occupies. Oddly, the people who most rail against competition in these other domains do not see its equally destructive effects in the realm of ideas .
There is so much more to say than I can reasonably do in one letter, and I expect that despite my intention to bring about more harmony in the use of ideas, I will generate a great deal of opposition. I may easily create more separation than unity, but words, for better or worse, are my primary tools for uncovering (not creating) the unity that we seem blind to, so I must keep learning how to use them better.
There is one thing more I feel compelled to say. The discussion between Miller and Gatto is, if I understand it correctly, largely about the relationship between the individual or small group and the larger society as a whole. The relationship between the individual and society, while far from being a new question, is a seminal issue of our time, as more and more people are arguing that we have carried individualism too far, that rights must be weighed against responsibilities, that we have neglected the well-being of our social fabric by wanting to grant unlimited individual freedom. Yet many others are objecting that there is too little personal freedom, too many laws, that society restricts its citizens in the most personal areas and in petty, arbitrary, inconsistent, and unjust ways.
I think this whole question is invalid, based on a premise which, when looked at, strains credulity, and that is, that there is some conflict between personal freedom and social well-being. If this were so, I would see no hope for life, for it is on its face self-contradictory and self-destructive.
It is clear to me that the health of the social fabric and of individual freedom are not threatened by each other, but rather both are threatened by a total misunderstanding of what health is. "Individualists" who pollute, steal, overconsume, ridicule others, etc., are not healthy or happy; they are simply deluded by a cultural error of grand proportions: that what is valuable in life is what is scarce and temporary, making value itself limited by definition. Social theorists who see improvement in the insistence on individual sacrifice for the common good and support for a system of rules that compel individuals to behave according to somebody's moral philosophy are overcome by the same delusion: there is not enough for everyone, so we must dole out the goodies, whether material goods or freedom of action. What a grim and, ultimately, hopeless view of reality. If value is scarce, and we all must compete for it, how can there ever be unity.? Will there ever be consensus around the idea of personal sacriflce or self-denial? I can't see it.
Love, friendship, creativity, joy, these are the things of value, and there is a limitless supply of them. In fact, they increase when shared, and in this way keep expanding. But if value is given to material resources or other scarce items, these values contract rather than expand, because their law of sharing is violated.
I imagine that many people will take issue, if not offense, at this, claiming that it ignores the "very real" physical and emotional hardships that come about due to greed, violence, abuse, etc. I very much want to see the end of this suffering; it is a definite block to the awareness of the unity I seek, and I will not experience this unity while those around me suffer. I strongly support efforts to reduce or eliminate inequality, injustice, poverty, violence, hatred, etc. This is an integral part of my vision. I deeply feel, however, that as long as we perceive guilty people or oppressors who are somehow benefiting at the expense of innocent victims, we will strengthen rather than weaken the distorted social order. As a purely logical matter, the belief in scarcity and the ability to gain by causing harm to others must lead to conflict, pain, and delusion. Self-interest, almost by definition, is the law of life. The only way some abstract principle such as fairness, moderation, or sacrifice can take hold is if it is understood to be self-interest.
I want to make it explicit, then. To conceptualize our problems as one of guilty people gaining advantage at the expense of innocent ones is inherently divisive, reinforces itself in the short run (winners will want to keep winning; losers will want to start winning), and is self-destructive in the long run (that is, this conceptualization induces a negative feedback loop that sooner or later destroys itself). Instead, I suggest that our situation is one of everyone losing as a result of a delusive thought system. When people see that they are all losing, they will stop playing the game and will recognize that a game in which abundance rules is much more satisfying than one in which scarcity rules. When this occurs, poverty, discrimination, alienation, etc., will cease to exist, because they are not a part of the game. There will not be more people than the earth can support, because that would make no sense in this game. Everyone will have enough food, because all strategies in this game lead to such a result. Is this an unrealistic, utopian, view? Utopian, yes, but not unrealistic. Why should we take it as a given that a good, free, harmonious world is impossible? Is the purpose of life to deny its own potential?
Granted, it may be a long while before this realization of unity comes to pass, and in the meantime, efforts to reduce poverty, violence, and the rest of it are called for. As I said earlier, I strongly support such efforts. But I see no gain in anger, condemnation, laying blame, or reinforcing the idea that some people actually gain through this insanity. These approaches, unless used with transcendent consciousness, are self-defeating.
What has all this to do with education? Everything, because it is about changing our collective mind-set. Since compulsion is inherently divisive, I certainly do not advocate forcing people to study these ideas. In fact, the holistic education community collectively has a beautiful set of ideas as to how to open up education so that students and others are more free to explore their own understanding of truth, which is all I seek. I have nothing really to add.
I certainly welcome dialogue on these points, whether to clarify and deepen them, expose errors in them, or open up new perspectives. For obvious reasons, however, I see no advantage to defending or arguing them. Although I recognize that I have mixed the language of logic and belief with that of vision or feeling, this still represents my best explication as to what I see as the whole, and as such is more a description of my experience than my opinions. It is therefore disunifying and meaningless to argue for it.
Thanks for listening,
Ken Lebensold
Oakland, CA

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