Alternatives to Consumerism in Life and Schooling

Over the past few days, I was thinking about this week’s blog entry as a re-analysis of some old research data from a teaching unit. I was looking through old transcripts of students working on a ship building project and how their thinking naturally involved multiple perspectives and seamless multiple interacting systems. I think I’ll get back to that later in this entry, but as “things” go, this morning, Nora Bateson posted something on Facebook about how we should stop buying things and simplify… Here it is:

Today I found this quote in a Wendell Berry story. It has been a week of head banging with the wall of non-communication between the humans and the corporations– frustrating to the bone. I thought of revolutions, evolutions, uprisings and social media viruses. I have been feeling tiny and silenced– and noticing acutely how tightly we are coupled into the corporate web. At this moment, we have not got the infrastructure to live without it. It thrives on our wanting… luxuriates in our insatiable need for having… so: this.

1 – Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better.
2 – Don’t buy anything you don’t need.
3 – Don’t buy what you ought to save. Don’t buy what you ought to make.
4 – Unless you absolutely have got to do it, don’t buy anything new.
5 – If somebody tries to sell you something to “save labor,” look out. If you can work, then work.
6 – If other people want to buy a lot of new stuff and fill up the country with junk, use the junk.
7 – Some good things are cheap, even free. Use them first.
8 – Keep watch for what nobody wants. Sort through the leavings.
9 – You might know, or find out, what it is to need help. So help people.

FROM: Nora Bateson, on Facebook, September 21, 2015

This entry started me thinking about how my Dad, who was a young married man and first-time father during the Great Depression, used to save everything many years later after I was born. Our basement was filled with all kinds of things. If something broke, he’d fix it. If he couldn’t fix it, he’d save the parts that were useful and toss the rest. He’d save old nails and screws. Although he was barely literate, he was a genius in all things electrical, mechanical, and structural.

Fortunately, a little bit of his “saving everything” and an even smaller bit of his genius rubbed off on me. I save the screws and nails from things that fall apart. I build much of my own furniture and repair things myself. I often try to do what he called “jury-rigging” things… just making up solutions to problems by using parts in ways for which they were not designed.

These types of actions are not “chores” or “impoverished” approaches, as we’re led to believe by the corporate world of buy-more-new-things-all-the-time-or-you-are-not-a-worthy-person messages. In fact, there is something that feels very wealthy about making and fixing your own things. When I make or fix something, I feel empowered. I feel enriched. I feel like I am a more complete and capable human being. And, as I was mentioning to a neighbor yesterday, I have even stopped calling repairmen. More often than not, they charge a fortune and screw up the job anyway. So, I told my neighborhood, “I can do screw it up myself for a whole lot less money.” But, as it turns out, it may take me a little longer, but I usually end up doing a better job than the so-called experts, who also seem to be out to scam people, but that’s another story altogether.

So, back to the children and their ship-building project. I had just given the kids some letters from fictions people asking for bids on ships to take tourists around to natural history sites. Each group had to act as a company to come up with these ship designs over the next couple of months. But, on this first day, they could explore some prototypes and test out their designs. These are mixed groups of grade 5, 6, 7 girls and boys. Here are a few excerpts. The lines are coded as Group# = Group Number, g# = girl number, b# = boy number.

Group 1
g1 Oh, you have to fill it out and then bring it back. You gotta … Wait a minute. Okay. A cylinder won’t work actually … cause even if it does … like it can’t tip, right? But even if it does, if people are sitting on one end and it tips, it all falls to the other end …
b1 Unless …
g1 … and they won’t get there safely.
b1 … unless you had like another cylinder inside the first a cylinder that like at the center (???) … so like there’s another cylinder that moves …
b1 We should make up a name for it, like … (???) … like you know how they have names for sailboats and that …
g1 Mm hm.
b1 … (???) … … How about “The sub appeal?”
g1 The what?
b1 “The sub appeal.”

Group 2
b4 No, that’s too ordinary. We want something that people want to come to.
[Pause. Seem to be listening to group three and their discussion of ferries, ferris wheels and so forth.]
b4 Yeah, put a ferris wheel on it. Put a (???) on it and a swimming pool. Actually a swimming pool would be a good idea. Yeah, swimming pool would …
b5 No, no. If we had a swimming pool, we’d have like a really deep, deep hole? … (???) swim in it underneath and it would go …
b4 Yeah … yeah.
b5 So you could just jump into it, and it would be, it wouldn’t be on the ship, because then there would be bars and gambling machines and stuff. [Slight laugh.] No, no gambling ’cause that’s illegal.
b4 No, no, that’s good to … no, it’s not illegal.
b5 Yeah, it is.
b4 No, it … Yeah, that’d be cool.
b5 That would be good though …
b4 A pool, pool hall.
b5 Yeah, a pool table and stuff. Like a bar, a really nice bar and a fancy restaurant. … [Responding to someone at another table.] Yeah, we are.
b5 No, and you can look out them, like underwater, from underwater.
b4 Yeah.
b5 It’s like a little underwater thing down there … and you can look down …
b4 No, it’s like, has like a glass bottom.
b5 Not … no, that’s not good. [Semi-giggle.] This really heavy guy comes along and steps on it. Kshaaa! [Vocal sound effect for heavy guy falling through glass bottom.]

In both of these groups, I’ve selected excerpts that show how children move from the technical-scientific (which is what is generally expected of children) to other “important” issues, like names, bars, and gambling machines. Children do not separate out the “disciplines” of science, mathematics, etc. All of the disciplines (or subject matter areas) arise in their thinking and conversations in blended ways and naturally become part of their thinking. But, this type of thinking is borderless systems thinking. Although we can easily dismiss these tangents as trivial, these tangents are where the important potentialities lie. This is where the creativity is. These tangents are where insights and problem solving arise. This type of thinking is the same sort of thing as keeping odd assortments of screws, nails, and pieces of metal. This is the type of thinking that helps children feel like complete and capable human beings. This is where they feel empowered and enriched.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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