What is contingence education?

U.S. American education is all wrong, and schooling is falling apart. Just ask anyone.

We need longer class days and shorter ones. Teachers should be stricter or there should be more play time. We need the arts and physical education and phonics and the new math and really new math… or we don’t. We need teachers or facilitators or learning coaches that are tenured or not, with a long history of working in schools or fresh out of traditional undergraduate schooling or ready to move on from life in the private sector. Or military. We need self-contained learning spaces or sprawling ones, with decorated walls or no walls at all, with more simplicity or more rigor. We need. And need. And need.

Perhaps we don’t know what we really need.

Popular U.S. American discussions of education make hasty reference to a time when schools were ‘better,’ students ‘smarter,’ and teachers (generally assumed to be cis women) simultaneously harsher and kinder, more caring and more exacting than those of today. However, there was never a time in this country when schools were better:

  • U.S. American schooling history has seen Indigenous youth kidnapped (and their families blackmailed) in order to be forced into boarding schools, while Black youth have consistently been kept from schooling through various legal, illegal, and extralegal means.
  • Cis girls’ access to schooling and attendant curricula has differed widely from that of cis boys through much of this country’s history, and we’re just beginning to discuss trans and gender nonconforming students’ schooling experiences.
  • Regardless of their races and ethnicities, impoverished and working class students have always experienced less schooling access and less-resourced schooling than their middle class and wealthy counterparts in the U.S. Always.
  • Latinx, Chicanx, and Asian-American students have had to negotiate the ever-shifting intersection of schooling and the U.S. American racism that undergirds all this country’s institutions – a racism that can only conceive of humanity as phenotypically- and ancestrally-raced, and only in terms of Whiteness, Blackness, and Indigeneity.
  • Nationwide provision of special education is only a few decades old and, in many areas of the country, the need outpaces the teacher applicant pools’ and schooling facilities’ availability to meet it. At the same time, Indigenous, Black and Latinx students across class, and White impoverished/working class students, are disproportionately referred to special education when they do not need it, but are more likely to be overlooked when they do (included gifted education).

I could go on, but the point should be evident: if we think there was a time when U.S. schooling was ‘better’ – that all students had equal access to quality education through schooling – we are wrong.

So what should we do? Should we try yet another reform or plan or act that will magically solve all of the problems that we encounter (and have historically encountered, in one form or another) in education? The answer here could be yes, if one believed that schooling is the problem. There have been numerous recent discussions, however, that schooling is not ‘failing.” In fact, as merely one institution in the wider patriarchal, White supremacist, settler-colonial, capitalist-imperialist structure, schooling is doing exactly what it was meant to do: maintain the structure’s status quo. While it is important to problematize schooling as institution in this country, it may be more helpful to trouble the status quo.

There has long been discussion about the dominant Western model of education, which is based on the European Enlightenment era’s episteme. This way of knowing, in turn, is based on Christianity-inspired understanding of existence, which is predicated upon dichotomy (e.g. holy and profane, heaven and earth/heaven and hell, God and man) and hierarchy (e.g., notion of lordship and kingship attributed to God, servanthood as proof of religious devotion/goodness). This ontology of dichotomy and hierarchy, while advantageous for Europe’s religious and/or secular dominant classes, was also beneficial to Europe’s imperialist exploits abroad, as ideas of dominance, unholiness, and divinely-ordained inferiority were quite useful for a people who needed explanations for their own acts of genocide, enslavement, and barbarism. Over time, European educational institutions — namely, the academy — supported these imperialist endeavors by constructing a body of knowledge that took the inferiority of non-Europeans for granted and human dominance over the natural world as a given. Influenced by the historically colonialist academy, which understands both humans and the natural world as domitable and separate things, today’s dominant Western educative practices are based on a way of thought that erroneously understands humans as beings we are not — as eternally growing and never dying, as potentially omnipotent despite our fallibility, as subject to no other boundaries other than the ones we place on ourselves. And, despite centuries of this type of education, our sociocultural, political, and environmental plights make it clear that, perhaps, we are educating ourselves/have been educated in the wrong direction.

If we want a new world, then – a world beyond one informed by dichotomies of separation from the earth, our communities, and ourselves; beyond one informed by a rationalism that simultaneously condones enlightenment and genocide – we need different ways of knowing.

I’ve written about these different ways of knowing in the past, from questioning academic practice as a settler-colonial construct, to considering Black, Indigenous, and Muslim ways of knowing and perspectives as guides for moving beyond this era of White-supremacist and imperialist settler colonialism. With these theoretical investigations as my point of departure, I am interested in exploring future ways of knowing, in what existence beyond this era could look like.This exploration will not take the shape of many post-’s, though, which tend to define themselves in terms of the very subject they purport to have moved beyond. This exploration is instead informed by two basic human truths, truths that dominant ways of knowing often refute or ignore, but whose veracity extends before and beyond the current dominant structure:

  1. The human experience is finite.
  2. A hallmark of the human experience is dependence.

An exploration and likely assimilation of ways of knowing based on these truths is education, in that the assimilation of any way of knowledge is an education. And just as one’s type of education is based on the way of knowledge (epistemology) that is being assimilated, an assimilation of knowledge based on the two above truths is also a particular is its own type, which I call contingence education. The phrase contingence education is inspired by the philosophical concept of contingent beings. Though a philosophical concept that some say proves the existence of God (in that it argues for a necessary being, something that could have never not existed), that discussion is not the point here. In fact, I think that grappling over the existence of God gives us an excuse to ignore the other, irrefutable aspect of the contingence concept – that human beings are the opposite of necessary beings. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, we are contingent beings, able to exist or not exist. Our beginnings – and, I contend, every moment of our continued existence –  hinge on things outside of our control. Regardless of how intelligent we believe we are (or how powerful or how autonomous), each of our existences (as we understand it) is at least partially out of our control. And it will end.

I believe that these aspects of the human experience – its limitedness and its reliance – are important understandings for any educative practice that will move us beyond our current oppressive and destructive ways of being. The wrong thinking that undergirds the dominant model of education tells us that our universe can eventually be known in its fullness through our own physical interaction with it, and that, if we keep educating ourselves in the same ways about the same things, it will someday be enough. I assert, however, that this type of education will never be enough, because there are limitations on our existence, including the time limit of our existence itself. And comprehending everything we can about everything there is should not be the goal of ways of knowing anyway, especially for beings whose existence is limited. Rather, our goal should be to better understand how/who we should be as humans in this larger universe that we will never fully understand as limited, finite beings. This is the goal of contingence education: rather than trying to know everything there is to know, contingence education is concerned with the question, How we can best be human – limited, finite, dependent, thinking – on a planet that does not require us for its existence, though we require it?

There is not one way of contingence education, nor do I single out any particular way as the only one or the best. The idea of humans’ existing in tune with the environment on which they depend is nothing new, nor is the awareness of humanity’s inherent limitations; indeed, these understandings have surely kept humanity going this long. And in the same ways that there are many variations of existing as finite human beings, there are numerous educative practices and traditions that privilege our dependence and finiteness. What my current exploration does, then, is investigate educative practices that, though varied, are all grounded in understandings of human contingence. I hope that this exploration will lead to increased knowledge of practices that move humanity away from mental, physical, and spiritual self-destruction and toward wholeness and healing in its many varieties.

This site features my explorations toward and of contingence education, from my theoretical examinations of U.S. American systems of oppression to marginalized people’s examples of resistance and resilience, even within my own family. Please note that, in cases where works are subject to copyright laws, each piece’s publication information and abstract will be provided. All other works are subject to use agreements as indicated.