Dear Deb and Colleagues,
Last weekend I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, sidetracked by events from our conversation about comparisons. I’ll return next week.
I came to visit my very sick father-in-law, Gunnar Strὄm. The experience created another vantage on agency, play, and what schools should - and shouldn’t - be like.
Gunnar died Friday, a day after I arrived. I had gone straight from the airport to the hospital. We talked about some of his favorite topics - Pope Francis (Gunnar, an engineer, seldom went to church, but he was fascinated by the new pope); politicians; travels, food, and drink. He wanted a sip of port after he got out of the hospital.
Gunnar had a sparkle in his eye, a genius for finding wonder in the stuff of everyday life, and the ability to strike up conversation with anyone, anywhere. At 84, he demonstrated the capacities for play we’ve been discussing.
The hospital reminded me of some of today’s schools. When we moved him to Witwatersrand Hospice the next morning, after nearly seven weeks in the hospital, it made me think of a jail break.
Marie, my wife, and her sister Ingrid, had battled for ten days to get him out. The doctors, well-intentioned, kept trying new interventions. He was in intensive care. Nurses were considerate, but they spent most of their time taking notes, with blood tests every several hours. He lay covered with tubes. Family members were kept in the dark about his condition. It all was a stark example of objectification, and Gunnar clearly had very little agency. A lot of time he was on a hunger strike. I thought of children in school labelled with “disabling” conditions, who rebel as they can.
Once in the hospice Gunnar kept raising his arms to show he was free. He was in a large, sunlit room where the family gathered. The doctor described every detail of his condition to us, explaining that they wouldn’t try to keep him alive though they would attend to his pain and support his body’s efforts to heal. “Coming into palliative care after years as anesthesiologist, I had to learn not to fix the patient,” he said.
We had a little party, drank a toast, and Gunnar gave a wonderful speech. Unfettered, he lay on his side - for the first time since admission to the hospital- went to sleep, and died that evening.
The hospice had some “elements” of democracy schools, supporting agency. Its medicine can be called “civic science,” attentive to the human context. The hospital illustrates the disease of our age, the culture of technocracy with its “Big Data” and the like.
I believe this culture is the main driver of what Lani Guinier calls “the testocracy,” in The Tyranny of the Meritocracy. It displaces agency with a mania for expert control through information.
What do you think?
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