Chew on This

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/17/2021

Chew on This

The changing of the seasons, celestial orbits, and the rhythmic exchange of night to day and back again are so overt, we rarely give them much thought. Why would we? Fairly consistent cycles are predictable, maybe even taken for granted. It is fascinating, however, when we recognize cycles in unsuspecting areas like human behavior, history, philosophy, and ideology. We perk up and take note of those, and sometimes it becomes apparent that we haven’t lived long enough to realize that we have come full circle. Here’s some FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

The ouroboros symbolizes these cycles, and in most cultures throughout history, it represents eternal renewal and the lifecycle more so than cannibalistic destruction. But, an unbiased observer may see these as one and the same.

What is an ouroboros? Carl Jung pioneered the concept of Collective Unconscious in modern psychology. In essence, Jung’s theory recognizes that throughout human history, civilizations and cultures around the world have shared common instincts, symbols, and archetypes. One of these Jungian archetypes I think about often is the ouroboros which dates as far back as 1600 BC. It translates roughly from the Greek words, “oura,” which means tail, and “bora,” which means food, and is frequently depicted as a snake or serpent eating its tail.

Our approach to public education in the United States, like everything else in the world, also ebbs and flows in fairly rhythmic cycles. It has done so since its inception in the 1830s when Horace Mann, a local gent from Franklin, Massachusetts, spearheaded the Common School Movement. Graduate schools of education profess that education vacillates between four basic philosophies: Perennialism, Essentialism, Progressivism, and Reconstructionism. In layperson terms, our innovative ideas in education grow stale, and “new” ideas become popular again. In my relatively short 25-year career in education, legislation like the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, No Child Left Behind (2001), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) all highlight some of these aforementioned shifts in educational priorities and philosophies. You may recall changes in educational methods such as Common Core Math that emerged in 2009, and perhaps you caught wind that it is teetering on the verge of returning to the “old way” of teaching math. Educational philosophies and methods come and go to suit the times, and like bell-bottom pants, each will run its course and most likely be back in fashion someday.

One of my proudest moments as an educator is each year’s commencement. By its literal meaning, commencement is a new beginning, not an end. Just as the snake nourishes itself with its tail and grows stronger, our graduates draw upon their K-12 school experience to start the next chapter in their lives. As their senior year concludes, 8th graders are accepting their offers to become the next wave of freshmen at BVT, and this beautiful cycle repeats. We miss the outgoing seniors and their unique contributions to our school as we eagerly await a new class of freshmen — such an interesting mix of happiness, sadness, and excitement all wrapped into one.

Opinions on the evolution of career-technical education has been another interesting cycle to observe. BVT opened in 1964 with the same basic mission it has today — to prepare students for success in the workplace and excellent citizenry. It goes without saying that the skillsets to be life-ready and work-ready have changed dramatically since 1964, and approaches to achieve that mission evolved along with it. From the inception of vocational education in Massachusetts, it was never intended to be terminal — but in the early years, a high school diploma backed with strong trade skills was a proven recipe for high earning potential and success in life.

The need for a strong academic foundation and post-secondary education (even technical training) grew over the decades primarily due to ever-advancing technology. By the early to mid 1990s, state and federal education reform required that all students graduating from high school be college-ready, including vocational students. BVT, and schools like ours across the country, transitioned from the trade school model to today’s career-technical education (CTE) model. In the wake of the national movement that all students should pursue education beyond high school, two out of five Americans report that they are not utilizing their degree, yet bear the cost of paying for it, according to a recent survey by

Popular opinion on the matter has certainly come full circle, especially if one compares the lifetime earnings of a licensed plumber without college loan debt to those paying for a degree they aren’t using. As the old joke goes, you need to be a physician to afford a plumber these days… if you can find one! Regardless how you feel about the evolution of CTE, I assure you that today’s career-technical graduates have a solid academic foundation and the versatility to choose how to build upon it.

There are so many of these cycles in action these days, particularly in education, and unfortunately many are quite controversial. Is MCAS an accountability mechanism to perform gap analysis and ensure all students in the Commonwealth receive a high-quality education, or should we do away with it because it unfairly and unequally exposes said gaps? Are dress codes inherently sexist and therefore should not exist at all, or should we go to the other extreme and return to school uniforms? Should competitive school admissions policies consider the merit of student applicants, or should lotteries be utilized as a fairer method to accept students? On any particular topic, some will welcome the change as much-needed progress, while others see a well-intended snake cannibalizing itself — it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Everything evolves. Here’s what I know: change is the only constant, the sun will rise (I think), and the universe will continue to cycle all things. This is humbling, and should be. To suggest that your view is the best one, or only one, is a particularly arrogant aspect of human nature. Be open to new ideas, be diplomatic in how you express your own, and be reminded there are very few “new” ideas. Nick Carroway’s closing line in The Great Gatsby says it all, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”