Mary Dean teaches nutrition at Penn State; James teaches math in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences there. They were my warmshowers host in State College PA, in a house full of bicycle themed accessories. Mary Dean and James invited two friends to dinner; Kristin teaches seventh grade in a rural school district, Mike is a psychiatric social worker. Mary Dean kicked off the conversation:
MDC: Everything about teaching is becoming more complex, but so is everything about being a student. Services for student are rampant, yet they have to do all of this stuff online. Technology has many upsides, animations and access to information. But when I consider everything I put online for my students and then multiply by five, I can see why it’s harder for students to navigate college. Government regulations are also a challenge. Compliance is difficult; assessments are tricky. We now have a new Vice-President to oversee assessments. We give students too much assistance; it keeps them from independence. But it’s the rare student who can navigate the maze without help.
MM: There’s a trickle-up problem. Public education accommodations that we provide by right at lower levels become expectations at the college level.
KM: As a public school teacher, I am responsible to make sure that children who are absent have all the materials they need. It’s not their responsibility; it’s mine.
MDC: My typical course syllabus now runs eight pages. It becomes the contract that protects you. Twenty years ago, it would have been two pages, and would have included the assignments. Now, the syllabus is so complex students don’t even read it.
MM: In Pennsylvania, all children with a mental health disability are eligible for medical services. The state used to run the program, but they contracted it out to a managed care company. If you have ADHD or depression, you may eventually wean yourself from the system, but if you have autism, you’ll be in the system forever.
How will we live tomorrow?
MM: How and what role religion will play in establishing the norms of our society will have a big impact. We have such extreme divisions in the world; yet look at Ireland, a Catholic country that just passed gay marriage. Our resources are declining while our population is expanding. When we think of ‘home’ our country is no longer enough; the earth is not even enough.
How are we going to respect people’s dignity and meet their individual needs while maintaining societal norms? How will six billion plus people have individual and collective identities? It’s an equation with six billion variables.
JK: The conservative realist in me can tell you how we will live tomorrow. But that’s self-fulfilling. I shy away from ideologies as Valhalla, but if I’m just an observer, I’m not involved. There is no such thing as ‘more’ simplicity. I want less complexity.
MDC: That’s why cycle touring is so great. You have two bags and you have everything you need. Campers in RV’s bring half of their stuff from home to the outdoors; then the throw what they don’t use away. Our existence in America is, if you have access to money or credit, you get stuff.
We desire to get back to ‘the way it was’. Local food is a romantic notion, but we like the idea more than the actual work required to make it happen. We used to have famine. We had tragedy. We forget that life used to be harder. We will continue to strive for what we think will make our lives easier.
MM: Would someone in 1859 have pined for a romantic past?
KM: Can we keep up? Can we continue American technology and consumption? Is it hurting us? Everything needs to be new. It happens so rapidly. Can we keep it up?
JK: Nothing is repairable or upgradable. I see children today who don’t know how to cope without their technology. I take it away when I coach kids. They resist at first, and then they engage with each other.
MDC: We have a whole lot of anxiety around our devices.
KM: At the end of the 1990’s we didn’t think we had an enemy in this world. Then 9/11 happened and we came together.
MM: For a collective to be a collective, we all need the same information. 9/11 was a collective experience that pulled us all together.
MDC: Part of what pulled us together was that period of the unknown, when no one knew exactly what was going on. The unknown pulled us together.
MDC: Basic human nature craves community. Can technology provide enough community?
Our conversation evolved to a very present challenge in State College. Toll Brothers wants to build ‘luxury student housing’ closer to the primary water supply than many think wise. This issue has triggered much debate in the community, and though the final outcome is not yet determined, the locals thought that Toll Brothers would find a way to implement their plan.
JK: There’s a scale problem. If you take Penn State’s rate of growth, in twenty years there will be 100,000 students paying $100,000 in tuition. Is that sustainable?
JK had an epilogue for our discussion, relevant to this project: “You are going to need an epilogue; some way to solicit all of those who interacted with you to come together in the end. It doesn’t have to be a physical reunion, but I want to know where this is going and where goes in the end.