When education is living up to its original intended purpose, it serves to engage those things that lay undeveloped in our potential; it seeks to tap those things and ignite a flame underneath them to illuminate themselves to us. Education then proceeds to nurture that flame until it becomes a small fire burning inside of us, so much so that we are unable to ignore it. We are compelled to interrogate this fire and explore what this thing is that has captured our passion. Education further cultivates that small fire until it becomes a wild fire that we are unable to contain inside of ourselves…and it is released to the world!
This fire expresses itself in the form of great art, music, or mathematical computations that are so brilliant, they change the course of history; or historical investigations that lead to medical cures; or the latest design of the perfect mop (something I’ve been looking for most of my adult life). PBS programming/curriculum has sparked these kinds of fires in millions of us.
When I was about 11 years old, I was watching a PBS show about two English-speaking missionaries, a husband and wife from Europe living in Africa (or was it the Brazilian Rain Forest?). The missionaries’ goal was to take the knowledge of Christ to the indigenous peoples of that place. However, they didn’t speak the language of the people, and the people didn’t speak English. So, the missionaries spent 10 years living with the people in order to learn their language. But they discovered that there were no symbols in the language for “Christianity”–nothing for “Christ”, “salvation”, “Trinity”, “heaven”, “hell”, “resurrection”, etc. So, they spent an additional 10 years creating a new language by way of writing a dictionary.
At 11 years old, I was stunned! I didn’t know you could just create a language!
I fell in love with languages. I became incredibly curious about cultures and the ramifications of importing values, and I decided that I would travel and experience the world. It was clear to me that nothing was set in a stone that couldn’t be re-carved: in other words, nothing was impossible for me to do. If you can just create a new language, you can do anything!
I am now an anthropologist. My fields of study and practice are socio-linguistics and the anthropology of education. That 11 year-old experience with a PBS show/class sparked several small flames inside of me. And over the years following that moment, I would come back to have those flames stoked.
My experience is not unique. It is a universal American experience that started with us singing: “Sunny Day…keeping the clouds away…Can you tell me how to get…How to get to….Sesame Street?” along with learning/recognizing/remembering the letter and number for the day; and eventually graduated to the logic and possibility of something like: if you can just create a new language, then you can create anything.
For more information, visit the Million Puppet March website
Sharon Washington is an education anthropologist with more than 18 years of experience in education. She has worked in anthropological education research, policy analysis, program design, and teacher preparation in various parts of the world. That work includes co-founder of a progressive public middle school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City; and school turnaround efforts that include: school design, teacher preparation, and leadership development in the United States, southern Africa and Latin America.