In his excellent book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes a great deal about the value people find in different landscapes. Arctic landscapes, for example, appear barren and lifeless, devoid of value, to the casual observer. To those who know the Arctic well, however, its ecosystems teem with life and activity. And to those who love the Arctic, its landscape possesses a value far beyond whatever oil or minerals can be extracted from beneath its surface.
“A culture’s most cherished places are not necessarily visible to the eye–spots on the land one can point to. They are made visible in drama–in narrative, song and performance. It is precisely what is invisible in the land, however, that makes what is merely empty space to one person a place to another. The feeling that a particular place is suffused with memories, the specific focus of sacred and profane stories, and that the whole landscape is a congeries of such places, is what is meant by a local sense of the land.”
Once again, we’re dealing with questions of value and beauty. No matter what the corporate-style reformers say, these are subjective concepts. We can’t quantify the value of a landscape anymore than we can quantify the value of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
We can, however, respect the idea that most of what’s valuable (and beautiful) in a landscape or a classroom is mysterious. Like the hidden meaning of an arctic landscape, the rhythms and relationships that make teaching and learning work cannot be isolated or replicated. They are organic, unpredictable processes. Instead of clobbering the creativity out of teachers with high-stakes tests and evaluations, policy-makers and reformers should follow Lopez’s lead and learn to appreciate school environments before transforming– or destroying– them.