Marxism, Borgs, and Project-Based Learning: A Response

Jennifer D. Klein
This blog is dedicated, with my deep appreciation and respect, to the (socialist) teachers of Edmonton, Canada–thank you for helping to recharge my batteries, for reminding me that adultscan learn, and for helping me find the courage to post this response.

I learned recently that Project-Based Learning (PBL) is apparently a Marxist conspiracy to develop collective empathy over individualism.  I know that sounds absurd–or I hope it does to most of you–but there appears to be a growing movement of conservatives who actually believe that PBL is some sort of communist plot.

This dialogue, perhaps better called an attack spree, was sparked by a wonderful Global PBL developed by educator Heidi Hutchison recently, described in her blog, “The One and Only Ivan Global PBL.”  In her project, students are encouraged to empathize with all living creatures, and to work together to improve the conditions of animals around the world through the true story of Ivan, a gorilla who lived in a circus-themed mall for 27 years, alone in a cage, without ever seeing another gorilla.  Oddly enough, Heidi was attacked on her blog for trying to slant her students’ perspectives toward empathy in a world where animals often have to be caged and mistreated.  She was called a Marxist on Twitter.  As soon as I jumped on board to defend her, I was called one as well.  Don’t get me wrong–I don’t particularly care what people call me–but I do mind that increasing numbers of conservatives consider PBL a Marxist conspiracy.

I struggle with the claim that PBL–or society in general, for that matter–is in danger of putting the collective ahead of the individual, the hallmark of Marxist thought.  More importantly, I struggle with the assumption that there’s anything wrong with doing so, as though thinking about others somehow threatens our sense of independence and individuality as humans.  Science fiction loves to demonstrate the most extreme examples of this kind of thinking–Star Trek’s “Borg,” for example, assimilates every individual into a collective, allowing no room for independent thought or even the use of “I.”  The Borg replaces the individual completely with a collective “We” which drives toward only one goal: to find more individuals and assimilate them into the system.  Resistance is futile.  While the individual provides skills, memories and knowledge the Borg needs, the individual’s value lies in what it offers the collective.  But that’s science fiction, designed to help us imagine the worst extreme of current trends.  The key word here is fiction.

In real life, there is no way individuals can undo or deny the importance of their own thoughts, ideas and needs.  Even in the most extreme and oppressive circumstances, the individual believes what s/he wants to because no one can force collective thought on a human being.  Let me provide a solid example: I’ve spent significant time in Cuba, where people are supposedly being brainwashed into a particular mindset, but the assumption that everyone has bought into the Castros’ party line is absolutely absurd.  People believe what they want–they may say they agree with the system when asked by an audience they don’t know or trust, but that doesn’t mean they no longer know how to think for themselves.  In fact, Cubans openly refer to a social “doble moral” which dominates political dialogue–people will say what their audience expects (which is a very individualistic act of self preservation if you ask me), but they may maintain very different views in private.  In Cuba, as in many parts of the world, individual goals may not be supported by the governmental system as much as collective ones, but that doesn’t mean that anyone stops believing what they want to believe, no matter how “brainwashed” we may think they are.

So, why all this paranoia about U.S. education heading our society toward a collective mindset?  Why are we still so threatened by words like “globalize” and “collaborate,” as though McCarthyism never ended?  I don’t have any answers–just more and more urgent questions about what’s happening to the country I’ve decided to stay in spite of our consumerism, our disregard for the underserved in our communities, our belief that we have the right to police the world, and our ongoing (and increasingly absurd) arguments about who deserves access to health care and a quality education.

So, what does any of this have to do with project-based learning, you ask?  Good question.  PBL certainly emphasizes collaboration, but not because the individual doesn’t matter; rather, it emphasizes collaboration because many individual minds are always better than one, whether that’s in seeking solutions to global problems or in trying to understand varied perspectives.  Our best advances across human civilization have come thanks to individual ideas put into action by groups of people committed to the same ideals.  PBL doesn’t suggest that the individual doesn’t matter; unlike the Borg, the goal is not to erase the thoughts or aspirations of any one student–it is to develop students’ ability to work with others because better solutions require many thinkers, because the best human achievements come from a symphony of innovators and solution builders–because, like a symphony, our music is more powerful in combination than in isolation.

If anything, PBL actually creates the space for students to pursue their individual passions more deeply, whether in connection to group work or not.  In most PBL classrooms, group work makes up no more than 20% of each student’s grade, and elements like Voice and Choice ensure that students are able to make choices aligned with their interests and gifts, choices which help make everything they learn more relevant.  The point is not to subsume each child into a group mentality, to erase who they are for the good of the group–in fact, the point is quite the opposite.  Even in group work, the purpose of PBL is to develop the individual gifts of each student in the service of a common goal.

That said, I do think that a slant toward empathy and concern for others is a reasonable approach to take; it’s not about brainwashing, it’s about developing students’ sensitivities to the needs of others, whether that other is a gorilla or another human being.  Empathy and connectedness are hallmarks of the global education movement, some of the most important inter-cultural skills fostered in any global classroom.  Organizations like Asia Society, World Savvy, and Oxfam consider empathy, compassion, and a sense of connectedness to be central in developing globally constructive citizens in our classrooms, and “global competency” is showing up on more and more lists of 21st Century Skills.  Even business guides now stress the importance of inter-cultural skills for anyone wanting to work across transnational boundaries.

None of this work suggests that individual endeavors are unimportant compared to collective wellbeing–in fact, most global and PBL educators would agree that students’ individual innovations and insights are what we hope will save our planet and species in the long run.  Consider Tony Wagner’s “Seven Survival Skills,” which include myriad examples of both individual and collective skills which will serve students in our increasingly global society–and these come from the world of capitalism, not socialism:

·      Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
·      Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
·      Agility and Adaptability
·      Initiative and Entrepreneurship
·      Effective Oral and Written Communication
·      Assessing and Analyzing Information
·      Curiosity and Imagination

Personally, I believe that individualism can marry empathy and ultimately produce a society where everyone can thrive.  And yes, I’ll admit that my views swerve to the extreme left most of the time, at least by U.S. standards; I’ve been attacked as a “leftist idealist” more than once.  I do believe we should think of others as much as ourselves, particularly if the accident of birth has provided us with more.  I do believe that we are born with a responsibility to others–but I also believe that we should put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.  There can be no collective wellbeing unless individuals continue to take care of themselves and be true to their own needs, and there can be no individual wellbeing unless we find ways to solve our collective, borderless problems across the globe, both for ourselves and the other species of this planet we share.

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