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  • Catastrophic EducationSaving the World with H. G. Wells
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

H. G. Wells (Outline of History, 1100)

Education is no less immune to catastrophe than any other area of life. A student who fails all of their courses because they are grieving the loss of a loved one, and another who drops out of school because they are in love, are both "educational catastrophes." So too is a teacher who becomes obsessed with their research and as a result neglects their students, friends, and family. And, to be sure, schools that fail to educate their students or that have a large proportion of them drop out are also educational catastrophes.

There are of course many other examples of educational catastrophes like the ones described above. Sudden educational calamities through accident, sickness, misfortune, and misbehavior are commonplace in education. Some are small and common like failing to turn in an assignment because one forgot to do it. Others are large and less common like dropping out of school because one needs to get a job to provide for ones family.

On these terms, then, catastrophe is a common, if not everyday, element of the world of education. Disaster takes many different forms in individual student and teacher life, and "sudden calamities" are a part of the everyday world of education from grade school through the university. To examine education through the lens of catastrophes both small and great is to see one of the ways in which education "fails." Students failing courses, teachers failing to teach, and schools failing to educate are all sub-species of the general term, "educational catastrophe." To be sure, there is no doubt that the daily pursuit of education is fraught with catastrophe.

But, is education also subject to the kind of catastrophes usually only reserved for the earth such as earthquakes, eruptions, and floods? The question here is less one of the possibility that catastrophe is a component of education than one of the upper limits of its degree or scale. On a micro-scale, educational catastrophes are commonplace, but on a macro-scale what does "educational catastrophe" mean? [End Page 153] To get a sense of this macro-scale, consider the "catastrophe" that allegedly was the origin of the modern world.

The archeology journalist David Keys has pointed out that starting in 535 A.D., there was "a strange, dusky haze" that "robbed much of the earth of normal sunlight." "It blotted out much of the light and heat of the sun for eighteen months, and the climate of the entire planet began to spin out of control," writes Keys (3). "The result, direct or indirect, was climate chaos, famine, migration, war, and massive political change on virtually every continent" (Keys 3).

As a result of this global weather change, bubonic plague spread from Africa to Europe, crops in Asia and the Middle East failed, and flood and drought led to the collapse of ancient cultures. The one-hundred year period of history it opened, the so-called "Dark Ages," writes Keys, was a

painful and often violent interface between the ancient and protomodern worlds. That period witnessed the final end of the supercities of the ancient world; the end of ancient Persia; the transmutation of the Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire; the end of ancient South Arabian civilization; the end of Catholicism's greatest rival, Arian Christianity; the collapse of the greatest ancient civilization in the New World, the metropolis state of Teotihuacan; the fall from power of the great Maya city of Tikal; and the fall of the enigmatic Nasca civilization of South America.

(Keys 3)

But this period also had its beginnings. They include the birth or conception "of Islam, France, Spain, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the power of the Turks" (Keys 4). Add to this "a united China and the first great South American empires" and you have a climate catastrophe that literally, according to Keys "resynchronized world history" (Keys 4).

I point out the 535 A.D. claim of David Keys not because I necessarily want to defend his thesis...


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