The wasp lesson

Indeed, if one believes Schumacher, we must approach not only the content of the program, but the purpose of life: “’know-how’ is nothing in itself”, he writes; “it is an endless means…the task of education” must be “first and foremost the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives”.

affirmation of life

This question cannot be evaded. Any education system is necessarily an expression – and therefore a teacher – of particular values. Ours comes from the liberal tradition – “liberal” because it aimed to free thought from suffocating religious dogma.

His curriculum, introducing the materials we are still learning, served the industrializing economy and the nascent democracy, but made assumptions that are at the root of the “permanent crisis” we face: that nature is a soulless mechanism to be shaped for human purposes; that its stock is effectively unlimited; and that waste is not of great importance.

Strikingly, the rise of neoliberalism – a stifling new dogma sanctifying the freedom of markets to generate profits – roughly coincides with destruction on a new scale, when 80% of all carbon has been emitted and 60% of the total animal populations have been lost.

The education system has been reshaped to enshrine neoliberal values. School leaders are trained as managers of learning factories who compete for the children of tomorrow by proving they fill those of today, like bottles of milk on a conveyor belt, with the knowledge and skills to compete with each other in another adult market. – for jobs.

Education as if people and the planet matter had to be based on very different, life-affirming values. Most teachers are driven by a desire to care for children, so even now, in small ways, the system is secretly overturning.


In fact, I think that’s what happens when a wasp disrupts my English class.

Years after that first wasp lesson, a student gave me a thank you card when she left school. She said I inspired her to participate in the youth climate strike and study philosophy at university.

To my amazement, she didn’t quote my many carefully planned lessons and assemblies on climate change, but “when you held the wasp.”

Reflecting on this led me to think that the purpose of education is best expressed not in terms of Schumacher’s abstract ideas of value, but in terms of concrete relationships.

Answering this inescapable question places people in relationships with each other and with nature, and these roles become the fundamental learning outcomes of the education system, rippling through the wider economy and society. When I held the wasp, the students’ relationship with the wasps changed from something like an antagonism to something more like an alliance, and for at least one, it set her on a new path.


There are several dimensions to how this transformation occurs in the wasp lessons. First, there are certain facts that students need to make sense of. They are about how the interests of wasps and humans align.

Ecophilosopher Freya Mathews says, “If my identity is logically interconnected with the identity of other beings, then…my chances of self-realization depend on the existence of those beings…our interests converge.” This information is necessary if people and the planet both matter.

Second, an emotional dimension shifts students from alarm to empathy.

In philosophy of life, deep ecological philosopher Arne Naess argues for an education that “takes feelings more into account”, devoting a chapter to cultivating “A feeling for all living beings”. A future-ready education system faced by today’s children would produce young adults who are emotionally educated, more aware of underlying motivations in themselves and others, and experienced in resolving conflict.

But without a wasp in the room, I doubt I would have received that thank you card, just like reading this essay, you can’t ask some of the questions my students have been asking for six years: “What is what is he doing now?” “Can I hold it?”


The presence of a living being is compelling, but factory education is dependent on smartboards, as if consciously acclimating children to a semi-virtual life. What if children’s right to education were expressed in living encounters rather than in subjects?

Outdoor classes would be a daily expectation. Visits from artists, asylum seekers and war veterans would be as commonplace as schoolbooks.

Neoliberal education is based on the separation of school life from community life, but students of all ages should be deeply involved in serving their local communities, such as growing food, visiting the elderly, and creating what Schumacher called intermediate technologies.

Finally, there is magic in the spontaneity of the wasp lesson. Naess links the “central feeling of being on a journey of discovery” to slower, deeper learning within a spacious curriculum.

Factory learning is ruled by the monstrous god Chronos, but a wise education must revere the Greeks’ friendliest god of time, Kairos, whose educational incarnation is the time for learning.


This spring, when he landed in the form of a wasp, I dove into some big questions: given that there is no known biological life anywhere else in the universe, what is the value of a wasp? Who gave you the idea that it’s okay to kill wasps?

If “everyone” thinks it, does that make it true? So the best of liberalism still contributes to it! What kind of educational system tells you about subjunctive clauses before the age of twelve, but never explains why we need wasps? What else doesn’t it tell you?

About 2,400 years ago, Taoist teacher Zhuang Zhou wrote, “I know the joy of fish in the river through my own joy as I walk along the same river.

If we take young people on these walks, literally and figuratively, the connections they form with people and the planet will allow them to do the rest on their own.

A student recently said, “Sir, I think you’ve convinced my brain that wasps are OK, I just don’t know if I like this one.” Before I could answer, someone else said, “Sammy. His name is Sami. I bet you don’t want to kill him now!

This author

Matt Carmichael is a secondary school teacher from Leeds. This essay is the winner of the Education As If People and Planet Matter competition, launched by the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and others to celebrate Schumacher College’s 30th anniversary.

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