Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Well

The well had always stood in the center of the community, broad at the top and drawing from a deep spring of cool clear water that had nourished the people for generations. Any member of the public could stop by at any time and a steward of the well would draw up a cup of cool, clear water.

It wasn't magical or perfect. Occasionally leaves and branches fell into the wide mouth of the well, and the stonework, though solid and strong, needed to be regularly repaired and improved. The community didn't really want to invest a great deal in the well-- it had always been there and so they assumed it would always be there-- so the well was always in a perilous state, the stewards just barely keeping up with the repairs and improvements needed. There were other problems as well; some members of the community were allowed to draw water up with sharp, clear buckets of the best and newest materials, while other members were forced to draw water up with crusty old wooden buckets, leaky and sometimes caked with dirt and grime. There were ongoing arguments about how to address this injustice, but often those who drank from the new, clean cups often claimed that the wooden buckets were good enough for Those Kinds of People. The well had always suffered from problems of fairness and equity.

Salesmen came to town, with wagons packed full of bottled water. But the market for their wares was not great-- why buy something that's stale and packaged in wasted plastic when the public well is already right there? But the salesmen looked at the water from the well. "This isn't very blue," they said. "All the best water is blue."

So the salesmen became creative. Some offered a special deal-- if you brought them one of the wooden buckets, you could have a "free" case of bottled water. This was actually quite helpful for a few of the families, but when other families went to the well, they discovered that even the lousy buckets they had cursed in the past were gone.

Other salesmen became aggressive, and simply started dumping poison into the well.

Now the well was deep and the water was drawn from a large and powerful wellspring, but many citizens became alarmed when they discovered what was being dumped in there. "This will just give  bring the water up to standards," the salesmen claimed, "And everyone knows the best water is blue, so we are just testing it for blueness, and adding more blue coloring when necessary." But more and more members of the community said the water was starting to taste bad.

So other salesmen sold home filtering systems and other salesmen sold little pills you could drop in the water and other salesmen went to community council meetings and yelled, "Why not just let everyone take the buckets for drawing water and go get whatever they want wherever they want to?" And, of course, the salesmen sold lots of bottled water, even after it was the plastic leaked toxins into the water and even after it was discovered that a lot of the bottled water was taken straight out of the old well. There were those salesmen who got their water from a fancy purification factory and packaged it in a gold wrapper, but it turned out they would only sell their water to a select few.

Meanwhile, the elders who maintained the old well were under attack. Salesmen would strut past the well, waving golden chalices filled with water that they had paid to have carefully scrubbed clean, saying loudly, "Well, why can't the well stewards do this? You should let us manage the well."

And even the people who defended the well had to admit that the longer this dragged on, the more polluted and dirtied the well itself became. New salesman came to town with tricky devices that dispensed a sort of synthetic flavored goop. "Buy one of these," they said. "You can have any flavor you want. It's practically like water." But it wasn't much like water at all, and the salesmen always took the villagers' money first and then told them they were out of all the other flavors.

Some of the stewards were fired because their water didn't come up blue enough, and others finally quit after months of having salesmen drive by throwing stones at them. Some were replaced by strangers from out of town who didn't even know how to hold a cup. Bit by bit, generations of knowledge about how to take care of the well were lost. The people who had suffered under the dirty wooden buckets now had no access to real water at all. And the well was becoming polluted and run down.

I don't have an ending for this story. It's possible that in the end, the salesmen buy the well, fill it with cement, and sell nothing but their various products. Maybe some stewards keep part of the well alive and functioning, or maybe they strike out and build a new well. Maybe the people of the community wake up and throw the salesmen out and take back the well, clean it up, and restore it better than before. I don't honestly know. All I know for sure is that these are hard days to be a thirty citizen.


  1. Difference between water and education: You could get a random group of people to agree on the definition and uses of water in 15 minutes or so. We conduct our education debates as if we all knew and agreed on what it was and what it was for, but we don't and we don't talk about how we don't and so we constantly wind up talking past each other.

    This came to mind recently when DH (who is a Physics prof. interested in elementary science ed) told about presenting a poster about teaching magnetism and was asked by, presumably, another Physics teacher why the kids needed to learn about magnetism. I can think of answers to that (like hands on model of a field), but whether they're good answers depends on what a person thinks the goals of elementary Physics are. So I keep wondering how Random Conference Guy conceived of Physics class and what he thought its goals should be.

    (I don't think "well obviously we have to teach magnetism" is a good answer. Every time a topic pops up within the education horizon, someone says "Well obviously..." but there isn't time in the day or room in our children's brains for all those Obviously's.)

    1. My solution is to have every teacher who wants to, to write down what they think should be taught in their specialty, then get together with others in their department and discuss the what and the whys and come to a consensus, then get together with others in the district, then run it by whatever parents want to read it and comment, then send representatives to the region or state. But this consensus should remain a guideline only.

      Perhaps more to the point of what education should be for is, is it simply to prepare students for jobs, or is it to prepare them to be informed citizens who know how to reach their potential as human beings?