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Apocalyptic Leadership in Education: Facing an Unsustainable World from Where We Stand

reviewed by Jared Colston & Casey E. George - March 15, 2018

coverTitle: Apocalyptic Leadership in Education: Facing an Unsustainable World from Where We Stand
Author(s): Vachel W. Miller
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681238349, Pages: 312, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Apocalyptic leadership is not leadership for the end times; rather, it addresses the myriad issues facing humanity and the non-human world alike, acknowledging that broad systemic ills impact every discipline and individual. Apocalyptic leadership recognizes the challenges of preparing students for a world of uncertainty and compounding injustices, and responds by creating a learning environment where students develop and recognize the paradigm of structural uncertainty and learn how to respond accordingly.

Vachel Miller attempts to codify apocalyptic leadership through an edited collection of ethnographies, case studies, personal anecdotes, theoretical conceptualizations, and essays. Unlike standard social science edited collections, Dr. Miller takes an alternative approach to scholarship, holding objectivism up to the light and applying a Reconstructivist lens of social improvement and morality at a time when being objective means maintaining a status quo of repeated social, economic, and ecological injustices. In his introduction, Miller not only challenges the current state of educational leadership, but also sustainability leadership and green initiatives in a neoliberal state, indicating that the competitive nature of market values inhibits the sharing of good ideas and social improvement.

More than defining apocalyptic leadership and re-envisioning sustainability in education, this volume offers two main roles for educators taking an active approach to crisis response. First, in the introduction, Miller presents the idea that educators cannot solve the problems of the world alone, but rather, we need to be honest about the injustice around us, with the full acceptance that we are not going to fix it (p. xiv). The subsequent chapters provide several examples of such an approach in a variety of contexts. For example, Courtney Baines Smith uses an ethnography to highlight social entrepreneurism via the establishment of school gardens where students are taught sustainability and interconnectivity, highlighting food scarcity and social inequality as ills that must be addressed by each person in their own capacity. Second, apocalyptic leadership highlights a need for compassionate educators who acknowledge students and their place in the world. These practices, termed solutionary leadership by contributors Morrison, Sebens, and Heffernan, help students to reject the submissiveness that allows for hegemonic domination and systemic injustice in a society where economic growth trumps any other consideration. For example, their chapter compares two separate cases conducted at a charter school where compassion for the non-human environment surrounding the school helped engender sustainability-minded practices in their students.

A common sub-theme present in the volume is that of the interconnected nature of sustainable leadership and the intersectional injustices of social, economic, and ecological systems. As Redekop and Schleifer state: Domination of the earth has gone hand in hand with domination of other people, and the undoing of such things will of necessity also go hand in hand (p. 27). The aforementioned ethnography of school gardens provides a framework of social entrepreneurship; a way to create economic viability not for the purpose of profit, but rather for collective benefit and social progress. Mukherjee describes spiritual educational leadership in India, focusing on how colonial schooling maintains vestiges of assembly-line education and rigorous discipline that stifles creativity and actively prevents students growth in preparing for sustainable lifestyles. The interconnectedness of apocalyptic educational leadership is featured in Osmonds comparison of the healthcare industry to education as the neoliberal accountability measures plaguing both services are critiqued. By placing market-value competition on these services, leaders are required to become managers and profit-watchers, which goes against the inherently altruistic nature of wellness and education.

By calling for apocalyptic leadership in a time of multiple and interconnected global crises and injustices, the reader begins to feel the weight of being one person against immovable forces. The authors themselves acknowledge this feeling, insisting that a true apocalyptic leader must face these issues within their own context. In her chapter, Eaton discusses how to maintain an activist mindset without feeling tired, inadequate, and guilty when faced with the minor changes possible in light of systemic injustices. She also acknowledges that convening with other activist-minded individuals is crucial in establishing a support system of care as well as addressing localized problems that you have the ability to impact. Likewise, Jensen describes how he uses humor as a strategy, implying that not having to fool himself into thinking everything is fine conserves energy.

Approaching this volume as a masters student and an assistant professor who are interested in levering educational policy for macro-level solutions, we find that the collection of articles, while offering anecdotal evidence and success stories of apocalyptic leadership, lacks recommendations and macro-level conceptualizations of educational leadership approaches appropriate for responding to global crises. While the book does an excellent job of describing the important issues we face as a society, it follows with only anecdotes of localized initiatives cherry-picked by the authors. In order to truly be the catalyst for a movement in leadership theory, there should be specific recommendations for policymakers and steps for approaching these problems on a broader systemic level. Furthermore, a number of the articles seem relatively detached from the overall purpose of the collection, haphazardly including sustainability terminology in an attempt to be relevant for the edited volume. While these articles include topics of high importance, they lend a sense of disjointedness of the collection and are slightly jarring to the reader.

Though this book may lack recommendations for the macro-level policy changes necessary in order to combat hegemonic injustice and address global crises, it still provides an interesting framework through which to consider the state of education and what may be required of educational leaders. In an era when academic legitimacy is questioned daily, when fields of study are judged based on their profit margins, and when blissful ignorance of broad systemic problems is blanketed with the term positive thinking, Apocalyptic Leadership in Education asks the questions that need to be asked, positions the educator in a context of action, and catalyzes meaning and purpose for increasingly listless educators. Numerous educators enter their field with the goal of changing the world for the better, only to be met by what seem like insurmountable systemic problems. Along with providing success stories of educators fighting the good fight, this volume gives hope to those in the field wondering if anyone else is asking these questions, and wondering how to rethink the role of the educator and their ability to contribute to potential solutions for what may be perceived as insurmountable challenges. This text is an affirmation of purpose in educational leadership, indicating that altruism is not dead, and that educators still have a role to play in improving the world around us.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22307, Date Accessed: 3/19/2022 3:04:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Jared Colston
    University of Louisville
    E-mail Author
    JARED COLSTON is a master’s student in higher education administration at the University of Louisville. His research focuses on educational policy surrounding academic legitimacy and how universities have maintained their place in society amidst shifting economic and social structures. Within this research, he also studies the sociology of education, professionalization and workforce development, economics of education, and the purpose of higher education. He is currently a co-author on a number of papers in progress, including “Contemporary Academic Freedom: Contradictions, Crises, and Contextual Constraints.”
  • Casey George
    University of Louisville
    E-mail Author
    CASEY E. GEORGE is an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Louisville. Her research centers on educational policy and programs that impact access to higher education for traditionally marginalized populations, including women in the STEM fields. She co-leads a research project on the expanding practice and lack of transparency of differential tuition policies, and is the co-author of “Gender equity in college majors: Looking beyond the STEM/Non-STEM dichotomy for answers regarding female participation,” published by the American Educational Research Journal.
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