Monday, July 16, 2012

Our education: has it made us successful .... or even more ignorant?

Have you ever noticed that everything humanity depends on is in jeopardy due not to so-called "ignorant" people? It is actually the result of work by people with MDs, MBAs, and PhDs. I was reminded the other day of a brilliant essay written by David Orr called "What is Education for?". And it inspired me to summarise it in my own words ( an extent). 

You know, think about how we have been educated. Our education has conditioned us to think success is equivalent to financial gain and that more "knowledge" pulls us out of  naivety. But...interestingly..the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any amount of time could not read. 

What is wrong with our education? Well, for one we learn seperate disciplines and have no fathom of connections and linkages - we live in a closed system where everything is interlinked - but we produce economists who lack basic ecology. As a result, in Orr's words,  our accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, the destruction of vital ecosystem services, poisons in the air and water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to the GNP but forget to subtract three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. And ironically we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are so much richer than we actually are (and...slowly....getting information feedback from our current economic system that this very fact has screwed us!).  Universities cough out experts in narrow fields who have no integrated sense of the unity of things. 

Orr gives us six myths which I find very eye-opening. I am not going to mention all of them, only the ones which were particularly interesting to me:

"Ignorance is a solvable problem". I thought so. Apparently, though, it is instead an inescapable part of the human condition. He states that the advance of knowledge always carries with it an advance of some form of ignorance. Makes sense. He uses the example of Thomas Midgely Jr., who discovered CFCs (oops...) - what had previously just been a piece of trivial ignorance suddenly became a critical and urgent, even life-threatening gap in our understanding of the biosphere. Noone actually thought to ask....what does this thing do? until 1990, when CFCs had created a thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. Makes you wonder how much we create and process which we ourselves don't fully understand. 

Another one I find neat, because we try and do this in our daily lives. The myth that we can "manage the planet...with the right technology and knowledge". However, the complexity of Earth and its life can never be safely managed. As Orr puts it, the ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown. What might be much more realistic to manage, is us - like our desires, economies, politics and so forth. Orr states that it makes far better sense to reshape our ourselves to fit our planet than attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants. 

He then goes onto another myth, which (I smile ironically while typing this) states that "our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement". One word: arrogant. Lets have a look at capitalism and communism as his example. Communism apparently failed because it produced too little at too high a cost (much like renewable energy versus oil). But then again, as Orr rightfully puts it, capitalism has also failed us, because it produces too much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and grandchildren (and quite quite frankly, current generations - look at the impacts already as a result of climate change). Capitalism is failing because it destroys morality altogether. We live in a disintegrating culture. 

I absolutely love the words of Ron Miller, which Orr uses in his essay that 

"our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul". 

Our education is a reflection of our culture in a sense. We spurt out people with aspirations and visions that we can all have a piece of an infinite pie. People who have become ignorant of the things we must know to live (well) and sustainably as a species on Earth. In the words of Thomas Merton "mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade". what are we going to do about it? I suppose its easy. because everyone is capable of change - and we are all responsible for our own learning in the end. After all - we are "only cogs in an ecological mechanism such that, if they work with that mechanism, their mental and material wealth can expand indefinitely but if they refuse to work with it, it will ultimately grind them to dust". Leopold - "if education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?" Mmmmm....lets all have a big think about the changes we can make...

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