Plato and Aristotle had a purpose for education: to serve the needs of the state whilst providing citizens (and a select few they were) with a sense of the good life. In the 17th century, the Jesuits certainly had a purpose for education: the glorification of God. At the beginning of the 20th century, certain curriculum developers had a purpose for education: to prepare people for the workforce. And today, education serves a great deal of purposes, depending on localized ideologies, customs, and traditions. But what is the overarching purpose? What if a number of educators were asked this question? I suspect we would gather a multitude of responses that would vary in scope and political utility.
But if we look at the above examples there is an overarching theme: the purpose of education is to better the human condition. Be it Jesuits, capitalists, Al Qaeda members, hockey schools, Residential Schools, or Hutterites, specific communities and schools look at education not only as a means for the transmission of culture and history, but also as a mechanism for allowing individuals and groups of individuals to progress, grow, and create new knowledge.
Granted, the outcome may vary and common understandings of what we mean by “bettering the human condition” often become blurred and polarized, but most educators could agree that we are trying to help learners better themselves and their communities. To not carry this understanding would suggest that our schools are merely institutions designed to keep kids off the street and out of trouble, a design implemented in North America at the end of the 19th century. Many of the examples above have pretty insidious and evil outcomes, compared to our modern liberal values, but the fundamental vision still stands that communities purpose education as a tool for human progress.
Unfortunately, we know that based on the state of our own species and the biosphere, that past purposes have had flawed outcomes.
So what if we got back to the idea that bettering the human condition meant less about profit, control over nature, or the oppression of others? Would education look and feel differently? Would it be organized beyond the current uni-disciplinary silos that we currently employ?
Given the environmental catastrophe that is upon us as a species, we may need to look at the purpose of education and the notion of betterment of the human condition in new ways. We cannot continue the old ways, this is for certain. This is made clear by several news articles and reports in the last week suggesting that man, indeed, is the cause of climate change and that we are many known and unknown dilemmas awaiting us down the road. Bettering the human condition then becomes an exercise in bettering all species and systems on earth.
This purpose of education requires a new literacy – an ecological literacy whereby learners are asked to think with systems and to see themselves as part of a much larger network that is dependant on nature. Learners understand the laws of thermodynamics and the finiteness of all things on this planet. They are able to measure the consequences of potential actions and carry with them an empathy for all living creatures.
In western liberal states, however, this notion of betterment is not one that receives much attention. Despite pushes for sentiments of ecology and social justice in various curricula (the Grade 9 science and social studies curricula in Manitoba are fine examples), we still graduate a citizenry that for the most part values profit, short-term gain, and consumption. Bettering the human condition is based on material goods and the acquisition there of. Clearly, this purpose is not sustainable.
A new curriculum that envisions sustainable communities which value all networks, our connection with the earth and each other, and a sense of individual and collective well being calls for a new pedagogy. This pedagogy will needs to do away with the old silos of instructions and paradigms. A new pedagogy calls for experience as the basis for teaching ecological literacy and fostering a society composed of systems thinkers.
To be continued….
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Do you think a greater emphasis on teaching skills of critical thinking and appropriate empirically based argumentation might better serve the needs you report (which I agree are important for our longevity)? I am thinking more and more that skills need to come first, with content as the means by which skills in thinking are taught. Instead, though, the current trend is to emphasize knowledge, and then as a aside, embed lessons on critical thinking. When done that way, it’s easy to dismiss the critical thinking “asides” as extras that don’t require full attention.
I see your point, but I am making the assumption, and perhaps poorly, that with ecological literacy comes the ability to think critically about one’s place within the biosphere and the ability to anticipate consequences of one’s actions. If we are to foster ecological literacy in learners, I don’t see how content and thinking can be divorced from each other. Does this make sense?
Yes, it does make sense. In fact, I think we are saying the same thing in different words. That is, I think that many educators do separate the two, which can undermine the intent.