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Toward A Philosophy Of Human Ecological Education

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Here are some edited excerpts from my former Professor: John Visvader’s talk: Toward a Philosophy of Human Ecological Education.

Let us refer to this view that human nature is in some important sense open ended, a process view. It means that human nature is not a fixed and static entity, but is subject to a continual process of change and alteration. In terms of the Greek philosophers, this would be a Heraclitian view—Heraclitus is the philosopher who said that everything is subject to change and transformation and that you can’t step into the same river twice. (One of his followers said that you can’t even step into the same river once.) In the same way a static view can be referred to as a Parmenidean view after Parmenides and his disciple Zeno. If you’re thinking about the problem of education, it would seem pretty obvious that the conclusions you came up with would be very different if you held one view than they would be if you held the other. With a static view, your map of reality and human nature will be fairly complete and most of the details will be filled in. It will be relatively easy to plot a clear and definite route from one point to another. You will be able to say, with some degree of certainty, what kinds of skills and personality traits a young person will have to develop in order to traverse the terrain of human possibility.

If, on the other hand, you hold a process view then your map of the human terrain will be essentially incomplete, and you will have to equip young people with quite another set of characteristics. Your map will be similar to those made by the early explorers with only vague representations of major rivers and mountain peaks and large areas marked “terra incognita.” The skills that you teach to a town person will be very different than the skills you teach to an explorer. If someone is going to live in a town all their life you can teach her all the details that will enable her to be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. An explorer, however, will need to be a Jack or Jill of all trades. Such a person will have to be taught what we may refer to as meta-skills—something is referred to with the prefix meta when it deals with a subject matter from a higher level or from a more general perspective, or when the subject matter becomes self-reflective. An explorer will have to learn to be inventive and innovative, and will have to learn to live off the land—in short, she will have to learn how to learn.

Every educational institution teaches both values and skills. In a closed society these skills and values can be quite specific. There is only one true religion to which all values must be related, there are only three major social classes to which everyone must belong, and there are only a certain number of useful professions which people can enter. Once you have classified a person you have also determined the kind of education that will be appropriate. In an open society you also need to teach various skills and values, but the emphasis will be placed on what I call the “meta-skills” and “meta-values.” In terms of basic educational structures you will not classify people according to type or role but will educate everyone in roughly the same sort of way, hoping to give them the skills and information that will allow them to make intelligent decisions concerning the type of person they want to become and the kind of role they want to play in society. This is where, in John Dewey’s sense, intelligence enters the modern world. You teach young people the meta-skills of problem solving, the ability to teach themselves and the process of making considered and intelligent decisions. You teach them what they need to know about the nature and structure of their world so they can act as free and autonomous agents. …

When we come to the problems of ecological or human ecological education we should remember that one of our chief concerns is to improve human well-being. The science of ecology has shown us that humans and their natural environment form a tightly connected causal community. Ignorance of the nature and extent of this community has caused and will continue to cause many kinds of ecological and human catastrophes. The main purpose of ecological education is to present the information concerning the nature of this community in such a way that people will be able to exercise greater foresight in their behaviors. Changes in behavior require the evolution of different strategies of action and a reassessment and realignment of values. If we are to hold, as I feel we should, both a process view of social change and a belief in an open society, then we cannot approach the problem of values in ecological education as mere indoctrination. There may be experts in ecology, but in the modern world we cannot believe that there are any experts in value. …

If we are to believe that ecology or human ecology changes our map of the world in some very important ways, we will have to conceive of education as something more than leading young people from one state to another—we will have to consider the problem of leading ourselves to another state as well. … What it means to be a human being thus becomes open-ended and the subject of exploration, experimentation and evolution. As we increasingly refashion the world in which we live, we face the prospect of having to continually refashion ourselves as well. With regard to a distant and unknown future, we can only view ourselves as unfinished, in process and in progress.


Author: C. Whitney

I am an Independent consultant working with Organic farmers, wild collectors and conservation oriented communities in SE Asia. - Organic Consultant and Researcher, PhD candidate, Couchsurfing Ambassador, MOFGA Member, IFOAM Member, Organic Group Manager...

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