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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

What Is a Green Education?

by Keith Schillo, Central Kentucky Green Party

The topic of education has received considerable attention during the past several presidential elections. Candidates typically want to be known as "the" education President. In this regard, they introduce policies that promise less violence, more funding, better facilities, more computers or better pay for teachers. Rarely is there discourse regarding what it means to be educated, or how our views of education influence the world we live in. How we view knowledge determines how we live in our world. Our Western view of education relies on a theory of knowledge that views humans as separate from nature. This view assumes that humans gain knowledge by passively observing nature; i.e., it assumes that our actions do not influence what we observe, or that our observations influence our actions. Those of us who embrace a more ecological world view should be critical of this traditional view and work to develop a more ecocentric conception of knowledge.

The Green movement acknowledges that humans are inextricably linked to nature, and that our actions influence the well being of both human and nonhuman communities. This insight is incompatible with a theory of knowledge that portrays humans as passively extracting knowledge from nature. Greens should advocate an education reform that advocates a radically different view of knowledge; one that allows us to see the dynamic interactions between humans and their environment. The type of education reform I am advocating will not be achieved by adding a course in ecology or environmental studies to a curriculum, or by adopting school projects that encourage recycling and reduced energy use. Rather, we should advocate reform that is expressed in all courses, all school activities, all school policies and is focused on changing how students think about the world they live in.

What sort of theory of knowledge is appropriate for such an ecocentric world view? Above all, it should recognize that the world is dynamic, and that it is difficult to draw a sharp distinction between the observer and the observed. The late Gregory Bateson suggested that to think ecologically requires that we develop an "ecology of mind." This is a way of thinking that acknowledges that what we do influences what we can know and that what we can know is influenced by what we do. Bateson used the process of chopping down a tree to illustrate this idea. When I begin to chop down a tree, I aim the ax and strike a blow to the tree. Where my next blow is aimed depends on where the first one landed. This process continues until the tree falls. This is to say that my actions (striking the tree with an ax) influence what I know of the tree (location of the mark left by the ax), and this knowledge of the tree influences my next action (where the next blow will be aimed).

In our current educational system, knowledge of the environment is not effectively linked to how we live in that environment.

How does Bateson's notion of an ecology of mind relate to education reform and the development of Green politics? In our current educational system, knowledge of the environment is not effectively linked to how we live in that environment. This point is frequently illustrated on documentaries such as the PBS program Nature. An episode devoted to gorillas provided a detailed account of the habitat and behavior of these apes. Although these animals were portrayed as endangered, and the destruction of their habitat was documented, no attempt was made to explain why these animals are threatened. The scientists studying the gorillas and the viewers watching this program were passive observers. They were disconnected from the social, political and economic conditions (i.e. human actions) that are responsible for the demise of these animals. The same thing happens in our schools. Students may learn about discrimination, pollution, loss of biodiversity, sweatshops, unemployment, demise of small farms and civil wars, but these issues are rarely, if ever, linked to the way they live their lives in their schools, homes and communities.

...if the success of an idea is based on deception, or coercion then it is likely that it should be rejected.

In addition to having an ecology of mind, we should be aware that there is an "ecology of ideas." In other words, we should understand that what ideas (observations) we accept and reject are the result of complex interactions among ideas arising from diverse perspectives. In biological ecosystems, some organisms are more successful than others. Likewise, in an ecology of ideas, some ideas are more successful than others. This is not to say that such ideas are necessarily better. Rather it is to say that such ideas are more popular and exert greater influence than less successful ones. For example, in the ecology of ideas concerning agriculture, the idea of an industrialized agriculture has been more successful than the idea of subsistence farming. To understand why this is the case requires an analysis of the conditions that allowed this idea to become dominant. Once this occurs one can make informed judgments about these conditions as well as the moral implications of these dominant ideas. For example, if the success of an idea is based on deception, or coercion, or if the idea perpetuates violence, then it is likely that it should be rejected. If we can teach students to think about why they think a certain way, and to understand the consequences of thinking in this way, they will no longer be passive observers of nature. Rather, they will be active participants in a nature which encompasses their thoughts and actions. It is through this type of education that students will become ecologically responsible citizens.

Unfortunately, I don't know how to develop an ecology of mind, let alone teach it. Nevertheless, this concept provides a theoretical framework for developing an education reform that is compatible with Green values. Through critical discourse we can develop an educational system that achieves this goal.

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