KatieKish

Systemic Education

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be education systems that contribute to the full meaning of being a person and help children connect with one another, places, values, and curiosity. Right now, the main drive of education is to prepare individuals for a place in the job market. Schools are rife with intelligent drop outs, bullying, compartmentalized learning, and the systemic disassociation of person from nature.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.


The theme of education is complex and multifaceted. Education came up in nearly all 150 interviews in varying ways. In this post I explore some of the participants’ views of education, discuss ways that education has changed during the process of modernization, and offer suggestions for immediate changes to education systems. These suggestions are based on an interview I conducted with Tim Grant, the founder and publisher of a magazine, Green Teacher.

In his speech-turned-book, John Taylor Gatto, a former schoolteacher who is now one of the top education commentators, said that it is “meaning, not disconnected facts” that humans seek (Gatto and Moore 2002, p. 72). And yet, our education system still focuses on these disconnected facts and prescriptive career paths, rather than developing meaningful cognitive relationships with ideas, histories, and practices.

As part of my research in PEI, I spoke with boat builders on the coast of PEI, who also work in Maryland. They devote their lives to traditional crafting of boats. One of the men involved with this work said

“education is failing children – we see high school students who want to come and work with us and they show up never having used a hammer and without the spatial skills to understand how things fit together”

He went on to tell a story about how one student came to work with them but had no physical skills, so his contribution was to create a 3D model of the boat on his computer. “This kid spent hours creating a model of a ship that we could all see in our heads. I’m not sure what the point was.”

City 1 expanded on the topic of education:

“The kid thing is a funny piece, I thought we’d have more push back. If you invest in kids they’re not going to contribute to the economy in a meaningful way until they’re older. We have action items – we invested in the kid’s Makerspace at the MUSEUM and we support the maker expo, and support discovery square which is focused on STEM for kids. There is a lot of programming like that which we support and it’s an investment into our future.

You shape your life on small instance, not big repetitive things.”

They went on to suggest that doing these formalized programs empowers kids, an idea supported by our Metcalf workshops. That empowerment doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to become a crafter as a profession, it means that it has given them confidence and the ability to control their environment and “it gives children the ability to unlock their world and activate problem solving” (City 1).

From a completely different angle, 100% of the preppers and homesteaders I spoke with participate in homeschooling. Some suggested this is because the school system was not equipping their children with the right kind of education, while others suggested that education is best internalized to continue to build a strong internal community.

City 2 added to this, arguing that there “is a big missing piece in the arts education world in Canada for those sorts of people [boat builders] … Wood working used to be about skill, but now it’s about doing frames for shed, not dovetailed latches.” This shift toward education focusing on utility was echoed by 7 other parents.

For most of humanity’s time on Earth, the process of learning was tied to life and relationships. People learned skills and routines through experience and their pattern of life. Education was not a process of preparation for life, it was a part of life’s journey. In modern society, the situation is almost entirely reversed. In 2010, Sir Ken Robinson, a world thought leader in education, released a provoking Ted Talk called “Changing Paradigms in Education.” In it he said:

“I believe we have a system of education that is modelled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it. I’ll give you some examples. Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines – ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. You know, we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?  It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture.”

Robinson’s talk points to an emerging sense that education is no longer fit for its purpose. He argues that the Enlightenment-bias towards abstract and deductive education have all contributed to an education system that stifles creativity. He is not the first person to acknowledge the idea that the severing of hand (technic education) and brain (academic education) detracts from well-rounded development of individuals; nor to argue that this was originally driven by the  functional requirements of the industrial revolution (Illich 1970; Sale 2017; Kropotkin 2014; Marx 1964; Morris 1883; Ruskin 1854).

Mass literacy and education create standardized ways of thinking and speaking. To this end, public education systems are an enormously important factor for the modernizing of a growth oriented political economy. Massimo D’Azeglio, an advocate of Italian unification, once famously commented in 1861 about the Risorgimento … that, ‘having made Italy, it was now necessary to make Italians’ – meaning the individual culture spread across Italy needed to be educated on how to be part of Italy. This was a main feature in the production of nations. Universalized education is a primary factor in nationalization of culture.

This may seem unproblematic, but only because I’ve framed it as the “nationalization of culture” instead of colonialism and cultural genocide. In my Ph.D. I left it at that for reasons I am not proud of today. This process should most certainly be linked to the many residential schools throughout Canada, that were still open until 1996. Residential schools and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada are a modern example of this process that demonstrates the horrors associated with colonizing efforts for cultural hegemony.

Capitalist modernization has inextricably linked economic growth to social processes – such as cultural genocide and standardized education. Education is focused on providing cultural norms and highly transferable skills for citizen-workers. It has become entirely instrumental in character and preparatory in function. Students within the system are focused on their individual success and the position they will fill at the end of their educational career. They are separated from relationships of family, community, place, and Canada’s bloody history. This leads to significant ‘choice’ in terms of deciding which occupational educational path one will take.

This process of education is upheld and engrained alongside a progressive rationalization and disenchantment of the world, first identified by Weber (1921), and more recently by various scholars (Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Berman 1982; Bettelheim 2010; Healy 2011; Landy and Saler 2009; Schroeder 1995). ‘Disenchantment’ is a cultural devaluation of myth and shared ontology in favour of an instrumental, scientific and goal-oriented culture.

While I would not suggest that the movement toward science-based decision making is a negative trend, an increase in rationalization increases the pervasiveness of the ‘world of things’ via innovation while contributing to the need and desire for experts in specific fields.

Scientific models and patterns of rationalization have functioned as powerful drivers of social and economic progress – not least through the development of technology. But that rationalization has come with a price. Science engenders an extraordinary capacity to intervene in the real world but undermines the shared ontology and meaning frameworks through which individuals understand how to act in that world. As the encompassing mythos generated in hearth cultures and later the religious high culture of the official Church recedes, the responsibility for shared and unitary orientations and modes of perception passes to the state. Informal processes of acculturation then give way to institutionalized processes of education.

For these reasons, education is very central to the processes of modernization.

‘’A society has emerged based on a high-powered technology and the expectancy of sustained economic growth, which requires both a mobile division of labour and sustained frequent and precise communication between strangers involving a sharing of explicit meaning, transmitted in a standard idiom and in writing when required. For a number of converging reasons, this society must be thoroughly exo-educational: each individual trained by specialists not just his own local group’

(Gellner 1988, p. 33)

Given the education system’s role in creating citizen-workers, it is potentially a powerful entry point for ecological economic change.

While the importance of alternative approaches to education is well-established (Beard and Wilson 2002; Gosen and Washbush 2004; Mezirow 1997, 2000; Snyder 2008) and has led to the reinvigoration of some movements (i.e.: homeschooling, forest schools), most kids are still taught in institutionalized settings. Critiques about institutional learning stand ground, but they don’t help most sympathetic teachers caught between their desire to provide more enriching education within the institution and the restricting rules and regulations of schools.

Grant argues that the role of progressive educators is to push the processes as much as possible and continue to show that kids learn better when they have freedom and are motivated to improve the world around them. He suggests four trends in Canadian environmental education that are potentially paving the way for better education – all of which making could tap into.

Trend One: Teaching Critical Thinking: Initially, environmental educators assumed if you told people about the problem and associated implications, they would change. This turned out not to be true and they may be driven to defend against such negative messages via consumption. In education, this is even more problematic because it needs to be expressed via a diversity of perspectives. One important way to ensure children and adults can wade through these opinions is with critical-thinking skills. 

Trend Two: Establishing a Love of Nature: David Sobel from Antioch University’s New England campus coined the phrase “no natural disaster before grade four” (1999, 27). This is for the same reason as above – these messages trigger fear and anxiety, not motivation for change. It is critically important to help develop a love of nature in young people. Once that love is established, the students are more likely to respond to natural harm in meaningful ways. This has led to a very recent trend called ‘forest kindergartens’, which are kindergartens where most of the children’s time is spent outdoors. This is reorienting a child’s relationship with nature, and their ability to perceive risks and safety.

Trend Three: Integrated Learning Programs: Recently, high schools in Canada began incorporating a new program called the Integrated Learning Program, in which students have the same one or two teachers throughout their entire year, rather than changing teachers for each subject. This has many benefits, especially for creative education practices given that this unties students from having to be in the school all day. Students in this program go on trips to places like provincial parks in the first week of September. This movement addresses the problem Gatto famously identified – that schools are inherently career-oriented and the end goal is to send kids to university. This orientation is a disservice to teenagers because it leads to a focus on memorization and a disservice to the environment as it perpetuates the cycle of consumption and capitalism.

In contrast, a canoe trip in the Algonquin Park teaches students about responsibility, problem-solving, teamwork and self-organization. Grant noticed the less academically inclined kids tended to shine the most. Students who participate in integrated learning programs perform better academically when they return to regular rotation because they return reinvigorated to learn. A similar research outcome is demonstrated in the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER)’s 1998 Closing the Achievement Gap.

Trend Four: Action Oriented Learning: There is an emerging awareness in education that only through action can kids learn about barriers, the skills of negotiation and the skills required to be a citizen. To do this, the role of action in education becomes very important. In traditional education, students learn, and then move on to the next thing. But environmental educators have realized that action must be central to education. When students learn about problems without a follow-up of applied action-items, they come away feeling apathetic and that the situation is hopeless. However, Grant has observed that when students are given the freedom to apply what they’ve learned and do something about a given situation, their minds open with possibilities.

In addition to these insights from Grant, in my research results I also saw a need for:

  • education that is focused on the long-view to establish an emotional relationship with the world
  • greater open-source education initiatives to create education that is accessible to all
  • greater role of mentors and relational learning.

While these connections were observational and not discussed with my participants, they represent primary topics of interest for future research. 

However, there is a challenge to new approaches to education. Pinker refers to the ‘escalator of reason’ as the intensifying application of rationality and knowledge in everyday life (Pinker 2012, 699). The escalator of reason is bolstered by increases in literacy, cosmopolitanism, and increasing rates of education, all of which is dependent on growth (Singer 1981; 2011). Understood as emerging from the progressive rationalisation of society, the escalator of reason creates the conditions for scientific progress that have resulted in significant increases in well-being and technological innovation (Pinker 2012). These were achieved by prioritizing rationality and modern institutions over religious dogma (Eliade 1987, 58, 23) and the coercive imposition of a national ‘high culture’ via the education system (Gellner 1983).

The progressive rationalization of society is a root cause of modern efficiency, problem solving, and maximization of resources (Grosby 2013; M. Weber 1921). A good example is the rationalization of food production. Making food from scratch was laborious and inefficient, at least by the standards of the mass market – fast food services make it efficient, predictable, and controllable while at the same time contributing to environmental degradation and a range of social and health issues. There are always trade-offs. Pre-modern food systems may have been associated with local or regional episodes of starvation and food-borne illness; but globally-integrated, manufactured and fast food systems have engendered an obesity epidemic, issues of food distribution, and a high ecological footprint (or, TW: industrial meat images, Hoofprint). The question comes back again to whether or not there is a ‘sweet spot’ for humanity. Can we use science to improve our systems without it having negative impacts on society? The question I am most concerned with, is the extent to which the escalator of reason may be, at least partially, independent of these other processes of rationalization.

Many urban Makers, especially those at the One of a Kind Show, entertained ostensibly anti-scientific views in relation to parapsychological phenomena such as ‘auras’ and the ‘spiritual cleansing’ of their gems. Conversely, PEI Makers were typically very well educated and scientifically literate. This might have to do with the level at which the Makers were involved in production. Urban Makers selling on Etsy tend to buy their materials online while rural Makers tend to procure their materials directly from the source, or trade directly with someone who does. For example, in describing her creation process a One of a Kind participant mentioned ordering her glass beads from a retailer in Vancouver while a PEI participant demonstrated to me her process of making her glass beads from sand, she said she “believe[s] is making as a holistic process from start to finish” and that she spends “more time making raw materials than actually making that final product” (PEI 6). The PEI participant is actively involved in the scientific changes involved in her production while the One of a Kind participant is removed from it. This is likely a function of rural Makers embeddedness in community; it seems to come part-in-parcel with a more holistic approach toward making.

While I did not explore this theme at length, my hope is that this is a space where society can figure out what is really needed and not needed so that science, reason, and rationality are not lost. I’ll continue with my example of health systems. Without continued funding, the current amount of scientific medical research could not continue. There is a question here about how much of that research must be done, how much could be reduced by changing other factors in society, and what hospitals require to function at the level they do now. 

It is conceivable that without capitalism, there could possibly be a loss of technological/social progress (reason/science) due to critical capacity for research and necessity for innovation. It is possible that there is a tipping point where many structures of medical infrastructure would fall apart. I would hope that there is a way to live a globally low energy lifestyle while still exploring the reaches of space – I don’t know if these are incompatible and would be part of future research into the tension between biocapacity and SDGs.

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