“Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding, or aesthetic appreciation. A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live.
“We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that ‘spiritual ‘autism.’”
Thomas Berry, Human Presence from The Dream of the Earth
Children are inheriting a devastating time and a planet which threatens to become unbearable by mid-century. Our education is already 50 years out of date because it is based on the old model of civilization, that of industrialization, division, colonialism and globalization. Today the biggest division is that between the human species and the rest of the planet. A novel paradigm, not just one that compartmentalizes, but that understands entire systems, has to be created, one with values that sustain the whole human being in the context of the entire biosphere, while examining the glaring realities of the new geologic challenges we face as a species.
Already in England, where the Extinction Rebellion began, there have been protests for an overhaul of education as we know it. Joe, all of 17 years old, is the founder of Teach the Future, who is calling for an environmental recalibration of education. The group, jointly run by the UK Student Climate Network, who orchestrated the student climate marches, demand big changes from the government because big changes are upon us in this entirely new era called the Anthropocene.
The idea to overhaul the education system came of all places, from right here at home, in the United States. Joe’s idea originates from the 1958 U.S. National Defense Education Act, which was meant to kickstart math, science and engineering to give America an advantage over the Russians in the space race. It succeeded and America landed on the moon. But with an unequivocal race to fight a global pandemic and to adapt to a changing biosphere, it is time to focus not just on hard math, science and technology, but sustainability and the climate. He believes that people his age want and need “to understand more about climate change and what’s behind it, the issues of justice…and the politics behind it.”
Many schools are sympathetic but are constrained by limited budgets and an antiquated exam system which places so much pressure on students. In England, science and geography have been introduced in the national curriculum. It is time the U.S. follows suit. “It is vital that students are taught about climate change,” says Joe. Italy will be the first country to make learning about climate change compulsory, with lessons built into civics classes.
The idea that we need a novel way to address who we are as a species in relation to the biosphere is not new. Long ago, back in 1925, Teilhard de Chardin, the great French thinker, saw the future of evolution in the growth of a converging planetary human consciousness. He thought that at some point the noosphere, the whole of the human mind, would become one mind and love would be the instigating force. It would be as if we had “discovered fire for the second time.” Little could he have expected that the threat of nuclear war and a radical exfoliation of the environment could unravel any prospect of transcendence he had in mind a century ago. Nevertheless, he was an optimist. The prospect lay in the individuals working in a greater collectivity, not as individuals alone who would apply the greater energy of that effort to “build the earth.” How de Chardin would react to today’s mayhem is anyone’s guess but he would certainly have encouraged the parochially competitive, commercialized and highly utilitarian functions of modern schools to think wider and farther. de Chardin’s cosmos would have directed us to see the entire reach of the universe as a story, and in its evolution to teach humility before the great sweep of biological evolution.
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Joe in England would have appreciated this especially since he notes that many of the top executives in England and America and indeed so many heads of the modern world, the heads of coal and gas companies and bankers, went to the top schools. While they don’t lack savvy, and intelligence, many who base their decisions on profit and growth, do demonstrably evince an arrogance not befitting our species in this immensely fragile time on Earth.
Holistic thinking is sorely lacking at Monsanto, Exxon, Shell and of all places, at the EPA right now. While holistic thinkers and holistic educators do not create more soldiers and profiteers for the capitalist machine, they would inspire children to be members of something much larger than the self. A planetary civics course in schools worldwide is needed as never before. As children, the qualities of tolerance, magnanimity, and responsibility would be shown to be virtues and the building blocks for a larger horizon. In later years students would build from this foundation in whatever fields were chosen from science to economics, to philosophy to ecology. Having divorced education from ethics we have failed childhood. Especially in a time when the biosphere is crying out for adults to finally be responsible to life in all its forms.
Our contemporary Neil Postman, author of “Technopoly” in 1992, whom I had the honor of meeting at NY University, emphasizes that the U.S. is being remiss in its duties of being a true civilization. He says that America, “is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.” Economic utility, consumership, technology are the new gods, “gods that have failed.” He insists that in these limited visions of our society we fail as stewards of the Earth. He suggests getting rid of textbooks and have science teachers teach English, art teachers teach science, to cure us of the itch for “absolute knowledge,” because such knowledge will not cure us of our arrogance, especially with regards to how we relate to the planet. Postman wanted us to accept our imperfect knowledge. In “The End of Education,” Postman urges the study of archeology, anthropology and astronomy. The first would instill “a preciousness of the earth, and a sense of the continuity of humanity’s sojourn on earth.” The second would inspire an understanding of humanity’s diversity and astronomy would hopefully “cultivate a sense of awe, interdependence and global responsibility.” Postman is dead set against the prescriptive type of education which has been the norm for generations, one in which the aims, purposes and goals are pre-established for students, rather than having the goals personalized for each student.
Thomas Berry, a student of de Chardin’s, realized the deep need for an ecological understanding of man’s place on Earth. Berry felt that, "A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed” as never before because of the crisis of the biosphere. Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community.” A larger curriculum in which we create a “green” understanding of humanity, the rise and fall of civilization according to how they treated the Earth, seeing civilization’s key texts and art works in relation to the larger environment is what Arnold Toynbee, perhaps the pre-eminent historian of history even envisaged in his last magnum opus “Mankind and Mother Earth” from 1976. We have had our scientific-technologic moment, we have passed that stage, says Berry. Now we need an Ecological Age. Or else we won’t survive.
In this plague time when colleges are juggling how to restore confidence in the education system, fearful of contagion and wondering about the virtues or not of virtual learning, there will be no way of “guiding the course of human affairs through the perilous course of the future except by discovering our role in this larger evolutionary process,” says Berry. The eagerness and urgency Berry envisioned is one in which students need to embrace, and “feel that they are participating in one of the most significant ventures ever to take place in the entire history of the planet.” Beyond grades, beyond degrees, beyond even job placement.
Berry hoped students could seize education as an existential duty towards the planet.
It is what Greta Thunberg is exhorting the young to assume, to march, to take a stand against planetary loss. It is what Joe is wishing for — an entirely new ecological framework for education, students as planetary citizens. It is a way of engaging that has to happen this decade. As Berry exclaimed, “The most difficult transition to make is from an anthropocentric to a biocentric norm of progress. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress. Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of human life itself.”
It is time the environment becomes the foundation of a much broader engagement with the world, because the world is now in peril. Children worldwide have marched in solidarity and told the adults in plain language that they have failed. Adults now have to create the framework for a much larger rationale for why they live on planet Earth at this unique time. The same with the larger society — energy systems, agriculture, transportation and judicial systems — everything. To study, and act consequently as if the planet’s future were fueling young people’s’ hearts, minds and souls. Which is ultimately to engage and salvage and honor this Earth that is our home. Give the students an assignment —how do we save the planet? Learn not just history, but work to make posterity possible. Make yourself consonant with the Earth in this enormous time. While we still are able to inhabit it.
“The planet Earth in its present mode of florescence is being devastated. This devastation is being fostered and protected by legal, political, and economic establishments that exalt the human community while offering no protection to the non-human modes of being. There is an urgent need for a Jurisprudence (system of governance) that recognizes that the well-being of the integral world community is primary, and that human well being is derivative.”
“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.