Educating Citizens for an Ecological Age
Moving from a Deconstructive
to a Constructive Postmodern
Vision of Ecological Civilization
Two Essays by Paul Custodio Bube
The Challenge of Educating Citizens for Ecological Civilization
Paul Custodio Bube
Early Approaches to Educating Citizens:
Education has long been associated with preparing students to become responsible citizens who can become the next generation of society’s leaders. In western culture, Plato and Aristotle helped establish the foundation for a form of education that we call the liberal arts. Their vision of education was embodied in the schools they founded: Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. When Plato and Aristotle were teaching and writing, philosophy was not a separate academic discipline taught alongside other disciplines such as biology, ethics, and politics. Rather, philosophy was simply the “love of wisdom” that incorporated all disciplines into a broad and integrated understanding of all types of learning that were aimed at the common good. The main character in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, is depicted as the one thinker who sought the love of wisdom, in contrast to other teachers, which Plato called “sophists,” who sought to teach students how to sway the general public in order to get elected, and advance their personal careers and quest for power. In other words, the sophists were teachers who sold their skills and knowledge both for their personal gain and for the gain of their students. For Plato, what made Socrates the ideal teacher was that he taught with no thought of personal gain and without charging his students, so that his students would learn the wisdom necessary to help the polis (the city) become more just. Any cursory reading of Plato’s Republic illustrates that justice exists when proper harmony is achieved. And the way one learns proper harmony is by a holistic education that involves physical, moral, spiritual, and intellectual inquiry. In short, education for Plato was, in terms of curriculum, holistic and integrated, in terms of purpose, it aimed to create wise and virtuous citizens who place the common good and justice above private interest, and-in terms of pedagogy, it employed a dialogical and collaborative method.
Aristotle expanded upon Plato’s understanding of education in his school, the Lyceum. Aristotle’s breadth of study was much wider than what is hinted at in Plato’s dialogues, for it included the empirical sciences along with epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Similar to Plato, Aristotle believed that all arts and sciences should ultimately serve the goal of the higher arts, the highest of which is politics, the science whose purpose or end “will include the ends of the others [sciences], and will therefore be the human end” (Nicomachean Ethics Book I, chapter 2). Put differently, all approaches to learning are ultimately related to each other in their service to the common good in society. Aristotle’s school, the Lyceum, seems to have embodied Aristotle’s ideal of learning and serving in community. Like Plato, Aristotle understood justice as the central virtue for achieving the common good of the polis. Justice was seen as a kind of harmony among citizens as well as the internal harmony of the person with his/her true nature. Interestingly, the organization of the Lyceum reflected a practical model of just relations. Although Aristotle was the leading scholar of the Lyceum, the actual governance and administration of the school was shared among the students, with administrative responsibilities rotating among the students every ten days (Lynch 82). Aristotle viewed his teaching role as “first among equals,” and treated research and learning as cooperative endeavors. Members of the Lyceum addressed each other as “friend” (philos in Greek)—a term Aristotle uses in Nicomachean Ethics to refer to the close relationship that is sometimes achieved among people of comparable social status. Indeed, Nicomachean Ethics treats friendship as one of the highest virtues necessary to happiness (Books VIII & IX). For the students and scholars of the Lyceum to call each other “friend” is all the more surprising since students from all sorts of social classes, including slaves, were admitted. They were not charged by the Lyceum, but they did have to support themselves. Poor students – presumably not eligible for citizenship since they did not own property – often worked at nights to take care of their housing, food, and related needs (Lynch 79). This social arrangement of the school apparently promoted a dialogical method of teaching, possibly reflecting the influence of Plato although dialogues were probably not as vigorous (Lynch 76-77). In addition, the Lyceum was physically situated in a public location of Athens that made it “an integral part of daily life of the city” (Lynch 78), which suggests that it was both its own “polis” or city of scholars, and also served as a visible example to Athens of what the polis could be.
Many scholars have pointed out the similarities between the educational philosophy and pedagogy of Kong Fuzi with Plato and Aristotle. For Kong Fuzi, the purpose of education had been to nurture the wisdom and virtues necessary for a harmonious and just society. The Analects of Kong Fuzi reflect a dialogical pedagogy not unlike that found in Plato’s dialogues and descriptions of Aristotle’s Lyceum. In a paper entitled, “Pedagogy of Political Education in Confucian Analects: A Critical Perspective,” Wenli Yu describes the Analects as a
Master-disciple dialogue, [in which] Confucius usually raised a question, encourage[d] the disciples to provide … satisfactory answers. Or, when the disciples asked questions, instead of providing direct answers, Confucius answered back with a rhetorical question by analogical evocation, [designed] to encourage the disciples to answer his question … himself. (5)
Although later followers may have enshrined Kong Fuzi’s sayings in the Analects as doctrines, when read properly they are invitations to reflect, discuss, and ask further questions. Moreover, similar to Plato and Aristotle, the content of Kong Fuzi’s teachings promote development of virtue and character rather than memorizing information. Education is meant to help a person become a noble man, junzi, a person who is educated in the liberal arts. Interdisciplinary understanding is important to gaining wisdom. The heart of this education is cultivating and strengthening relationships; which in turn serves the building of the wider society as a place of justice and harmony.
My contention is that these three classical thinkers shared a common wisdom that has largely been lost in the modern age. That wisdom suggests that education has several interrelated dimensions. To name four dimensions that are relevant to our discussion:
Modern Education for Ecological Civilization: “Case Study”:
These dimensions of classical education stand in stark contrast to modern education which is characterized by the Enlightenment idea of harnessing and controlling nature along with the related rise of free market capitalism that values the exploitation of nature to satisfy an increasing appetite for consumption. These features of modern education have pushed the ideal of citizenship away from harmony and justice for the common good to competition and political power to serve one’s self interests. Consequently, the modern approach to educating citizens is training students how to acquire techniques and information that promote exploitation of nature and society in order to supply a voracious appetite for consumption that is fundamentally opposed to a sustainable, just, and ecologically responsible society for all.
I am not suggesting that we can or should try to return in a simplistic way to classical education. There are certainly aspects of the nature of society and the common good that classical thinkers did not appreciate or could not have appreciated in their time and situation. They had no way to foresee the possibility of global climate change. And, of course, many of their views are not only outdated, some are even harmful, such as their acceptance of slavery, the inequalities among classes, and their patriarchal assumption that women are inferior to men. I am suggesting that education does need to recover an interdisciplinary and dialogical method, cultivate moral, spiritual, physical, and aesthetic virtues appropriate to an ecological civilization, and thereby aim to nurture citizens who can create and live in an ecological civilization that is, as Jay McDaniel puts it, “creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying with no one left behind” (McDaniel).
How then, might we recapture the best of the ancient wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, and Kong Fuzi and redirect it toward educating citizens for an ecological civilization? I wish I could present a successful model of how we might educate citizens for an ecological civilization, however, the best I have to offer is a story of an attempt about 20 years ago to create such a model that did not succeed to reach even rudimentary implementation. However, I believe that reflecting on this story does suggest some lessons that may be beneficial to those committed to continuing the quest for education for ecological civilization.
In the 1990s I served on the faculty of a small liberal arts college called Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas. The college has historical ties to the Land Institute, an agricultural research center dedicated to creating ecologically sustainable agriculture in a prairie environment. The co-founder of the Land Institute, Wes Jackson, is a graduate of the college, and had once served on the biology faculty before founding the Land Institute. Wes was a frequent speaker at our convocations, and began challenging us to think about how to change the way higher education is being done in the United States. He was not using the term “ecological civilization” at that time, but the heart of his message was that higher education in America was educating students to succeed in a culture of consumption that was fundamentally opposed to environmental and economic sustainability. American colleges, he argued, build walls between academic disciplines, even in liberal arts colleges, thereby creating the impression that there is no overarching goal or value outside the aims and knowledge provided in one’s chosen academic field. Higher education markets itself to students by promising to help them make much more money in their lifetime than they could make if they did not go to college. More income means more ability to consume and to achieve one’s self-interests. Colleges, he said, make rural and small town students dissatisfied with their lives, and indoctrinate them with the belief they need to seek the “greener pastures” (irony intended) of living in large cities to work in big corporations, where they can make enough money to afford to consume lots of “stuff” that they are taught to desire. In fact, students who would prefer to live in rural towns are made to feel inferior, lacking proper ambition, and “wasting their education.” In short, higher education, promotes and furthers an individualistic culture and a social system that is economically, ecologically, and spiritually unsustainable.
Some of us on the faculty at Kansas Wesleyan saw the truth in Wes’s critique of higher education, and began meeting with Wes with the goal of rethinking and reforming liberal arts education by forming a partnership between the college and that Land Institute that would help create citizens for what now is known as “ecological civilization.” We met on and off for about a year, as I recall. We spent many of those meetings discussing all that was wrong in higher education. Then we talked about curriculum changes that might be made to address those problems. For example, we talked about adding required courses that would address the problems we saw; sending our students to the Land Institute as undergraduate interns; and creating a minor or major in ecological sustainability. In spite of a shared conviction that modern college education needed to be transformed, we did not succeed in bringing about any of the changes we entertained. Eventually, our meetings became less frequent and our enthusiasm dwindled, and we went back to our regular classes. The most positive change that came about was that most of us began incorporating into our classes more reading and discussion of the issues we had been talking about. (For example, I changed the textbook in my Introduction to Ethics class to Ian Barbour’s book, Ethics in an Age of Technology.)
It has bothered and puzzled me since that time about what mistakes we may have made that kept us from making more significant changes than adjusting the syllabi in some of our courses. Upon reflection I have concluded that there are three major mistakes that we made:
First, like many academics, we were a lot better at talking about what has been wrong in our educational system than in imagining creative solutions to the problems. I believe that part of our inability to imagine creative solutions was due, in part, to our own graduate school training which came out of the modern university model of specialization in and separation of academic disciplines. In addition to Wes, two of the participants in our meetings were biologists, one was a mathematician, and one, myself, a Christian ethicist. It was, and still is, difficult to get out of our disciplinary “silos.” Our best “solutions” were all built upon the model of adding courses to the college curriculum, as if the real problem was that our college lacked an academic discipline that could compete with other disciplines, such as biology, math, religion, etc.
Second, our dialogue about both the problems in and solutions for higher education left out many of the stakeholders who were affected by the problems and who could help in imagining solutions. We were talking about changes in education that would contribute to the common good of our community. We recognized that partnership between the Land Institute and the college would be mutually enriching for both our institutions and also for the wider community. But we failed to invite members of the wider community into the dialogue! I wonder how much further we might have gotten if some of the local business people and government representatives had been present? And of course, we neglected to invite students into the process. I suspect we were working under the modern assumption that we, as teachers, knew better what they needed. But not only were they important stakeholders, they also likely had novel and fresh perspectives that could have led us forward.
Third, I would argue that we partially misdiagnosed the problem of modernity as largely one of urbanization and the abandonment of rural life. If that is the problem, then to the extent that education is to play a role in addressing the problem, education must be aimed at persuading students to live in rural communities—whether they (and their professors) came from those communities or not. This is, I believe, a false dichotomy between rural and urban life that simplistically negates any value in urban existence rather than considers ways that urban existence could be transformed to be more ecologically and economically sustainable. Moreover, the denigration of urban life left our committee with a quandary: how could a college set in the heart of a city seriously promote an education aimed at persuading students to leave an urban life for a rural life? Although this quandary was not explicitly articulated, I believe it was part of the reason our efforts to change education was stymied. In retrospect, I have become convinced that urban life is not necessarily the primary problem preventing creating an ecological civilization, rather the problem is how we organize and structure urban life. Our committee had recognized that modern agriculture (in the form of corporate factory farms, mono-cultural planting, use of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, feedlots, etc.) was harmful to environmental and economic sustainability, and thus the agricultural paradigm needed to be transformed. We should have also recognized that modern cities (in the form of pollution, carbon emissions, gridlocked traffic, etc.) also needed to be transformed rather than abandoned.
What Can Be Learned from Ancient Wisdom?
I believe the pitfalls that our committee encountered might have benefited from some of the dimensions of educational wisdom that we saw in Plato, Aristotle, and Kong Fuzi. Because of the limits on time, I will list a few ideas, and we can use these as a starting point in our dialogue together about educating citizens for ecological civilization.
The committee members from our college were hampered in imagining new ways to approach educating citizens for ecological civilization because we were stuck in the paradigm of fitting that education into the disciplinary model of American higher education. Plato, Aristotle, and Kong Fuzi understood education as primarily interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. In American colleges today implementing an interdisciplinary model is difficult. Team teaching courses with professors from diverse disciplines has potential to bring the classical insights into today’s context. However, many college administrators balk at this option because of the financial costs involved, especially the idea of paying two professors to teach one class. However, colleges might consider a model I once observed at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, where some of the required courses were taught in pairs, with course A being taught at 9 a.m. and course B at 10 a.m., and the two professors from different disciplines had the freedom to integrate their disciplines over the two hour period. This did save the school money, but involved a larger time commitment from the professors.
In my experience in Kansas, we left out of our conversations important stakeholders from the discussions about how we could change education to better serve ecological and economic sustainability. Our conversations were themselves a type of self-education which was well suited to dialogical learning. Including local businesses, government, and students in this dialogue would probably have helped raise critical questions and opened us up to novel ways of transforming the way we were doing education. I believe that including these other voices in the conversation would also have helped us to recognize our misdiagnosis of the relationship between rural and urban life, and could have helped us imagine new ways to conceive of the rural-urban relationship. I suspect that if we had involved more people in our dialogue, our dialogue would not have died out so easily. I do not think it is an accident that the collaborative and dialogical schools founded Plato, Aristotle, and Kong Fuzi had the creative dynamic that allowed their educational heritage to last and develop well beyond their own expectations.
Let me close by saying that the conversations among some of the faculty at Kansas Wesleyan University and Wes Jackson did represent, in a positive way, one of the key insights of the classical wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, and Kong Fuzi: we recognized that education has never been a value free endeavor; it should ultimately aim to nurture responsible citizens who recognize that we are inextricably social beings that find fulfillment in serving the common good of society. For today, that means educating students to live in an ecological civilization that is “creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying with no one left behind” (McDaniel).
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated and edited by Roger Crisp. Cambridge University Press. 2000. Accessed at The Library of Congress, http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99036947.pdf.
Beck, Martha. Tragedy and the Philosophical Life: Protagoras v. 1. The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd. 2006.
Howes, George Edwin. “Homeric Quotations in Plato and Aristotle.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 6, (1895), pp. 153-237. Published by: Department of the Classics, Harvard University. Article DOI: 10.2307/310358. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/310358
Lynch, John Patrick. Aristotle’s School: A Study of a Greek Educational Institution. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1972.
McDaniel, Jay. “Thinking in a Whiteheadian Mode.” Accessed at http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/thinking-in-a-whiteheadian-mode.html. Accessed April 18, 2014.
Yu, Wenli. “Pedagogy of Political Education in Confucian Analects: A Critical Perspective.” Paper given in Honolulu, HW at 38th Annual Philosophy of Education Conference of Australasia, December 6, 2009. Accessed at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~pesaconf/Sun.html.
Constructive Post-Modern Vision of Ecological Society
Paul Custodio Bube, Ph.D.
When I studied Marxism in college and graduate school, it was taught as a form of deconstructive post-modernism. Marx’s hermeneutic was viewed as a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” that is, the common understandings of social phenomena should not be interpreted at face value, but should be interpreted as hiding destructive realities that need to be unmasked. For example, Marx’s hermeneutic of suspicion says that religion is not really about experiencing the true meaning of the universe, it is the opiate of the people; government is not really a means of helping bring well-being to civil society, it is an instrument of the capitalist bourgeoisie to maintain power and privilege; public education is not about freeing the mind to discover truth, but is really a form of indoctrination to help proletarian children believe that the inequalities of their class are rooted in human nature rather than the result of oppression; etc. The positive side of this hermeneutic of suspicion is that when these cultural and social structures are deconstructed, the masses would be able to recognize their oppression and rise up to establish justice and equality.
Except for positive goal of establishing justice and equality, I do think much of Marx’s analysis represents a deconstructive post-modernism. However, the recognition of the ecological crisis facing the world today has introduced a new dimension into what it means to create a society that is characterized by justice and equality. The global environmental crisis challenges us to extend the meaning of justice and equality: How can we truly talk of justice if it does not include justice to future generations? That is, justice should ensure that future generations will have a world at least as good as the world we received from our parents. What is equality if it does include equitable treatment of the peoples of all nations, and, just as important, equitable treatment of the non-human world, that is, fair treatment of the environment itself?
In this new situation, we don’t need a post-modern deconstructive analysis, we need a constructive post-modern vision of the future. This vision is what we call an ecological civilization. To move forward for the constructive post-modern philosophy championed by those of us who have been shaped by Whitehead’s philosophy is not to forget or ignore the wisdom of the past. Indeed, for Whitehead, to truly move forward happens through creative transformation. Transformation of what? The best options that we have learned from past experience and tradition. The future of ecological civilization necessarily includes within it the past, and creative transformation toward a better future draws upon the best of our past.
I suggest we must draw creatively upon the wisdom we have gained from our personal and collective experience. Much of the wisdom of our collective experience can be found in the wisdom traditions of our past. In the US, those traditions include Western religions (Judaism and Christianity), classical Greek philosophy (especially Plato and Aristotle), as well the tradition of human rights found in thinkers like Locke and the ideals of the French Revolution.
As a foreigner, I cannot speak with authority about the wisdom traditions of China that could serve as a basis for the creative transformation of China as it becomes an ecological civilization. However, it seems to me that the wisdom traditions of Kung Fuzi, Laozi, Buddhism, as well as the justice tradition of Marx would be a good place to begin. In light of the environmental crisis, we can find in these traditions key ingredients of an ecological civilization.
As a brief and necessarily incomplete example of how constructive post-modernism might begin interpreting the wisdom traditions of China in moving toward an ecological civilization, I suggest we consider what we can learn from Kung Fuzi and Laozi, and Buddhism: whole person education, the importance of family and community relationships in finding fulfillment and happiness, the interdependence of all that exists—nonhuman as well as human, and the deep need for kindness and compassion. From Marxism, we can learn about fulfilment and well-being that comes from all forms of labor, and the ideal of justice and equality based upon need rather than ownership, how justice and equality can extend to future generations as well as to all of our planet which desperately needs a constructive, post-modern, ecological civilization.
In summary, I understand the creative transformation of the best of China’s wisdom traditions to move forward to an ecological civilization to include: empowerment of individuals, families, and local communities; ensuring justice for future generations; and equitable treatment of all the human and non-human world