A Response to
from Holistic Education
"It is in doing
good that one becomes good;
I know of no practice more certain."
That we face ecological challenges, perhaps
even perils, seems generally accepted, if not widely acted upon.
Information about these challenges has been widespread for several
decades now, but very little behavior has changed to address them
positively. That education should play a vital role in meeting
these challenges or perils is less accepted. At most, it seems
to be considered as a "good" subject for education,
but not a "necessary" one (like algebra, which is required
by all students for graduation from high school). Holistic education,
however, has felt that learning how to live with and on our planet
is fundamentally important. Moreover, such learning (because it
needs to change behavior) must involve developing relationships
with and changing perceptions of nature. Holistic education has
also maintained that mainstream education is not geared for such
For the sake of argument, let us assume that
mainstream education did feel that ecology was a necessary subject
for study. Can education as it is normally practiced meet the
ecological challenge? Education, in the main, considers its job
to be the conveyance of information and the development of certain
academic skills (and for craft classes, certain craft skills).
The question has to be asked, "Is our ecology in peril because
we lack information or lack skills to act in more ecologically
responsible ways?" The answer is clearly, "no."
We have the knowledge and abilities to act less destructively,
but do not. Knowledge and behavior are not as linked as education
would like to believe.
What has been learned from several topics in
education concerning destructive or dangerous behavior has demonstrated
that simply having information about such behaviors does not significantly
alter them, or if it does, the alteration is generally only short-lived.
This has been seen with sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancy,
drug and alcohol education to prevent substance-abuse, and AIDS
education to prevent the spread of HIV. Students have time and
again demonstrated that they can take courses in these subjects,
pass tests to show they have absorbed the information, and then
act as though they knew nothing. Often, when they suffer the consequences
of acting in contradiction to their knowledge, they express surprise
that it happened to them.
This unfortunate track record does not mean
that education can't do anything. Behaviors or life-styles do
change, but they only change when mind-sets or consciousness are
changed. The question naturally follows, "What changes mind-sets
and/or consciousness, and how can education play a positive role
One thing that seems to change consciousness
is consciousness-expanding experiences, life-altering events,
epiphanies, "ah-ha" moments, etc., but these are usually
taken to be acts of fate or divine inspiration, and therefore
outside human control. They are certainly beyond the commonly
perceived purview of schools. Yet, there are a great many educational
establishments which are entirely based on giving students such
experiences. These are often outdoor-education establishments,
community service endeavors, career placements activities, adventure-travel
businesses, and many therapeutic establishments created to make
life-style changes. The success of these establishments should
be learned from, not ignored.
Other changes in consciousness are seen to
be the result of slow cultural change (a kind of attrition) taking
decades if not generations to occur, and usually occurring only
when the cost of change is relatively low. This has been seen
in attitudes towards slavery (which changed faster in the North
where the cost of doing away with it was lower than in the South),
women's rights (which history seems to indicate gained recognition
when women were needed to replace men in the workforce during
the world wars) and children's rights (but only when child-labor
was no longer needed), etc. If the cost of change is high, and/or
the time in which the needed change must occur is short, the cultural-attrition
method of change is clearly inadequate.
Holistic education has long contended that
some things can only be truly learned through experience, while
other things can only be learned through intellectualizing. We
can really only learn to ride a bicycle through the experience
of riding one, whereas no experience can teach us the distance
from Jupiter to the sun which we can only derive intellectually.
Both forms of learning have their place, and holistic education
claims that great confusion and 'mis-learning' occurs when the
wrong kind of learning is applied to a subject; i.e., one could
never learn to ride a bicycle from reading books about it. Holistic
education claims that such an application of the wrong kind of
learning is just what occurs in many subjects in much mainstream
education because mainstream schools are really only geared for
the conveyance of information, not experiences. Ecology is one
such subject (other subjects are 'character education' and 'values
education' - no one develops character or values by reading about
them or discussing them).
The question naturally follows, "What
kinds of experiences of nature might provide some assistance in
meeting the ecological challenge?" At one end of a spectrum
of experiences of nature we might consider that of a young person
who is being forced to mow the lawn, and perhaps at the other
end the experience of a young person discovering the beauty and
wonder of some natural setting. Not all experiences of nature
are the same. The kind of experience of nature that might provide
a real change in behavior towards nature is one that changes a
person's relationship with nature. Such an experience might be
one of beauty, awe and wonder (which many people report as generating
a sense of transcendence) or it might be a simple act of caring
for something in nature and feeling the 'rightness' of such action.
What is important is the relationship to nature, and this seems
to have bearing on our relationship to others and even ourselves.
If you are in harmony with nature, with
all the things around you, then you are in harmony with all
human beings. If you have lost your relationship with nature
you will inevitably lose your relationship with human beings.
- J. Krishnamurti
Holistic education has contended that the motives
for our actions are important for us to pay attention to and learn
about. If a student is having experiences of caring for nature
and acting ecologically for the sake of grades, then such actions
are just another form of self-centeredness, and nature, yet again,
is being exploited for personal gain. The invisible lesson (to
exploit nature for personal gain) is in direct contradiction to
the intended lesson. This same invisible lesson is often the one
that is learned when students hear ecological messages which emphasize
that we need to save the rain forests, rivers and lakes, the ozone
layer, etc. because we as humans will suffer from their degradation.
Such messages keep self-interest at the center of concern. From
such messages it would follow that if the degradation of something
in nature did not cause human suffering, it would be alright.
Yet this is the very relationship with nature that has caused
the ecological crisis. We thought our pollution and depletion
of natural resources would not cause us problems, only to find
years or decades later that it does. How then can we help young
people (and older ones for that matter) have relationships with
nature that do not end up contributing to the very ecological
problems we need to solve?
Holistic education has long asked fundamental
questions about the relationships we have, as individuals and
in the collective. If the 'self' or the 'me' has preeminent importance,
then relationships with everything (spouses, family, friends,
neighbors, society, etc.) are necessarily mediated by self-interest,
and the closest one can get to care or cooperation with something
else is mutual self-interest. Yet every religion and every traditional
wisdom has the diminution of the 'I' or 'self' as a foundation.
'Selflessness' is universally seen as a hallmark of good parents
and spouses, as well as a virtue that allows substantive relationship
with friends, contact with whatever is considered sacred, and,
when actualized in larger settings, creates heroes or even saints.
This is one of the reasons why self-knowledge is given such importance
in holistic education. Without understanding ourselves, and the
wrongful preeminence we often give to ourselves, we can never
have rightful relationships to anyone or anything else, and that
Of course, children must acquire information
about the environment and about the dangers currently posed by
our relationship to nature. Children must also have a variety
of experiences of taking care of nature, not for any secondary
reward but simply for the intrinsic reward of doing so. Children
must also have experiences of the grandeur of nature, of nature
as an expression of something much larger and more significant
than themselves. And throughout these experiences of service and
wonder, children must be encouraged to ask questions about themselves
and what might be a 'right' relationship to others and to nature.
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is to bring about an integrated individual who is capable
of dealing with
life as a whole.
"a touchstone for all those...who dare to believe that
education, in the fullest and deepest sense of that word, can
lead to the awakening of true human intelligence."