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2000-06: "What is education for?"by David Orr

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  • N. Sivasothi
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      Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

      A highly recommended read; hence reproduced here in its entirety.

      The commencement address for the Graduating Class
      of Arkansas College, U. S. A., 1990:


      by Professor David Orr
      Chair, Environmental Studies Programme,
      Oberlin College, Ohio

      "Six myths about the foundations of modern education,
      and six new principles to replace them"

      -- 'We are accustomed to thinking of learning as good in and of
      itself. But as environmental educator David Orr reminds us, our
      education up till now has in some ways created a monster.'
      -- 'This essay is adapted from his commencement address to the
      graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas College. It prompted many to
      wonder why such speeches are made at the end, rather than the
      beginning, of the collegiate experience.'

      Originally published in IN CONTEXT #27, Winter 1991, Page 52
      Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute
      Reprinted from Annals of Earth, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1990.


      by David Orr

      If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of
      rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles
      to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and
      overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the
      number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000.
      And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere
      and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter,
      its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

      The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity
      depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and
      productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and
      biological diversity.

      It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is,
      rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and
      PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last
      winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust
      were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the
      best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an
      adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In
      Wiesel's words: "It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather
      than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of
      questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."

      The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think
      about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the
      only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time
      could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading. My
      point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or
      wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems.
      This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth
      of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human
      survival - the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the
      1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a
      certain kind.


      What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education? There is some
      insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe's Faust, who trades his soul for
      knowledge and power; Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses to take
      responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, who says
      "All my means are sane, my motive and object mad." In these characters we
      encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature.

      Historically, Francis Bacon's proposed union between knowledge and power
      foreshadows the contemporary alliance between government, business, and
      knowledge that has wrought so much mischief. Galileo's separation of the
      intellect foreshadows the dominance of the analytical mind over that part
      given to creativity, humor, and wholeness. And in Descartes' epistemology,
      one finds the roots of the radical separation of self and object. Together
      these three laid the foundations for modern education, foundations now
      enshrined in myths we have come to accept without question. Let me suggest

      First, there is the myth that ignorance is a solvable problem. Ignorance is
      not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human
      condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of
      some form of ignorance. In 1930, after Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered CFCs,
      what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance became a critical,
      life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the biosphere. No one
      thought to ask "what does this substance do to what?" until the early 1970s,
      and by 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of the ozone layer
      worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased; but like the
      circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as well.

      A second myth is that with enough knowledge and technology we can manage
      planet Earth. "Managing the planet" has a nice a ring to it. It appeals to
      our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons and dials. But the
      complexity of Earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The
      ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its
      relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere.

      What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics, and
      communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid the hard
      choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense. It makes
      far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt
      to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.

      A third myth is that knowledge is increasing and by implication human
      goodness. There is an information explosion going on, by which I mean a
      rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be
      taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily by
      measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing
      while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed
      out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as
      systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge
      is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and
      genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas
      of inquiry. We still lack the the science of land health that Aldo Leopold
      called for half a century ago.

      It is not just knowledge in certain areas that we're losing, but vernacular
      knowledge as well, by which I mean the knowledge that people have of their
      places. In the words of Barry Lopez:

      "[I am] forced to the realization that something strange, if not dangerous,
      is afoot. Year by year the number of people with firsthand experience in the
      land dwindles. Rural populations continue to shift to the cities.... In the
      wake of this loss of personal and local knowledge, the knowledge from which
      a real geography is derived, the knowledge on which a country must
      ultimately stand, has come something hard to define but I think sinister and

      In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that learning
      will make us better people. But learning, as Loren Eiseley once said, is
      endless and "In itself it will never make us ethical [people]." Ultimately,
      it may be the knowledge of the good that is most threatened by all of our
      other advances. All things considered, it is possible that we are becoming
      more ignorant of the things we must know to live well and sustainably on the

      A fourth myth of higher education is that we can adequately restore that
      which we have dismantled. In the modern curriculum we have fragmented the
      world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines. As a
      result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate
      without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences
      for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely
      produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This
      explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of
      biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and
      resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale
      of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels
      of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education,
      we've fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.

      Fifth, there is a myth that the purpose of education is that of giving you
      the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton once identified
      this as the "mass production of people literally unfit for anything except
      to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade." When asked
      to write about his own success, Merton responded by saying that "if it so
      happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident,
      due to inattention and naivet´┐Ż, and I would take very good care never to do
      the same again." His advice to students was to "be anything you like, be
      madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid
      one thing: success."

      The plain fact is that the planet does not need more "successful" people.
      But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers,
      storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live
      well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the
      fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to
      do with success as our culture has defined it.

      Finally, there is a myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human
      achievement: we alone are modern, technological, and developed. This, of
      course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a gross
      misreading of history and anthropology. Recently this view has taken the
      form that we won the cold war and that the triumph of capitalism over
      communism is complete. Communism failed because it produced too little at
      too high a cost. But capitalism has also failed because it produces too
      much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and
      grandchildren. Communism failed as an ascetic morality. Capitalism failed
      because it destroys morality altogether. This is not the happy world that
      any number of feckless advertisers and politicians describe. We have built a
      world of sybaritic wealth for a few and Calcuttan poverty for a growing
      underclass. At its worst it is a world of crack on the streets, insensate
      violence, anomie, and the most desperate kind of poverty. The fact is that
      we live in a disintegrating culture. In the words of Ron Miller, editor of
      Holistic Review:

      "Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human
      spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual
      sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or
      compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the
      economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of
      what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul."


      Measured against the agenda of human survival, how might we rethink
      education? Let me suggest six principles.

      First, all education is environmental education. By what is included or
      excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural
      world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of
      thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important
      ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the
      economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all
      of the curriculum.

      A second principle comes from the Greek concept of paideia. The goal of
      education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person. Subject
      matter is simply the tool. Much as one would use a hammer and chisel to
      carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one's own
      personhood. For the most part we labor under a confusion of ends and means,
      thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts,
      techniques, methods, and information into the student's mind, regardless of
      how and with what effect it will be used. The Greeks knew better.

      Third, I would like to propose that knowledge carries with it the
      responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. The results of a
      great deal of contemporary research bear resemblance to those foreshadowed
      by Mary Shelley: monsters of technology and its byproducts for which no one
      takes responsibility or is even expected to take responsibility. Whose
      responsibility is Love Canal? Chernobyl? Ozone depletion? The Valdez oil
      spill? Each of these tragedies were possible because of knowledge created
      for which no one was ultimately responsible. This may finally come to be
      seen for what I think it is: a problem of scale. Knowledge of how to do vast
      and risky things has far outrun our ability to use it responsibly. Some of
      it cannot be used responsibly, which is to say safely and to consistently
      good purposes.

      Fourth, we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects
      of this knowledge on real people and their communities. I grew up near
      Youngstown, Ohio, which was largely destroyed by corporate decisions to
      "disinvest" in the economy of the region. In this case MBAs, educated in the
      tools of leveraged buyouts, tax breaks, and capital mobility have done what
      no invading army could do: they destroyed an American city with total
      impunity on behalf of something called the "bottom line." But the bottom
      line for society includes other costs, those of unemployment, crime, higher
      divorce rates, alcoholism, child abuse, lost savings, and wrecked lives. In
      this instance what was taught in the business schools and economics
      departments did not include the value of good communities or the human costs
      of a narrow destructive economic rationality that valued efficiency and
      economic abstractions above people and community.

      My fifth principle follows and is drawn from William Blake. It has to do
      with the importance of "minute particulars" and the power of examples over
      words. Students hear about global responsibility while being educated in
      institutions that often invest their financial weight in the most
      irresponsible things. The lessons being taught are those of hypocrisy and
      ultimately despair. Students learn, without anyone ever saying it, that they
      are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between ideals and reality.
      What is desperately needed are faculty and administrators who provide role
      models of integrity, care, thoughtfulness, and institutions that are capable
      of embodying ideals wholly and completely in all of their operations.

      Finally, I would like to propose that the way learning occurs is as
      important as the content of particular courses. Process is important for
      learning. Courses taught as lecture courses tend to induce passivity. Indoor
      classes create the illusion that learning only occurs inside four walls
      isolated from what students call without apparent irony the "real world."
      Dissecting frogs in biology classes teaches lessons about nature that no one
      would verbally profess. Campus architecture is crystallized pedagogy that
      often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and artificiality. My
      point is simply that students are being taught in various and subtle ways
      beyond the content of courses.


      If education is to be measured against the standard of sustainability, what
      can be done? I would like to make four proposals. First, I would like to
      propose that you engage in a campus-wide dialogue about the way you conduct
      your business as educators. Does four years here make your graduates better
      planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell Berry's words,
      "itinerant professional vandals"? Does this college contribute to the
      development of a sustainable regional economy or, in the name of efficiency,
      to the processes of destruction?

      My second suggestion is to examine resource flows on this campus: food,
      energy, water, materials, and waste. Faculty and students should together
      study the wells, mines, farms, feedlots, and forests that supply the campus
      as well as the dumps where you send your waste. Collectively, begin a
      process of finding ways to shift the buying power of this institution to
      support better alternatives that do less environmental damage, lower carbon
      dioxide emissions, reduce use of toxic substances, promote energy efficiency
      and the use of solar energy, help to build a sustainable regional economy,
      cut long-term costs, and provide an example to other institutions. The
      results of these studies should be woven into the curriculum as
      interdicisplinary courses, seminars, lectures, and research. No student
      should graduate without understanding how to analyze resource flows and
      without the opportunity to participate in the creation of real solutions to
      real problems.

      Third, re-examine how your endowment works. Is it invested according to the
      Valdez principles? Is it invested in companies doing responsible things that
      the world needs? Can some part of it be invested locally to help leverage
      energy efficiency and the evolution of a sustainable economy throughout the

      Finally, I propose that you set a goal of ecological literacy for all of
      your students. No student should graduate from this or any other educational
      institution without a basic comprehension of:
      the laws of thermodynamics,
      the basic principles of ecology,
      carrying capacity,
      least-cost, end-use analysis,
      how to live well in a place,
      limits of technology,
      appropriate scale,
      sustainable agriculture and forestry,
      steady-state economics,
      environmental ethics

      Do graduates of this college, in Aldo Leopold's words, know that "they are
      only cogs in an ecological mechanism such that, if they will work with that
      mechanism, their mental wealth and material wealth can expand indefinitely
      (and) if they refuse to work with it, it will ultimately grind them to
      dust." Leopold asked: "If education does not teach us these things, then
      what is education for?"

      About the Speaker
      A profile of David Orr:
      "Ancestry and Influence: A Portrait of David Orr"
      By Marci Janas, Oberlin Online, 17th September 1998.

      Biography: David W. Orr
      David W. Orr
      B.A., Westminster College (1965), M.A., Michigan State University (1966),
      Ph.D., International Relations, University of Pennsylvania (1973).
      Currently, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at
      Oberlin College, Ohio.

      National Conservation Achievement Award, 1993; Lyndhurst Prize, 1992; Benton
      Box Award, 1995; Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, 1990; Distinguished
      Scholar in Residence, Ball State University and Westminster College, Salt
      Lake City, 1996.

      Author of Earth in Mind, 1994; Ecological Literacy, 1992; more than 90
      articles. Co-editor of The Campus and Environmental Responsibility, 1992;
      The Global Predicament, 1979. Education Editor for Conservation Biology,
      Member, editorial advisory board, Orion Nature Quarterly. Trustee of the
      Educational Foundation of America, The Annenberg Rural Challenge, and the
      JED Fund. Member of the Education Visiting Committee, New England Aquarium
      and a Member of the Board, the Centre for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley.

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