Part 1, David Orr’s “What is Education For?”

David Orr’s, “What is Education For?”, from Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect.  (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004, pp. 7-15).

Orr begins with a plethora of rather down-to-‘earth’ statistics, letting us know that everyday we lose: 116 square miles of rainforest (an acre a second), 72 miles of land to desert every day, 40-250 species (whether it’s 40 or 250 no one knows).  The human population will increase by 250 000, and we’ll add 2700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons and 15 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  He notes that in the year 2000, “perhaps as much as 20% of the life forms extant on the planet in the year 1900 will be extinct.”  Orr lets us know that the loss of land is due to human mismanagement and overpopulation.

The effects of all this are much more important than the statistics:

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

I wonder if these things are truly what our future health and prosperity depend on.

Orr changes gears.  He describes that this – our overpopulation and mismanagement – is not the work of ignorant people, but by very educated people.  He compares this to what Elie Wiesel points out: that the designers and perpetrators of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald – the Holocaust – were the heirs of Kant and Goethe, widely thought to be the best educated people on earth. But their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity.  “What was wrong with their education?” Asks Orr.  He uses 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.

Orr emphasizes that our education toward the natural world is the same.  Fascinatingly, he says this, “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.”  His point is that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom.  And that 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 twenty-first century.  It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.

In exploring what went wrong with contemporary education Orr points to insight within literature: Christopher Marlow’s Faust trades his soul for knowledge and power, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frakenstein refuses to take responsibility for his creation, and Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab who says, “All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”  These characters all share the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature.

Beyond this, Orr looks historically: Francis Bacon’s proposed union between knowledge and power foreshadowed the contemporary alliance between government, business, and knowledge that has wrought so much mischief; Galileo’s separation of the intellect foreshadowed the dominance of the analytical mind over creativity, humour, and wholeness; Descartes’s epistemology finds the roots of the radical separation of self and object.

He believes that these three laid the foundation for modern education and that they are enshrined in myths that we have come to question without question.

I think that education today is most certainly built upon this past.  Modern education is built on many false pretences and has many short-comings, its drive to dominate nature is a great problem.  We now believe that we are to dominate nature – this is now part our modern worldview – a whole generation educated to dominate nature (directly or indirectly).  I don’t think we believe our future prosperity depends on climate stability (personally, I’m much less concerned about ‘climate stability’, and a lot more concerned about pollution), the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, or biological diversity (with the exception of Ecuador – who is the only state that has constitutionally recognized the rights of nature, and they call her Pachamama).  We are raping the earth of her goods with little care of her and our future.

Our overpopulation and mismanagement is a great problem.  Unfortunately, educated people haven’t solved this problem, which is a reason why Orr questions ‘what is education for’.  I would suggest that this modern drive to dominate nature created this great problem and that our education is systemically compounding our problems.


Orr’s myths, see part 2.

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One thought on “Part 1, David Orr’s “What is Education For?”

  1. Pingback: Part 2, David Orr’s “What is Education For?” | Jordan Duerrstein's Blog

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