Part 2, David Orr’s “What is Education For?”

Part 1 is here.


Rethinking Education

Orr then gives six principles for rethinking education

Rethinking Education #1: All education is environmental education.

Curriculum determines whether students view themselves as part of or apart from the natural world.  Economics without ecology or thermodynamics assumes that ecology and physics have nothing to do with economics.

One could say that economics is completely independent of those things, but without an ecology, there is no real economy – plain and simple.

Rethinking Education #2: Paideia.

This greek concept of education as mastery of one’s person, not of subject matter.  Subject matter is a tool that is used: ideas and knowledge are chisels that sculpt our own personhood.  Education should not be an ends or means, its goal should be not to stuff facts, techniques, methods and information into students mind’s regardless of how and with what effect it will be used.

Rethinking Education #3: 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 bears resemblance to those foreshadowed by Mary Shelley.  Who takes responsibility for Chernobyl? Ozone depletion? the Exxon Valdez oil spill? BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill?  The knowledge it took to create these things had no one person ultimately responsible (a corporation maybe for building the creation).  Orr thinks there is a problem of scale.  The knowledge of how to do vast and risky things has outrun our ability to use it responsibly.  The knowledge we’ve created today cannot be used responsibly, safely, and to consistently good purposes – think of nuclear power and weapons.

Rethinking Education #4: We cannot say we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.

Communities are destroyed by corporate decision to “disinvest” in a city’s auto-plant, pickle factory, peach canning factories.  Educated people make these decisions for various economic reasons, and do what no army could do: destroy a city with total impunity because of an ideology of the “bottom line”.  Society has bottom lines though too: unemployment, crime, divorce rates, alcoholism, child abuse, lost savings, wrecked lives.  Schools of economics do not teach the values of good communities or human costs of a narrow destructive economic rationality that values efficiency and economy abstractions above people and community.

Rethinking Education #5: “Minute [small] particulars” – the power of example

Students hearing about global responsibility while their institution spends their budgets and invest in endowments and irresponsible things is contradictory.  I’m not sure what Orr is talking about when he says, “The lessons being taught are those of hypocrisy and ultimately despair.  Students learn, without anyone ever telling them, that they are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between ideals and reality.”  Someone please enlighten me.

Schools need role models of integrity, care, and thoughtfulness along with the institution embodying ideals wholly and completely in all their operations.

Rethinking Education #6: The way in which learning occurs is as important as the content.

Process is important for learning.  Lectures induce passivity.  Four walls creates the illusion that learning is only indoors – without apparent irony, isolated from the “real world”.  Architecture is crystallized pedagogy that often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and artificiality.  Orr’s point is that, “Students are being taught in various and subtle ways bend the over content of courses.”

Orr’s suggestions for reconstructing education are mostly sound.

For the purposes of branding a successful idea, saying that “all education is universal education” might be more effective.  The “application” parts of math lessons in high school were often the most compelling.  Plus, I’d say that viewing the earth and education in the context of the universe makes the earth even more valuable (considering we’re the only place where life exists), and therefore worth taking care of.

‘Mastering ones person’ puts subject matter in the proper place.  We are human beings, not brains (that function as computers) on a stick.  I’m not sure any public education system could put something like this into practice.  It’s personal.  This is something parents can/should teach their children, something where parents discuss how to implement the things they’ve learned, how it affects who they are and how they should live their lives.

#3 is a beautiful thought.  Knowledge needs to be used responsibly and used for good.  High school trigonometry doesn’t have much ability or application to be used for de-humanization.  But psychology used in the military to break down prisoners in the most effective and dehumanizing ways is not good.  Nor is advancing weapon techniques for the military.  Scale is something we need to be very concerned with.  Massive oil spills destroy life-systems, economies even.  Is this technology good?  Is nuclear power used responsibly and safely if it can never be properly disposed of?

The effects of knowledge on real people and their communities is a very humanistic concept.  By no means is it ‘scientific’.  Looking at the ‘human factor’ is in serious neglect in economics.  Detroit would be a much different city today if economists thought about the effects of people.  Niagara peaches are no longer canned by Del Monte because its cheaper to can them in China.  “Globalization is good” is something I have trouble with, “Free trade” maybe too.  Why does “fair trade” have to be with people across the world, when it can be with my neighbours?  (probably because, in Canada, we are mainly a service industry and not a primary sector economy).

The minute particulars is essentially a call for ethics in educational organization.  I think that this call can be extended for all organizations everywhere.

Process in education resounds within the educator in me.  I encourage experiential as often as possible.  Doing something is almost always much more valuable than reciting something.  Discussion is also much more effective than reciting something.  Process can mean learning styles: visual, auditor, kinaesthetic.  Process can be singing a song, doing a presentation, having a class discussion, going on a field trip.  Interviewing a professional in a classroom about their profession brings the “real world” to the classroom, but going out and teaching people within the “real world” is true education.  (sheesh, now I’m speaking like Orr when I say “true education”).


Part 3 continues here.

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One thought on “Part 2, David Orr’s “What is Education For?”

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

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