This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
This chapter appeared, as an “Afterward” in Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education. The author challenges fundamental principles of traditional liberal education and modern culture which promote individualism, technological advancement, and a detachment from the natural world. He draws a clear distinction between the pursuit of self-fulfillment and individual freedom currently championed by society’ and what bioregionalism deems important: becoming dwellers within rather than masters over the natural world. That this perspective differs so radically from modern culture’s suggests that introducing bioregional thought into education actually means confronting established, ecologically-destructive practices of everyday life, rethinking not only the principles which underlie modern education, but those governing modern society.
A review of the work by linguists Ron and Suzanne Scollon distills the conflict of individualism vs. community by illustrating how dominance of the literate over oral tradition promotes individualism at the cost of a custom which reinforces the bonds of community. Developing a vision of a shared future where citizens live within the means and sustain the well-being of all elements and inhabitants of a bioregion requires change not only in our cultural practices, but in a language that supports an ecologically destructive ideology.
Over the last decade we have witnessed a variety of radical models of thinking about education; but in the diversity that ranged from the free classroom of the neoromantics to the engineered classroom of the behaviorists (not to mention the more purely ideological proposals of the neo-Marxists that were never tested in the classroom), there was a common thread of understanding that betrayed what has been traditionally meant by the term “radical”. The original meaning of the word radicalis involved going back to the most basic and fundamental source. When used in this way, radical means going beyond the ideological formulations of the various streams of liberalism and conservatism in order to get at the root issues. It does not mean, as interpreted by recent educational theorists, developing a complicated rationale for addressing the problem of individual freedom and empowerment. This view of radicalism simply involved working out the programmatic implications of the modem mind-set that was already taken for granted. A radical thinker, by way of contrast, pushes the starting point back to the most basic issues; and in today’s world the maximizing of individual freedom is not the most basic issue we face.
Just as it can be argued, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, that photosynthesis rather than labor is the true origin of wealth, there are a deeper set of issues that make problematic the very foundations of the bourgeois consciousness that characterizes current radical educational theory. These issues have to do with the destruction of our habitat and with the hubris of modem consciousness that rejects the possibility that we might learn from the wisdom of preliterate societies. Thus, the genuinely radical thinker is more likely to be considering the implications of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Pluto and Herbert Schneidau’s Sacred Discontent than a revisionist interpretation of Marxism. The problems of inequality and restricted individual empowerment are not nearly as important as the cultural roots of our alienation from nature. Regardless of how our agenda for social reform is framed, the bottom line has to do with reversing the global ecological deterioration we are now witnessing.
Towards a culture rooted in the natural world
The environmental movement of the sixties and early seventies helped to awaken many from the myth that held out the promise of unending growth, but it lacked the conceptual sophistication necessary for a radical rethinking of the cultural roots of the problem. Pollution controls, recycling of materials, and campaigns to save endangered species were a few of the genuine achievements. Conservation seemed to be the key metaphor that designated the thrust of this political movement. Recently, a more radical movement made up of loosely affiliated groups in Europe, Great Britain, and North America has emerged. Known as die Grunen in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Ecology Party in Great Britain, the bioregionalists in North America, these groups are concerned with alleviating the danger of nuclear war, the ravaging effects of an industrial social order on the environment, and exploitive relationships between First and Third World countries. For our purposes, however, what is more important about this emergent movement are the conceptual foundations it is helping to lay for a genuinely radical critique of our culture and thus of our approach to education. The bioregionalists in North America seem to be the least controlled by the assumptions of modernization and thus are able to ask the most probing questions about the belief systems that underlie our social practices. To accord them the serious attention they deserve, readers must be able to free themselves from the control of the mental habits reinforced by the language of the liberal paradigm.
The following resolution passed unanimously at a cattleman’s meeting in Texas (1898) epitomizes the modern mind-set that the bioregionalists view as a form of cultural neurosis:
Resolved, as none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses, native or otherwise, outside the fact that for the present there are lots of them, the best on record, and we are after getting the most out of them while they last. (cited in Shepard 1982, p. 2)
This mind-set represents in its worst form the attitude of the invader who exploits the resources and moves on; when expressed in its most constructive form, it represents the attitude of experimenter-explorer who turns inquiry into technology and moves on to the next intellectual quest without being concerned with the ensuing disruptions in either the cultural or physical environment. Both the invader and experimenter-explorer are driven by an inner quest; the one for profits and the other for truth and power. In both cases, the interdependencies that characterize the biotic community are put out of focus.
Echoing the warnings of earlier environmentalists about depleting resources faster than they can be replaced locally and then drawing down the resources base of distant habitats, the bioregionalists have directed their attention to the development of a culture that is rooted in the natural world. As Kirkpatrick Sale put it, a sustainable culture is “in harmony with natural systems and rhythms, constrained by natural limits and capacities and developed according to the natural configurations of the earth and its inherent life forms” (Sale 1985, p. 24). The model for a culture that involves participation of ecologically responsible citizens rather than mastery over nature through rational control is not, according to the bioregionalists, to be found in futuristic thinking that seeks power through science and technology. The genuine radicalness of their thinking is clearly reflected in Sale’s observation that, if we are to become dwellers within rather than masters over the biotic community, “we must try to regain the spirit of the ancient Greeks, who considered the earth as a living creature, which they worshipped with the name Gaea. We must try to learn that she is, in every real sense, sacred, and that there is therefore a holy way to confront her and her works, a way of awe and admiration and respect and veneration that simply will not permit despoliation or abuse” (Sale, p. 24). The suggestion that preliterate ancient societies possessed a form of wisdom that we must recover as part of our living traditions and that we must include the non-human in our sense of community, as well as develop a “sacramental food-chain mutual sharing consciousness” – to quote Gary Snyder, presents a real challenge to the assumptions upon which modern consciousness is based. Yet there is more to the bioregional position that we will touch on briefly before turning to educational implications.
The bioregionalists also take a strong stand against the current organization of society into nation states. Existing political boundaries that influence economic and social practices, as well as the manner in which citizens think about themselves, reflect the historical outcome of political struggles for power and administrative control. The bioregional view is that politics should be attuned to the requirements of a life-territory, which must take account of the life-sustaining characteristics of a habitat—the watershed, soils, and renewable and non-renewable resources that make up the biotic community. The word “place” is often used by bioregionalists as a way of designing a form of politics attuned to nature rather than the dictates of ideology. Thus they reject the current view of the nation state and suggest that a new basis for political units might be found in the way North American Indian tribes occupied distinct bioregions.
In place of the modern activities that occupy a modem society—internationalization of economic activity (both in terms of production and mass markets), advancement of scientific forms of knowledge, and a continual quest for more efficient and rationally controlled technologies—the bioregionalists offer an alternative vision that is likely to have little appeal to anomic individuals who are habituated to the fast and flashy pace of modern consumerism. In place of hi-tech and the impersonality of the market place, they urge a rediscovery of how to use our hands and bodies in dealing with the fundamentals of life-cultivating activities, such as growing and preparing food, and in sharing the common tasks of the community as it adjusts to the cycles of the seasons. Their view involves a more communal life style, the use of intermediate, less energy-intensive technologies, and the recovery of the symbolic richness of oral traditions. This is not a vision that will have immediate appeal to many people; in fact, it is likely to be viewed as a backward step from the conveniences associated with modern society.
Judgments about a life style that involves a completely different set of criteria for determining the meaning of human fulfillment will in part be distorted by the ideological conditioning of the existing culture. Yet at a deeper level, the question of whether the views of the bioregionalists should be taken seriously will not turn on whether a society organized according to the principles of self-sufficiency and ecological balance will provide as much personal pleasure, leisure, and freedom as some of us now enjoy. We will have to take them seriously, I suspect, because their arguments about what happens when a dominant species within an ecosystem depletes the life-sustaining resources have been thoroughly documented. In the terminology of the bioregionalists, the draw-down of the resource base is followed by an overshoot stage in which severe disruptions and conflicts over increasingly limited resources occur, followed by a crash where the population is reduced to a level where the resources can recover. It occurs in all species, and the historical record indicates that human cultures are not exempt from the fate of exceeding environmental equilibrium.
In Always Coming Home (1985), which Ursula Le Guin referred to as an “archaeology of the future,” a group of people, the Kesh, choose to remain behind in a devastated environment from which everyone else has escaped in a galactic spaceship that is no longer dependent upon minerals, plants, and soil (a common escape scenario for technicists who believe meaningful life can be sustained in a totally artificial environment). Instead, the Kesh inhabit a valley in Northern California, living in small clans as hunters and gatherers. Their technology, form of education, ceremonies, and customs do not represent a progression beyond what we have today; they are instead remarkably similar to premodern cultures that were attuned to the rhythms of the environment. Equally missing from their mythology is our own belief that purposive rationality is an ultimate source of power, allowing us to escape the laws that require other species to live within ecological balance. I suspect that Le Guin, raised in a family that was sensitive to the wisdom of subsistence cultures toward their habitats, represents the more prophetic bioregionalist voice.
Applying bioregional principles in education
Regardless of the questions we may have about the implications of the bioregionalists’ argument (Do we have to abandon our credit cards and cities? Do we really have to give up our fossil fuel addiction?), we cannot ignore the evidence that we are now nearing “overshoot” where the demands of an increasingly world-wide consumer culture will exhaust essential resources. The main issue facing educators now is to decide whether to wait for more definitive evidence that we have exceeded ecological limits or to take the threat seriously by beginning to rethink those aspects of our belief system that do not take into account our ecological interdependence. The first approach would involve thinking about the relationship between education and society within the current conceptual framework that associates empowerment with continued progress in the areas of individualism and rationality. In effect, the current cultural trajectory would be supported by a form of education based on anyone of the four archetypal models of educational liberalism—neoromantic free classrooms, the engineered classroom in the Skinner-Taylor mold, the Deweyian classroom that teaches the method of scientific problem solving, and the emancipatory, consciousness-raising pedagogy of Freire.
A second approach for educational theorists is to give serious attention to some of the basic concepts of bioregional thinking, partly because the concepts are fundamentally sound in their own right and partly because they take into account the forms of understanding we must possess as ecological limits force us to modify our cultural beliefs and practices. This is where educational theorists must be able to free themselves from a restrictive discourse where the vocabulary and conceptual categories force thought into predetermined directions. The basic concepts essential to the bioregionalist position, as stated earlier, represent a radical turning away from the assumptions that underlie the ideological positions that evolved out of the Enlightenment, including Marxism (Bookchin 1971).
Alienation, a key concept in the thinking of bioregionalists, is one of those powerful images that can be given a substantially different meaning by changing the root metaphor. Existentialist literature, for example, often started with the assumptions that the individual is basically alone and that through an act of will individual life can be given authentic meaning and a sense of purpose. Those who could not find the authority for giving their own life a sense of direction escaped by living an inauthentic life dictated by group norms. Thus, for the existentialists, social conformity led to self-alienation. From a more Durkheimian perspective, alienation results from a breakdown in a shared normative framework, with the result being an anomic individual who experiences a loss of meaning. By contrast, the bioregionalist’s understanding of alienation does not start with either the image for the authentic, self-sufficient individual or a concern with the social defenses against individual malaise. The root metaphor of the bioregionalists is the interdependency of all life forms. Consequently, for them, alienation is expressed in the illusion of being free to choose one’s place, to be self-accountable for one’s actions, and to be oriented toward fulfilling personal wants and goals (values highly regarded within some streams of liberalism). This is really to be rootless and to confuse real power with a cultural myth that equates happiness with freedom.
For the bioregionalists, overcoming alienation is knowing and being responsible for your place—which involves coming to terms with the most fundamental aspects of the spatial and temporal aspects of existence. In the words of Wendell Berry:
“From the perspective of the environmental crisis of our time I think we have to add…a further realization: if the land is made fit for human habitation by memory and “old association.” it is also true that by memory and association men are made fit to inhabit the land. At present our society is almost entirely nomadic, without the comfort or discipline of such memories, and it is moving about on the face of the continent with a mindless destructiveness, of substance and of meaning and of value, that makes Sherman’s march to the sea look like a prank. Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed.’’ (1972, pp. 68-69)
Gary Snyder put it more succinctly: “You know whether or not a person knows where he is by whether or not he knows the plants. By whether or not he knows what the soils and waters do” (1980, p.69). Stated somewhat differently, modern interpretations of alienation involve foregrounding the individual by putting out of focus the background (place or context). For the bioregionalist both are integral to each other.
Yet there is more to the bioregionalist position that has direct implications for thinking about the purpose of education, as well as for rethinking certain prejudices that have long held a privileged position in educational circles. A knowledge of place and a concern with rootedness is not the expression of a nostalgic desire to return to the simplicity of the more primitive past. The bioregionalists are really concerned with the problem of empowerment and their way of understanding the process of empowerment leads them to deviate significantly from how it is conceptualized by the different interpreters of educational liberalism.
In contrast to the anthropocentrism that characterizes the four archetypal interpretations of educational liberalism, the bioregionalist views empowerment in terms of living in harmony with the rhythms of the environment. In more concrete terms, this means learning “how to give full rein to those cooperative and communal and participatory selves, those symbiotic and responsible and multi-dimensional selves that have been blunted and confined” by the binary pattern of thinking that has contributed to the cultural forms of alienation associated with modern consciousness (Sale 1985, p. 33).
A brief overview of what has been lost through the long march to achieve the current individualistic and rationalistic mode of consciousness can be seen in how binary thinking progressed by declaring the absolute supremacy of one aspect of experience and denying its supposed opposite qualities. What was lost through this binary process of selection and rejection represents essential elements that must be recovered if we are to overcome the alienation that separates us from our environment.
The following overview of these areas of human experience that have become a casualty of binary thinking is really intended to identify issues that must become part of the discussion of educational reform; if you will, it will help to recover part of the language that will enable us to think about aspects of the educational process that the more restrictive discourses of educational liberalism put out of focus. The overview touches on exceedingly complicated cultural developments, many of which are still being argued, and it is in no way intended as a list of prescriptions for reforming public education. But is does suggest a sense of direction that deserves serious consideration.
Ancient roots of bioregionalism
The sense of estrangement from the environment that characterizes the modern attitude toward exploitation of resources and ownership is fundamentally different from the way in which many traditional cultures view the earth as alive and sacred. In a fascinating study of how monotheistic religions of the West introduced a binary separation in how the sacred was experienced, Herbert Schneidau (1976) makes the point that belief in a God that could not be located within the environment represented a radical and, in terms of its recent introduction, novel departure from the “animal-man-god interpenetration” that is essential to mythological consciousness. By investing the abstract Yahweh with absolute power, the cosmic continuum was disrupted; ancient religion, as a form of geography that “organized space into sacred configurations,” to quote Schneidau (p. 71), was now viewed as paganism. The binary logic that made the sacred a transaction between man and God, rather than seeing all forms of giving and taking of life as bound up together, thus separated (alienated) humans from a religious sense of interdependence of all life forms. Without this sense of interdependence, based on awe, reverence, and respect rather than self-interest and cost effectiveness, there are no limits in how far we can go in exploiting the animal, plant, and mineral resources.
The bioregionalists are very much aware that a culture living in harmony with the environment must recover this part of ancient memory that was so attuned to the sacred, as opposed to taking the modern approach of legislating limits and using expert-technicist studies as the basis of authority. In contrast to the natural attitude of those of us who operate within one or more of the conceptual configurations of educational liberalism (some of us are given to syncretistic tendencies where we borrow willy-nilly from all four streams), Native Americans such as the Navajos experience the sacred as a basic part of their sense of empowerment and basic to their understanding of the alienation of the dominant Western culture. Part of the declaration signed by 64 elders of the Independent Dine’ (Navajo) Nation at Big Mountain clearly puts in focus how different views of empowerment relate not only to spiritual but ecological survival:
“Our sacred shrines have been destroyed. . . .Our Mother Earth is raped by the exploitation of coal, uranium, oil, natural gas, and helium. . . .We speak for the winged beings, the four-legged beings, and those gone before us and the coming generation. We seek no changes in our livelihood because this Natural life is our only known survival and it’s our sacred law” (Mander 1981, p. 1).
The dark side of literacy
The binary thinking that separates rationalism and mythological consciousness, which many will see as the contending paradigms represented in this quotation, can also be seen in the way modem consciousness has privileged literacy over oral traditions. For the last one hundred and fifty years, literacy has been so closely intertwined with the idea of empowerment that it has become almost the chief criteria for determining whether people are to be considered as progressive and civilized or backward and primitive. The deeper connections between literacy and the rise of the public school are important both in terms if the social stratification that resulted from the stratification of knowledge and in terms of how schooled literacy contributed to the loss of localized cultural identities (Cook-Gumperz 1986, p. 36). Although the contribution of schooled literacy to the creation of a mass, rootless society is important to the bioregionalist’s analysis of the ecological instability of modem society, our main concern is to clarify how the form of empowerment that we automatically associate with literacy contributes to alienation in the bioregional sense of the term. This part of the argument, in turn, puts in focus additional issues that need to be addressed as we move into a post-liberal era of thinking about how education, culture, and the environment interrelate. In looking at the dark side of literacy, it is important to remember the dangers of continuing to be caught up in the categories dictated by a binary form of thinking; thus our brief analysis of literacy is not meant to be interpreted as a total rejection of literacy in favor of an uncritical acceptance of orality as the chief means of sharing knowledge with others.
The work of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others has largely overturned the long-held view that the introduction of the alphabet that made modern writing possible was primarily a technological advance in enabling us to be more rational and objective in our thinking and in contributing to the upward spiral of knowledge (civilization) through a more effective means of sharing knowledge with other rational individuals. Their contribution was in clarifying how literacy differs from oral communication, particularly in how the two modes of communication influence consciousness as well as patterns of social interaction. In contrast to the ideology that now privileges literacy as culturally superior to orality, they found that the transmission process of reading and writing amplifies certain human attributes and patterns and reduces others. Literacy amplifies the sense of individualism (writing and reading are highly privatized experiences). It is an abstract form of thought that allows for a careful editorial refinement of text. This text is divorced from the living person who produced it and thus fixed in time, allowing for analysis and comparison with other fixed texts. It is impersonal communication where the writer has to imagine the reading public (Ong 1982). In addition to empowering the analytical mind, literacy contributes to the reification of the word and thus to the decontextualization of knowledge. Contrary to popular thinking, empowerment is not the binary opposite of alienation; in the case of literacy, it contributes to a form of consciousness that is alienated by virtue of what is reduced or eliminated in communicating knowledge to others.
Ong points out that in contrast to the printed word the spoken word is always a social event, an ongoing action, that allows intuition, context, non-verbal communication, memory, intonations, character of participants, and all the senses to be fully involved (1977, pp. 12-49). As a living event, oral communication involves adjusting the messages to the nuance of the social context and thus serves to renew the shared definitions of reality that underpin communal life. It is, in effect, more dialectical in that both the memory and perspective of the participants remodel what has become irrelevant in the collective experience, rather than, as with abstract thought, creating a disjuncture. As Havelock put it: “New information and new experience are continually grafted on to inherited models” (1963, p. 122). As the text, so to speak, is always updated in the oral tradition, education does not involve absorbing abstract and thus possibly irrelevant or destructive forms of knowledge. But this form of empowerment—in terms of communicating about what is lived—reduces those mental qualities associated with analysis, independent perspective, and the abstract accumulation of knowledge that can be later drawn upon.
Clearly both oral and literate cultures provide for their members different forms of empowerment and alienation. Yet this is not recognized by an ideology that represents literacy as the primary form of empowerment and the key for becoming a modem individual. For instance, Freire’s arguments for literacy represent a belief that is so strong and unqualified that he fails to recognize that his educational reforms would contribute to structuring consciousness in a manner that supports the very form of society he wants to overthrow. Our real purpose here, however, is not to engage the blind spots in the thinking of liberal theorists of education; it is to understand how the alienating characteristics of literacy contribute to a form of culture that is out of harmony with its habitat.
Implications of the loss of oral tradition
Ron and Suzanne Scollon, two linguists who have thought a great deal about how orality and literacy relate to the problem of alienation in the modem world, go to the heart of the matter by reminding us that language is primarily about relationships and only secondarily about ideas (1985, p. 15). We have tended to emphasize the latter, which is really the signifying function of language or what could be called, in terms of the sociology of knowledge, the constituting function of language. But naming “What Is” also involves establishing how the relationships among the different entities named are to be understood, as well as the relationship between the speaker (writer) and that part of the world that is being symbolically represented. It is this latter function of language that the Scollons draw our attention to, particularly how orality and literacy constitute fundamentally different relationships.
The relationships that are reinforced through literacy are in part a function of what is amplified and reduced through the use of print technology; they also reflect our deepest metaphysical assumptions about the world and our place in it. In terms of print technology, the symbolic representation of ideas and their phenomenological origins is reduced. Our cultural orientation of emphasizing writing in the third person and of representing our knowledge as objective (actually an orientation dictated by a class set of epistemological assumptions) fosters a relationship of separation between the word and the person. This separation, where the word takes on an independent, reified existence, creates a reversal in which abstract and fixed symbolic representations are taken to be real, while the life world of the writer (and reader) are put out of focus. The Scollons observed that as a language form, literacy alters our sense of relationship in the most fundamental way by shifting our “focus from what is primary to what is secondary.” The primary is actually our embeddedness as sensory and cognitive beings in an interdependent biocommunity; the secondary is what we are able to represent in symbolic form about our existence. The reversal makes the abstract more real than what is experienced, which exceeds in richness, complexity, and depth what can be communicated through the technology of language—especially the printed word. For the Scollons the primacy given to literacy strengthens the kinds of relationships that are alienating, with abstractions being substituted for living relationships between people and between people and the biotic community. They also point out that literacy involves an asymmetry of power, in which the writer and reader relate to each other as sender and receiver (p. 19).
The consequences of the domination of literacy over orality can be seen in how we view knowledge and where it is to be located. As literacy de-emphasizes context as part of the message system, it has led to the distorted view that only the explicit forms of understanding capable of being represented in symbolic form can be viewed as valid knowledge. Tacit understanding of the cultural codes that regulate most aspects of social life thus tend to be ignored or downgraded in importance. The emphasis on literacy also privileges the analytical mind over the body, with the consequence that we fail to recognize the importance of embodied forms of knowledge to our sense of empowerment. David M. Levin makes the point that,
“The body is, or is at, the source of all our knowledge. . . .As an ancestral body, an “ancient” body of genetically encoded reproduction, for example, it is the bio-physical element which binds our existence to that of our mortal ancestors, even the earliest; as a cultural body, it transcends the chains of nature, participates in the shaping of history, and serves, whether we will it or not—though our willingness makes a difference—as an impressionable medium for the transmission and sedimentation of cultural norms, values, and meanings.” (1985, p. 171)
In addition to the attunements, dispositions and pre-established understandings of the body, knowledge can be understood as embodied in our technologies. Becoming sensitive to these embodied forms of knowledge as the foundations of our empowerment also requires that we recognize the environment as a sustaining and shaping force.
A revolutionary theory of organic education
In order to overcome the alienation that separates “the word from the body, the society from the earth, and our reason from our spirituality,” the Scollons suggest an approach to education that addresses the problems of relationships and empowerment—which they view as intertwined with each other (p. 32). Their educational proposals are grounded in the Confucian idea that the problems of the world, including the fate of the environment, cannot be separated from self-understanding. But most importantly, self-understanding involves getting in touch with the basic organic categories of existence—past, place, relationships, and future possibilities. These are the most fundamental of human relations that are put out of focus by the rationalistic, anthropocentric view of the universe that comes down from the Enlightenment and is currently reinforced in the four interpretations of educational liberalism that continue to serve as our primary models for thinking about education. Their educational proposal addresses the connection between the problem of empowerment and the need for a culture that is in ecological balance—two issues that should be a central concern to educational theorists.
Oral and literary traditions of the past
A curriculum guided by a concern with helping students get in touch with the organic categories of their existence must begin with learning about the past. For the Scollons this should elude, in addition to the past preserved as part of the Western literate tradition, the legacy of the oral traditions: e.g., the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the Bible, the Koran, as well as the wisdom given us by the great thinkers of India and China. Learning the oral traditions of the past, as well as the present, provides insight into the archetypal models of how people have confronted and resolved the deepest existential questions. It also involves acquiring the conceptual basis necessary for recognizing the past in the present, including those aspects of earlier forms of consciousness that were more attuned to the cycles of life. By viewing the self (as a carrier of language) as part of a symbolic continuum that stretches back to the earliest formation of our conceptual maps, learning the past is really a way of learning about the self. Yet just as there needs to be a balance between the oral and literate traditions of the past, there also needs to be a balance between being immersed in the oral patterns of retelling important stories and the individualizing analytical form of thought that is associated with literacy. Learning the past through the spoken word helps to attune the student to relationships with others that are grounded in a shared context. The power of this form of learning can be seen in how individuals, in learning their native language, acquire efficacy while at the same time being bonded to the patterns of community life.
The study of place
That all forms of life can only be understood as they are situated in their place or context suggests the importance of the second organic category. In contrast to the various expressions of educational liberalism that foreground the virtue of self-directing individuals by putting the background (place) out of focus, the Scollons echo the bioregional concern with understanding the life-sustaining processes and resources of one’s place. In the past the more explicit part of the school socialization process took the students’ relationship to place for granted, with the result that, later as adults, they were caught up in culturally prescribed routines that were largely carried out without adequate awareness of their disruptive effects on other forms of life that shared the same place. A curriculum that takes the life-place seriously as one of the organic categories of existence would focus on the relationship between the cultural life style of students and the resource base of the region: soil, mineral, water, plant, and animal life. Yet learning about the relationship between self and place would not properly clarify the nature of the interdependencies if current cultural lenses were used. Studying the nature of soils (and which cultural practices deplete them) and the characteristics of animal and plant life as though they were being inventoried for future exploitation would simply exacerbate the problem. Learning about place really involves, as Berry, Snyder, and the Scollons remind us, developing a spiritual understanding of the earth as a reference point for understanding self.
This may sound strange to the ear attuned to a language that represents our relationship to the earth in terms of Lit rather than I-Thou. Nevertheless, the capacity to have an I-Thou relationship that is confirming, open, and transforming provides a way of recognizing that we do not have to live entirely by cultural models that involve exploitive and calculating relationships. In terms of curriculum, understanding place does not involve bringing religion, in the usual sense of the term, into the classroom. But it does provide a point of departure for examining the environmental consequences of cultural beliefs and patterns of action. This would involve examining the cultural beliefs that influence the sense of commitment (or lack of it) to a place, as well as recognizing what human actions toward the environment are proscribed (and why). In terms of the Scollons’ curricular recommendations, this would involve examining how bioregions are intersected by political-cultural lines, and how the bioregion has fared on both sides of the dividing line (p. 33). Comparisons between modern and transitional cultures (e.g., Hopi and Navajo) in terms of their respective impact on the environment would yield useful insights into how the spiritual aspects of culture influence our relationship to place.
The study of place should also involve examining the political and economic implications of how resources are utilized. This part of the curriculum would help students understand the problems connected with living within the resource base of a bioregion, the forms of dependencies that result from misuse of resources, the application of destructive technologies, and the political and economic relationships that do not represent the interests of the people living in a bioregion.
The two other organic categories, cultivating relationships and enlarging the future, have curricular implications that relate directly to learning past and place.
Cultivating relationships: discerning human nature
Cultivating relationships, in curricular terms, requires an understanding of the models of good and evil that are exhibited in the world’s great literature and oral traditions. Understanding what is right and wrong in others and how context may blur these categories is essential to being able to correct within oneself those personal characteristics that undermine mutually empowering relationships with others. The Scollons put in sharper focus the relationship between a curriculum that provides insight into the human character and the student’s self-understanding and ability to cultivate relationships by using a quotation from Confucius: “If you hate something in your superiors, do not practice it on those below you; if you hate a thing in those below you, do not do it when working for those over you” (p. 35). Cultivating good relationships with others thus involves understanding self, and this is aided by studying the cultural models and values that both serve as reference points and have been internalized as part of self.
Vision with a bioregional perspective
Enlarging the future, according to the Scollons, follows from the study of the past and place. One of the purposes of the latter is to help prepare for the future. The Scollons want to distinguish between planning for the future, which involves the purposive rational mind that often takes a Maginot Line approach to dealing with a changing environment, and preparing for the future. In curricular terms, enlarging (or preparing) for the future involves learning how to be open to new relationships and how to develop the capacities for negotiation and cooperation. It also involves developing as part of one’s self, and encouraging in others, a vision of a shared future. Awareness of a future that is organized around an image of self-fulfillment or what one will do as an isolated individual is not as enlarging as a sense of future that includes relationships with others. This should also involve, as the Scollons remind us, a sense of the future that takes account of the characteristics of the bioregion. Thus, enlarging the individual’s sense of future becomes tied to preserving the life sustaining characteristics of the larger biocommunity.
These general guidelines for organizing curricula allow for the specific content to be adjusted to the uniqueness of cultural groups and the characteristics of the bioregion. The guiding questions—what soil series are you standing on? what species of animals and plants are on the verge of extinction in your area? and so forth—can be asked of each region, but the answers and thus curriculum content will reflect the diversity of regional characteristics and the teacher’s imagination and resourcefulness. The important consideration here does not have so much to do with the fact that a bioregional approach to thinking about education leaves us without a fully fleshed out curriculum or set of pedagogical practices; rather it has to do with identifying a set of priorities that challenge in the most fundamental way the conceptual underpinnings of the liberal paradigm. The bioregional concern with understanding empowerment in terms of a culture that enables its members to live in harmony with the rhythms and resources of the natural environment introduces a new metaphorical language. This language makes sense only if we substantially revise the paradigm that has turned such words as progress, emancipation, individualism, critical rationality, and literacy into educational ideals that support an ecologically destructive ideology. By introducing into the discourse of educational and social reforms the metaphorical language of cultural practice attuned to long-term survival, both in a spiritual and ecological sense, the bioregionalists are challenging us to reshape the language that will guide how we perceive the world. The task for educational theorists will be to reconcile Black Elk with John Dewey, Confucius with Skinner. This will involve a far more radical discourse than the one now driven by the variant forms of educational emancipation.
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C.A. (Chet) Bowers (1935-2017) was an author, professor, and activist. He published his first book, Cultural Literacy for Freedom, in 1974, and went on to publish 26 more books, in addition to more than 100 articles. His work focused on education, cultural ways of knowing, and eco-justice. He taught at schools including the University of Oregon and Portland State University, and helped develop the concept of “Earth literacy.”
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