Ecological Education: Reconceptualising our Human Condition

Education is a fundamental element of nature. Simply put, education is merely the acquisition of knowledge. How this knowledge is transmitted is infinite in possibility. Such a view of education decentres humanity as the sole possessors of educational potential. In such a state of meekness humanity can conceive of the evolutionary process as an educational process. Thus the entirety and enormity of the cosmos themselves are in the process of education, or to use a term from Freire – in praxis[1]. As such, something as simple as a virus goes through an educational process, naturally learning from its environment and reacting/adapting to that acquired knowledge (Holmes). Biological life on earth has gone through a 4 billion year educational processes in order to produce its innumerable diversity. Given this, humanity should see its very existence as the result of an educational process; moreover, humanity should not be so hubris as to think it has the soul right to articulate what education is. Such a premise has two major implications for how we structure our educational pedagogy and curriculum: 1. There is no a priori way to educate humanity; 2. Much like Rousseau believed, humanity has a natural inclination towards learning; in other words, all things being equal, humanity naturally desires and seeks out educational experiences (O’Hagan 56). It is on these base premises that I will explore three questions of education: 1. Who are the educators of humanity?; 2. How can education create a more egalitarian society which is free of oppression?; 3. How can education foster an ecological world view and society?

If I were to ask at random anyone on the street, “Who are the educators of humanity/society?”, chances are, nine times out of ten, the answer would be, “Well, school teachers of course.” This response is logical and, to a certain extent, correct. However, school teachers are only a singular entity within the plural signifier “educators”. It has only been in the twentieth century that school teachers, or school “the institution”, became the sole providers of education within the popular consciousness of our society; prior to this time education was seen as a community affair consisting of family, locality, church and the school institution (Martin 50). It is interesting to think that, in a way, our society has actually regressed by limiting our conception of what, and who, the educators are in society. Within the language of Freire, this regression has now become a limiting situation. Yet, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our more archaic brethren had the correct concept of educators[2]. Our view must be much more polyvalent and open to continual revision. Despite the indefinition of definition we must still create definition. As such I would define humanity’s educators as parents/family, teachers, peers, self, society/locality, media and nature. Most of these would seem logical except possibly for nature. This of  course comes from my Rousseauian and Environmental Education background. I believe that using nature as an educator will be fundamental in having humanity reconceptualise its condition.

However these are not the only educators of our society. There are those who become educators by virtue of their interest in education. In Kieran Egan’s essay “Competing Voices for the Curriculum”, he articulates how there are numerous voices which compete to influence the curriculum of school. “The competing voices the title refers to are those of parents, governments, press, professional educators, the corporate world, ‘the public’ as an entity somehow suppose to be distinct from each of the above, and others that emerge from time-to-time making claims on the school curriculum” (Egan). The difference from this group of educators, and the one previously mentioned, is this: The first actually participate in the direct education of society, while the second indirectly educates society through influence on the school institution.

In order to properly formulate an effective educational pedagogy and curriculum within humanity, we must be able to properly articulate who the educators are within our society. This will allow us, as a society, to mitigate those who we do not want as educators, possibly the media and/or corporations, while accentuating and utilizing the diverseness of all legitimate educators within society. It is when we begin to realize the diverseness of our educators that we will begin to maximize humanity’s, and biology’s, educational potential. However, we must be ever vigilant in revaluating who the educators are within society as the list is not static[3].

Although even if we know who the educators are in society does not mean we will naturally create an educational pedagogy and curriculum which is conducive to the flourishing of humanity. That is, to realize humanity’s full potential. Within my view, to have humanity flourish, we need an egalitarian society which resists oppression. Naturally the first book which comes to mind is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Firstly we must move towards a problem-posing education and resist the banking method (79, 83). “In sum: banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take the people’s historicity as their starting point. Problem-posing education affirms men and women as being in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (84). This non-teleological concept of history is very important. Much like education, humanity, in its hubris state, sees history as solely owned and controlled by humanity in general, and certain elites in specific. While Freire advocates for a non-teleological and polyvalent view of history, in my opinion, he does not take it far enough. He writes, “[Animal’s] ahistorical life does not occur in the ‘world,’ taken in its strict meaning; for the animal, the world does not constitute a ‘not-I’ which could set him apart as an ‘I’” (98). Throughout the book Freire continually re-establishes man’s centrality in the universe and opposition to animality (82, 84, 97-102, 125). This is a very “rationalistic” view of humanity, and the universe, perpetuated by philosophers who saw animals as nothing more than biological machines which mindlessly reacted to their environment (Descartes 40). As such history, and by extension praxis, is solely owned and controlled by humanity (Freire 100-101). Yet this is a limit-situation within Freire’s thought which inhibits a progressive egalitarian society which is not oppressive in its nature and design[4]. The reason for this is due to the philosophical positioning of man as above animality and the entrenchment of a natural hierarchy within the animal kingdom. This is then used by the elites to justify the “naturally” oppressive order within the social system, as was done with the “Great Chain of Being” during the middle ages; moreover, such mentalities tend to give rise to the divine nature of man and thus a religious order, which means a social order[5]. Yet humanity is no more than a rational animal amongst a myriad of rational animals (Macintyre 1-43). To actually decentre humanity towards that of pure animality allows us to conceive of ourselves as the result of the universe’s praxis, rather than the creators of praxis. We reside in the universe’s praxis, and through it, create humanity’s praxis. Once  humanity reconceptualises itself as no more than animal, not only do we all become equal, but everything, all the biodiversity, planets, stars and galaxies of the universe, become equal. It is only within this decentralized state of human conception that we can become truly egalitarian and non-oppressive; not only amongst humanity but within relation to the holistic Ecology and universe.

On a less theoretical note, there are some practical ways in which we can foster a more egalitarian society which is not oppressive. One such way is to create inclusive and economically diverse communities. Traditionally community development as centred around the homogenization of race, ethnicity and class constructs. This creates objectification and dehumanization along community lines. Such situations tend to accentuate differences while diminishing commonalities.

In conjunction with this there needs to be an acceptance of diversity  within how a person chooses to live their lives. In the words of Freire, “The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves’” (74). For example, there are some, not all, homeless people who want to live their life that way. They do not want identification, a mortgage, two kids and a dog. These people do not want to integrate themselves within the dominant social construction but desire to live off the grace of others. So rather than condemning them, and trying to “help” them see their “folly”, we should accept them as community members and attempt to create a social structure which allows them to flourish within that capacity.

Yet ultimately all of this depends on conceptualizing humanity as continually decentred. Only when we can see that there is no hierarchy of being will we be able to truly embrace the diversity of being and becoming – the historicity and praxis of the universe’s fabric. Once we finally embrace the diversity of being we will be able to become truly egalitarian and non-oppressive in nature.

All of this culminates into the question: How can education foster an ecological world view and society? An ecological world view encapsulates everything just articulated; additionally, it incorporates humanity’s intrinsic integration with nature. Only when we continually redefine the educators of society, and create an egalitarian society which is not oppressive, will humanity be in process to becoming ecological. Of course all of this goes back to the base premise on which my educational philosophy is based; that is, the core of the universe is educational and we are the products of its evolutionary educational processes. Put in this term of radical decentralization, humanity can finally see itself as, not only animal, but purely natural and thus: ecological. Yet by having man as central to the universe, as the pinnacle, even divine, manifestation of intelligence and education, creates an oppositional and domineering relationship with ecology[6]. So core to answering this question is the continual decentring of humanity.

In addition to decentring humanity we need to redefine value within society and economy. Ecological integrity is intimately linked to economy. Any economy necessarily metabolizes nature; yet ecological integrity is dependant on a balanced metabolism of nature. In addition, an economy is structured by what we value. Capitalism only values infinite capital accumulation (profit) within the finite structure of our planet’s ecology. This creates a hyperbolic economic metabolism. In order to redefine value we must undermine the Panopticism of society which compels it to a surplus capitalist value structure (Foucault 206). “The Panopticon, on the other hand, has the role of amplification … its aim is to strengthen the social forces – to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply”[7] (Foucault 208). Capitalism itself drives the Panopticon because it facilitates the accumulation of capital (profit), the only thing of value in capitalism, by maximizing the utility of individuals (Foucault 210-211, 218, 220-221). All of this contributes to the degradation of communal society and establishes oppression through radical individualization (Foucault 216). Within such an economic construct, humanity lives in opposition to each other, mercilessly competing for the dopamine injection of profit and frivolous consumption. Such a value structure is inherently oppressive, hierarchical and ecocidal; in short, Panopticism is a limit-situation which needs a critical problem-posing curriculum to overcome. “As critical perception is embodied in action, a climate of hope and confidence develops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations” (Freire 99).

All of this ultimately boils down to creating an educational curriculum which utilizes valuable educators who progress diversity through a critical problem-posing framework that decentres humanity and undermines the Panopticon. Yet most important in all of this, and to truly create an ecological education/curriculum, we need to create a continuity of experience which fosters growth and is integrated with nature. Dewey argues that there is always a continuity of experience, and always growth within that. Yet some continuity experiences are mis-educative, and reinforce behaviours which are detrimental to human flourishing; while some experiences are educative and progress human flourishing (Dewey 35-38). Thus, to encourage an ecological world view and society, we must foster continuity experiences which are deeply connected to nature, diversity and the decentralization of humanity within the context of the universe. It is in the development of ecological continuity experiences, which are problem-posing in nature and utilize a diversity of educators, where the reconceptualising our human condition is actualized.

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Works Cited

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Penguin: Toronto, 2003.

Dewey, John. Experience & Education. Touchstone, New York: 1997.

Egan, Kieran. “Competing Voices for the Curriculum.” Simon Fraser University: Education Department. Simon Fraser University. 24 July 2010 < http://www.
educ.sfu.ca/kegan/Competingvoices.html>.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment. Vintage Books, New York: 1995.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, New York: 2000.

Holmes, Eddie. “The Evolution of Emerging Viruses.” actionbioscience.org. March 2008. American Institute of Biological Sciences. 22 July 2010 < http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/ho
lmes.html>.

Macintyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.

Martin, Jane Roland. “There’s Too Much to Teach.” Contemporary Issues in Curriculum. Ed. Allen C. Ornstein. Pg. 43-56. Pearson Education, Toronto: 2003.

O’Hagan, Timothy. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey. Pg. 55-60. Routledge, London: 2001.


[1] This of course is in direct contradiction to how Freire conceived of the word, “Only human beings are praxis – the praxis which, as the reflection and action which truly transform reality, is the source of knowledge and creation” (100-101).  I will explore this later on in this paper.

[2] In fact let us not fool ourselves into thinking we can now, or ever, truly capture the full breadth of “educators”.

[3] For example, media would not have been considered an educator 200 or a 1000 years ago.

[4] In Freire’s defence much of the work on animal intelligence, like dolphins, capuchins, chimps, elephants and others, was not yet widely known, or even accepted, when he wrote this.

[5] There are of course ecological implications of such a mind set which will be discussed later in this essay.

[6] And as noted earlier this mentality also perpetuates such domineering relationships within society.

[7] The allusion to Christianity is pronounced: Gen. 1:22, 1:28

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