May 9th, 2010

Reflections on Teaching the Course “Curriculum Reform in an Era of Global Warming”

By Chet Bowers

In the summer of 2009 I taught a course for students who were in the last stage of their masters program. I titled it “Curriculum Reform in an Era of Global Warming”, which should have left no doubts as to what the focus would be.  Twenty-four students representing different subject areas signed up for the five week course. Years of listening to students and faculty in teacher education programs discuss the ideas of prominent  thinkers in the field led me to conclude that the survey approach fails to provide an in-depth understanding of the importance and limitations of the ideas of educational theorists and the issues they addressed.  The survey courses too often leave students with little more than a few phrases and concepts of such theorists such as John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, and Nel Noddings, but little understanding of the cultural/ecological issues they did not address.  I was determined to avoid turning the course on curriculum reform in an era of global warming into a survey that would leave students with little more than the sound bites of progressive and, now, “sustainability” thinking.

The following overview of the course, as well as the list of readings that were the focus of class discussions, clearly indicated that we were going to engage in an in-depth examination of the different ways in which the teacher, in a variety of subject areas, could introduce reforms that would support the efforts of grass roots community groups as well as political leaders who are attempting to reduce the human impact on natural systems.  The following is the syllabus that served as the conceptual roadmap for the course.



TED 610    Curriculum Reform in an Era of Global

Instructor:  Chet bowers

Overview of Course:

In taking Albert Einstein’s observation seriously that the same mind-set that created the problem cannot be relied upon to fix it, this course will have four main foci.  First, it will reframe the current approaches to thinking about curriculum reform in ways that take account of cultural patterns of thinking and relationships that contribute to a smaller ecological footprint.  Special attention will be given to what teachers need to understand about how the language in the curriculum and in classroom discussions often reproduces the misconceptions of an earlier era when environmental limits were not understood. How to help students recognize when it is important to reframe the meaning of words in ways that are culturally and ecologically informed will also be given attention. Second, attention will be given to how curriculum reform can help students recognize the connections between a consumer dependent lifestyle and the deepening ecological crises. The nature and ecological importance of the local cultural commons (the intergenerational knowledge, skills, and mentoring relationships that are less dependent upon consumerism) will also be considered, as well as the teacher’s role in helping students become more aware of the differences in their personal development and the ecological impact as they move between the relationships and activities within the local cultural commons and settings where they are consumers. Third, attention will be given to what students need to understand about how computer mediated learning contributes to a smaller ecological footprint within certain contexts as well as how it undermines the local cultural commons.  How to incorporate into the curriculum an understanding of the cultural transforming characteristics of computers will also be addressed. Fourth, attention will be given to how to explain the nature of ecological intelligence, as well as how to exercise it in daily experience.

Course Evaluation:

As one of the purposes of the course is learning to recognize in existing curriculum materials patterns of thinking that reinforce the ecologically unsustainable industrial/consumer oriented paradigm, students will be asked to write two short papers that are based on a critical examination of existing curriculum materials—which may include a software program.  The final will take the form of a collaborative project that leads to the development of curriculum materials that are informed by the issues discussed in the class—and that can be used by public school teachers.

Readings  posted as online can be accessed by Googling C. A. Bowers for articles and the Ecojustice Press.

Schedule of Topic and Readings: (Each session met for two hours)

Session 1 Introduction to themes of the course

Session 2 Scientific reports on different aspects of the ecological crises

Read:  L. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, pp. 48-84

P & A Shabecoff, Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, pp. 43-48

Session 3 An example of how market forces transform community traditions of self-sufficiency—lessons for classroom teachers

Video: “Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh”

Session 4 Ignoring the smaller ecological footprint found in local communities—both rural and urban

Read: A. Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, pp. 305-323

C. Bowers,  Online book, Toward a Post-Industrial Consciousness, Ch. 6 “Revitalizing the Cultural Commons in an Era of Political

and Ecological Uncertainties”

Session 5 Do the ideas of Dewey and Freire contribute to addressing the ecological crises?

Read:  J. Dewey, Democracy and Education, pp. 49-62

P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp. 57-77

C. Bowers, Online book, Transitions….   Ch. 10  “Rethinking Social Justice Issues Within an Eco-Justice Conceptual/Moral Framework”

Session 6 Curricular implications of understanding how language carries forward the misconceptions of earlier thinkers who were unaware of ecological limits

Read: C. Bowers,  Online book, Toward a Post-Industrial Consciousness Ch. 3 “The Linguistic Colonization of the Present by the Past”

C. Bowers,  Online book, Toward a Post-Industrial Consciousness,  Ch. 7 “Toward an Ecologically Sustainable Vocabulary”

Session 7 Continued discussion of language issues in the curriculum

Session 8 Language issues that marginalize awareness of the intergenerational knowledge and skills that have a smaller ecological footprint and reduce dependence upon a money economy .

Read:  E. Shils, Tradition “In the Grip of the Past”  pp. 34-67

Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of a New Class, pp. 28-29


Session 9 The nature and educational implications of ecological intelligence

Read:  G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind,  pp. 316-320

C. Bowers, Online book, Educating for Ecological Intelligence, Ch. 2 “Educational   Reforms that Foster Ecological Intelligence”

Session 10 Continued discussion of how to explain and demonstrate ecological intelligence

Session 11 Curricular issues related to introducing students to their cultural commons

Read:  C. Bowers, Online book, Transforming Environmental Education Ch. 4, “The Classroom Practice of Commons Education”

Session 12 Curricular approaches to introducing students to the different forms of enclosure of the cultural commons

Read: W. Ong, Orality and Literacy, pp. 30-77

N. Klein, The Shock Doctrine, pp. 3-22

Session 13 Curriculum models that enable students to recognize different forms of enclosure

Read:  Online readings to be assigned

Session 14 The issue of language again: the ecological implications of using Orwellian political language

Read: D. Brooks, “The Long Voyage Home”   (handout)

G. Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 3-34

C. Bowers, Online book, Transitions….  Ch. 8  The Double Bind of Environmentalists Who Identify Themselves as Liberals”

****** Bring your laptops to this session*******

Session 15 The political context of commons education

Read:  C. Bowers, Online book, Transforming Environmental Education, Ch. 5

Session 16 Curricular importance of “thick description” of students’ embodied/culturally mediated experience and the teacher’s role as a cultural mediator

Read: C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture. Pp. 5-17

C. Bowers, Online book, Toward a Post-Industrial Consciousness, Appendix: “Handbook on how to introduce cultural commons and ecojustice issues into the curriculum”

Session 17 Introducing students to the cultural colonizing characteristics of computers

Read:  C. Bowers, “The Janus Machine: How Computers Contribute to the Enclosure of the Cultural Commons”  In the online journal, Language and Ecology, Vol. 2, No. 2

Session 18 Review of key concepts and how they can be introduced in the curriculum—and into discussions with colleagues

Sessions 19-21 Student in-class presentations of model curricula, and discussion of pedagogical issues


Establishing the Key Priorities and a Conceptual Framework

I made several assumptions that were proven correct during the first few meetings of the class.  The first was that most of the students’ previous classes were focused on social justice issues, but that these issues were framed in terms of middle class values and thus did not take account of the social changes that the deepening ecological crisis is already bringing about.  The other assumption was that most of their educational and discipline-based courses reinforced many of the deep cultural assumptions that were established before there was any awareness of environmental limits—including misleading assumptions that marginalized awareness of the role that language plays in the social construction of what is taken to be reality.  In effect, I would be challenging them to think against the grain of many cultural orthodoxies that are widely shared by nearly all classroom teachers and university professors.

The first readings were intended to be a wake-up call about the nature and extent of the ecological crisis.  In addition to the chapters from Lester Brown’s book, which documented changes taking place in different ecosystems such as glaciers and aquifers, and from Poisoned Profits on the widespread effects of the industrially produced toxins that are causing cancers and abnormal physical and mental developments, I asked them to view the Nova program titled “Extreme Ice.”  Observing how scientists were measuring the rate at which major glaciers in Alaska and Iceland were melting and moving into the sea seemed to make an impact.  But it was momentary.  This was primarily because the students, in spite of their personal sense of being financially limited, interacted daily in the natural and built environment of Eugene that continues to communicate the plenitude of a consumer society.  That the Earth’s natural systems are being severely stressed is not evident in Eugene!  Nevertheless, the brief introduction to what scientists are documenting about climate change and the other forms of environmental degradation served as a reference point that I kept referring to throughout the course.

The other reference point was established by showing the video based on Helena Norbert-Hodge’s book, which was also the title of the video “Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh”.  This documentary of the transition from a largely commons-centered community lifestyle that was intergenerationally connected and sustained by patterns of local decision making and mutual support to a western style of existence marked by greater dependence upon a money economy,  manufactured products, and a growing sense of individualism served throughout the course as a concrete example of the ecological and community destructive nature of the industrial market system of production and consumption. Stressed was the point that the many examples of cultural commons practices in Ladakh should not lead to thinking of the cultural commons as only existing in Third World cultures.  Rather, the important insights to be taken from the documentary are the ways in which the cultural commons, which differ from culture to culture, are being undermined by the economic and technological forces of enclosure.  It was further emphasized that the enclosure (transformation) of the cultural commons, which exists in both rural and urban settings, magnifies the ecological footprint of the industrial/consumer-dependent lifestyle as well as contributes to the loss of local decision-making and to the loss of patterns of mutual support within communities. If these points had not been emphasized some students were likely to interpret the subsequent discussions of how to engage students in learning about their local cultural commons as an effort to revert back to an earlier period of cultural development, instead of recognizing that cultures that have taken different pathways to development are facing the same pressures of being integrated into a global market economy.

As Al Gore’s film was still being discussed in the media, students were assigned the last chapter of his book, An Inconvenient Truth, which listed changes in behaviors that would reduce the pressures on global warming.  His list of ecologically sustainable behaviors, which mostly involved changes in consumer behaviors, was then juxtaposed with an in-depth discussion of the characteristics of the local cultural commons.  The chapter, “Revitalizing the Cultural Commons in an Era of Political and Ecological Uncertainties, provided an overview of the various cultural commons activities (that is, largely non-monetized activities) that can be found in all communities.  Important to this broader and more in-depth discussion was the introduction of how awareness of the participation in various activities of the local cultural commons goes unrecognized because of the nature of taken-for-granted patterns of thinking and behavior.  This was followed by a discussion of how the emphasis on print-based thinking and communication, which are reinforced by the media as well as by the high status accorded to print in public schools and universities, marginalizes awareness of contexts and tacit understandings—both essential to understanding how daily life is dependent upon the intergenerational knowledge and skills of the local cultural commons.  The chapter lists the diversity of cultural commons activities, ranging from the preparation and sharing of food to protesting the loss of civil liberties and the gains made by previous social justice movements.   Two issues were stressed in the discussion of the complexity of the cultural commons and the forces of enclosure.  The first related to how to integrate learning about the diversity of cultural commons activities in the students’ community.  The second issue related to how the lack of awareness of the different aspects of the local cultural commons, and of their community and ecological significance, leads to not resisting their integration into the market economy—which is accompanied by the loss of local decision making.  This part of the discussion laid the basis for the later discussion of the teacher’s mediating role in helping students develop the communicative competence necessary for deciding which aspects of the cultural commons need to be reformed or abandoned entirely, which aspects of the industrial/consumer-dependent culture should be carried forward, and which forms of enclosure need to be resisted.  The broader issue of how to educate for an ecologically sustainable future was continually mentioned as a way of framing the discussion.

The readings and discussions of the cultural commons, and the type of individualism that the industrial/consumer-oriented culture requires, set the framework for a brief discussion of the ideas of John Dewey and Paulo Freire.  Their key ideas were introduced for two reasons.  The first was that  most of the students had already encountered a largely non-critical presentation in their other professional courses.  The second reason was that the previous discussion of the cultural commons provided an ethnographically informed framework for recognizing how key assumptions underlying the thinking of Dewey and Freire, when introduced into other cultures, support the process of  colonization that undermines the local cultural commons—thus leading to the emancipated form of individualism that lacks the skills and mutual support system that make personal survival dependent upon consumerism.  The following was emphasized in the discussion of the ideas of Dewey and Freire: (1) both were Social Darwinian thinkers who assumed that there are three stages of human and cultural development and that their approach to knowledge represented the most evolved stage; (2)  both failed to understand the complex nature of socialization, including how their own ideas were based on the assumptions of European Enlightenment thinkers; (3) both misunderstood the complex nature of traditions and how they varied from culture to culture— thus, they were unable to recognize how the intergenerational knowledge and skills that sustained the cultural commons represented sources of resistance to unrestrained market capitalism; ( 4) both ignored how modernization was contributing to the environmental degradation of their times—with Freire ignoring the vast outpouring of concern about the deepening ecological crisis until just before his death.  In this section of the course, special attention was given to the difficulty students have in recognizing these limitations when they share many of the same assumptions that Dewey and Freire took for granted—and when they learn about these two educational reformers from professors who also share the same assumptions.

The point emphasized about Dewey and Freire not understanding the dynamics of cultural reproduction and thus of being little help in providing teachers with a key part of what should be their professional knowledge led to the next topic: the curricular and pedagogical implications of understanding how language carries forward the misconceptions and silences of earlier thinkers who were unaware of environmental limits. Students were assigned two readings from my online book, Toward a Post-Industrial Consciousness: Understanding the Linguistic Basis of an Ecologically Sustainable Future.   Following the reading of “The Linguistic Colonization of the Present by the Past”, the following issues were the focus of a discussion of teacher decision-making about whether the language of the curriculum was reinforcing the patterns of thinking of earlier culturally specific eras when there was no understanding of environmental limits and other cultural ways of knowing.

  1. How to understand that most words are metaphors.
  2. How the choice of analogs by earlier thinkers and the influence of earlier events continues to frame the current meaning of words—such as freedom, individualism, progress, tradition, markets, and so on.
  3. That words (metaphors) have a history and thus may carry forward  misconceptions and silences of earlier thinkers  who were influenced by the cultural assumptions of their era.
  4. That interpretative frameworks that organized social life over hundreds of years, influence behaviors and values, and marginalize awareness of aspects of experience, are based on root metaphors.  Root metaphors such as patriarchy, human-centeredness, individualism, mechanism, progress, etc., illuminate certain ways of understanding while hiding other possibilities.
  5. That it is possible, indeed necessary in light of the ecological crisis, to reframe the meaning of much of the modernizing vocabulary by identifying analogs that are culturally and ecologically informed—words such as progress, individualism, intelligence, community, technology, poverty, wealth, etc..
  6. That the analogs based on the culture’s understanding of the attributes and thus the meaning of words such as woman, weed, wilderness, uncivilized, resource, and so forth carry forward how moral behavior is governed by the cultural understanding of the attributes of the other—person, plant, and physical environment.

Students were also asked to read the chapter titled “Toward an Ecologically Sustainable Vocabulary” which was used as the basis for a discussion of how teachers could encourage students to examine the history of words, including the cultural events and ideas that led to the earlier choice of analogs for such words (metaphors) such as woman, technology, tradition, property, individualism, nature, progress, wealth, and so forth.  Students were also asked to consider how they would go about incorporating into the curriculum at different grade levels the examples presented in the chapter on how many of the words (metaphors) in today’s modernizing curriculum could be reframed by the choice of analogs that reflect an awareness of differences in cultural traditions and that supported an ecologically sustainable lifestyle.  There was also a discussion of how the examples of reframing the meaning of commonly used metaphors reflected my own taken-for-granted cultural experiences and assumptions, and how taking account of other cultural ways of knowing could lead to the choice of different analogs—thus avoiding the problem of linguistic colonization where the analogs from the dominant culture are used to frame the meaning of English words that are expressed in other languages—such as  development, individualism, tradition, community, and so forth.

The discussion of the metaphorical nature of language and thinking was continually grounded through the use of examples from textbooks, educational software programs, and by giving close attention to the discourse in classrooms.  That most students in the class had been reinforced for years to assume that language is a conduit in a sender/receiver process of communication, it was necessary to provide many examples of how root metaphors served as taken-for-granted interpretative frameworks, and how these interpretative frameworks are highly useful in understanding certain aspects of experience, and how they also marginalize the ability to understand other areas.  It was suggested that one of the ways to introduce their students to the influence of root metaphors that had their origins in the distant past, and how they continue to reproduce earlier ways of understanding (many of which are still useful in certain contexts), was to have students identify the vocabulary excluded by different root metaphors—and thus how the excluded vocabulary marginalized awareness of other issues and possibilities   They were asked to consider the vocabulary that is excluded when mechanism, individualism, progress, patriarchy, evolution, and ecology are the root metaphors that serve as taken-for-granted interpretative frameworks.  As in all the previous discussions about how language carries forward earlier ways of thinking, as well as the values of the culture, attention was given to determining when students possess the necessary background of experience for connecting the classroom discussions with their own  experience.  Indeed, the point was emphasized that the students’ languaging processes should be used as examples, and that the most effective way of doing this was to have them reflect on words whose meanings (analogs) they take-for-granted, and how giving attention to different aspects of their culturally mediated embodied experiences leads to recognizing how the language that still carries forward earlier ways of thinking marginalizes awareness of different aspects of their present experience.

Several class sessions were devoted to this part of the teacher’s professional knowledge, which is largely ignored in most of their other courses.  As the simple idea that the language in the curriculum has a history, and that it carries forward patterns of thinking that continue to undermine the development of ecological intelligence that is needed if we are to slow the rate of environmental degradation, it nevertheless was so radically different from thinking that students construct their own ideas, that the rational process is free of cultural influences, and that there is such a thing as objective data and information, devoting two class session served only as an introduction.  The following class sessions, which were focused on different issues, involved making the connections to these language issues.

The readings from Edward Shils’ book Tradition, and the short selection from Alvin Gouldner’s The Future of Intellectual and the Rise of a New Class provided a transition to a different set of language and thus cultural issues.   As many of the cultural mainstream teachers have been socialized to think of traditions essentially as holidays and that other traditions, following the Enlightenment derived analogs, are impediments to individual self-realization and progress, Edward Shils’ ethnographically based overview of the traditions that are largely part of our taken-for-granted experience provided these future teachers with the culturally grounded vocabulary necessary for challenging the current emphasis on change and progress that marginalizes an awareness of the local cultural commons.  For the members of the class who were being socialized in their other professional courses to adopt the critical pedagogy emphasis on equating the promotion of critical thinking with continual change (which they assume always to be progressive in nature), it was particularly important to introduce examples of how so many aspects of their taken-for-granted experience, as well as the cultural practices they are aware of, are based on the intergenerational knowledge, skills, and practices (traditions) carried forward from the past.

Introducing these future teachers to a more complex understanding that traditions represent the history of a culture, and thus are not always shared by other cultures, provided them with the vocabulary necessary for helping students recognize their own taken-for-granted traditions—and, more importantly, to being open to considering the forms of intergenerational knowledge and skills that would enable them to live less consumer dependent lives and to reduce their ecological footprint.  The critical pedagogy view of tradition, which is based on a non-critical acceptance of the Enlightenment derived analogs that have framed the meaning of tradition for hundreds of years and has been used to justify the cultural colonization of other groups, leaves teachers with a limited and thus distorted vocabulary for introducing their students to the many ways traditions are misunderstood—including the ecological and political implications of these misunderstandings.  The point was emphasized that if students were socialized to view traditions as impediments to progress they would lack the more complex understandings essential for distinguishing between what needs to be conserved and what needs be changed. This part of the course also provided the conceptual basis for the subsequent discussion of the nature of ecological intelligence and how to reinforce it through a community-centered and historically and ecologically informed curriculum.

Before taking on this complex and radically different view of intelligence, the class was asked to read a short selection from Alvin Gouldner’s book that focused on two critically important issues:  the pattern of discourse that has been accorded high-status by academics and their students, and the ways in which print-based storage and communication reinforces abstract thinking and the taken-for-granted practice of assuming that the printed word has a universal meaning.  The discussion of the “culture of critical discourse” brought out not only the rules that govern speech considered by the promoters of high status knowledge to be worthy of attention, and thus the patterns of discourse that are marginalized as not legitimate—which are mostly the discourse patterns of oral cultures; but also how these rules have been the basis for cultural colonization.  The discussion of privileging print-based thinking and cultural storage led, in turn, to a discussion of the difference between oral cultures and to the role of face-to-face communication in sustaining the cultural commons.  The discussion of the differences, which vary from culture to culture, between print-based thinking and communication and oral based thinking and communication brought out another aspect of cultural reproduction that teachers need to understand in order to help their students  become aware of the differences.  These differences are of major importance, as the distinction between literacy and illiteracy has been a primary way of distinguishing between modern cultural and traditional (“backward”) cultures.  This distinction, in turn, has been used to colonize and thus exploit cultures represented as backward and thus in need of modernization  (“colonization”). By representing oral cultures as backward, the possibility that they have taken different approaches to developing ecological intelligence that enabled them to live within the limits and possibilities of their bioregions has been ignored.   Also discussed was how the long tradition of privileging print over the spoken word has contributed to the widespread indifference to the rapid disappearance of many of the world’s languages.  These languages have not only served as storehouses of intergenerational knowledge of local ecosystems but also as examples of diverse cultural approaches to exercising ecological intelligence.

The next topic in the course focused on how to understand the nature and importance of ecological intelligence and how to foster it in the various community contexts in which  teachers would find themselves. The earlier discussions about how the language of the curriculum carries forward earlier ecologically uninformed patterns of thinking provided the core ideas for beginning to think about the nature of ecological intelligence. The tradition of western philosophy and political/economic theories going back to Plato, and reinforced in the writings of such current philosophers as Leo Strauss, Richard Rorty, and Mark Johnson–and by educational theorists ranging from Freire to Jean Piaget and Howard Gardner– has been based on the assumption that the individual is the basic social unit.  This generalization, the students were told, should not be interpreted to mean that throughout western history there has been only one way of thinking about the nature and prospects of the individual.  Indeed, in the feudal era the individual was understood as a subject, and in the writings of Locke, Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill the individual was represented as having political agency. The German romantics saw the individual as a source of creativity—while many of today’s educators (particularly in North America) view individuals as oppressed if they are not constructing their own ideas and values.  While few students in the class possessed this historical understanding of the different ways individualism has been understood in theWest, they nevertheless had been socialized for years to the idea that society is made up of individuals, and that their task is to contribute to the greater autonomy and thus self-direction of the student.

Today, this view of the individual is taken-for-granted by vast numbers of people who possess only a surface knowledge of current political and environmental issues, and whose limited knowledge too often has been derived from media demagogues—yet assume that their judgments are beyond questioning.  In spite of how widespread this phenomenon has become, the students in the class initially did not question whether promoting the idea that individuals should construct their own ideas might be contributing to undermining the democratic process itself.  The class was asked to consider whether the emphasis on individual autonomy too often leads to ignoring that democratic decision making is predicated on citizens possessing a deep knowledge of the issues and a capacity to engage in a far ranging discussion that is mindful of the need to conserve previous gains in social justice and of what contributes to an ecologically sustainable future.  If I teach the course again, I will use the current widespread indifference to basing political judgments on an in-depth knowledge of the issues as an example of double bind thinking, and point out that today’s anti-intellectualism and friend/enemy approach to politics cannot be accounted for in terms of a missing or defective gene, and therefore must be accounted for in terms of the miseducation that occurs in the home, school, and the media.

Laying the conceptual basis for understanding the nature of ecological intelligence, and why classroom teachers should help students recover the capacity to think of themselves in terms of the quality of their relationships with others, including the natural systems they are nested in, is one of the most difficult and unrecognized challenges facing teacher educators.  I introduced the idea of ecological intelligence by having the students read a short selection from Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind and the chapter I wrote titled “Educating for Ecological Intelligence” which had been influenced by several key ideas derived from Bateson’s explanation of how both humans and non-human participants in the cultural and natural ecosystems respond to the information conveyed through the changes in the patterns that connect—ranging from the genetic level to changes in behaviors in plants, animals, and humans—even in the larger systems such as changes in the chemistry of the world’s oceans as well as the responses of plants and animals to changes in their habitats.  One of Bateson’s distinctive contributions to understanding the layered and interactive nature of ecosystems of which cultures are a part, and thus to understanding the nature of ecological intelligence, was to point out that the sources of information circulating through an ecosystem and between different interacting ecosystems are the differences which make a difference.

Following Bateson’s basic insight, differences were explained as basic units of information that we respond to, unless our cultural ways of thinking condition us to ignore them—such as being oriented to the importance of our subjective feelings and ideas or being cut off from what we could learn from our senses because we are engaged in texting and cell phone communication with others.  The most easily understood examples include how differences in the non-verbal patterns of communication are the differences that make a real difference in how relationships are understood and responded to, and how we give attention to the differences which make a difference when driving in traffic.  A quote from Gary Snyder brings out how in the natural world differences make a difference in the response of other beings:

The world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of report spreading from one’s passage. The thrush darts back, the jay squalls, the beetle scuttles under the grasses, and the signal is passed along.  The information passed through the system is intelligence.  The Practice of the Wild, p. 19.

What Snyder refers to as “information”  are the differences which make a difference—and what he calls “intelligence” are the responses to the differences (changes in the behavior ) in the relationships that move through the system.

Bateson’s point is that while we are socialized to think in terms of the Cartesian pattern that separates the individual from the world being acted upon (the mind/body separation), but in reality the differences taking place in the environment we are interacting with affect our responses—even when we continue to think that we are acting on a world that is non-intelligent (that is, incapable of responding to the information flowing through the local ecosystem).  As Bateson put it, the unit of intelligence is the individual plus the environment.  He goes on to explain that the unit of survival is not the rational and autonomous individual but the system as a whole.

The challenge in this part of the course was to provide examples that the teachers could use in their own classrooms to help students recognize that their everyday experiences always involve relationships and the patterns that reflect how different systems are self-sustaining while being part of larger systems. I also pointed out that the emphasis on print based thinking, as well as other technologically based sources of abstract thinking, have the effect of reinforcing an attitude of indifference toward the information we receive through the senses.  Our senses are especially attuned to being aware of the changes circulating throughout the cultural and natural ecosystems.  I emphasized here that if the students are unaware of the multiple pathways of communication that connect them with the cultural and natural ecologies in which they are nested, they are unlikely to be aware of whether their responses have a constructive or destructive impact on the other participants in the interacting systems.  In effect, being unaware is a difference that will have an impact on the other participants and systems that make up the web of life.   For example, we are just becoming aware of the consequences of our collective state of indifference to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that have been absorbed by the world’s oceans are changing the chemistry of the water, which is a difference that is making a difference in the viability of the ocean’s food chain—which, in turn, is beginning to make a difference in the protein that people rely upon.  The “ripple” effect, to use Snyder’s metaphor, will make a difference at the genetic level of the child’s physical and mental development.

The following was briefly introduced as a way of helping teachers recognize how they might be obstructing or reinforcing the students’ ability to exercise ecological intelligence.

(A) Ways in which ecological intelligence is undermined:

  1. Reinforcing the idea that the student should seek to be more autonomous which occurs when students are encouraged to construct their own knowledge and values.
  2. Reinforcing the pattern of thinking that represents plants, animals, people, events, data, and so forth as independent entities.
  3. Reinforcing the idea that change is inherently progressive in nature, and that critical thinking is the engine of change.
  4. Reinforcing the idea that the individual is an independent thinker, observer, and source of action on an external environment (the Cartesian mind/body separation).
  5. Reinforcing the idea that traditions obstruct progress, that competition leads to the best ideas and plans of action, and that science and technology will solve all environmental problems.
  6. Reinforcing the idea that words refer to real things and events, and can be universally generalized– and that there is such a thing as objective knowledge and data.

(B)  Ways in which the exercise of ecological intelligence is reinforced:

  1. Encouraging students to recognize that life sustaining processes always involve relationships, including how ideas, values, events, behaviors, policy decisions and so forth are embedded in and influence interacting cultural and natural systems.   The “difference which makes a difference” that Bateson says represents a basic unit of information is another way of saying that relationships are an inescapable aspect of life forming and sustaining processes.  The nature of the relationships may also be driven by what he refers to as an ecology of bad or life destroying ideas and values.
  2. Encouraging students to recognize that the language they take for granted is part of a linguistic ecology—that words have a history and that not recognizing this may lead to relying upon earlier ways of thinking that provided the conceptual basis for the Industrial Revolution that has now entered the digital phase of globalization.  There is also a need to encourage students to identify culturally and ecologically informed analogs that will reframe the meaning of words and thus the students’ ability to consciously recognize the relationships that are ecologically unsustainable as well as those that are.
  3. Encouraging students to recognize how abstract thinking marginalizes the need to give attention to the immediate context—and the patterns within different cultural and natural systems that connect.
  4. Encouraging students to recognize that critical thinking has a role to play in the exercise of ecological intelligence.  It should take into account both of what needs to be intergenerationally renewed and what needs to be radically changed.  Students should be encouraged to examine how critical thinking is also used by corporations and other groups who want to advance their interests over what represents the common good.
  5. Encouraging students to consider the differences between oral and print based forms of cultural storage and communication—especially how these differences take account of local cultural and natural systems contexts.
  6. Encouraging students to shift from thinking of themselves as autonomous actors and observers of an external social and environmental world to basing their self-identity on how their relationships contribute to the well-being of others in both the cultural and natural ecologies they are embedded in.

The point was made that the way to keep these issues in mind is to give close attention to the language in the curriculum and in classroom discussions.  It was also emphasized that these two sessions on ecological intelligence represented only an introduction, and that by giving attention to mentoring relationships they would gain a better understanding of the role that moral reciprocity plays in exercising ecological intelligence.

In moving to another set of curricular and pedagogical issues, this time expanding on the earlier introduction to how the local cultural commons needs to become part of the curriculum, the focus was shifted to how to engage students in community-centered activities that represent in many instances the daily practice of ecological intelligence.  This generalization is qualified by the phrase “in most instances” as there are examples of the cultural commons that carry forward prejudices and forms of exploitation.  In the earlier discussions of the cultural commons the point was made that students should not be given a romanticized view that glosses over the need to exercise critical thought about which aspects of the intergenerational knowledge and skills not only meet today’s social justice standards but also reduce people’s dependence upon consumerism and the seemingly endless treadmill of trying to escape the consequences of going into debt in an era when lifetime employment can no longer be taken for granted.

The readings for the next three meetings of the class included the chapter titled “The Classroom practice of Commons Education”, the chapter from Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and a chapter from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.  The readings focused on practical suggestions for how to integrate the local cultural commons into the curriculum—both in terms of learning about and participating in the cultural commons. Also discussed was how to understand the teacher’s mediating role in helping students become explicitly aware of the range of differences between their experiences in different cultural commons activities and their experiences in the consumer/industrial production areas of culture. Why I continually referred to the commons rather than community was clarified in the discussion of how to introduce students to the different forms of enclosure of the cultural and environmental commons.  The word community is usually used in a manner that does not bring out the tension between what is shared in common and the market and ideological forces that undermine the common good.  While none of the readings addressed directly the social justice issues, this was the part of the course that provided ecologically and culturally informed ways of meeting on the local level what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Second Bill of Rights, which was presented as part of his State of the Union Address in 1944.  Social justice issues largely revolve around issues of discrimination which lead to being caught in the cycle of poverty, limited opportunities in the areas of employment, housing, education, and activities related to the development of talents and skills.  These limitations were what the Second Bill of Rights was intended to rectify.  Given the global changes in ecosystems and corporate controlled economic/technological developments that undermine the possibility of achieving the social justice agenda outlined by President Roosevelt, the strategy that seems to have the most promise is the revitalization of the cultural and natural commons.

Before engaging students in a discussion of how to integrate the cultural commons into the curriculum, it was necessary to provide an overview of the different forms of intergenerational knowledge and skills, ranging from food and healing practices to the creative arts and civil liberties (that is, all aspects of community that are less dependent upon the market economy and that meet current social justice standards).   There were several points that needed special emphasis: (1) that automation and outsourcing were leading to fundamental changes in the economy that would lead to high levels of unemployment and that would make part- time employment the new norm; (2) that participating in different areas of the cultural commons leads to the development of personal skills, interests, and sense of community.  This, in turn, should lead to a different understanding of wealth—thus helping to break the industrial induced addiction to consumerism and associating wealth with the amount of money that one accumulates; (3) that while there would still be a need for an income, participating in the local cultural commons would also lead to meeting needs through the less-monetized economy of the commons.; (4) that changing from a consumer-dependent to a community-centered lifestyle of mutual support and engagement would have a smaller adverse impact on the natural environment.  It was also emphasized that addressing social justice issues in a way that focused on the individual and her/his need to become an equal participant in the middle class consumer lifestyle would not meet the need for community, for developing talents and skills valued by others in the community—and would certainly not slow the rate of environmental degradation already affecting hundreds of millions of lives.

The following suggestions for how to integrate the cultural commons into the curriculum were discussed.

  1. Introducing the cultural commons must include descriptions of the various local activities, how they are culturally diverse, and how they are being enclosed—which can lead to in-depth analysis of modern forces that are market oriented and driven by misconceptions and silences in the educational process.
  2. The students introduction should also be experientially based—where they are encouraged to do auto-ethnographies of their own cultural commons experiences, as well as engage in surveys of the largely non-monetized activities and relationships in the community.  Participating in these groups will lead to mentoring relationships that will contribute to students acquiring many of the competencies that Rolf Jucker has identified as essential to an ecologically sustainable future.  (Available at <rolf.jucker@sub-fee,ch>)
  3. The approach should be based on a phenomenological description of culturally embodied experiences rather than on print based descriptions.  It is  more a matter of identifying mentors, the complexity and interdependency of social networks,, as well as making explicit the student’s experience of community when involved in different areas of cultural commons.
  4. Helping students become explicitly aware of the differences in their culturally embodied experiences (including discovering interests, developing talents, participating in community supportive relationships)  as they move between engagement in some area of the cultural commons and in a monetized work setting is essential to developing the language necessary for clarifying the differences and for exercising communicative competence in resisting further forms of enclosure.
  5. Teachers need to understand their mediating role in helping students become explicitly aware of the difference between their experience in the cultural commons and in monetized relationships.  This involves knowing what questions to ask students about the taken-for-granted nature of their experiences.  It also involves not prescribing what the students should think before the relationships and ecological impacts have been fully explored—hopefully, this may lead students to recognize aspects of the scientific/industrial culture that are making positive contributions to humankind and to living more ecologically sustainable lives.
  6. Creating close alliances with different groups engaged in sustaining different aspects of the cultural commons will help to provide mentoring relationships that will contribute to the students’ competencies.

While each of these suggestions deserved a more in-depth discussion than allowed by the time constraints of the course, special attention was given to what is involved in being a cultural mediator who helps students make explicit what is not otherwise recognized as they move seamlessly from cultural commons to market/consumer experiences. Special attention was given to how to help students recognize what they otherwise take-for-granted, and to helping them to give voice to these differences—which in turn leads to their acquiring the vocabulary necessary for exercising communicative competence in resisting various forms of enclosure.  The problem of how to avoid turning the teacher’s cultural mediating role into a process of indoctrination was discussed, as were the different forms of enclosure.  The enclosure (transformation) by market forces was introduced in Klein’s chapter, and the ways in which print-based thinking, and how it differs from the oral communication so central to the intergenerational renewal of the cultural commons was, introduced in the chapter from Ong’s book.

In the session on how the Orwellian use of political language now dominates the American political scene began with most of the students in the class identifying  themselves as liberals. They had not considered that the people widely mislabeled as conservatives are actually in the market liberal tradition that is chiefly responsible for transforming both the cultural and environmental commons into new market opportunities, and are the primary sources of resistance to addressing the ecological crisis.  The reading of David Brooks’ article presented an Edmund Burke interpretation of conservatism that is consistent with the values and practices of the cultural commons, and that is also consistent with the environmental/community conservatism of Wendell Berry. Reading the key chapter in Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, provided an example of how the failure to recognize that words, including political terms, have a history that can lead to confused and thus ecologically problematic thinking.

Given that there are many people who still deny that there is an ecological crisis, it was thought necessary to engage the class in a discussion of how a commons-approach to curriculum reform might be viewed by different groups in the community.  One of the chief characteristics of participating in the cultural commons, by its very nature, limits the need to be a consumer—of fuel, processed food, the latest style of clothes, the newest computer-based technologies, drugs and medical services, commercialized sources of entertainment, and so forth.  The local chamber of commerce, as well as other members of the community whose lives depend upon “growing” the local economy and who are already aware that their economic world is changing in ways they are unprepared for, may claim that integrating the cultural commons into the curriculum, helping students clarify the ecological as well as differences in personal experiences between cultural commons and consumer based experiences, are examples of socialist or even communist indoctrination.

What is brought out in the chapter from the online book, Transforming Environmental Education, is that as teachers involve the mentors who carry forward various cultural commons traditions they are building an important base of community support. The people who are passing on skills and mentoring students in various activities will recognize that the commons-oriented curriculum is not a form of indoctrination to a foreign ideology.  A second recommendation was also discussed, which was the need for teachers to become informed about the environmental groups in the community, including the various churches that are beginning to promote the idea of environmental stewardship and ecologically informed activities in the community.  In effect, the best way for teachers to protect themselves is to establish close working relationships with community members who are actively strengthening what Robert Putnam refers to as “social capital” and which I prefer to call “cultural wealth”.

As it is difficult to become aware of the traditions of culture that are a taken-for-granted aspect of daily experience, I decided it would be important for the students to read Clifford Geertz’s description of “thick description” as it addresses directly what is often missing from the teacher’s professional preparation.  We discussed how difficult it is for teachers to recognize their own taken-for-granted beliefs and practices, and the pedagogical pitfalls that need to be avoided when helping students give voice to the cultural patterns they were socialized to accept as part of their taken-for-granted world.  One of the points that was probably not emphasized enough is how the teacher’s mediating role needs to avoid reinforcing the idea of individual autonomy. The process of making explicit the layers of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions and linguistic reproductions of past ways of thinking provides an opportunity for the teacher to bring to the attention of students how much of their embodied experience is culturally influenced.

The last segment of the course returned to the question of what teachers need to understand about the differences between orality and literacy. As the schools in which they will be employed have largely adopted computer-mediated learning as the way to improve educational “outcomes”, the class discussed the differences between orality and literacy by considering whether computer-mediated learning fosters or inhibits the development of ecological intelligence—which is dependent upon face-to-face communication rather than the abstract patterns of thinking reinforced by computers. The list of issues included the following:

  1. Computer mediated thinking and communication reinforce the conduit view (the sender/receiver) view of language.  Thus, computer mediated thinking makes it difficult to recognize that words are metaphors, and that they have a history rooted in specific cultural ways of thinking that can be traced to the past.  The current idea being promoted in many countries is that students should use computers as the primary resource for constructing their own knowledge.  This approach to educational reform ignores that the culture/metaphor/thought connections are hidden by the conduit view of language (the sender/receiver pattern of communication) that computers reinforce.
  2. The educational uses of computers, as well as in other settings, involve the encounter of the user (e.g. the student) with the mind of the people who wrote the program.  It is not an encounter with an objective representation of some aspect of “reality”.
  3. Only explicit forms of knowledge can be digitized—and these will reflect the interpretive framework of the observer.  That is, the aspects of cultural experience that are taken for granted, as well as tacit understandings and the lived context of human with human, and human relationships with the natural environment, cannot be digitized.  Even videos are unable to represent personal memory, taken for granted patterns of thinking, and other internal states of consciousness.  In a twist in the Cartesian mind/body separation, the visual and audio dimensions of experience that can be digitized are limited to the aspects of embodied experience that are accessible to the outside observer, which will be influenced in turn by the assumptions that the observer brings to the relationship.  What the outside observer cannot digitize are the internal states of consciousness—including the Other’s way of thinking of self-identity.
  4. Computer mediated learning and communication carries forward the gains and losses associated with the tradition of print-based storage and communication.  Like other uses of print, computers reinforce abstract thinking and communication, which leads to assuming that print-based representations of reality can be generalized across cultures.
  5. Educational software programs are based on the taken for granted patterns of thinking of the people who create them—and often reinforce the assumptions that further impede the process of relational thinking that is an aspect of ecological intelligence.
  6. There are many positive ways in which computers can be used: to map green spaces in the community, represent energy and toxic flows in the environment, and connect members of the community who are engaged in sustaining the local cultural commons.

Instead of having students write a final paper, they were asked to work in groups and to develop examples of model curricula that were informed by the ideas they encountered in the readings and class discussion.

Concluding Observations:

What was distinctive about the course was the focus on educational reforms that begin to address the deep cultural roots of the ecological crisis—with the major focus being on how the language of the curriculum too often carries forward the earlier deep cultural assumptions and analogs that provided conceptual direction to the industrial/consumer/individualistic lifestyle that is rapidly degrading the self-renewing capacity of natural systems. The other major focus was on how the existence of the local cultural commons provides part of the answer of how to rebuild community while at the same time reducing our carbon and toxic footprint.  I avoided taking the students on a tour of other approaches to curriculum reform that fail to address the connections between the ecological crises and the need to revitalize the mutual support systems within communities. A number of key ideas were introduced in ways that are likely to guide the teachers’ classroom decisions.  Hopefully, the students  in the class will remember the following: that the language in the curriculum is largely metaphorical and has a history, that there is a connection between individualism, consumerism, and the ecological crisis, and that promoting ecological intelligence requires becoming aware of the many ways that individualism is reinforced in the classroom and in the dominant culture generally—and that ecological intelligence involves, in part, giving close attention to interactive patterns within local contexts,   I say hopefully, as the prior socialization by their professional and non-professional-oriented professors, as well as the socialization to the taken-for-granted culture of the school in which they will find themselves, have a powerful reality shaping influence. If students taking this class introduce these reform proposals into their own classes, engage other teachers in a discussion of the language, cultural commons and ecological intelligence issues, and involve members of the community in discussions about the deep cultural changes that must be undertaken then the class will have been a success.

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Comments (1)

  1. Chet, your excellent article in the form of the cultural experience of an instructor with students and they with each other modeled the “thick description”, relationality and commons you were describing. I learned a lot from what you said and from your case study as a metaphor for what you were describing.

    I am working toward such an approach by encouraging and linking communities of practice face to face and then using NING to create a collegiate networking community on-line. Nascent efforts. The proof will be in how it all develops. Thanks for your good work for many years.