Reprinted from COMMON DREAMS
There is a new story emerging that is replacing the old story of human existence. The new story is urging us to learn who we are as humans and how to live so we do not destroy the planet. What is the old story and why is the new story so essential to our existence?
Change is taking place so rapidly we do not realize it is happening. Technology, communication, travel, global economics are transforming our lives. At the same time, there is abundant evidence we are facing dramatic ecological and environmental changes that are threatening existence as we know it.
We are living like the “unsinkable” Titanic, ignoring the icebergs ahead of us. We are entering a new time, “new waters” and unless we regain awareness of who we are as humans and our relationship with the environment, our present course may find us facing “icebergs” from which there is no escape. What is the new story and how is it connected to education?
With the help of anthropologists, archeologists, historians, we have a good sense of our evolution from hunter-food gatherers to the present. We know the impact of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. We know that empires have been built on the backs of slaves and armies. We know that myths, superstition, religions have attempted to interpret and offer explanations or “stories” to satisfy the times. Stories get told and passed on and often changed along the way.
In 1976, during the Bicentennial Celebration of this country, Walter Cronkite interviewed an Indian chief who said, “The biggest mistake the settlers made was not to learn how to live on this continent from us.” The English who came brought their way of life, their farming and building techniques. But more than that, they brought a consciousness of their place in the universe which was fundamentally different than the natives. The hunter-food gathering societies that lived prior to the agricultural societies did not see themselves as separate from nature, but rather a part of nature. Men, women and children gathered food and shared it equally. It was important to their survival that everyone participated and thrived. There was no wealth and no poverty.
The teachings of the Bible influenced the Europeans and central to the Judaic-Christian view was that man has “dominion” over nature and all non-human creatures. The Black Death of the 13th century that wiped out over a third of Europe and entire populations of towns had a major impact. People believed that man was doomed unless he was chosen by God to survive and that the way to salvation was good works. The notion of heaven and hell, damnation and grace led to the puritan ethic-hard work and virtue would be rewarded in the afterlife. The Protestant Reformation liberated people from dependence on the church but emphasized a personal relationship with God. This gave rise to the merchant class, the accumulation of wealth through exploitation of workers and nature, plundering of other countries as the need for markets and resources grew. Empire building resulted in wars, death, wealth, poverty and destruction-often in the name of God’s will or Manifest Destiny.
Decarte’s view that the only reality we can know was that which could be measured, Newtonian physics and the emphasis on reason as the path to knowledge dominated the universities. The idea that there might be another way of thinking and living was not known or considered. Everything made sense from that particular point of view. It was not until the relatively recent realization that we were killing the planet and that human existence is threatened that we began to question the “story” we were living. In addition, scientists were becoming aware of phenomenon that could not be explained by current views. New sciences were evolving; quantum physics, astrophysics, bio-genetics and others were probing deeper into the mysteries of existence. A new story of the relationship between humans and the non-human world was emerging.
The new story inspires a new consciousness, a new awareness that we are part of nature not separate or dominant. Though we are human, we are not superior to non-humans-trees, plants and all other creatures. We are equal inhabitants of the planet. When we speak of rights, we must not only speak of human rights but the rights of all living entities. That doesn’t mean we don’t cut down trees to build houses, but that we do so with reverence and in ecologically sound ways-replacing what we cut. We don’t clear-cut huge rainforests to graze cattle for Mac Donalds causing dramatic changes to the atmosphere and climate. As Ghandi said, “There are enough natural resources for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.”
The separation of humans from the non-human world, the view that humans have dominion and can take from nature at the expense of the health of water, land, air and other creatures that share the planet is the old story. The consciousness that the earth is a living organism and that humans are part of the organism is essential to the new story. Just as the cells and organs of our body are interconnected, the health of a body and the health of the planet are dependent on the harmonious interaction of all the parts.
At present, our approach to education is perpetuating the old story. The emphasis on reason, memorizing facts, preparing young people for an economy that does not see the environment as essential to our existence, that ignores the “icebergs” ahead is jeopardizing the lives of our children and their children. Our education is still preparing young people for our past and not their future. The new story is challenging us to live in an ecologically sound way and to have an approach to education that cultivates the heart as well as the mind, inspires cooperation rather than competition, empathy and love instead of violence and hate. The challenge to bring the new story to our children is a huge task for parents and educators since the old story is so dominant.
The good news is we now have the technology to reach children in ways we’ve never had before. Computers, television, movies, music and most important, teachers who are empowered to create learning experiences that cultivate an ecological consciousness give us a powerful opportunity to teach the new story. Having a course in ecology is not enough. The entire curriculum must explore the relationship between humans and non-humans. All courses must be interconnected and help young people learn how to live their lives in harmony with nature not separate from it.
The present approach to education and the “leave no child behind” emphasis grows out of the industrial age model that is obsolete. The new story can awaken in our children their full potential to live gently, peacefully, lovingly. I believe that all children are born with the capacity to learn from the wonder of their existence, that learning is a natural as breathing and that education can nurture the love of learning rather than stifle it, as now happens in so many instances. The new story has much to offer and we now have the capacity to tell it. My question is who of us will be the story tellers?
Arnold Greenberg, a former educator and founder of three schools, now lives off the grid in a small cabin in East Blue Hill, Maine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org