9 Education for Future Civilization

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students”. – bell hooks

The previous essays in this collection have explored the navigation of complexity. Complex systems – personal, social, global – confront each student coming up through any school. How are such students to learn? What is the most effective way to teach them? The passage above from bell hooks provides some clues. For one thing, future education cannot just be about information. It’s a matter of simple math. Knowledge is doubling on an exponential curve, but hours in the day are not expanding at all. Yes, students need facts. But what they need most of all are improved frames of reference. The big picture models featured in the other essays (world-systems, complex adaptive systems, metamodernism, etc.) all serve as cognitive organizers to allow facts to hang together in a coherent manner. The “decolonization” essay gives the lie to the “rise of the West” as a theme that anyone can embrace, yet the opposite view runs aground likewise on stubborn facts about scientific advancement, increasing human lifespans, and the spreading global taste for democracy. As that essay (and others) suggest, we need to co-create meanings though dialog and engagement. As hooks points out, that process is not merely intellectual. Spiritual growth must also play a role.

The very word “spiritual” triggers memories of endless religious wars, oppressions, inquisitions, and forced conversions, so let’s set all that aside. There is a leaner sort of spirituality evidenced in the meta-model movement. This movement in turn draws from historical contemplative and meditative traditions, deriving equally from Eastern, Western, and indigenous cultures. Speaking in the most cognitive and material terms, “Spiritual” can simply be understood as absorbing non-cognitive or pre-cognitive information and letting it sink in. Eckhard Tolle, for example, suggests walking in the woods and letting your internal stream of consciousness take a break. More looking at the trees; not so much labeling the trees. The reason for doing this is to get some distance from your thoughts. As Robert Kegan points out, at each stage of development, the previous subject becomes the new object. That implies a new subject as well. In the Cartesian model, “I think therefore I am”, the “I” gets entangled with the thinking. The meta-movement sees thoughts as phenomena in a deeper field of experience, with thoughts now becoming objects for an emerging witnessing subject. Thoughts can come and go, in any case, “I am”. The witnessing subject enjoys a new freedom and critical distance from thoughts, which can only on balance improve thinking itself. Different ideas may contradict each other, but neither the ideas nor their contradictions undermine the ever-present “I am”.

Education for future civilization must therefore balance the intellectual and the spiritual. Intellect, it turns out, is a bit of a bottleneck. We each only have so much cognitive bandwidth. Spiritual practices open parallel ports and allow a more wideband experience. Bloody wars get fought over alternative symbols for spiritual experience, but the symbols themselves are often just as arbitrary as the arrangement of keys on a QWERTY keyboard. Accidents of history, by and large. Insert any Zen koan here. The key to global communication going forward is to understand that the bits you send me do not undermine my sense of being and living personhood. Likewise, my reply to you, no matter how ill-chosen or ill-intended, has no power to shake you to your core. Unless of course you let it.

Group work or individual work? Yes. Our minds grow more freely in connection to other minds. But persons also need to process. Western Civilization or Decolonization? Yes. Tapestry, not train tracks. Weave the narrative one way, then back the other way. Then back and forth from different angles. A mesh of meaning will emerge. The mesh in my head can then connect to the different mesh in your head. I am not my story; you are not your story; but each of us have stories. Together we can share our stories and contribute to an expanding spiral of human WE-ness.


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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