What Is Education For?
Six myths about the foundations of modern education,
and six new principles to replace them
by David Orr
One of the articles in The Learning Revolution
Winter 1991, Page 52
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by
We are accustomed to thinking of learning as good in and of
itself. But as environmental educator David Orr reminds us, our education
up till now has in some ways created a monster. This essay is adapted from
his commencement address to the graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas
College. It prompted many in our office to wonder why such speeches are
made at the end, rather than the beginning, of the collegiate
David Orr is the founder of the Meadowcreek Project, an
environmental education center in Fox, AR, and is currently on the faculty
of Oberlin College in Ohio. Reprinted from Ocean Arks International's
excellent quarterly tabloid Annals of Earth, Vol. VIII, No. 2,
1990. Subscriptions $10/year from 10 Shanks Pond Road, Falmouth, MA
If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square
miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72
square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement
and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows
whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase
by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the
atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a
little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more
The truth is that many things on which your future health and
prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience
and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and
It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is,
rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs,
and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow
last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the
Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans
were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve
as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education?
In Wiesel's words: "It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts
rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers
instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."
The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to
think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that
the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of
time could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading.
My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or
wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our
problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement
that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of
decency and human survival - the issues now looming so large before us in
the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us,
but education of a certain kind.
SANE MEANS, MAD ENDS
What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education? There is
some insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe's Faust, who trades his
soul for knowledge and power; Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses
to take responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville's Captain Ahab,
who says "All my means are sane, my motive and object mad." In these
characters we encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate
Historically, Francis Bacon's proposed union between knowledge and
power foreshadows the contemporary alliance between government, business,
and knowledge that has wrought so much mischief. Galileo's separation of
the intellect foreshadows the dominance of the analytical mind over that
part given to creativity, humor, and wholeness. And in Descartes'
epistemology, one finds the roots of the radical separation of self and
object. Together these three laid the foundations for modern education,
foundations now enshrined in myths we have come to accept without
question. Let me suggest six.
First, there is the myth that ignorance is a solvable problem.
Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part
of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it
the advance of some form of ignorance. In 1930, after Thomas Midgely Jr.
discovered CFCs, what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance
became a critical, life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the
biosphere. No one thought to ask "what does this substance do to what?"
until the early 1970s, and by 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of
the ozone layer worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased;
but like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as
A second myth is that with enough knowledge and technology we
can manage planet Earth.. "Managing the planet" has a nice a
ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts,
computers, buttons and dials. But the complexity of Earth and its life
systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of
topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its relationship to the larger
systems of the biosphere.
What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics,
and communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid
the hard choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense.
It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than
to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.
A third myth is that knowledge is increasing and by implication
human goodness. There is an information explosion going on, by which I
mean a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should
not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so
easily by measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is
increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld
has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such
areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important
knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular
biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more
important, areas of inquiry. We still lack the the science of land health
that Aldo Leopold called for half a century ago.
It is not just knowledge in certain areas that we're losing, but
vernacular knowledge as well, by which I mean the knowledge that people
have of their places. In the words of Barry Lopez:
"[I am] forced to the realization that something strange, if not
dangerous, is afoot. Year by year the number of people with firsthand
experience in the land dwindles. Rural populations continue to shift to
the cities.... In the wake of this loss of personal and local knowledge,
the knowledge from which a real geography is derived, the knowledge on
which a country must ultimately stand, has come something hard to define
but I think sinister and unsettling."
In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that
learning will make us better people. But learning, as Loren Eiseley once
said, is endless and "In itself it will never make us ethical [people]."
Ultimately, it may be the knowledge of the good that is most threatened by
all of our other advances. All things considered, it is possible that we
are becoming more ignorant of the things we must know to live well and
sustainably on the Earth.
A fourth myth of higher education is that we can adequately restore
that which we have dismantled. In the modern curriculum we have
fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and
subdisciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most
students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of
things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are
large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most
rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national
accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment,
soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from
gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat
to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in
its production. As a result of incomplete education, we've fooled
ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.
Fifth, there is a myth that the purpose of education is that of
giving you the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton
once identified this as the "mass production of people literally unfit for
anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial
charade." When asked to write about his own success, Merton responded by
saying that "if it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this
was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very
good care never to do the same again." His advice to students was to "be
anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and
form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more "successful"
people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers,
storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live
well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the
fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little
to do with success as our culture has defined it.
Finally, there is a myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of
human achievement: we alone are modern, technological, and developed.
This, of course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a
gross misreading of history and anthropology. Recently this view has taken
the form that we won the cold war and that the triumph of capitalism over
communism is complete. Communism failed because it produced too little at
too high a cost. But capitalism has also failed because it produces too
much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and
grandchildren. Communism failed as an ascetic morality. Capitalism failed
because it destroys morality altogether. This is not the happy world that
any number of feckless advertisers and politicians describe. We have built
a world of sybaritic wealth for a few and Calcuttan poverty for a growing
underclass. At its worst it is a world of crack on the streets, insensate
violence, anomie, and the most desperate kind of poverty. The fact is that
we live in a disintegrating culture. In the words of Ron Miller, editor of
"Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the
human spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or
spiritual sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity,
caring, or compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the
economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer
of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul."
WHAT EDUCATION MUST BE FOR
Measured against the agenda of human survival, how might we rethink
education? Let me suggest six principles.
First, all education is environmental education. By what is
included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from
the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to
the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally
important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do
with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true
throughout all of the curriculum.
A second principle comes from the Greek concept of paideia.
The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's
person. Subject matter is simply the tool. Much as one would use a
hammer and chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge
to forge one's own personhood. For the most part we labor under a
confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to
stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the
student's mind, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used.
The Greeks knew better.
Third, I would like to propose that knowledge carries with it the
responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. The results
of a great deal of contemporary research bear resemblance to those
foreshadowed by Mary Shelley: monsters of technology and its byproducts
for which no one takes responsibility or is even expected to take
responsibility. Whose responsibility is Love Canal? Chernobyl? Ozone
depletion? The Valdez oil spill? Each of these tragedies were possible
because of knowledge created for which no one was ultimately responsible.
This may finally come to be seen for what I think it is: a problem of
scale. Knowledge of how to do vast and risky things has far outrun our
ability to use it responsibly. Some of it cannot be used responsibly,
which is to say safely and to consistently good purposes.
Fourth, we cannot say that we know something until we understand the
effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities. I grew
up near Youngstown, Ohio, which was largely destroyed by corporate
decisions to "disinvest" in the economy of the region. In this case MBAs,
educated in the tools of leveraged buyouts, tax breaks, and capital
mobility have done what no invading army could do: they destroyed an
American city with total impunity on behalf of something called the
"bottom line." But the bottom line for society includes other costs, those
of unemployment, crime, higher divorce rates, alcoholism, child abuse,
lost savings, and wrecked lives. In this instance what was taught in the
business schools and economics departments did not include the value of
good communities or the human costs of a narrow destructive economic
rationality that valued efficiency and economic abstractions above people
My fifth principle follows and is drawn from William Blake. It has to
do with the importance of "minute particulars" and the power of
examples over words. Students hear about global responsibility while
being educated in institutions that often invest their financial weight in
the most irresponsible things. The lessons being taught are those of
hypocrisy and ultimately despair. Students learn, without anyone ever
saying it, that they are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between
ideals and reality. What is desperately needed are faculty and
administrators who provide role models of integrity, care, thoughtfulness,
and institutions that are capable of embodying ideals wholly and
completely in all of their operations.
Finally, I would like to propose that the way learning occurs is as
important as the content of particular courses. Process is important
for learning. Courses taught as lecture courses tend to induce passivity.
Indoor classes create the illusion that learning only occurs inside four
walls isolated from what students call without apparent irony the "real
world." Dissecting frogs in biology classes teaches lessons about nature
that no one would verbally profess. Campus architecture is crystallized
pedagogy that often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and
artificiality. My point is simply that students are being taught in
various and subtle ways beyond the content of courses.
AN ASSIGNMENT FOR THE CAMPUS
If education is to be measured against the standard of sustainability,
what can be done? I would like to make four propsals. First, I would like
to propose that you engage in a campus-wide dialogue about the way you
conduct your business as educators. Does four years here make your
graduates better planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell
Berry's words, "itinerant professional vandals"? Does this college
contribute to the development of a sustainable regional economy or, in the
name of efficiency, to the processes of destruction?
My second suggestion is to examine resource flows on this campus: food,
energy, water, materials, and waste. Faculty and students should together
study the wells, mines, farms, feedlots, and forests that supply the
campus as well as the dumps where you send your waste. Collectively, begin
a process of finding ways to shift the buying power of this institution to
support better alternatives that do less environmental damage, lower
carbon dioxide emissions, reduce use of toxic substances, promote energy
efficiency and the use of solar energy, help to build a sustainable
regional economy, cut long-term costs, and provide an example to other
institutions. The results of these studies should be woven into the
curriculum as interdisplinary courses, seminars, lectures, and research.
No student should graduate without understanding how to analyze resource
flows and without the opportunity to participate in the creation of real
solutions to real problems.
Third, reexamaine how your endowment works. Is it invested according to
the Valdez principles? Is it invested in companies doing responsible
things that the world needs? Can some part of it be invested locally to
help leverage energy efficiency and the evolution of a sustainable economy
throughout the region?
Finally, I propose that you set a goal of ecological literacy for all
of your students. No student should graduate from this or any other
educational institution without a basic comprehension of:
- the laws of thermodynamics
- the basic principles of ecology
- carrying capacity
- least-cost, end-use analysis
- how to live well in a place
- limits of technology
- appropriate scale
- sustainable agriculture and forestry
- steady-state economics
- environmental ethics
Do graduates of this college, in Aldo Leopold's words, know that "they
are only cogs in an ecological mechanism such that, if they will work with
that mechanism, their mental wealth and material wealth can expand
indefinitely (and) if they refuse to work with it, it will ultimately
grind them to dust." Leopold asked: "If education does not teach us these
things, then what is education for?"
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