Preparing our children to think as extended ecological selves – to have
biosphere consciousness – will be the critical test of our age
and might well determine whether we will be able to create
a new, sustainable relationship with the Earth
in time to slow climate change and prevent our own extinction.
– Jeremy Rifkin
A friend of mine recently asked me to address a group with a tradition in education. She wanted a brief lecture focusing on multi-generational and holistic approaches to education for the 21st Century. Before sharing here an adaptation of that lecture, I want to share a little background, because a surprising synchronicity emerged as I conducted my research in preparation for the lecture.
Frankly, I was very hesitant to accept the invitation to offer the lecture thinking I knew very little about education, much less its emerging trends. It turned out, however, that my own search regarding trends in spirituality and – you’ll be surprised at this – economics all blended together with the emerging needs in education in a remarkable way.
The story of this synchronicity begins with my attendance at the first regional Bioneers Conference held in Chicago in November 2012. As I listened to one presenter at the conference speak about the “stuff” we need stop buying, I raised my hand and said, “I’m all for divesting ourselves of stuff. My concern is for the people whose job depends on making the stuff.”
Another conference attendee stood up next and addressed my comment, saying, “My advice to you is to read Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.” Though I had not yet heard of Rifkin, I took serious note of his suggestion and jotted down the name of the book. Here’s why. For several months prior to the conference, I had been carrying around an intuitive feeling that I needed to learn more about economics. It began after a colleague told me that the word “economics,” although it has become associated primarily with production and sales, goes back in its origins to the Greek language and in that context meant “management of the household.”
At the time my colleague shared that definition with me, I immediately had the thought that in our time “the household” has become our Earth home itself. So, when direct advice came to me at a Bioneers Conference to read the economist, Jeremy Rifkin, I knew it couldn’t be coincidence, and jumped on it. I got the book and read it during our school’s holiday break in December. I got so excited by Rifkin’s reasoning and vision, I immediately followed that with reading his The Third Industrial Revolution. I was completely surprised at his ultimate conclusions, because Rifkin’s vision of how we will get to his so-called Third Industrial Revolution has significant implications for spirituality and education at all levels.
I never would have thought it possible on the day I was first asked to do it, but the lecture that emerged, and that I delivered on January 22, is a synthesis of spirituality, economics, and education. Below is my attempt to articulate that synthesis, along with some probing questions and possible solutions.
Thank you for the privilege of being here.
I believe I don’t need to begin by setting the stage with details of the urgent situation we face as a human community living on what today is a very fragile planet. I only want to emphasize a startling statistic. The children who started kindergarten last fall, in 2012, will graduate from high school in 2030. According to some experts, we will know by then whether or not we can stop human-induced climate change enough to have a future as a species.
Jeremy Rifkin (2011), the American economist and futurist, says turning out productive workers for the Second Industrial Revolution became the central mission of modern education. It focused on professional and technical skills, uniformity, and top-down-authority at the expense of the creativity, innovation, collaboration, and empathy needed to respond to the economic, social, and environmental crises now evident in the 21st Century (pp. 112-133).
Rifkin (1995) notes that what we have been seeing since the 1980’s is the sweeping introduction of automation into first blue-collar and now white-collar arenas. Automation is replacing millions of jobs that are not coming back. That is the real reason why millions of well-educated men and women all over the First World are finding themselves steeped in debt and on the streets carrying protest signs. (pp. 7-13).
Even worse, the conventional approach to education, heavily influenced by a mechanistic worldview that emerged with the Enlightenment and the scientific-industrial revolution, destroyed the relationship of humans with our Earth. It suppressed what E.O. Wilson calls our inherent biophilia – the innate human drive to affiliate with nature (Rikfin, 1995, pp. 251-254 ).
Rifkin (2011) keys his entire vision of a Third Industrial Revolution on something that coincides with the focus of my own research and teaching. For though he outlines a master plan for a sustainable civilization based on renewable energies, he argues that a transformation on the scale required will not happen without first a change in human consciousness. (pp. 233-254)
For the last 20 years, I have been studying the relationship between spiritual development and leadership. I am convinced that our world is wracked with the pain it experiences today because the legacy of the patriarchal, scientific-industrial mindset removed that link from our sight.
Many of us have people in our lives we would call “spiritual leaders” or “spiritual mentors”; people whom we might identify as “spiritually mature.” Who are yours? What makes them so?
I ask people those questions in my workshops. For them, a spiritual leader or role model might be someone like Gandhi; it might also be their grandmother. In their descriptions of these people, they say they are persons who live out of a sense of inner freedom. Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.” They also live out of a sense of deep compassion, particularly for the poor and marginalized. Jesus said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor…and let the oppressed go free.” They often are described as prophetic, meaning they challenge the status quo and oppressive systems. Jesus did that, and it got him killed.
We now have on hand the research of many people to help us understand and appreciate the spiritual growth dynamic, and what that dynamic means for us as human beings. It is a very important part of who we are. Ken Wilber’s Integral Vision of reality is among the best in helping us to see that evolution happens on the inside as well as on the outside, and that for human beings it is a spiritual evolution that leads to spiritual maturity.
With the help of Wilber and others, we are beginning to see that psychological development and spiritual maturity flow together. To understand how that works for people, let us look at just one of the many development schemas Wilber brings together in his Integral Theory, that proposed by Abraham Maslow.
Maslow himself was perhaps prophetic in his own right because he followed a different path than traditional studies in human psychology. He studied people who were psychologically well, not sick. He studied people who were happy, not depressed. He observed that individuals who are well and happy appear to move along a continuum of inner development as they go through life and have certain needs met. You probably are familiar with Maslow’s theory, but I’ll review it briefly here for those who may not be, or in case it’s been a while since you last dealt with it.
The first stage in the process articulated by Maslow focuses around human physical needs – such as food, oxygen, shelter – all those things necessary simply for survival. In addition to those survival needs, are safety and security needs. Only when a person receives what he or she needs for survival and experiences a safe and secure environment, is he or she ready to move further along Maslow’s continuum to experience and overcome different needs at the next level. These include emotional needs associated with the experience of love and a feeling of belonging. Only after getting their physical needs met and feeling safe, secure and loved, are young men and women ready to move out into the world, seeking esteem and respect through their work and achievements. Finally, if all goes well, they reach the last stage on Maslow’s continuum, which is one in which a person’s experiences provide him or her with a unitive sense of connection to the larger reality of which we are all a part, and a need to contribute to the ongoing life of that larger community. In other words, they become persons who not only are psychologically but also spiritually mature.
Our collective challenge for the 21st Century, then, is the intention and means to involve more humans globally in this process. For I believe, as ancient spiritual traditions have declared, that it is only this process of attending to the spiritual growth of individuals that will lead to appropriate life-sustaining behaviors at all levels: for the individual, the family, the church, the workplace, the nation, the global village, the very planet Earth itself. We might say, in Maslow’s terms, that the scientific-industrial revolution so repressed our biophilia, we lost conscious awareness of our ultimate belonging. Therefore, we are unable to move beyond feeding our infantile and adolescent emotional needs, and envision ourselves contributing to the ongoing life of the whole.
Now we are at the heart of what I want to speak about, the connections between spiritual growth, education, and economics.
The root of the word “economics” comes from the Greek language and means, “management of the household.” It means acquiring sufficient water, assuring adequate and healthy meals, providing appropriate clothing and a clean, safe, and comforting environment. All those things necessary for any individual to achieve the growth indicated on Maslow’s scale. It is no doubt obvious to all that for millennia, to manage a household has been predominantly women’s work.
So, here are my probing questions:
What if we embraced Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory as our guiding vision for the future? In other words, using Maslow’s schema as an example, as Wilber does, what if we understood human psychological and spiritual growth as not just something that rare and holy people achieve, but as our paramount educational and economic goal?
What if we learned to develop an educational system aimed at facilitating full human psychological and spiritual growth in every child and adult?
What if we argued for an economy based on a vision that sees every human being as a bundle of potential to bear fruit with which to gift the common good, rather than simply as consumers meant to bolster the gross domestic product?
What if every school were not a factory producing trained workers for a consumer economy, but a place where each person’s bliss and the world’s needs met in mutual, creative exploration?
And finally, here are my suggestions:
We need to create centers of education that teach The Universe Story coupled with Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory about what it really means to be an evolving human being in a dynamic Universe.
We need to help stimulate in people, young and old, the biosphere consciousness – the empathy for one another and for the planet – that Rifkin says is key to achieving the Third Industrial Revolution, a sustainable economy, and our response to climate change, before it is too late.
We need to look every man, woman and child in the eye and say to each of them:
“It took our Universe 13.7 billion years to get to you.
It’s up to you to help create – together with all of the rest of us – what comes next.”
Again, thank you for the privilege of allowing me to share these thoughts with you.
Rolheiser, R. (1999). The holy longing: The search for a Christian spirituality. New York, NY: Doubleday
Rifkin, J. (1995). The End of Work. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Rifkin. J. (2011) The third industrial revolution: How lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the world. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Opening quote, p. 241].
Wilber, K. (2007). The integral vision: A very short introduction to the revolutionary integral approach to life, god, the universe, and everything. Boston: Shambala.
Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard, A., & Morelli, M. (2008). Integral Life Practice. Boston: Integral Books.