Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet

A public conversation with James Miller and Jason Kelly

By Rohit Revi

“A flourishing human society is dependent upon a flourishing planet. This should be the structuring principle of education.”

The 21st century brings unprecedented challenges to human wellbeing. Ranging from rapid environmental destruction and the threat of an impending nuclear disaster, to growing economic, social and psychological crises, these challenges exist at a global scale, demanding great urgency. At the same time, universities appear to not only be fundamentally unsuccessful in addressing them, but even instrumental in their perpetuation. In the light of this specific problem, the Spirituality Nature Culture Laboratory organized a public conversation between Prof. James Miller and Prof. Jason Kelly, titled Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet, on the 31st of January, 2018.

In many diagnoses of the problems of the contemporary university, commentators often put the blame on the corporatization of the university, arguing that the profit motives of neoliberal capitalism have consumed pedagogical practices completely. At the very beginning of the conversation, Prof. Miller challenged the audience to invert this conception. The problem, to him, is much deeper and more fundamental. It is not simply the case that malicious corporations have instrumentalized universities to meet their economic interests. Rather, universities themselves are the primary causes behind the challenges of the 21st century. Their educational practices not only reflect but also shape society’s concerns and values, and fundamentally form the way in which people envisage the world. That being so, the problems of the corporate world are in fact only reflections of larger problems that find their roots in our pedagogy. Therefore, at a preliminary level, we are forced to reckon with a very basic question. What is the educational enterprise for? In other words, why do we educate or get educated?

Presently, modern societies conceive of the university in a rather narrow instrumental sense. This dominant conception holds that the basic purpose of the university is to equip individuals with the skills required to partake in our prevalent economic model. Therefore, when we evaluate individual wellbeing or personal transformation, we are forced to restrict ourselves to parameters such as up-classing or economic mobility. Even so, the prevalent economic model itself is fundamentally unsustainable, both environmentally and economically. In its function as an instrument in service of the economy, the education system renders itself complicit in this unsustainability. For instance, the widening gap in the race between education and technology, is to soon result in an unpredictable disruption of the labour market, having already rendered many jobs obsolete or redundant. The system of education will fail to meet its own standards of success, even its limited role as an instrument for the economy. However, this failure also extends far beyond the economy, and into the crucial realm of human wellbeing.

The pedagogical focus on production of workers leads to the professionalization of knowledge, in both the humanities and social sciences as well as in STEM disciplines. In this process, the central purpose of university education becomes the attainment of disciplinary specialization and technical proficiency. Such a limited focus structurally excludes crucial parameters such as mental health, psychosocial wellbeing and social development from the purview of mass education. Psychological concerns such as growing mental health issues among young adults, and social concerns such as growing racial and ethnic polarization, are examples that can be read as consequences of this bracketing off of human wellbeing from pedagogical practices. Rarely, if ever, is the success of the modern university measured by its ability to actualize personal and collective wellbeing; as a result these problems remain undiagnosed. In other words, our dominant conception of education renders its own crucial failures invisible.

In Miller’s view, these problems are historical and can be traced back to modernity itself, where a differentiation between the psychosocial and economic spheres began to take a formal, institutional shape. Although the problems of psychological and social health are important, Miller then argued that they are inextricably tied to a larger concern that is ecological in nature, that of planetary wellbeing.

Historically, economic production has been driven by an implicit assumption that natural resources on Earth are virtually infinite. As a result, ecological concerns were systematically been excluded from the decisions that have shaped the current technological and economic conditions. But the present historical juncture is radically distinct. We are faced with the increasing needs of at least 7 billion people, while at the same time reducing dependence on fossil fuels. In this state of exigency, where our survival is so critically under threat, we are increasingly becoming aware of the fundamentally interconnected nature of human life with that of planetary life. What is of crucial importance here, argued Miller, is that planetary wellbeing is a precondition for human, psychosocial wellbeing. It is not merely the case that environmental degradation fundamentally degrades planetary health. More crucially, human physiological, social and psychological health are profoundly contingent upon planetary degradation. This holistic conception, termed “planetarity,” is the root condition of human existence and it must occupy the core of our pedagogical systems. Miller presented this view most  clearly when he stated that “A flourishing human society is dependent upon a flourishing planet. This should be the structuring principle of education.” While the problems of the near future may remain largely uncertain, our dependence upon the planet remains immutable.

At this juncture in the conversation, Prof. Kelly directed the focus to issues of praxis, inviting speculations upon the possible challenges of actualizing such a radical pedagogical transformation.

Firstly, the existing condition of rigid, fragmented disciplinary formations result in our inability to grasp the crisis in a cohesive, transdisciplinary sense. While the natural and physical sciences have greatly advanced in thinking about human condition vis-a-vis planetary conditions, many other disciplines, say for example economics or political science, do not take planetarity as an orienting principle. The scale and urgency of the ecological challenge necessitate immediate action in this regard. According to Miller, we need to be able to synthesize cross-disciplinary connections and work cohesively towards the flourishing of the planet. In order to do so, we need a common language that can synthesize these connections and overcome our inheritance of a fragmented pedagogy. This requires us to arrive at a set of common orienting principles, perhaps ethical or spiritual, that can anchor these processes of transdisciplinary communication.

Secondly, the current physical infrastructure of the university reproduces the dominant assumption that teaching is fundamentally about transmitting the knowledge of the past. The rapid rate of technological disruption and environmental degradation demands that we move beyond the assumptions that underlie these infrastructures. In a world of advanced machine learning, there will be less demand for humans who excel at mechanically reproducing the knowledge of the past. Instead, the complex problems of the present and the future require original, creative, and synthetic thinking that must be realized through the infrastructures of the new planetary pedagogy.

These specific challenges notwithstanding, a new pedagogy that is for planetary wellbeing is crucial to the flourishing of human life on earth. This public conversation is an important contribution in that direction.

Listen to the conversation on Soundcloud

2 Replies to “Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for a Flourishing Planet”

  1. Very well put. The meaning and purpose of education, and by extension, what an university means for the society at large, are questions that we need to constantly raise at this moment of disarray.
    The discussion seemed very informed and educative. Good Job.

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