Online document

By Nirmala Lan Hessellund

“It is difficult to imagine a future that is humane, decent and sustainable without marked changes in the substance and process of education at all levels, beginning with the University” – David Orr, author of Earth in Mind


Our world is changing rapidly. This is certainly true when we speak in terms of technology and ecology. The industrial revolution marked the beginning of the consumer based society that we know today with the mass production of goods, which later on gave birth to an economy founded on neoliberal capitalism. Here you will find a mentality of survival of the fittest, also known as social darwinism, where all living entities are treated as separate. “If I am separate from you, then more for you (resources) means less for me”. And so, the whole surge for greed and competition began. 


This thought rooted in separation can also be linked to the ecological devastation that we experience today. When all that we interact with is condensed to mere atoms and molecules, then  “more than material properties” of the oceans, trees, animals and so on, remain hidden underneath a veil of endless competition.


It is clear that this thought founded in separation has seeped into even the smallest corners of our lives. If we zoom in on education, these mechanistic processes dominate the way we behave and teach our children. This leads to an overemphasis on analytical thinking and leaves less room for synthetic or holistic thinking and hide our creative talents. 


But with the invention of the internet and platforms like YouTube, an immense depository of knowledge has now become available to us. Education in the traditional sense, based in an institution and getting a degree seems to become an increasingly futile effort. People can now learn according to their interests and explore their natural competencies. But with a world moving at this speed, educating for tomorrow can be an elusive task.



Historically, there was no public education system before the 1800 hundreds. They were created as a result of industrialism and their hierarchies were founded on two main ideas:

1) The most useful subjects for work are at the top.

2) Academic ability – which dominates our view of intelligence because the universities have designed the system in their image


Today, these mechanistic ways of teaching are still closely felt. A quote from Sir Ken Robinson, a well-known speaker and international consultant for education said this about how we teach: “we start educating from the waist up, then to their heads and then to one side of the brain”. Over the years, we have learned to only reward the analytical thinkers and in the process have lost sight of the immense amount of value to be found among synthetic, non-linear thinkers. Supporting both types is essential. But furthermore, giving space for students to explore their potential and supporting them on the way is the most important. Picasso once said that “all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”. Unfortunately, the mechanistic way of teaching that we find in most educational institutions, punishes those who make mistakes. In an article published by Danish newspaper, Politiken “High School Students Don’t Dare To Raise Their Hands In Class (2016), they explain that higher grades have become more important than learning. The pressure and competition has reached an all time high and students would rather be silent than risk making mistakes. We are educating people out of their creative capacity.


In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people will be graduating from university than ever. It’s a combination of technology and its impact on work and the huge explosion in population. The value of holding a degree is decreasing drastically. Some people call it a process of academic inflation. If we go back to the question raised at the beginning of this paper, “In a fast moving world, how do we educate for a tomorrow that is yet unknown to us?”. To answer this question, let’s get to the core of what we are educating people for –  but that question naturally leads up to another, “what does it mean to be human?” and “how does education correspond to the needs of our current times?”. With these questions we seek to unlock the minimum requirements for education. In this quest we will apply the general guidelines of time, place and person.



Let’s first look at why education is important.

Here’s an excerpt from Stoner (1965) by John Williams, telling the story of a young farmer in Missouri, who through education found his passion in English literature. By removing himself from the preconditions he was born into and through education, had the chance to live out what he found to be his genuine potential. The story of this young farmer ends up being more complex but the following excerpt illustrates well how education expanded someone’s understanding of the world and gave light to their hidden strengths.



According to P.R. Sarkar, education should seek to reveal our individual and collective potential, meaning that it’s infrastructure should aim to nurture the best version of ourselves. In his book, “Neohumanism in a Nutshell”, he elaborates how states, scriptures, societies and religions only acquire significance as long as they develop humanity to the fullest. Neohumanism is predicated on the idea of universalism where any division between living entities such as race, religion, nationality etc. is replaced by an all-encompassing outlook where love and compassion lies at the bottom of how we interact with the world. Under this world-view, the ultimate goal of every living being is to reach spiritual liberation. Hence, the education system would seek to accommodate every person in a way that nourishes their natural qualities and capacities to eventually reach spiritual liberation. He goes on to explain:


“The inner psychic movement of human beings, their existential awareness, is completely rhythmic. A portion of whatever happens in  the outer world, in outer existence is adjusted with the inner psychic rhythm, and another portion is not. When the rhythm of your movement in the external world, the rhythm of your lifestyle, conforms to your inner psychic rhythm, you feel comfortable. But when these rhythms do not correspond, you feel uncomfortable. For progress in the external world there should be clear guidelines, a clear and well-integrated philosophical base. The society often lacks this; and that is why people tend to lose balance in social life. When those who have developed intellectually come in contact with an uncongenial environment, they find it difficult to adjust”.


The role of the sadvipra [spiritual revolutionaries], is to accord human value to everyone. If they are criminals or characterless individuals they only remain so superficially; internally they are filled with the potential for authentic progress. The main ambition of the sadvipra is to explore and bring this potentiality into being. 



Education for sustainable development.

Naresh Giangrande, founder of Transition Towns Totnes, activist and teacher, is currently working together with Gaia Education, a hub for holistic and regenerative education, to develop a framework for education as part of the sustainable development goals (SDG’s). He remains sceptical towards the SDG’s and has previously expressed that “they are obsolete and don’t capture what we need to do (to solve our global issues) but they are starting points”. 

Currently, him and his team – consisting of educators from all over the world except Africa and Antarctica – are working from the point of view of how to facilitate the education that we need, in order to face, quote “the extraordinary times we find ourselves in”. Their main research question being, “what are the universal skills and abilities that can be applied across all sectors?”. This question seeks to deconstruct how we are commonly taught to become skilled within specific sectors. In fact, specialisation did bring immense growth and prosperity but now these methods are slowing us down and gradually becoming obsolete. 


To break away from the old paradigm and suggest what the foundation of education in our current times could be, Naresh and his team created a set of what they call Key Competencies (table 1 p. 5). Here they define competence as, “to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context with the mobilisation of psychosocial prerequisites incl. cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of that competence”.  This means that you have the skills to do what you wish to achieve in the world incl. cognitive and non-cognitive aspects. They were stressing that especially the non-cognitive aspects, which is dealing with feelings and senses need to be given more attention in our education, but acknowledge that both are essential components. The Key Competencies were proposed on the basis of being relevant across sectors and contexts and that enable us to nurture ‘change agents’, ‘problem solvers’ and ‘transition managers’” . In the words of P.R. Sarkar this would be termed as ‘sadvipras’, which translates to “spiritual revolutionaries”.


Now, this team was specifically focussed on solving SDG 4.7, which is education for sustainability. When they speak of sustainability, they speak of the following points:

  • Human rights
  • Gender equity
  • Promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence
  • Global citizenship
  • Appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

To tackle the issues above these key competencies were proposed as an outline of what a curriculum could contain. 

The team of educators discussed how education for sustainable development should facilitate an individual or group to equip themselves as a change agent, to effectively be able to function in a challenging world, at the same time protecting their core wellbeing, integrity and commitment. This notion derives from the sense of sustainable development as an intention for societal change, and those educated in sustainable development as activists, or action oriented, and who pursue their vision for a sustainable world. The purpose of this framework is in their own words: “learners, practitioners, teachers and policy makers can respond to these questions in their own self-reflection and evaluation. This question format is important: It is open ended; it demands a thoughtful response and negates superficial ‘box ticking’. (…) Table 1 demonstrates example questions that can probe the acquisition of key competencies, referencing multiple intelligences in how these are enacted”. 


Furthermore, the questions presented in Table 1, is meant as an initiator for education programmes or creation of curricula. It can be used by teachers but can also be used for individual assessment by rephrasing the question from, “are learners facilitated to work well with others?”  to “have you been supported to work well with others?”. 



If we look at neohumanism as the ideological foundation for education, the research done by Naresh Giangrande and his team of educators aligns well. They seek to redefine education and make it respond to many of the global issues that we face today – to create a new generation of ‘change agents’. These change agents would have the chance to rediscover their potentialities as humans and act upon them. In the same way, Neohumanism speaks about alleviating humans from certain limitations that stunt their devotional sentiment, hence discarding the opportunity for spiritual liberation. 



The researchers behind the framework presented here have made it clear that their research is merely a starting point and that further empirical knowledge would have to be developed. As already mentioned, this framework is quite open-ended with the aim of having a diverse output. Change agents, teachers, policy makers etc. in different countries and different times will have to adapt to the needs of their subject/s, to truly be able to make a difference. Also, in a culture that is far from a regenerative one, adapting or creating completely new infrastructures will be necessary for a transition into the type of education that we wish to see for the future. 



If we continue on the framework proposed by Naresh and his team, as well as the philosophy of Neohumanism, this already lays a solid ethical and moral but also strategic foundation. If we look at disadvantaged communities and speak of the minimum guarantee in practise, I would personally say that educating for the 5 basic needs, as per the definition of P.R. Sarkar, would be a first priority. He writes that without your basic needs fulfilled (food, shelter, clothing, medical care and education), there can be no spiritual liberation. The individual will be too overwhelmed by the immediate needs for survival to drive towards ideas beyond these needs. Once that has been achieved a higher focus can be given to personal development.


In practice, a teacher would have to understand the region that they are dealing with to then be able to educate according to their immediate needs.


In India, and organisation called DRCSC is teaching water retention systems to the poorest people in the driest regions of India, Purulia being one of them. Their projects aim to secure water and food, poverty alleviation and ecosystem restoration.


Another inspiring project is, Kufunda Learning Village based in Zimbabwe. They have created a 6 month youth programme on leadership for a sustainable community. Here they teach about personal development and harnessing your strengths to grow and give back to your community. In Zimbabwe only 30% of the population is employed and the gap between cost and income remains at an extreme. “All the basics—sugar, maize, eggs, cooking oil—are more expensive in Zimbabwe, kilo for kilo, than they are in Zambia, Botswana, or even South Africa, where the average wages are 19 times higher than they are here”. 


To teach about self-sufficiency and a regenerative culture, Kufunda Learning Village has incorporated training in permaculture and beekeeping. One of their motivational quotes being, “self development facilitates social advancement”.



The framework above can seem abstract and intangible, therefore a list has been provided over projects around the world that operate accordingly or on similar principles.



Gaia Education

Gaia Education is an international NGO which provides students of all ages and cultural backgrounds with knowledge and skills to design a thriving society. We teach our students how to use energy and resources with greater efficiency, distribute wealth equitably, and make quality of life the focus of future thinking. Our learners become Changemakers, capable of playing active roles in transitioning their communities to sustainable and regenerative practices, lifestyles and infrastructures”.

GEN Education

The educational side to the Global Ecovillage Network and with over 6000 ecovillages in their database, they seek to share their knowledge and passion for grassroots projects and innovative alternatives.


Schumacher College

Founded in England but make efforts to market internationally.

“Schumacher College is an international college for ecological studies offering masters programmes, short courses and a horticulture residency. We focus on interactive and experiential education to develop practical skills and strategic thinking required to face 21st century challenges. Students work together in small groups which embrace the learning principles of head, hand, heart. Many of our courses feature guest teachers who are world-renowned thinkers, activists and practitioners”.


Local Futures

“Local Futures’ projects are aimed at helping to catalyze movements for change in the global North and South. We produce books, films, and other ‘education for action’ tools, and organize activist-oriented conferences and workshops worldwide”.

INDIA – the listed initiatives are founded by Manish Jain

Ecoversities Alliance

“The Ecoversities Alliance is a community of learning practitioners from around the world committed to re-imagining higher education to cultivate human and ecological flourishing in response to the critical challenges of our times”.


Swaraj University

“Swaraj University was designed and birthed in 2010 as a two year learning programme for youth. The vision of this program is to nurture the heart’s calling of young people with an understanding of how their actions/ choices are interconnected and impacting all our communities and nature. The two year program initiates the process of being self designed learners and engages youth in developing the skills and practices they need to manifest their vision “.

  • Swaraj Jail University: “The Jail University is a place for inmates to explore their deeper passion and purpose. We have set up an organic farm, permaculture demo center and small food forest in the Udaipur Jail”.


“The People’s’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development”



EARTH University

“Is a private, non-profit university that offers two programs of study: an undergraduate licenciatura degree in agricultural sciences. The university invests in students – predominantly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa – working to become leaders of positive socio-economic and environmental change for their home countries and the world at large through a techno-scientific education emphasizing Social entrepreneurship”.




“Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra, was thus born amongst the context of radical reactions against schooling observed in many Indigenous communities. We call ourselves a University to claim back the old tradition of first universities: that of learning together with friends around a table for the sole pleasure of learning and for the passion that studying inspires”.



Kufunda Learning Village

 “We are learning our way into what it takes to build a healthy and vibrant community. Our journey is one of exploring and seeking to live what we believe to be possible, perhaps even living the future today. We care about people creating their own solutions. We care about working with the diversity and wealth that we have, to create what we need. We believe that change begins with conscious and confident people, coming together to explore what matters most to them”.

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