Education in Error (a structural condition of human induced unsustainability)



What is to be said here is directed against ‘applied’ and instrumental ways of promoting and engaging ‘sustainability’ (and education). It recognises that to have viable futures we must change what we do as a species, which means essentially changing what we are and how we act on the world of our dependence.

Our starting point is to acknowledge that unsustainability is not simply a negative performative quality of ‘things in the world’. Rather, and more fundamentally, unsustainability is an intrinsic characteristic of the anthropocentric nature of human being. Which means it is de facto a consequence of our way of being as it lacks a concern for Being as such. Of course, human centred actions upon ‘the given world’ have always had negative consequences but, and in common with other animals, for most of the 160,000 years of Homo sapiens existence our numbers and impacts were low, meaning that impacted ecologies could recover in part or in whole. Once human settlement commenced around ten thousand year ago, ‘we’ started to create our ever expanding ‘world within the world’. From this moment onward the damage done to the environments of our dependence (and the dependence of other species) continually increased.

We are not born unsustainable. Rather we are inducted into this condition of our being. Thinkers as diverse as John Dewey and Jean-François Lyotard have pointed out that we are ‘born an animal and become human’ by education. In the face of this remark we note: the animal does not disappear but is biologically present as a complex substrate that we are socialised to repress. Second, and more pertinent to our concern here, in our learning to become human we equally learn a mode of being that is generatively unsustainable.

How we are introduced into the world in infancy, not least in the construction of a binary difference (us/world), actually becomes the ground for our ‘education in error’. This division is inherent in our primary, secondary and tertiary education, as is seen in the constitution of domains of knowledge of disciplines. Effectively, we learn to be unsustainable as a mode of perception of our worldly needs and via forms of unreflective action. We simply do not know or see the impacts of what we do. More specifically, the instrumental practices that constitute our ongoing means of world making (via crafts, trades and professions and their educational and training institutional supports) inscribe the production of the unsustainable into our everyday economic, socio-cultural, and political life. None of this is to say that everything we do creates the unsustainability of the world of human habitation. It is to say that the values and actions that underpin our being unsustainable and then go on to create the immersive condition of structural unsustainability have to be exposed and engaged.

So where do we go from here? Basically there are two key moves to be made, and both imply a process of huge change.
Move one is to develop means to critically disclose ‘the dialectic of sustainment’ implicit in artifice and education. This refers to the fact that whenever we create we also destroy. Historically, our formal and informal education on creativity and making has never confronted this. Without this recognition we are unable to act ethically to advance sustainment. The intellectual ‘tool’ for this job is deconstruction – notwithstanding the often-limited comprehension and the cultural recoil from deconstruction as it’s understood philosophically. In my area (design) this critical practice has been developed through the concept of ‘defuturing’ – which names the agency of those actions and produced things that arrive by design to, mostly unwittingly, take our future away. Defuturing is inherent in the ways we replicate the status quo and it equates to ‘unsustainability as process’.

Move two is the huge task of remaking of education against ‘education in error’. In a few words, I can only signpost this activity. Essentially, post a deconstructive interrogation, it requires situating specific areas of knowledge in a comprehensive relational understanding (current divisions of knowledge are a big part of the problem as they ‘de-relationalize’ the causality of objects of study and the social subjects who study them). Finally, such an education requires the establishment of new kinds of learning communities able to create ‘futuring’ knowledge and practice.

Is what has just been advocated really possible? Without doubt the answer is yes. Increasingly, there are events, courses, and the arrival of books that support this view. More is coming later …