Category Archives: John M. Gerber

Quercus Questions

A small, gray squirrel stopped his running about one day to say hello to his friend and provider, the great oak tree in the wood. Scampering up the rough, whitish trunk, he sat among the many branches, sighed and said “you are so strong – so tall – so old – you have seen much in your many years here in the wood – but don’t you ever want to run about like me, to play, to jump, to climb?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

The small, gray squirrel nodded knowingly (or at least as knowingly as the small brained rodent could nod). He said to the oak, yes, yes, yes you are oak, but really aren’t you even curious to see what is over the next hill, beyond the woods, where I can go whenever I want? Oh yes, I remember you telling me how your roots intermingle with the other trees in the forest and you do know what lies around you for many hills – but come on, wouldn’t you just like to get up and go see it for yourself?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

Slightly exasperated the small, gray squirrel said, yes, yes, yes I know you are oak, but aren’t you at all sad when you drop all your acorns and most of them are eaten by my brother squirrels, and those ridiculous little white-footed mice, the rabbits and even the very hungry bears? Most of your seed never sprout and grow into oaks like you – oh, well except for once in a while when I forget where I’ve stored my winter supply, and they sprout in the spring. But, but even then those small sprouts of oaks rarely grow up – most are eaten by deer or mice before they see one winter. Oh yes, I remember you telling me how you feel complete when you can be of service to others, giving of yourself that they might grow and live. But come on really, wouldn’t you like to see more baby oaks around here? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

After a long slightly angry pause, the excited little gray squirrel thought of something that would surely elicit a more satisfying reply than “I am oak” – from the oak. With a scheming glint in his eye, the little gray squirrel said to the oak, “so what about those humans, huh?” He thought he felt a slight shudder in the trunk of the great tree, but it may just have been the wind. What do you think of their saws and bulldozers and trucks? What do you think you would do if you saw a human approaching, measuring (as they always do), looking you over with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous, what then? Would you be so generous then? You who love to give of yourself then – what would you say to that? What about those humans…. huh? huh?”

After a much longer moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

With that, the little gray squirrel decided this game was no longer fun, he jumped to a lower limb and back to the ground, and just ran off without even saying goodbye. The oak took a deep breath and seemed to smile.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns in the fall for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves in the winter to replenish the soil – in thanks. Occasionally the oak noticed a small sprout from one of the acorns the silly squirrels had planted and forgot, but always a deer ate it before it saw one winter. The oak didn’t mind, he was oak and that was his place. Once in a while he thought about the question of the human, but not having seen one for a long time he chose not to wonder, but just to breath, to grow slowly in place, to be oak.

One day as it happened, he heard a strange sound. Yes, it was a vehicle of some sort – which meant one thing – a human. He heard, well really he felt the on-coming presence of the human, measuring (as they always do), looking about with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous (you see, he did remember the words of the excited little, gray squirrel). As the human approached, the oak became curious. This man had no saw, no bulldozer, no truck. In fact, he looked fairly harmless, all in all.

The man approached the mighty oak, stopped, looked up, breathed deeply – and seemed to smile. Yes, it was a smile, but he was not measuring, he didn’t quite have the eye of the hunter, he didn’t appear desirous, greedy or those other things the squirrel had talked about. The man simply stood quietly before the oak – breathing the same air as the great tree, the small animals, the earth.

Slowly, with a voice full of quiet gratitude and much love the man spoke. “Spirit of the oak, I honor you you have lived long and seen much. You have felt the wind and the rain, the warmth of summer, the cold of winter. You have fed the earth with your leaves and the animals with your acorns for many, many years. My people honor you and all you have given. You are indeed oak.”

The oak wondered, how could this human – understand?

The human continued slowly “I come from a tribe that wishes to build a new home for a young family in our village. We come here to ask your permission and forgiveness. We wish to take your mighty trunk for timbers for a new dwelling that will stand for many years. We wish to make furniture of your limbs, to be used and admired in this home for many generations. We wish to take your many branches for the fire, to warm this home. We have come to thank you for your gifts to the soil, to the little animals, and to ask your permission to allow us the greatest gift you have – your self – for our needs.”

The oak breathed deeply. The man breathed deeply. The earth breathed deeply.

The man then said, I will return when you have dropped your leaves to feed the soil and your acorns to feed the many animals. At that time, I will seek your reply. The man left.

The oak signed.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves to replenish the soil – in thanks. He noticed one small sprout from one of his acorns had grown in a place that seemed to have more light and had not yet been eaten by a deer. Perhaps this one would grow? Perhaps this one would be the one?

And the man returned, as the oak knew he would. Once again the man stood before the great oak, smiling in appreciation – breathing the same air as the oak, and the animals, and the earth. After a time he said with a quite, grateful, loving voice “will you become part of a home for a young family in our village, part of the furnishings in this home, part of our lives, to be admired and appreciated for many years? Will you heat our homes so that our children can be warm? Will you give us permission and forgiveness for ending your time in this wood?”

The oak breathed deeply. The man breathed deeply. The earth breathed deeply.

And the oak replied with acceptance and love “I am oak.”

 

 

 

 

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My Truths….

A while back I sent a simple survey to a group of people who do research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability testing the degree of agreement or disagreement with five ‘truth statements’.  The truth statements were taken from a short essay I had written about sustainable agriculture and the need for change among public universities (1).  The response to the survey was reassuring, not only because these people I respect agreed with ‘my truths’ – but also because of the rapid response.  Within 48 hours, I had 50 survey responses by email and within a few days, 73 scientists, educators and activists dedicated to working for a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.  This essay offers further reflections on those five truths, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on some lines of poetry that I greatly admire.

Some of my friends have reminded me that these five truths have all been said before.  A friendly critic told me that my truth essay had lots of ‘fire’, but no real ‘heat.’  I was told it has ‘all been said before.’ Well, maybe so.  No less than T. S. Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating.  In one of his poems from the Four Quartets, he writes;

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again? (2)

Well yes, I’m saying it again. 

‘Why bother?’  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers, educators and advocates about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education community thinks?  We all know that economic power and political control remains in the hands of organizations and people who would largely disagree with the ‘five truths.’  An answer came from Donella Meadows, who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder. . . . (3)

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my truth (louder) by ‘pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm’, I decided to share these ‘further reflections’ with colleagues.   So thanks friends, and here is more of the story.

————————————————————————————————————————————

My Truth One:. . .  the form of agriculture currently practiced in the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins and other pollutants from their point of application, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put farmers and ranchers off the land.

‘Yes, we know all that.’  This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree’ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement’, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (with 72% indicating full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

‘Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.’ (4)

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).   Taco shells being withdrawn from shelves because of ‘non-approved genetic material’ doesn’t get much attention in the national press.  A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports of concern from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.  Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.   We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  Another participant wrote:

‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture (that is the source of ‘the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm‘) many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like ‘. . .  but aren’t we doing better?’  And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say ‘so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?’  And of course the answer is yes again.  In the absence of a clear alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best ‘ industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call an ecological model of agriculture – or agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

‘. . . In order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.’

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance.’  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

‘. . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.’

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

‘This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a ‘commons.’   It was once upon a time.

My Truth Two:  . . . the land grant university has lost its way; claiming to serve a public good while being driven by the political agenda of those currently in power, those corporations and large commodity organizations with enough money to get our attention, and the disciplinary based science societies that limit what is considered acceptable research.

The extent of agreement with this truth statement among all participants was strong, with 90% choosing 4 or 5 (with half of the respondents indicating full agreement with the statement).  One of the participants bluntly stated ‘. . . scientists are among the most selfish of all creatures on the earth.’  Well, this may be true.  At the same time, I know many agricultural scientists who continue to demonstrate acts of service and selflessness.  In fact, many, many agricultural researchers and educators began their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happened along the way to redirect their work, but I believe ‘just below the surface’ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world.  There is yet potential for changing the current university system, but the constraints on faculty are significant. One participant wrote;

‘The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today.’

Academic faculty and extension staff working in agriculture respond to their environment much like others in any organizational environment.  Rewards and evaluation criteria controlled by disciplinary bound societies encourage scientists to work within the ‘silos’ of their own special discipline.  Another participant wrote:

‘If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.’ 

But it will likely take more than individuals from different disciplines working together.   This is necessary but not sufficient.  Public policy drives research funding and evaluation criteria to measure success in terms of short-term economic efficiency, in support of the industrial model.  Interdisciplinary teams of agricultural scientists working together to support the industrial model may do more harm in the long run than good.  As long as university research questions and methodologies are based on an industrial view of the world, there will be little progress on the path toward an ecological agricultural system and long-term sustainability.   It seems unreasonable to hope for much change when the primary goal of research seems to be short-term economic benefit for those social groups holding financial and political power.  A participant wrote:

‘Economics, i.e., dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including impacts of publicly funded research and education.’

While I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  This narrow understanding of the public mission of the land grant university allows much of the energy of agricultural science to be directed toward development of new technologies that improve short-term economic returns at all costs.  One participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

‘Another truth is that the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America. This is in contrast to other regions, such as Europe, where a food policy and societal goals about the rural landscape are played out in everyday life.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.’

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the thinking of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) will only create more problems.  While this approach may keep the disciplinary bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex social problems.   In addition, administrative leaders (who seem to think their chief responsibility is keeping the university research machinery well funded) encourage scientists to pursue only those goals held in favor by the organizations currently holding economic and political power.   Under these conditions the industrial model becomes inviolate.

Funding and therefore economic and political power greatly influence research agendas.  Public universities are caught in a reinforcing feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the budgets get squeezed more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help ‘ at a price, of course.  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

The many university scientists who intuitively know something is wrong with both industrial agriculture and the university system that helps support it continue to act in ways that belie this knowledge.  To know something is wrong and not to take action is place of despair.  And when our daily behaviors violate our own deepest values, we become discontent.  Some would say, we become insane.  Despair and discontent is increasing within the public university.  As an administrator and faculty member, I observed the pervasiveness of this underlying discontent among many of my own colleagues.  Unfortunately it seems to be not discussed in ‘official circles’  of leadership.  One participant notes:

‘The top administrators in the land grant systems are out-of-touch with the rank and file.’

Where are the courageous leaders we read about in novels and see in the cinema who speak the truth regardless of personal consequences?  Where are the elders, wise with experience and old enough to know the truth?  Eliot asks;

                                          Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Can’t we expect more than a ‘receipt for deceit’ from our leaders?  Have we not learned from the past that ‘power corrupts’ and leadership becomes disconnected from ‘membership’ over time.   This seems to be a basic flaw in all large organizations today.  Universities are not unique in this regard.   One participant claimed:

leadership from commodity groups who have much political power, do not represent the vast majority of farmers’ 

It seems the disconnect between leaders and members or followers is just as great among farm organizations as it is at the university.

My Truth Three:. . . the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, often at the expense of small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents.  Only 76% choose 4 or 5, with 53% indicating full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

‘I can’t lump all farm leadership into the “bad” column because I know and work with some extraordinary farm leaders who are regularly overlooked by the sustainable ag community . . . For instance, Farmers Union has not veered from working on behalf of small farmers, farm workers, and outside the conventional system, but rarely gets recognition for it.’

Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

‘I don’t consider the folks in charge to be “leaders” of any kind of “community”— but that is contingent on my definitions of leadership and community. Community requires love and generosity of spirit, and these qualities are notably absent from farming policy.’

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

‘. . .the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.  The fronting is only a ploy to convince farmers that farm policy must be OK since the farm leadership is involved.’

These are pretty strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.  Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many farm organization leaders and university administrators alike who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  Unfortunately, there seems to be more in the latter category.   I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s organizational environment of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.  This seems as true for individuals as organizations.  Even the sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this ‘disease.’  One survey participant wrote;

‘Sustainable agriculture organizations have succumbed to the same treadmill, competing for grants, members, and other resources, the goal becoming the survival of the organization rather than the vision that created the organization.’

Leaders get ‘set up’ under these conditions for burn out, whether they are from sustainable agriculture organizations, traditional farm groups, or universities.  Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems based on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.

Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living organization or community.  We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted one role or another.  Power-over thinking leads to behavior in which domination and control is normal and acceptable (except in the extreme).  Eliot warned;

. . . we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

As long as our mental models of organizational behavior assume that leaders are to provide ‘paternal care’ the power relationship between leaders and followers will be sustained.  Even the most well meaning people and the most service-oriented organizations seem to evolve cultures of competition, disconnectedness and oppression based on power-over thinking, all seemingly for a good cause (well mostly).   But the result is always the same.

My Truth Four:. . .  many of us are running ever faster to stay even on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term hope, researchers pursue the next grant, the next research paper or the next academic award, and extension educators run ever faster to be at the next meeting, answer the next phone call, or file the next report for an anxiety ridden administrator who runs from crisis to crisis without end.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we treat the earth.

Everyone seems to be running faster to stay even.  At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, choosing 4 or 5 (with 74% indicating full agreement).  Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable.  Each new technology that enhances yield or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster.   An increase in raw product yield does little today to affect retail price, since raw product is an ever smaller portion of the cost of getting food to market.  The economic benefit to individual farmers from increased productivity is quickly lost as competitors adopt the new technology and total production increases keep commodity prices flat.  The technology treadmill turns.  If you don’t get on, you get lost.  If you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even.  The greatest beneficiaries are generally the manufacturers of the new technologies.  As a society, we feel little is gained but much is lost.  Food is cheap, but there are other problems.  One participant wrote:

‘The loss of community, the ungluing of stable human relationships, and the substitution of material things for substance have played a major role in the injustice and despair that have plagued agriculture and society’ and have caused untold unconscious damage to our planet and ourselves.’

 

I was particularly moved by the recognition that we are substituting material things for ‘substance’.   Some of the substantive things lost are; honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and intergenerational responsibility.  What we have gained seems to be cheap fast food and fast lifestyles to support the fast food habit.  There is no end in sight, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill.  Many research scientists, extension educators and administrators caught in their own personal treadmills know they need to get off, but don’t.  We each must take responsibility for our own contribution to making the treadmill run.  One of the respondents offered this quote attributed to Gandhi:

‘We each must be the change that we want to see in the world.’

Many of us don’t even realize the treadmill exists, until we fall off.  Actually stepping off before the inevitable fall is even more difficult, but is itself an act of honesty and courage.  It also requires a faith that there is another way to live.  Spiritual leaders often tell us that we need to slow down and discover a way of being that is offers more ‘stillness’ in our lives.  Eliot helps us envision a ‘still point of the turning world’ around which there is constant movement, turning, ever turning. . . ;

Where past and future are gathered.  Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline.  Except for the point, the still point

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The dance of life (including work) would not exist without the still point, any more than a wheel could turn without a hub.  This is the center, where all is in balance.  I imagine the farther we get from this still point, the faster we turn ‘ like a wheel.  In our normal workday lives all too many of us wear. . .

      . . .  strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and find our days filled with emptiness.  Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions, pursing something indefinable but not achievable.  And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning.  Eliot writes. . .

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

Love itself is unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless, and undesiring

Eliot tells us something about the still point.  It is love, unmoving itself but the ’cause and end of movement’.  Love is creation, timeless and undesiring itself – the beginning and the end – that place where we are always ‘in the now’.  Or as Eliot says. . .

        . . .  say that the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

And all is always now.

This still point, the now, is a difficult place reach.  Eliot suggests that

. . . the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind. . .

Our own belief in the reality of time, past and future, act as ‘chains’ protecting our weak and ever-changing bodies (that live in time past and time future) from the still point.  We remain only partially conscious since. . .

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time. . .      

I seem to get closest to this still point in meditation.  Perhaps at the end of each breath and before the beginning of the next, we approach the still point where there is no movement, no running after insatiable desires, no treadmill and no runner where ‘all is always now.’

The path to the still point may be as long as the journey of a life time and as short as the distance from head to heart.  The journey begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values.  When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more satisfaction in my life.  Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power.  Our current industrial agricultural system and the public research university it supports drive us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves, we must be true to our core values.  We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save the earth.

My Truth Five:. . .  the quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities may be our best hope for land grant universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves

This truth had much support in the survey as well.  About 87% of the respondents choose either 4 or 5 (with 76% in full agreement).  We badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope.  The public universities that should be part of the solution seem to be more of a problem.  The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with corporations.  The response of many universities to this criticism has been that they are contributing to economic growth.  And this appears true, at least in the short term.  But universities should be obligated to look beyond the short-term economy and the generation of monetary wealth for those corporations willing and able to donate to university research.  One respondent wrote:

‘A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems. . .

A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding of research.  Have a look at any university web page and you can find a section that basically states, ‘we are for rent ‘ just call us.’  This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago.

Imagine what the response might be if a courageous university president were to publicly state that the state university was no longer willing to accept grants and contracts from privately owned corporations.  In some states, this would make little real impact in the total funding picture, since most grant funding comes from the state and federal governments (large corporate gifts are another story of course).  I sometimes wonder if the payoff in public credibility and support might not outweigh the money actually provided by corporate grants.

I also wonder what would happen if universities declared their primary role was to support research and educational programs that worked for planetary sustainability?  Now, that would be a big idea.  It might also be one that helped serve the farming communities we love, and maybe save our souls in the doing.   I believe ‘getting off the treadmill’ may begin by reconnecting to a passion for service to something bigger than ourselves, like sustainability of the earth.

I wonder if we will have the wisdom to make the needed changes before it is too late.   Knowledge alone, will surely not be enough since it is knowledge (or perhaps cleverness) that brought us to where we are today.  Eliot writes;

There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

In the end, we may need more than knowledge.  We will need wisdom – but a particular type of wisdom that derives from humility.  T.S. Eliot wrote;

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable.

Footnotes:

1 The essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a major land grant university.  It was developed from a speech given by the author in Manhattan, Kansas in February 2001.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but was shared with friends and colleagues.  Comments are welcomed.’ Contact John Gerber at: jgerber@psis.umass.edu.

2The T.S. Eliot quotes from ‘Four Quartets’ were brought to my attention at a workshop given by Margaret Wheatley and published later in an article by her titled Consumed by Fire or Fire: Journeying with T.S. Eliot.  IONS Noetic Science Review, April-July 1999.

3 From Donella Meadows in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  See (www.sustainer.org).

.4 The quotes from ‘survey participants’ were collected from the email survey.   Since they were anonymous, these are included without individual attribution.

 

Humans and Spirituality

Humans, embarrassed by our own humanness, have come to rely upon the ability of science, corporations, and government to control nature, our bodies, the land, other people, and other species. We trust our intellect over our emotion, our heads over our hearts, and our minds over our souls. We claim the power of nature as our own as we conquered human diseases, changed the course of great rivers to create electrical power, escaped the bonds of gravity through air flight, and more and more and more. Control and domination of nature and other people has become the norm. There is little humility here. And who cares?

  • I believe that most people care.
  • I believe there is ample evidence that humans the planet over are searching for meaning and in doing so rediscovering their own humanity and their own humility.
  • I believe this search provides an opportunity for the dying embers of the debate around sustainability to be rekindled.
  • I believe the spirit of the debate will yet burn brightly in the hearts and hearths of the people of the nation.
  • I believe the power of science, corporations and government can be challenged by people.
  • I believe the force of people searching for meaning can and will create inexhaustible opportunities for each of us to do what we know in our heart is right, and thus serve both our individual needs as well as the rest of humanity.
  • I believe that if the human species is to be saved from its own destruction, it will not be by intellectual knowledge alone, but by a spiritual search for meaning.

It is interesting that the word spirit is common enough today human spirit, team spirit, community spirit etc., but the word spirituality for some reason is not used with ease today. I believe that spirituality is not a four-letter word. But what is it then?

Spirituality is not simply morality. Morality is about right and wrong and has a social basis reflective of particular conditions located in space and time. Spirituality on the other hand is profoundly non-judgmental.

Spirituality is also not simply ethical. Ethics are a codified set of morals useful for translating the moral into daily life. Spirituality does not necessarily result in a limited code for living, but opens up opportunities for growth.

Spirituality is not simply religious. Religions generally pose a set of rules for living or dogma that exclude “non-believers”. Spirituality on the other hand is wildly inclusive. Finally spirituality is a yearning for a connection to something bigger than us. It is available to everyone.

The sacred is a feeling, a universal experience accessible to all – and needed by all. There is fundamental hunger today to connect to something bigger than ourselves to re-sacralize our day to day lives through our work, our families, our communities. Disconnection of individuals and the fragmentation of those institutions that once connected us produce ill health in our society and ourselves.

Rediscovering the sacred is an act of healing, or perhaps awakening, or perhaps remembering. It is a path that returns us to the womb of the creator. In forgetting the sacred we have become ill, unhealthy and un-whole. From this place of illness, we ask the wrong questions and seek after the false-Gods of consumerism and entertainment. The path back to the sacred is one of remembering the wisdom of the soul, wisdom we all had as infants before society intervened with its distraction of socialized forgetting institutionalized through schooling.

Infants are open to all things. They have the perfect Zen minds in which no expert has yet intervened. They simply live life. They breathe, explore, and wonder. The path back to the sacred is a rediscovery of this “unschooled” process of living and learning.

Rachel Naomi Reman said, “There is no situation that is not a spiritual situation, there is no decision that is not a spiritual decision, there is no feeling that is not a spiritual feeling.” *


* Rachel Naomi Reman is Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. FROM: Noetic Sciences Collection, p. 61-65.

 

 

 

 

Clocks and Trees

In ancient eras, there was no mechanical time since there were no human-made clocks. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the entire universe. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans were perceived as “nothing but” machines.

The mechanistic model of the world was useful since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church in the 17th century. A world that could be measured might not be subject to the authority of the church. However a new authority emerged, a science of reductionism, which allowed humans to control their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural systems. Today we need a new model, a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.

Systems thinking is a new way of looking at things that will help us overcome the crisis of perception left us by Descartes. The systems framework for thinking can encourage personal empowerment and a better understanding of the world. Systems thinkers begin with understanding processes and structures. Instead of starting to look at complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems and organizations by focusing on the components of the system, systems thinkers look at the whole and then examine key relationships within the whole.

A biologist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never understand the tree entirely. A systems thinker might see the seasonal exchange between the tree and the earth, between the earth and the sky, and between people as observers of the tree and the universe. A systems thinker might see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the whole forest; the habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring.” While a biologist might assume the world is a difficult place to survive and hence millions of seeds are needed, a systems thinker might speculate that because the tree is part of the web of life, the millions of seeds might be important for the entire ecosystem not just an individual tree or even tree species. The tree might have co-evolved with the system of which it is a component part, thus making the ecosystem as much as the ecosystem makes the tree.

 

 

 

Beyond the Land Grants

This essay briefly reviews this evolution of the land grant university and predicts that the next phase in the development of the public university will be a community-focused learning network that extends access to all citizens through university outreach and online instruction in the communiversity of the 21st century (1). The “land grant ideal” of making useful knowledge available to all Americans through affordable education, extension to the community, and interrelated practical research, has been tarnished by a limited view of scholarship that values research over the other two public university functions. Increasing criticism and declining financial support for public universities has produced a crisis-opportunity that should result in a radical transformation of the institution. I believe those public universities that are able to build on the land grant ideal, re-engage with the larger community, and take advantage of communications and societal networking technologies will thrive in the 21st century. In fact, continuous change has been our history.

A Brief Look Back

Americans have long valued public education. Early settlers built schools as cornerstones of their new communities, and leading farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known for their interest in public speeches and pamphlets (the blogs of that era) introducing and debating new ideas. Although the value of education has been recognized since the tablet writers of Mesopotamia almost 5000 years ago (2), public education is truly an American ideal.

Jonathan Baldwin Turner, professor at Illinois College, graduate of Yale College, and native of Templeton, Massachusetts championed the idea of a public university to serve “the working classes” in speeches and pamphlets in the 1830’s. Support for Turner’s ideas grew among farmer groups, newspaper editors, industrial societies, and state and federal legislators. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced the legislation which would provide grants of public land (land grants) to be sold to finance a university in each state to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” This landmark legislation represented a major shift in thinking about the purpose of higher education, which previously had been available only to the wealthy classes. The second Morrill Act (1890) further broadened the availability of higher education by providing federal appropriations to support “separate but equal” colleges for African Americans living in the Southern states. In 1994, Congress gave land grant status to twenty-nine Native American tribal colleges, thus continuing the tradition of extending the land grant ideal to marginalized peoples of the nation.

Although the need for a national system of agricultural research was identified by President George Washington, it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass legislation creating the agricultural experiment station system with the Hatch Act of 1887. This legislation represented the second evolutionary step in the growth of the land grants. It provided federal funding “to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science.” The research function was thus added to the evolving land grant ideal. The third stage in the evolutionary growth of the land grants was accomplished with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, establishing the national Cooperative Extension Service “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same.”

President of the University of Massachusetts Kenyon L. Butterfield was an early champion of the land grant ideal. In a 1904 speech, President Butterfield made a case for the three land grant functions when he called for each college to support ” its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who cannot come to the college.” Butterfield recognized the necessary integration of the three functions when he stated “these are really coordinate functions and should be so recognized. The college should unify them into one comprehensive scheme. The principle of such unity is perfectly clear; for we have in research the quest for truth, in the education of students the incarnation of truth, and in extension work the democratization of truth.” While Butterfield expressed this vision in 1904, it was many decades before his ideas were realized.

Thus, the land grant ideal evolved over time to serve the practical needs of a growing nation by integrating research and extension into the university experience and making that experience available to previously excluded women and men. I believe the next expression of the land grant ideal will fully extend the university to those citizens not in residence on its many campuses. It will do so in ways which further integrate research and teaching through online societal networks and community-focused university outreach. University of Wisconsin President C.R. Van Hise’s 1904 statement that “a state university can only permanently succeed where its doors are open to all” must be reinterpreted to not only allow previously excluded groups in, but also to send university scholars out to meet the people of the nation where they live and work. New communications technologies and online networks will not only support this effort, but will make it a necessity if the public university system is to thrive in the 21st century.

Communications Technologies and the Public University

Communications technologies and online societal networks (Facebook for example) are rapidly changing the way people communicate, while enhancing global learning and breaking the monopoly on education currently held by residential universities. The system of higher education that was born during the era of the printing press is being challenged by communications technologies that are not only more far reaching but also more interactive and engaging than textbooks. Books and journals provide unidirectional delivery of information and support a system that allows universities to control the creation and distribution of knowledge. The pattern of scholars joining together around great storehouses of accumulated knowledge, which began with Archimedes and Euclid working at the library of Alexandria in 250 BCE, will change in an era of instant access to large databases. The related pattern of students going to live and study in residence with scholars which began with Plato’s academy, will change in the 21st century as scholars must learn to “go to the learning community” in new and creative ways.

A major transformation in centuries old patterns of learning is underway and universities must adapt quickly if they are to thrive in a world of rapid, interactive information flow. Many academics continue to respond with distain when challenged by the advances being made by businesses and a few aggressive universities in knowledge sharing and teaching technologies. Commercial interests have made serious inroads in specialized professional development and are prepared to capture the undergraduate and professional graduate market by contracting with “the best” professors and offering inexpensive and expertly-packaged teaching modules. This trend should concern professors still lecturing form a podium.

The new educational tools include video servers offering stored lessons, computer linkages to customized reading materials, virtual reality simulations, computer and video conferencing, language translation programs, hypertextbooks, and digital discussions among students, faculty, members of public and business leaders. New communications technologies coupled with the emergence of societal networking and community-focused action groups will continue to erode the monopoly universities hold on advanced learning. As the concept of university is replaced by the communiversity, advanced learning will be available to those formerly excluded from college by financial, space and time constraints. It remains uncertain whether most traditional universities will participate in this exciting and challenging educational movement.

The future might indeed be bleak for institutions unwilling to compete in this highly networked environment. While their current control over credentialing and a thousand years of tradition may partially protect some universities from immediate crisis, the pattern of increasing competition, public distrust, and declining support is likely to continue unless a new defining vision for public universities emerges. Extending current trends suggests that alternative futures for the land grants will be slow decline at best, or dramatic cuts at worst. On the other hand, by expanding the definition of “students” to all citizens, and maintaining a focus on serving the public good through affordable education (both online and in classroom), university-wide outreach and interrelated research, a new, revitalized communiversity may emerge.

The Land Grant University as Communiversity

The mission of the university is often expressed as the production, preservation and transmission of knowledge. I believe the evolution of the communiversity and the emergence of community-focused and online societal networked learning will extend this mission to acknowledge that productivity (application) of knowledge is just as important as the production (accumulation) of knowledge. Research must be fully integrated with online and campus teaching, as well as off-campus community outreach, to capture the synergy of each function and serve the educational needs of the nation. Preservation of knowledge will be available in both the written (published) and community-based (online) formats. Transmission will no longer be a one way “downloading” of information from the teacher to the student, but a mutual sharing of knowledge among learners. The communiversity of the 21st century will make “learning through inquiry” the integrative paradigm that finally resolves the tension between research and teaching.

In the 21st century communiversity, we must employ new ways of using communication technologies and societal networks that allow the “student” and the “instructor” to interact as co-learners, making learning itself the center of the educational environment. For communiversity learning to evolve, the first idea that needs to go is the assumption that knowledge must be validated by university experts to be “true.” There is a long tradition in agricultural extension, for example, that university experts make recommendations that farmers are expected to implement. Agricultural extension educators have done this with the full authority of science, the arrogance of academia, and a nearly 100-year old federal law that mandates Extension educators not only aid in the diffusion of knowledge but “. . . encourage the application of the same.” These 20th century assumptions must change.

Public universities should continue to offer technical expertise to individuals, businesses and communities. However to participate in community-focused learning and societal networks, universities must encourage more collaborative learning using techniques such as study circles, participatory research, and online community forums. The “teacher” must become more respectful of the “student’s” own source of knowledge. Some academics are actively trying to invent new ways of working with off-campus communities. Outreach educators for example, who use participatory research and education techniques, acknowledge the contribution of all learners in the inquiry process, those from the university and those from the community. All participants are expected to help identify and define problems from their own perspective, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions, and interpret results, thus capturing the synergy of both the scientific and the lay learning experience. The outcome of participatory learning is not only community-based knowledge and scholarly publications, but empowered community members more likely to act on their new knowledge. Other university scholars are actively creating new online courses and engage in community-focused conversations using societal networks.

Some university programs today, from professional development and consulting, to service learning and online continuing education, provide a foundation for the further development of the communiversity. Faculty of the new communiversity must do more than simply transfer technology and information to off-campus students. They must join hand-in-hand with citizens in mutually beneficial experiences, serving their individual needs of learners and the public good. Some university programs and faculty already meet this standard, but new models must also be explored.

One rapidly emerging forum for community-focused learning is the online discussion groups and listserves that emerge around specific public activities and issues. An example of this is the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association. While seemingly plebeian in nature and easily discounted by mainstream faculty, this group of active learners share questions, experience, and science-based knowledge on a daily basis through a simple listserv focused on their interest. To support this group and similar like-minded citizen-investigators, the author sponsors a blog called Just Food Now as well as a linked Facebook and Twitter group created to share knowledge and experience on food self-sufficiency (3). To stay linked to what people are saying (both the questions and the answers) the author monitors several listserves and Facebook groups on regular basis. In addition, an RSS (really simple syndication) web feed provides access to a customized selection of news headlines, blogs, professional journal articles, and audio and video files online. This societal network of co-learners is engaged in community-focused research and education in ways that are generally undervalued by the academy.

Another public program that should be adapted by the new American communiversity is the “Dutch science shop,” where citizens can access their public universities. Local university-managed and community-based offices serve as access points to public university and other community networks through communications technologies. In these “shops”, citizens acquire and share knowledge, and initiate research studies to solve problems of importance to themselves, their neighbors and their neighborhoods. These centers also offer an excellent training ground for students through service learning and internships. In the new land grant communiversity, these local centers might serve as “free spaces” (4) where community-focused learning and participatory democracy are fostered. This tradition which extends back to the Greek polis, encourages citizens to be directly involved in civic activities in support of the common good. Community learning centers would offer a public space for citizens to build self-respect, group identity, and gain public skills, while encouraging local learning and action. These centers would provide land grant universities with the added benefit of engaging scholars in the public sphere.

The Need for Change

In conclusion, I argue that a radical transformation of the public land grant university is needed to better serve the citizens, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant communiversity through programs in university outreach and online engagement. Of course, these changes will not occur without much dialogue and debate. Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, past president of Yale University wrote, the university should be.

“a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions.”

Personally, I look forward to the debate (5).

Notes:

1. Thanks to Richard Sclove, former Director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts for sharing the term, “communiversity and his thinking on the “Dutch Science Shops.”

2. For my essay outlining the history of higher education, see; http://www.umass.edu/umext/jgerber/history.htm. Other writings by the author may be found at: http://people.umass.edu/jgerber/newwriting.htm.

3. See; http://pioneervalleybackyardchickenassociation.weebly.com/. And for the Just Food Now blog, Facebook and Twitter groups, see: http://www.justfoodnow.org/. For an international societal network focused on sustainability and higher education, see: http://world.edu/author/john-gerber/.

4. This idea is described by S. Evans and H. Boyte in their book, Free Spaces, 1986.

5. Comments and feedback are welcome. Please send them to; jgerber@psis.umass.edu.

 

Thought is not enough….

The problems of humans are many. Children are dying from hunger, war, poverty, disease, and pollution of the air and water. Humanity is in trouble. Dissolution of the social units that once supported community caring, such as the family, neighborhood, tribe and village, leave nothing but the schools to teach humans how to think, how to act, how to feel. The outcome is crime, loss of hope, vulgar desires for superficial symbols of success, a corrupt political response, more hurt, drugs, unwanted pregnancies yielding unwanted children, and on, and on, and on.

And environmental degradation continues. Billions of living things that are not “us” are victimized each year as we invade the habitats upon which they depend to live. This we know. The protective ozone womb of the mother of us all has been violated by compounds that we create for our own convenience. This we know. Millions of our own species are starving and dying on our televisions, while we watch. This we know too. Thoughtful people know but don’t feel. When we are fully attentive, that is both thoughtful and feeling, the sense of confusion and despair is so great that we stop paying attention. Feeling hurts too much, so we either think without passion or just stop thinking altogether about that which we don’t want to see. We know and don’t feel, or we distract our minds with television shows we don’t really see, food we don’t taste, music we don’t hear, or shopping for things we don’t need. Our minds grow dull and our hearts grow hard from lack of exercise, and spirit wanes.

The human mind, faced with the facts of the human condition digs itself a hole and covers itself with a layer of self-deceit. While some might decry this lack of thoughtfulness, this may be the only rational thing to do with these thoughts. After all, thinking has gotten us where we are today. The act of thinking has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love. Thought has degraded ecosystems, created cycles of poverty, and allowed us to introduce poisons into our bodies that dull the pain. Thinking “alone” cannot solve the problems that thinking has created. To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond thinking, beyond reason, beyond rational thought. Thought is necessary but not enough. Thought only produces knowledge. Today we need both knowledge AND wisdom, where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life. Learning for wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart, yin and yang. Learning for wisdom will require more coherence (literally, a hanging together) than learning for knowledge. Learning for wisdom will require more education and less schooling.

Even the “best” knowledge-focused schooling today only provides learning for the head. Information is handed over to pupils in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for them to judge and reward. The interchange of information between teachers and pupils is little more than a mental handshake in which a thought is passed from an old head to a young one and back again. Like a handshake, the connection between the teacher and student is safe and brief, resulting in the transfer of information without meaning, disconnected from life. We need more than mental handshakes to learn how to solve the problems we have created. We need a connection that is deep and lasting to produce learning for the heart. To understand how more meaningful learning might occur, we should look at the early years of human growth.

The early years of learning are ones in which feeling and thinking are coupled and intelligence grows through intuitive leaps. The child learning to examine and manipulate her fingers at will is an act of raw, unguided learning. This learning experience is full of wonder and awe, a miracle of personal achievement, so different from the teachings offered in school and university. The environment of the early learning experience is one of support, challenge, caring and love. This process is coherent, in that feeling and thinking are fully intertwined. The process of coherent learning that begins with the infant is lost early in life as socialization rewards thinking and discourages feeling. Passions are buried, sometimes to explode in destructive behavior but never to be employed in a coherent learning process in which intelligent feeling is encouraged.

Thinking is necessary but insufficient to coherent learning since it suppresses the role of feeling. To understand the difference between the coherent learning of the infant and the incoherent learning of the adult, imagine an adult who has never seen the sunrise over the eastern ocean. The first time this “uneducated” adult sees the ocean sunrise might be thought of as a moment of wonder and unfiltered learning. This childlike learner might see the ever-changing depth of color in the water, the brilliant reflection of the morning sun as it dances on the crests of distant waves. She might see the majesty of the ocean swells, and hear the roar of those same swells relinquishing their power as they crash one after the other onto the beach. She might feel the spray on her face, leaving a drying crust of salt, which is the same salt of her blood. At that moment, the childlike learner might ask what or who made this monument to the wonder of the earth. At that moment she might believe in God.

Now lets send this person to the university to study oceanography and learn about the physics, chemistry and biology of ocean systems in a classroom far from shore. When this student visits the ocean over a lifetime of study, the wonder of that first look is lost, as knowledge replaces awe. The first experience of the ocean was one of pure, coherent learning. Later perceptions of the ocean are filtered by memories, thoughts and facts acquired in the classroom. While this knowledge is useful, it is not coherent if it displaces the wonder of the first look. The learning which results from thinking alone yields a human mind capable of creating technologies or practices which pollute the ocean environment. Learning resulting from both thinking and feeling might contribute to a more balanced mind.

Our big brains seem to be particularly well adapted to retain thought (both of thinkings and feelings) through memory. This memory allows the body to repeat certain physical acts as well as to bring forward stored images into the active, living present. These images are both cognitive and emotive, with emotive being the more powerful. For example, memory of previous experiences can bring forward feelings of fear, anxiety, or happiness to affect current experience. Thought (being that which has been experienced in the past, stored in memory, and carried forward into the present) includes previous feelings and thinkings which interpenetrate each other and become hard wired into a common structure within our memories. The process of thinking and feeling not only create thought, but are themselves influenced by thought, since observations of objective reality are received through a filter of previous thinkings and feelings. Thought influences, even controls our current feelings and thinkings. While infants (or our “uneducatedý adult learner with her first look at the ocean) may be more open to new, unfiltered and coherent learning, adults are programmed to think, feel and act by “reflexive thought.”

Thought, which is the result of previous thinking and feeling, influences current thinking and feeling through an instantaneous reflexive act. Of course it is not possible to control the reflexive nature of thought, since the control will also be based on thought. But we have to wonder if it is possible to solve the problems of humanity that were created by thought, using a thinking and feeling process that itself is influenced by thought. Is it possible for “authentic” learning to happen as long as reflexive thought interferes with learning? Is the human species just a snake trying to swallow its own tail?

To break out of the circular pattern of thought controlling thinking and feeling, physicist David Bohm, approached the reflexive nature of thought by trying to understand something he called proprioception (or self-perception). This is the awareness of the internal system which controls routine activities such as eating, brushing teeth and walking. While these activities are usually “automatic”, it is a simple matter of will to shift from reflexive treatment of these acts to a more attentive awareness. If we choose to, and practice, we can become more aware of the act of brushing our teeth. The proprioception or self-awareness of the body is easily developed, if generally underutilized by most adults. Proprioception of thought on the other hand is not well- developed. If however, mind and body are one it should be possible to develop such self- perception or awareness of thought. Trying to control thought is not likely to be possible since the reflexive response is too fast, however it may be possible to suspend and observe reflexive thought (including thinking and feeling) producing what Bohm called insight. Intuitive discovery or insight is a spontaneous coherence at a level not possible through thinking alone.

Bohm proposed that it was more likely to achieve direct insight into the working of thought in group settings of twenty to forty people in a process of inquiry he called dialogue. While it is difficult to imagine a lone individual learning to become aware of their own reflexive thought process, it might be possible in a group. With practice, perhaps a group could develop a more mature and communal version of the unfiltered coherent learning experience of the infant in the dialogue process. If this was possible, we might begin to understand the complex issues of the day in a more coherent way. Then maybe, just maybe, we might be better able to create solutions together from a foundation of wisdom and build a better future.

While education is indeed the path to discovery of solutions for humanity’s problems, the incoherent teachings of the schools and universities divert us from the learning we need. We need an education of rigorous intellectual activity motivated by awe and wonder. This kind of learning should be nurtured by an environment of community caring where thinkings and feelings are both honored, and the values of happiness, health, friendship, love, justice, freedom, responsibility, democracy, and productive work are explicit, desired outcomes of coherent learning. Thought is necessary to this kind of learning, but thought “alone” (either separate from feeling) or “alone” (outside of a community) is simply not enough. Thinking and feeling must be done in the company of other humans, working and learning to heal ourselves, our communities, our planet – together.

                                                                                                                             John M. Gerber
March, 1997