Category Archives: John M. Gerber

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).


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; Other writings by the author may be found at:

3. See; And for the Just Food Now blog, Facebook and Twitter groups, see: For an international societal network focused on sustainability and higher education, see:

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;


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

Thought is Not Enough (to print)