Educational Shortcomings

I also attended the David Orr talk on October 25th, and was impressed by the majority of his presentation. I believe that the overarching purpose of Orr’s talk was to critique the failures of the dominant Western education system. He began his lecture with the following questions: How is the world where it is with all the education (knowledge) we have? Is education a ‘good’ (positive) force? Throughout the presentation, it became obvious that Orr thought that the world was in a dangerous place, and that education has not been an entirely positive force to date.
Orr chose to address why he thinks the world is where it is today, and why education has not been entirely a ‘good’ force, by arguing that there is a lack of environmental literacy among teachers and students alike (especially at the university level). Apparently, the lack of environmental literacy among teachers and students is a large reason for our current dangerous global position. I tend to agree. I believe Orr’s argument would have been stronger, however, if he spent less time on demonstrating our current ecological crisis, and more time on exploring the other shortcomings of the education system. For example, save environmental literacy, one might ask: in what other respects has the education system failed to educate? I can personally think of a number of instances where the system has failed me: from grade two onward I received a healthy dose of mathematics and science, but never a taste of philosophy; I learned the basics of neo-classical economics, but not its basic consequences for people and the environment; I learned snippets of political theory, but not how to question the powers that be. In reflection, I feel quite slighted. What was taught to me, and millions of young people before and after me, were the ‘facts’ of life, unquestioned. Luckily, I learned to be critical. How many people have lost the opportunity to learn to be critical?
Orr did point to further instances of educational failures when he presented a list of paradoxes that have yet to be solved by our current education system (I only recorded four of the five paradoxes he mentioned): as our knowledge base increases, our sense of purpose decreases (I believe Orr was referring to our spiritual decline in the West); as control of nature increases we move dangerously far from sustainability; as wealth increases, poverty increases and happiness decreases (supposedly there are indices that measure happiness); and as military spending increases our level of security decreases. The validity of any one of these paradoxes could be argued. However, I believe that Orr’s intention was not to debate these examples, but to demonstrate that education’s shortcomings do not stop at the environment. It puzzles me, therefore, that he would open this door and not explore it further (perhaps he ran out of time).
I think that Orr should have spent more time on explicitly addressing the questions he posed to frame his talk. This would have allotted more time to examining other failures of the education system as illustrated in his list of paradoxes. With all the emphasis on environmental illiteracy, Orr gave the impression that other educational shortcomings were less important, or less critical, to an understanding of where we are today, and how we got here. And since he asked at the outset how we arrived at this dangerous time with all that we know, it seems logical that he would explicitly recognize the other failures that led us here.

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