Slay Your Monsters: Where Do We End to Begin Anew

This article is lifted from David W. Orr‘s paper, “What is Education For?”, published in 1991 by The Context Institute, an independent non-profit organization, founded in 1979, devoted to helping all of us create the best possible 21st century we can — for each of us, for our communities, and for all of life.

The Context Institute is among a handful of organizations that have focused on sustainability as a central theme for more than 35 years, and it is internationally recognized as an authority in this area.

David W. Orr is the thought leader and the founder of The Oberlin Project. The Oberlin Project was formed out of Orr’s vision of full-spectrum sustainability: an all-encompassing joint venture by the town of Oberlin and Oberlin College in Ohio to create a thriving, sustainable and environmentally-friendly community in the town.

An offshoot of the paper “What is Education For?” is the book “Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect,” first published in 1994.

Orr focuses not on problems in education, but on the problem of education. Much of what has gone wrong and is going wrong with the world, he argues, is the result of inadequate and misdirected education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination — causing students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are, overemphasising success and careers, separating feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical, and deadening the sense of wonder for the created world.

The crisis we face, Orr explains, is one of mind, perception, and values. It is, first and foremost, an educational challenge.

Orr tackled six myths of education:

Myth # 1: Ignorance is a solvable problem.

Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of some form of ignorance.

In 1930, after Thomas Midgely, Jr. discovered CFCs, what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance became a critical, life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the biosphere. No one thought to ask “what does this substance do to what?” until the early 1970s. By 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased. But like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance has grown as well.

Myth # 2: With enough knowledge and technology, we can manage planet Earth.

“Managing the planet” has a nice ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons, and dials. But the complexity of Earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere.

What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics, and communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid the hard choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense. It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.

Myth # 3: Knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness.

There is an information explosion going on, a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily be measured.

What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas of inquiry.

In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that learning will make us better people. But learning is endless and in itself will never make us ethical people.

Myth # 4: The purpose of higher education is that we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled.

In the modern curriculum, we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and sub-disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, many students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things — the ability to “connect the dots”.

For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from the gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production.

As a result of incomplete education, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.

Myth # 5: The purpose of education is that of giving us the means for upward mobility and success.

Thomas Merton once identified education as the “mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade”.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

Myth # 6: Our modern global culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Only a minuscule number of people alone are modern, technological, and developed. This, of course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a gross misreading of world history and anthropology.

We have built a world of pleasure-seeking wealth for a few and Calcuttan poverty for a growing underclass. At its worst, it is a world of anomie, crack on the streets, insensate violence, and the most disparate kinds of deprivation.

“Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit.

It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity.

It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion.

Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul.”

— Ron Miller, the Holistic Review

The fact is this: Into the 21st Century, we are living in a disintegrating culture. What can be done? What can we do to reverse this breakdown?

Originally published on October 16, 2016 at



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Namenlose Leute

Namenlose Leute

Nameless People: their ways, their spaces, and their tools.