This summer, representing the Transformative Education Forum-Global at two nearly back-to-back but very different educational conferences — one held in the hot August summer sun of the Portuguese “Eco-Village” of Tamera, the other in the already cool September rain of the ancient University buildings of Oxford – I felt more than ever the split in my two educational minds, and far more than ever, how that split had rendered my heart.
For me, it was the cutting contrast between the left cognitively-dominant rational and thus “over-rationalized” mind and the right brain empathetic far-seeing and feeling ability to truly hear and understand i.e. to more completely “learn”. As an educator and educational theorist for the last 40 years focused on the enhanced education of emotional, social and thus cultural “intelligences”, I had increasingly begun to believe that our over-dominance and over dependence on the Left-brain hemisphere increasingly reinforced in Western Enlightenment education for “problem-solving” narrowing in nearly exclusively on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) was actually endangering our ability to problem-solve more complex, human, interdisciplinary and interpersonal global sustainability issues. That these issues, demanded both Left and Right brain Hemisphere abilities and skills sets CONNECTED together across the Corpus Callosum(1) and that the increasingly Left-brain imbalance focus of this modern education was causing literal atrophy of Right-brain hemisphere more global, full human emotional, empathetic and creatively diverse abilities for complete problem-solving for sustainability on a shared planet. Essentially, in the students, standardized testing regimes, and subject matter constriction towards STEM, I had increasingly begun to believe more actual evidence-based understanding that we are more often adding to destroying rather than creating healthy, sustainable life on our shared planet. That indeed it was this cognitive dissonance actually reinforced by standard Western Enlightenment models of education, that was interfering with arriving at any holistically complete and truly “connected” systems solution absolutely necessary to real sustainability of all peoples and our planet at this critical point in human history.
At Tamera’s hosted “Eco-versity” there were not the 550 participants that I would gather with in Oxford a month later, but rather a tenth of that number in the hot August sun of Portugal. There was also no 65 page Programme with 300 separate presentations in multiple parallel sessions from true dominant “leaders” in the field of International and Comparative Education from several universities worldwide along with UNESCO, UNICEF, DFID and many acronymic others coming from 60 countries and every continent, in attendance at Oxford. But at Tamera, though the numbers were far smaller, the diversity of “voice” actually heard was far greater, and the average age overall, younger.
It was a voice that requested, gently but persistently and with no gavel or “Plenary Speaker” rights, to be heard. Simply, to be allowed to tell its own story in its own words and in its truly experientially-informed and embodied voice – this one from the Zapatista indigenous struggle for their own lands, that one from a Palestinian refugee trying to grow up in Jordan, another so gentle and so clear from a half indigenous Amazonian and half German split in herself, struggling to speak the wisdom of her grandmother through her own “higher” educationally trained and brilliant-as-a-light mind, trying to bridge these two worlds. There were some there also trying to teach us from the spiritual traditions of the indigenous Hawaiian peoples, from a Zimbabwean “learning village” working on premises of “personal, community and sustainable leadership” and from a besieged communal peace-village in Colombia formed in the midst of armed conflict from all sides.
And thus in Portugal, for those many of us so trained by the Western Higher Education system and other Western “educational” conferences we’d attended before, it was at times a difficult and many times excruciatingly uncomfortable listening-learning of these experiences and empirical realities and the request to listen, always gentle — sometimes barely whispered through the felt pain — had to be made more than once. More than twice. More than in just one language. More than in just abstracted, de-emotionalized, academic and cognitive terms.
This was a “curriculum” spoken more in fragments, broken more by tears or the need to gasp a breath, than power-point text on screens and floating disembodied words. There was no technological back-up, no slides, no video and no emotionally abstracted escape, though many – deeply uncomfortable at not moving directly over that pain to offer solutions – tried. Sincerely and from true honest intention, trained to jump directly to the scientific, rational and thus “possible” solutions. That’s what our Western education had been most excellent at trying to teach us to be able to “do”. But it was also, it was being suggested if only we were still capable of hearing it, perhaps why our “solutions” had not and could not possibly solve the problems in a world where we refused to listen long enough with open hearts, to fully understand. That our “solutions” would never be true “solutions” if we continued to refuse to validate the critical evidence of lived and felt experiences, available to us only through empathetic, Right-brain rather than only Left-brain, cognitive, disconnected understanding, thus missing the most important “felt-facts” necessary for true resolution.
This learning, so long invalidated by our Enlightenment models of education, was not ours to dominate. It was only ours to perhaps learn more about from those whose experiences were lived more closely to their peoples, their long history and their land on these issues. And more often their experiential, hard-earned knowledge trumped our degrees in political science, economics or scientific and technical education. It was a humbling, discomfiting experience filled with awkward silences of the kind I never had to long endure at other educational conferences, so quickly filled with the same type of dominating voices every time any silence or breathing space opened.
At Oxford, where there were papers/speakers and presentations in multiple parallel sessions — my own presentation was a “Pop-up” presentation. After giving papers at the two previous UKFIET Conferences on Transformative Education and the work of TEF to promote a definition of the difference this kind of cross-brain/cross-heart education would embody – I was interested in attempting this “new” model of a more provocative discussion, a more interactive discourse on a less research-scaffolded topic. For that reason I used a metaphor from Frank L. Baum’s book, “A Wizard of Oz” and made it a statement rather than a question, for this had been mine and so many others’ unspoken experience in Western Enlightenment Education and its so narrow definition of “intelligence” in our world. And under those very definitions, so rarely a discussion allowed: “The Scarecrow May Have No Brains, but Modern Education has no Heart and thus no true Sustainability”.
It was simply an attempt, in the spirit of the Transformative Education Forum itself and part of its main focus in raising these same questions in all their multiple and necessarily much more diverse facets — definitely on both sides of the brain, from multiple experiences and perspectives and using the heart and spirit as well as the mind. A question to attempt to open up a conversation about the kind of education that might indeed INCLUDE the whole world and all its diversity of thinking, being and feeling; enough to actually be a real attempt at re-balancing learning to sustainability for all. Interestingly, and not unexpectedly while important to understand, 80% of those who attended this particular conference were female, from all over the world.
Yet essentially, what both conferences had most in common was a sincerity in purpose – a diversity in people from all over the planet truly concerned about the clearly unsustainable direction it was continuing to take, despite overwhelming evidence on all fronts – cognitive, scientific and empirical in experientially-lived crises. Notably for me, both conferences were also ultimately trying to consider this evidence in terms of a more “systems thinking” approach – that which had always been intrinsic to how nature and our planet has clearly functioned, in ways far more intricate and complicated than we in our “silo-educated” arrogance had ever fully understood.
But ultimately what both Conferences brought ever more clearly home, was the critical understanding of the diverse emotional, social and cultural intelligences so necessary to open up “systems and effects based thinking” to address humankind’s interconnected, interdisciplinary challenges. That for truly humane solutions to complex-human-systems -understanding, rather than purely mechanical or technical systems thinking, these might be the key to any true “systems’ education” that could ultimately connect and balance these different ways of knowing and problem-solving. Subsequently that might mean an educational system intricately and emotionally connected to the value of all life around it, locally and globally, and “tested” by its humbling understanding of the impacts and outcomes that it actually created in life. This despite all the cognitively dissonant words and “values” it has claimed to date, but which glaring evidence of planetary destruction, human systematic inequity, cruel and life-destroying rather than life-sustaining “political-economic systems”, seem to consistently and overwhelmingly disprove.
1) The corpus callosum is a large bundle of more than 200 million myelinated nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres, permitting communication between the right and left sides of the brain. Abnormalities within the corpus callosum have been identified in maltreated children. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/corpus-callosum#:~:text=The%20corpus%20callosum%20is%20a%20large%20bundle%20of%20more%20than,been%20identified%20in%20maltreated%20children.