Education Nature and Society

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Education, Nature and Society
Stephen Gough

Chapter Abstracts.

Chapter 1: Introduction: Education, Nature and Society
The chapter introduces the topic of the book, arguing that the three elements - education, nature and society - are inseparable. An overall disciplinary focus is required in order to achieve coherence, and this is provided by the philosophy of education. However, the book also draws on evidence from other disciplines. Key terms are defined, and contemporary debates about the relationship between society and the rest of the natural world placed in their wider institutional context. In turn, this requires an exploration of key methodological issues. A historical example of society/nature interaction is introduced for further reference in later chapters.

Chapter 2: Why Education Matters
The chapter opens with a discussion of the possible goals of education, and its effectiveness in achieving them. The institutional context of educational decision making is considered, and it is noted that this typically leads to quite a short-term orientation, although the effects of education may be very long term in nature, and may lead to consequences many years hence, when problems and perceptions are very different from those of the present. In particular, human interactions with nature reshape the environment over time, so altering the parameters of human choice. The chapter concludes with a discussion of this relationship with nature, and of its educational implications.

Chapter 3: Why Nature Matters
Historical material and recent work in philosophy and ecology are employed to develop the discussion of human inter-relationships with the rest of nature, and of the ways in which people typically think about that relationship. In particular, ways of thinking found useful in the short term may be unhelpful in the longer term. The question of usefulness is in any case largely separate from that of accuracy, though the two things are frequently confused. Clarity in this respect may be aided by better understanding the subsidiary relationship between 'environment' and 'economy', where both result from human/nature interactions that are mediated, over time, by education. Further historical material is used to illustrate these points.

Chapter 4: Why Society Matters
A key claim is developed: that societies matter because they educate. This reverses the currently more widely accepted view that education matters because it promotes social goals, but is consistent with a Darwinian, philosophically pragmatic account of human experience, and with a Deweyan conception of education. The claim is discussed with reference to historical examples. Society is the medium through which meanings are negotiated and renegotiated. Education is crucial in this process. Nature provides a non-negotiable baseline, and at particular times and places this may matter a great deal: but much lived human experience is an engagement not with fundamental truths of nature, but with social constructions of one sort or another. Such experience is no less significant in consequence.

Chapter 5: The Importance of Not Being Certain
The chapter considers the nature of uncertainty, and why it is ubiquitous in human relations with nature. Implications for the methodology of enquiry are explored. A particular framework for the analysis of human behaviour under conditions of uncertainty – ‘Cultural Theory’ - is described, and its implications are discussed. In this context, it is possible to identify a number of distinct and competing reasons why some people wish to educate others (or have others educated) about 'correct' perceptions of the society/nature relationship. They are likely to select for emphasis such 'facts' as promote their position.

Chapter 6: Scale, Time and Space
In human affairs, a few years seems a long time; and yet, it is also possible to identify slow-moving, long-term historical trends and patterns that, in the here-and-now, determine what may be possible and what may not. In ecology, cumulative changes over long periods may lead to sudden catastrophic changes of state. What seems important locally and in the short term may prove to be of no consequence in the end, while that which presently seems insignificant or remote may prove crucial. Education transmits culture through both time and space. A standard device for considering effects through time is the concept of capital, but this presents a number of problems.

Chapter 7: Competition and Cooperation; Freedom and Equality.
Debates about education are often framed in terms of competition versus cooperation. Human evolution privileges both. Apparently cooperative social goals may require competitive behavior, and vice versa. This is illustrated by a discussion of the idea of equality, and the necessary role of freedom of choice in achieving it, drawing on the work of Ronald Dworkin. Further implications for our understanding of altruistic behavior, and for questions of structure and agency, are explored. Assumptions about these matters are shown to underpin different foundational positions in the social sciences, and so bear upon educational thought.

Chapter 8: Mind and Body
It is a well-established principle in philosophy of education that a dualistic distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘body’ cannot be sustained. However, the distinction is sometimes useful. The limits of such usefulness are explored, with specific reference to some recent developments in neuroscience and their possible educational implications. Drawing on work in the pragmatist and institutionalist traditions, and most particularly on Geoffrey Hodgson’s concept of layered ontologies, the agency of social institutions, and therefore the significance of education, is reasserted.

Chapter 9: What Can Education Do?
One key question for education in the context of nature and society is whether its purpose is to solve society’s problems (such as climate change or biodiversity loss) or promote the learning of individuals. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same. In the former case one would judge success by the extent to which particular problems were solved. In the latter case one would evaluate the learning that had taken place. A second key question is whether the causes of environmental problems that might be addressed through education are predominantly located in the environment or in society. A brief history of work in the field is presented and discussed in the context of current research.

Chapter 10: Conclusions
The concluding chapter draws together the arguments of the book and summarizes the implications for education. Humans are an evolved and evolving species with the distinctive characteristic of creating meanings, concepts, beliefs and institutions that have real consequences. There was never a golden age from which we departed, or to which we might one day return. There is no ideal end-state to which we should aspire, or even the possibility of any end-state at all. Everything changes, however permanent it seems in the here-and-now. Education is our way of coping.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationNew York, U. S. A.
Number of pages144
ISBN (Electronic)978020306907
ISBN (Print)978041565948
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameRoutledge Research in Education


  • Philosophy of Education


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