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Education for Sane Planetary Citizenship

Education (n.) the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, esp. at a school or university. Derived from the Latin educere meaning to lead out.

Democracy (n.) a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. From the Greek, dēmokratia from dēmos ‘the people’ and kratia ‘power, rule.’

How far our modern definition of education has strayed from its roots. How interesting that within what is considered to be the most sophisticated system of governance, democracy, we define and practice education in such a barbaric form. It seems that our tools of culture are still catching up to our ideals. And at a related rate to which we don’t catch up, our actualization of those ideals may be deteriorating.

Education in the United States is rooted in many outdated traditions. Beginning with its tap-root in Puritanical culture, schools preferred conformity and order over individuality and original thought. As industrialization grew and jobs moved from the farm to the city, this neat and tidy schoolhouse was a perfect tool for dominating the working class. Paired with the call for compulsory education, industrialists reaped the benefits of trained “students” who were dependent on their factories for jobs and sorted into laborers and managers through ranking and testing in schools. Our modern incarnation of school still upholds the architecture of this system where responding to bells and doing as you are told is more important than thinking.

Today we have inherited a most awkward and inefficient thing, called “public education.” We continue to employ rewards that promote values of conformity. Grades are one of the most powerful. They replace authentic learning, eroding our natural love of learning and orientation toward being good people. Over time, grades become salaries, where our livelihood depends on our blindness to the ill effects of our actions.

Fundamentally, education needs to honor the individual as capable of directing her own learning. Any structures surrounding children and students must be built on this respect and teachers must be mirrors. First, modeling healthy human development, we must practice holistic lifelong learning. Secondly, we must reflect back to the students where they currently are so that they can progress. It is within this process that instruction must be embedded.

I wish to put the modern definition of education and the institutions founded upon it into the compost pile. They need to be broken down into their smaller parts so that they can be reconstituted as part of a healthier and more timely whole.

In order to achieve the outcomes we need today we must begin with a new definition of education (or return to its roots), as the current one is incapable of delivering what the world needs now. But how do we arrive at what the outcomes of education should be? Let’s look at what a democracy needs in order to succeed.

Democracies are dependent on having able-minded people to carry the responsibility of power. Citizens must be able to think critically about complex issues, and resolve conflict with compassion and insight, both to a degree much higher than currently is average.

As the torch of power has descended from the gods; to the pharaohs, kings, and queens; and finally to every human being, we need an idea of education that is just as powerful. Power at its root is simply “to be able.” This ability may be exerted immaturely or wisely, and the effects of our actions tell the tale of which was the case.

Evidently, we are currently a very immature populace. There’s more monetary wealth in the world than ever before, but at such a cost that the majority of the biosphere’s life systems are near collapse. Despite having the greatest security against hunger and attack in human history, we live paralyzed with fear and suspicion. Resources are hoarded by very few, who shape policy for their own enrichment, while a majority of people in the United States are more concerned about celebrity drama, “reality” television shows and toys.

Meanwhile hundreds of species are lost each year, and millions of people are starving and without clean water. There’s a plastic whirlpool as big as Texas in the Pacific Ocean and a 3,000 square mile dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

We excuse people all the time for not doing more, “Oh, it’s just too big a problem for most people to wrap their head around.” This is not excusable. History is written everyday by the accumulation of individual habits. Our current habits of ignorance, greed, and immaturity are spoiling the riches of this planet and the true power of democracy.

Thus, education needs to be for the development of profoundly sane personalities. It is nothing less that will bring about the environmental restoration and rejuvenation necessary to avoid the worst of possible scenarios. It is nothing less that will bring about an end to armed conflict. It is nothing less that will be able to confront the problems yet to be known. It is what a democracy needs in order to be viable.

By focusing on character development we have hope. To continue focusing on test scores means we have lost it. We “know” more than ever before, we are “smarter” and faster than any of our ancestors, and thus far this has largely facilitated an accelerated downfall of human capacity to live wisely on the planet and with one another.

But as contrast is the necessary condition for consciousness, this means that there are in the world, talented personalities that are enacting the beauty we so desperately need. It is these personalities that need to be recognized as desirable, as truly those who are the “fittest” to survive. Fittest meaning those that best support life as well as make use of it for themselves.

Thus, the outcomes we should be aiming for in education today are:

  1. Emotional sensitivity and intellectual curiosity oriented to expansive love, compassion, respect, and responsibility, in contrast to disharmonious tendencies to neglect, apathy, and disavowal of personal responsibility for collective well-being.
  2. Conceptual focus on cyclic powers in human development, exhibited in habits, customs, and traditions concerning the presence or absence of effective self-reflection, self-examination, research, inquiry, and dialogue.

If every high school graduate embodied these outcomes, our neighborhoods would be cleaner and safer, our communities would be strengthened, our country would be robust, and our world would be saved on a perpetual basis.

Lastly, I propose that we widen our view even beyond the singular idea of democracy. I propose that we utilize The Earth Charter as our curricular and thus assessment framework. Developed by an international group of diverse, thoughtful, and caring people, The Earth Charter articulates four principles that human civilization needs to adopt or it will perish. Those principles are: Respect and Care for the Community of Life; Ecological Integrity; Social and Economic Justice; Democracy, Non-violence, and Peace. These can all be reached through the two outcomes I outlined above.

With hope,



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


9 thoughts on “Education for Sane Planetary Citizenship

  1. Adam, the long view you take here is something sadly missing from public discourse. Rarely does our media report to us any viewpoint not narrowly focused on hyper-current “events.” At some point we need to take stock of where we are as a people and planet, decide where we want to be, and then act accordingly, preferably before its too late to prevent our self-destruction. Embedding the democratic ideals of civil discourse and shared powered in public education would, I hope, bring us along quickly in restoring, rejuvenating, and protecting our relationships with one another, our communities, our world, and our knowledge.

    How would a typical school day look in your mind under public education policy that respects and incorporates the Earth Charter?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2010, 3:59 pm
  2. A typical school day would consist of quality time outside connecting with nature; and exploring our systems and choices for their impacts upon people, creatures, and life systems (see for great resources on this).

    The entire campus would be a learning environment, with technology interfaced with energy systems so that anyone can monitor and analyze usage, on-going permaculture projects, and sustainable building and design experiments. There would be scheduled class time, with plenty of “free-time” for choice engagement in projects of interest. Classes would be geared to be relevant to projects and students’ goals.

    Ties with the community would be developed for real-life mentoring (check out and students would be able to engage in learning off-campus (imagine that!) during the school day (holy moly!). This would be part of the integrated study plan crafted at the beginning of the year with students, parents, and teachers.

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 1, 2010, 9:48 pm
    • Thank you, Adam – I’m on board. Education should be embedded in communities and not separated out into schools as we know them. In order to accomplish your vision here, I think we’d need to reimagine schools conceptually – as nodes in a community cloud of learning – as well as physically. If we spent resources designing learning campuses, we could better sponsor living systems projects on grounds and give students the opportunity to bring back to the school community what they learn about, say, agriculture from local experts.

      I’m also curious and enthusiastic about how to restructure time so that individual study plans and the multiple meetings needed per year to support them become part of public education culture.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 3, 2010, 8:49 am
  3. For anyone interested here are the schools and programs I follow as exemplars in moving curriculum towards what I describe in my post.

    Ridge and Valley Charter School,
    New Roots Charter School,
    Maine Farm Enterprise Schools,
    Green School,
    River’s Edge Academy,
    Common Ground High School,
    Community of Peace Academy,
    The Willow School,
    The Green School,
    Camino de Paz: Montessori School and Farm,
    The New School,
    The Mountain School,

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 3, 2010, 5:36 pm
  4. On my first read through these schools’ home and about pages, they seem like incredible places for learning, for sustaining communities and resources, and for developing children conscious of their place and power in the world. For American teachers, do you know if any of the public schools have published their chartering documents as models for others to follow?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 5, 2010, 9:02 am
  5. This post is the first in what I hope is a weekly tradition of revisiting older posts and discussions! Please feel free to add to the conversation already started or a new reflection on this piece.


    Posted by dloitz | October 24, 2010, 9:00 pm
  6. I on ly wonder, is there any hope at all for public school. I simply do not see except for these posts and the strong feelings many have that it currently sucks and why. I work in a school os dropouts from the whole system and have finally seen true happiness, democratic ideals at work, loving, communal behavior, kids allowed to grow into the people they really want to be. But what about the rest of the world? So many kids being treated like they are in prison. I can’t stand it and obviously neither can any of you. I guess talking about it like this is a good first step, but boy do we have a long ways to go. The entire educational paradigm has to be shifted to where it belongs…community supported, self directed learners, who demonstrate their genius every day without being told to sit done , be quiet, and stand in line or else…..they are bad people. No more bad people education!

    Posted by Alice cotton | November 22, 2010, 2:06 pm


  1. Pingback: The DNA of Democracy « Cooperative Catalyst - March 8, 2010

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