Tradition & Energy: Calculating Our Educational Power Bill

Tradition & Energy: Calculating Our Educational Power Bill

Seeing an orbital image of planet Earth at night you immediately become aware of two things. Firstly, how much energy is used to maintain the human experiment; secondly, how inequitably it is distributed around the globe. As James Lovelock recently observed, “civilisation is energy-intensive” yet the real energy that is involved in human existence cannot be seen as easily as the orbital photo of our nightly planet suggests.

The real energy driving the human experiment is psychic energy. There is undoubtedly some correlation between the physical energy emitted each night by our cities and the psychic forces that are driving late-modernity, yet this tells only part of a much bigger story.

Much of the psychic energy driving the human experiment is bounded by traditions. In fact it is quite a plausible proposition to claim that traditions are energy streams that draw on energy from the past, condense and focus energy in the present and, like a torch light, channel and project energy into the future. The fibre optic cables and satellite transmissions that bring speed and flexibility to the planet and its globalising economy and culture, as well as the urban incandescence of the Earth at night, are in fact the by products of an invisible but clearly defined confluence of energy generating traditions.

Roots & Rivers

Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s great poets, describes creation as a waking up, an explosion of energy. Not the traditional Big Bang, but something akin as Brahma awakens and its joy is boundless. The roots of the Indic tradition lie in this expression of boundless-joy. Today this story has merged with many others like the course of the Ganges as it first meets the great rivers of Yamuna, Ghaghara and Kosi and goes on through twists and turns, finally spitting again and again in the monsoonal Delta of Bengal.

Similarly, the turbine engines of culture are alive with the dynamic dance of traditions, churning away like the great river Ganges as it makes its (untidy) way to the sea. The stories cultures tell themselves are the source of much energy, the dreams (and nightmares) that inspire nations, drive business and political leaders are more powerful than nuclear energy. The myths and metaphors that frame our unconscious daily coming and goings are what we need to turn to when seeking to rethink civilisation and our role in its maintenance.

The Educational Power Bill

When you think of traditions as conduits of power it is possible to look at any social structure and ask about it: What traditions power it? Who pays? Are there alternative energy sources?

Take one of societies most complex and contested institutions: Education. Far from being monolithic education is a veritable power grid generating huge energy for the expansive and predatory economic and the cultural practices of a globalising world.

The energy of this system draws on an array of traditions each bringing to the current system energy in the form of values, practices and beliefs. The humanism that drove education for centuries has been absorbed by the utilitarian needs of a rapidly globalising society. The pragmatic concerns of utilitarianism are at least in part off set by an opening up of democratic processes and a greening of the school. Furthermore, we also have the romantic tradition placing the child at the centre of the learning equation. Thus we find humanist, utilitarian, democratic, environmental and romantic strands at work; all provide energy and work to maintain the coherence of the system.

And the cost? The humanist tradition privileged the old elites, where culture and money and power coalesced, the poor payed; the utilitarian, as power shifted from the old elites to the new, a new form of education emerged and the user pays, ultimately the poor are excluded and as money flows upwards, they pay again.

The democratic offers a way out, as does the environmental: both stem from traditions that challenge hierarchies, yet both are too fragmented to challenge the dominance of the utilitarian, their effect is ameliorative but they contain the potential energy to challenge this dominance should a shift in the world-system cause a ‘power failure’ – such a shift could be either social or environmental. And the romantic? Child centredness is powerful, as it is the root of both soft and hard individualism, but it is too easily coopted by the dominant cultural elites, particularly those seeking a cultural ‘off-set’ for the vacuum created by the loss of humanism to utilitarianism.

Alternative Energy

We have lived in a resource rich world that at the physical level is coming to recognise its limits. What has been left largely unharnessed is the natural capital essential to traditions: human energy. To date human psychic capital has been focussed on the control and manipulation of the physical world. It has been largely shaped and directed by the materialism inherent to the Enlightenment and the drive to generate capital.

Holistic solutions embrace spiritual energy. This is energy locked in ancient traditions such as that Tagore describes above. Captured by the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’ creation becomes an act of toil; schooling as a result is about ‘hard’ work, productivity and accountability. Add to this a healthy dose of capitalist rhetoric with ‘user pays’ and ‘choice’ on the menu and we end up with an entropic system that consumes energy, in the form of the lives, heart and imaginations of people and communities, rather than generates it.

This formula can be turned on its head with creation becoming an act of joy. Creative, life-affirming neohumanist traditions generate energy. If we infuse education with spiritual energy drawn from the practices, values and commitments of the great spiritual traditions we produce a system that channels powerful creative forces into the future. The turn is inward and thus saves us from the materialist despair inherent to the thinking of James Lovelock who can only measure energy at the physical finite level.

Physical energy is a measure of the psychic, but it is a symptom not a driving force. This is so, despite the obvious fact that both physical decline and technological advance, a la Moore’s Law, have momentums of their own once they gets beyond a specific point.

To harness traditions of power and depth and focus them into systems such as education is a powerful idea. Education that generates rather than consumes energy has the potential to return hope and creativity to the human experiment and enliven our daily dealings with the pressing environmental concerns that seem so overwhelming. Moore’s law and environmental catastrophe theories are certainly a pressing concern but they overlook the largely untapped power that lies within us all.