EDUCATING TOWARD DIRECT DEMOCRACY AND ECOLOGICAL SUSTAINABILITY:
THEORY OF SOCIAL ECOLOGY AS A FRAMEWORK FOR CRITICAL, DEMOCRATIC, AND COMMUNITY-BASED EDUCATION
The aim of this dissertation project was to explore and extrapolate the work of the leftlibertarian
social theorist, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), paying particular attention to his theory of social ecology and to examine its implications for and use as a comprehensive philosophical/theoretical framework for alternative secondary education that has as its central aim direct democracy, a new conception of citizenship premised upon such an aim, and a more balanced, less destructive relationship between humans and non-human nature.
The dissertation attempts to answer two fundamental questions through both a theoretical examination and an empirical study. First, what ideal of citizenship is established within the theory of social ecology? Second, what outcomes would indicate that a school using the theory of social ecology as a curricular centerpiece is successful in creating or fostering this ideal of citizenship within students? In attempting to answer these questions, I first engage in a close reading and critical examination of the theory of social ecology and its underlying philosophy as articulated and developed in the work of the late Murray Bookchin. I mine the literature in order to draw out its central concepts related to citizenship and democracy, shed light upon the political philosophy
that acts as its foundation, and extend these findings in order to deduce their implications for education. Secondly, I conduct an empirical study at a small charter high school in a large metropolitan area whose explicit aim is to empower students “to engage in critical thinking and social transformation, from the classroom to the Puerto Rican community” (Mission and Vision http://www.pedroalbizucamposhs.org/about/dr-pedro-albizu-campos-high-school/ retrieved January 4, 2012) through the use of social ecology, social-emotional learning, and critical pedagogy as guiding theoretical frameworks. The aim of this empirical study was to gain an understanding of how social ecology is used within a school to foster a particular ideal of
citizenship and the degree to which it is successful in attempting to do so.
I outline the distinctions between anarchism as a political philosophy and that of liberal democratic theory upon which much of educational philosophy is based. As social ecology is largely rooted in the social anarchist tradition, I sketch out the principles upon which the social anarchist position (on the state, on authority, on human beings’ way of interacting with and relating to one another) rests and identify some of its major tenets as they are specific articulations of anarchist principles within the realms of philosophy, politics, and social relations that I feel have particular relevance for an educational model aimed toward direct democracy and ecological sustainability. I then move into a theoretical discussion of dialectical naturalism – the philosophy of social ecology – and its attempt to formulate an objective ecological ethics. I examine and explore libertarian municipalism – the politics of social ecology – paying particular attention to its goal of re-orienting the modern western definitions of democracy, politics, and
citizenship. Next, I report my findings from the empirical study of a school that utilizes social ecology and community-based education to move its students toward enhanced self-actualization through active participation in nurturing greater community autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Finally, through creative imagining, I consider the implications of the philosophy and politics of social ecology for the structure, form, and content of an alternative small-school movement rooted in place and aimed at ameliorating social and ecological crises at the grassroots level.
Some of the most appealing aspects of anarchism and social ecology are their emphasis on the vital importance of solidarity, mutual aid, and cooperation. Despite dominant discourses to the contrary, none of us are completely autonomous and independent agents but rather are embedded in communities of family, friends, and comrades who make possible our growth, the realization of our dreams and desires, and the maintenance and enrichment of our cultural and ecological environments for future generations.
I extend my deepest gratitude to Avner Segall who ushered me into the College of Education over five years ago and who has provided invaluable intellectual support and mentorship to help me find my way to the other side. Kyle Greenwalt, thank you for instilling in me the confidence to think outside the ‘educational box’ and for being not just a colleague but also a friend throughout. Lynn Fendler and Elizabeth Heilman, you are inspiring intellectuals and your advice and encouragement has meant a tremendous amount to me. Jeff Bale and Matt Ferkany, I appreciate your openness to my ideas and only wish I had more time to engage with
and learn from you. Jim Garrett, the overlap of our personal and academic lives was nothing short of serendipitous – thanks for teaching me when to bring them together and when to keep them separate. My opportunity to participate in, learn from, and develop relationships through the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos school community was invigorating and re-ignited my belief in
young people and the adults committed to their flourishing. Thank you especially to Matt, for inviting me in, for the many fruitful discussions, and for making me feel like a part of the school.
None of this would have been remotely possible without the love, patience, and support of my family. Dad, Al, Mary, and grandparents -this was truly a collective effort and I deeply appreciate your support. Josie, Mary, and Colin, you are the reasons I want to be part of creating a better world. Mindy, my rock, through your partnership and strength of character, you have
helped me to find my part in working toward a more just world by making me a better person.
Finally, I dedicate this work to my late mother, Carmen Natalie Holohan (1947-2011).
Your lifelong drive to question and understand the world around you and to develop deep and supportive relationships with others has shaped me in countless ways and has been a wonderful model for all those that had the privilege of knowing you. I only wish you could be here to see me complete this stage of my journey.
Some of us remember the infamous old Communist tirades against merely ‘formal’ bourgeois freedom – absurd as they were, there is a pinch of truth in the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘actual’ freedom: ‘formal freedom is that freedom to choose within the coordinates of the existing power relations, while ‘actual’ freedom grows when we can change the very coordinates of our choices.
(Slavoj Žižek, Living in the end times, 2011, 358)
The aim of this dissertation project is to explore and extrapolate the work of the left libertarian social theorist, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), paying particular attention to his theory of social ecology and to examine its implications for and use as a comprehensive philosophical/theoretical framework for alternative secondary education that has as its central
aim direct democracy, a new conception of citizenship premised upon such an aim, and a more balanced, less destructive relationship between humans and non-human nature. More specifically, the dissertation attempts to answer two fundamental questions through both a theoretical examination and an empirical study. First, what ideal of citizenship is established within the theory of social ecology? Second, what outcomes would indicate that a school using the theory of social ecology as a curricular centerpiece is successful in creating or fostering this ideal of citizenship within students? In attempting to answer these questions, I first engaged in a close reading and critical examination of the theory of social ecology and its underlying philosophy as articulated and developed in the work of the late Murray Bookchin. I mined the literature of social ecology (and related fields) in order to draw out its central concepts related to citizenship and democracy, shed light upon the political philosophy that acts as its foundation,and extend these findings in order to deduce their implications for education. Secondly, I moved from theory to practice by conducting an empirical study at a small charter high school in a large metropolitan area in the Midwest whose explicit aim is to empower students “to engage in critical thinking and social transformation, from the classroom to the Puerto Rican community” (Mission and Vision Statement, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School homepage,
http://www.pedroalbizucamposhs.org/about/dr-pedro-albizu-campos-high-school/) through the use of social ecology, social-emotional learning, and critical pedagogy as guiding theoretical frameworks. The aim of this empirical study was to gain an understanding of how social ecology is used within a school to foster a particular ideal of citizenship and the degree to which
it is successful in attempting to do so.
Throughout the dissertation, I use a number of different terms that possess distinct meanings but that also overlap with one another in a variety of important ways. In Chapter One,I introduce anarchism as a unique political theory and philosophy with both historical and contemporary iterations and examine its implications for education. Philosophically, anarchism stands in opposition to all forms of hierarchy and domination and demands rational justification for any form of authority. As a political theory, anarchism holds all forms of governmental authority as unnecessary and advocates for a society based upon voluntary cooperation and free association between individuals and groups.
The radical left anarchist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had a profound influence upon Bookchin’s development of the theory of social ecology and many of its foundational principles come out of the thought and work of early European anarchists. My exploration of anarchist thought, principles, and practice allowed me to better understand the development of social ecology and to begin to articulate an ideal of citizenship that does not take for granted the necessity of centralized government and the state itself. While anarchism helps to provide a set of principles for social relations within this ideal of citizenship, I feel it does not sufficiently theorize or provide a way of understanding the relationship between humans and the non-human natural world nor an ethical basis for the interaction between the two.
In Chapters Three and Four, I move into a detailed examination of the theory and philosophy of social ecology as well as its political corollary, libertarian municipalism. The primary claim around which the theory revolves is that domination and hierarchy within human social relations and within the human psyche itself emerged slowly and unevenly over time and eventually led to a hierarchical mentality regarding the relationship between human beings and the natural world out of which they evolved and within which they are still irrevocably embedded. Utilizing some of the fundamental principles of anarchism including resistance to
hierarchy, horizontal decision making, cooperation, and mutual aid, social ecology advances the idea that directly democratic, face-to-face decision making within municipalities by the individuals that inhabit them can help eliminate some of the feelings of alienation and disempowerment that have given rise to the disconnection between humans and the natural environment and the resulting disregard for the biosphere. In short, directly democratic social relations on the level of the municipality (i.e. libertarian municipalism) can foster recognition of the circular and mutualistic relationship between humans and the non-human natural world and make for more ecologically sustainable human activity.
In Chapter Five, I present the findings of an empirical study conducted at a small charter high school that uses social ecology as its curricular centerpiece. That is, social ecology as a coherent framework for understanding the interrelationship between the individual and the social-ecological environments in which he/she is situated is utilized to support the school’s aim to promote greater community self-sufficiency and self-determination. As is highlighted in the study, there is an obvious link between direct democratic control of the community by its inhabitants and the pursuit of more ecologically sustainable relationships and development. This link is evidenced within the school’s curriculum, practice, and organization. Finally, all of these
aspects of the school are firmly rooted in the history, culture, and geography of the community within which it is situated.
Chapter Six considers the implications of these distinct yet interrelated concepts for the development of educational endeavors that aim toward promoting direct democracy and ecological sustainability. More specifically, I turn to place-based education and the small schools movement as containing the seeds for developing this project. What social ecology and its roots in traditional and contemporary anarchism suggest is that in order to provide an experience that fosters students’ active investment in and work toward the common good and this particular ideal of citizenship, a school would be small and locally constituted;
democratically run and managed by school-community stakeholders; utilize place-based curriculum centered upon local, cultural, historical and ecological contexts; and would develop strong and integrated school-community partnerships. Ideally, small schools possess faculties that are cohesive, self-selected, and that share an educational philosophy. Place-based education is intended to immerse young people in the culture, history, and ecology of the communities in which they live and promote a commitment to the common good over individual self-interest.
Overall, I feel social ecology can act as an overarching and comprehensive framework for bringing these educational discourses together and for promoting a particular ideal of citizenship.
Anarchism, as both a theoretical and practical foundation for social ecology, is rarely taken seriously within the academy. It exists on the margins of political and educational philosophy. Over the course of the dissertation (specifically Chapter Two), I explore what political and educational philosophers have disavowed in the process of marginalizing anarchism. While most political and educational philosophy is rooted in the liberal tradition,Judith Suissa (2001) explains,The anarchist perspective is different in that it does not take any existing social or political framework for granted. Instead, it has as its focal point a vision of what
an ideal such framework could be like – a vision that has often been described as utopian. (629)
I, myself, have felt the burdensome weight of history in contemplating the use of anarchism as one of the central concepts in my dissertation. There are fears of not being taken seriously by other academics for some of the reasons mentioned above. There are fears of limited job opportunities at institutions of higher learning due to the marginalization of discourse centered upon anarchist theory and practice. There are fears of spending an inordinate amount of time overcoming the initial misinterpretations or misconceptions of those with whom I engage in conversation about ‘my’ dissertation work. And, of course, there are less well-defined, more amorphous fears related to dealing with such ‘dangerous’ ideas. Despite these fears, my attraction to the ideas, history, and underlying principles of anarchism and its long and rich relationship with education have made a deep and sustained engagement with the topic irresistible. In short, my beliefs around decentralism, local self-reliance, self-determination,participatory or direct democracy, cooperativism, and community find their finest articulation in the classical anarchist stance and, more specifically, in the contemporary theory of social ecology and its political corollary, libertarian municipalism, put forward by the late Murray Bookchin.
I should note that the perspective described above is far from the utopian dreaming as many in academia and beyond have labeled it. Real men and women, situated in diverse geographies and locales, have managed to be self-sufficient and self-managed in community for the greater part of human history. Even with the rise of the nation-state and, later, the advent of the Industrial Revolution, most people identified with and struggled to maintain the autonomy of the specific places in which they lived and worked to provide for their needs (Bookchin, 1995).
Despite the dominant discourse of ‘globalization’, global citizenship, or global interconnectivity,these struggles for local self-reliance and self-determination continue up through the present,particularly amongst the world’s “social majorities” who have wound up suffering the most destructive consequences of the Western notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ (Esteva & Prakash, 1998).
Without providing an exhaustive autobiographical account of the development of my thinking or my activism, I would like to offer some personal context for why I chose to pursue this collection of ideas and theoretical framework. Undoubtedly, my experiences teaching in a Chicago public high school and in a west Michigan juvenile detention facility had the most formative impact on my thinking and work both as a social activist and academic. During those years, I came to recognize that educational endeavors approached as one-size-fits-all would inevitably privilege some and severely disadvantage others. Related to this, I also recognized that young people are entirely willing and capable of critically examining the world around them,understanding the intricate relationship between history, culture, and power and drawing from their own lived experiences to imagine and work toward creating a more just and equitable society. I entered graduate school to more fully understand the relationship between school and society, how the current configuration of primary and secondary schooling came into being, and the underlying assumptions and philosophical perspectives that shape the purposes of schooling in the contemporary United States that are rarely engaged in public discourse.
In other words, what has really driven my studies is the fact that I do not feel there is enough discussion about the ends of education – whether this discussion is with one another as academics, with individuals interested in becoming part of the educational process as teachers or administrators, or as a general public – each member of which has different levels of investment
in this thing we call school. Toward what ends are we doing what we are doing? It is not that there are not a multitude of answers to this question; but it seems that only a minority, of those who, in one way or another, are invested in this thing called education, give the question any sustained attention. My conception of what this end could or should be is only one of many and can certainly be proven no more right than any other. However, I believe without attempting to articulate a response to the question and (this is the important part!) bringing it into dialogue and discussion with others, we all run the risk of falling into entropy, apathy or both.
With those thoughts in mind, I have spent the greater part of my teaching and graduate school career exploring critical theories in education. More specifically, I have been interested in theory that takes into consideration the role of culture and historical context as forces that drive individual meaning-making, motivation, and behavior and the relationship between these forces and this relatively new institution known as school. For the shape and purposes of the school – how learning is regarded and toward what ends it is directed – could be viewed as a mirror of the broader ideals and shape of the society in which it is situated.
Additionally, I have always been attracted to ‘big theory’ – that is, theory that does not confine itself to a specific sphere of human experience but that attempts to explain why things are the way they are and how they have been or could be otherwise. Obviously, I feel the education of the young – whether at home, through popular culture, or within the institution of
the school – plays a significant role in shaping, maintaining or changing the type of society we live in.
Lastly, I would like to note that some would most certainly have an aversion to the notion of anarchy or anarchism as something toward which some of us (myself included) choose to strive. However, it is one word and one movement amongst dozens of others – others with which it shares much in common – that aims to empower groups and individuals to reclaim control over their lives. I used direct democracy as a central concept because I feel it encompasses the best of many traditions and –ism’s – containing socialism’s drive toward equality, anarchism’s push against unjustified authority and toward freedom, and social ecology’s call for the diminishment of domination and hierarchy.
Having made this statement regarding what I find to be some compelling and vitally important ‘ends’ of education, my real work lies in sharing these ideas with others, presenting them for discussion, critique, and debate and hopefully, along the way, finding others that may share similar visions with whom I can continue to engage in creative exploration.
As the dissertation contains both theoretical and empirical elements and aims to develop an educational framework intended to foster a particular ideal of citizenship, it has the potential to speak to a broad audience. First and foremost, teachers, administrators, and teacher educators interested in pursuing educational alternatives that draw a focus upon promoting social and
ecological justice will find much of value within these pages. Secondly, I hope that this work can contribute to broadening the parameters of our discussions and debates around citizenship education within the university and, more specifically, departments of teacher education.
In its consideration of the philosophical foundations of education and theorization of curriculum, I invite the discussion and critique of scholars in those fields. Finally, I intend for this exploration to be a work of public scholarship. That is, I want nothing more than for these ideas to be engaged within the public sphere by lay and scholarly audiences alike who recognize the grave social and ecological crises we face and who view education as a vital arena for beginning to address them on the grassroots level.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
By Kevin J. Holohan
Michigan State University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY