To what extent can education be transformed to allow an understanding of what’s needed to counter today’s crises, whether ecological, climate-related, democratic, health or others?

At the recent ‘The Nature of Prosperity’ event at London’s Royal Institution, hosted by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), education was a reoccurring theme, perhaps as it underpins so much else.

One of the speakers on the day, Dr Jonathan Rowson, director of Perspectiva, a philosopher and chess grandmaster, has written a highly convincing paper for CUSP in which he argues that prosperity depends on reimaging education. The ‘U’ – understanding – of CUSP is at the heart of the matter, he said. Solutions will only stem from building that understanding. Will we, he asked – as German philosopher, Thomas Metzinger, predicts – “increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings” as the “self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”?

Laying the Foundations – Bildung

We appear to be in a paradoxical civilization: successful yes, but in an apparently suicidal way. Rowson remains hopeful if we can move towards a different ecosystem of education, along the lines of transformational civic education encapsulated within the concept of Bildung. This approach was inherent within self-organising civic education in Nordic countries in the second half of the 19th century, writes Rowson in the paper, “driven by teachers with a sense of calling, with lessons set in nature and designed for individuals to evolve emotionally, spiritually, morally and intellectually, with communities and institutions proactively created for this purpose”.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

The Royal Institution – a fitting venue to discuss education and prosperity

That tradition is continuing in the recent Bildung Academy in Amsterdam, and the likes of the Centre for Applied Cultural Evolution in Costa Rica, Nordic Bildung, and the UK’s Nora Bateson, Forum for the Future and Schumacher College.

One might also argue that U3A encapsulates the philosophy as well, with its focus on learning in later life. Or, as Rowson cites, the charity Economy, which recently facilitated groups of people to teach themselves economics, supported by volunteer experts, in a converted church in Manchester. There could be pop-up economics lessons around the world, he envisaged, and, more widely, others based on what people have to teach, what time they have to give and what people want to know.

A societal shift

Bildung, Rowson argues, is also an applied philosophy of education that can inform assessments of social and economic policy. Any policy idea would not be assessed through an economic model but by whether it would promote the conditions of spiritual and societal enrichment.

The shift that’s needed is encapsulated within a societal commitment to organising our lives around and for a transformative educative process, not just improving education as it is currently conceived within an economic paradigm that appears to be failing. “in essence, education currently serves the economy, when it could and perhaps should be the other way round.”

There might be a connection between universal basic income and a commitment to learn and teach, said Rowson. He quotes Zachary Stein, in his recent book, ‘Education in a Time between Worlds’: “Education must no longer be something that is kept behind closed doors… in a world pushed to the brink of crisis, education, like energy, must be made abundant, free and healthy if our species is to survive. Everyone must have access to educational resources that are good, true and beautiful, even if only so that solutions can be found in time for the billions of community-level problems that are reverberating across our planet as it reels in crisis”.

It needs a transformational educational alliance that connects what’s going on today and perhaps shapes it with the type of people power that is manifested in Extinction Rebellion. In his paper, Rowson concludes that, in principle, Bildung can happen anywhere at any time but if we are to take this idea seriously, there will have to be a collaborative design process for a growing community of educators, policy makers, artists and futurists. “We have a lot to learn about how to build Bildung today, but that, of course, is the point.”

To read the full paper, click here: