Educating for the Future We Want

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 2. April 2021 - 13:30

Educating for the Future We Want

Based on a contribution by Arthur Dahl to the Great Transition Network on
The Pedagogy of Transition: Educating for the Future We Want
29 March 2021

The rich diversity of views shared on education for the transition lays out clearly the dominant materialistic economic paradigm and its supportive academic establishment that have so far resisted the many exciting and innovative approaches by participants in the GTN to educating for the future we want. They range from an eloquent description of resistance to change within academia, to a useful summary of the opposing paradigms. We are good at diagnosing the illness, but have more difficulty in suggesting ways forward.

One thing we need to avoid is suggesting uniform solutions to be incorporated into curricula everywhere, when rapid change requires local empowerment and adaptability. An alternative can be community integrated learning centres. Michael Karlberg emphasised social movement learning, fostering moral empowerment with a pedagogy of transformative change. This has the advantage that communities take charge of their own learning adapted to their local situation and aspirations, which avoids the top-down imposition of some definition of sustainability. It also gets around the rigidity of present formal education.

At the other end of the spectrum of human organization, we also need effective systems of global governance for those dimensions of the Great Transition that require international collaboration, whether it be in preserving peace, pandemic control or resolving climate change and biodiversity loss (1). Existing systems of governance and education based on national sovereignty are increasingly dysfunctional and block the Great Transition. The need for multi-level governance to achieve the Great Transition should be a focus for research and education.

Drawing on my half century as an environmental scientist on the front lines of environment and sustainability policy-making and action in many parts of the world, including designing everything from village community education to advanced study graduate courses, there is a dimension that has been insufficiently acknowledged in this debate. If we want to leverage a transition in the causes rather than symptoms of our existential crises, we need to work at the level of values and challenge the assumptions underlying the present system. Donella Meadows made the point in her study of leverage points (2). Research has often avoided values and beliefs as too subjective or controversial, yet the comments on this theme have often mentioned their importance. Several contributions have highlighted indigenous and traditional world-views that see humans and nature as a whole, as opposed to the economic sector seeing environment as an externality. Others have referred to the need for a change of heart, a questioning of assumptions and a transformation of beliefs and values, what has been called spiritual intelligence. The Earth Charter as a distillation of shared sustainability values.

One of the most resistant dimensions of the dominant intellectual paradigm in both academia and the economy, including in this dialogue, is to ignore or reject religion as having any relevance. This is not to deny the very good reasons for discounting much of what goes today under that label. But in human history, the most radical, fundamental and lasting transformations have resulted from emergent religions that have reformed the values by which societies functioned, educating entire populations. Religion addresses most directly what it means to be human, and the resulting moral questions and ethical dilemmas. Why should we discount the possibility of this happening today?

I speak from personal experience as a scientist deeply engaged in environmental reform and social change inspired by my own religious tradition, the Bahá'í Faith, that accepts the harmony and complementarity of modern science while providing spiritual principles for a higher human purpose. It is in complete accord with most what has been shared this month, and in fact with the whole concept of the Great Transition, which it anticipated already in the 19th century and is working to bring about. Michael Karlberg cited an example of its innovations in education. Much reference has been made here to sustainability thinkers and social reformers of the last few decades, but there are earlier figures. The son of the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), wrote a remarkable treatise on what we call the Great Transition in 1875 (3), and travelled to the West in 1911-1913 after forty years in prison, attacking racial prejudice in America, promoting gender equality, describing ecological principles of cooperation and reciprocity and the dangers of environmental destruction, warning about materialism and the consumer society, and suggesting solutions to extremes of wealth and poverty (4). But since he was seen as the leader of a religion and often used religious language, his role as a pioneer of the Great Transition is largely ignored.

We need to reach out to the many in faith communities who are also working for the Great Transition, from Pope Francis with Laudado Si' (5) to many interfaith initiatives for climate justice and the environment, that can help to fill the values-action gap and have wide reach in communities and educational systems around the world. I have tried to address this also, particularly among the young who have lost their bearings in a disintegrating society (6). It is only by transforming education to address all these levels that we may have a chance to empower the rising generation to overcome the strong resistance to the Great Transition and lessen the coming crises that will otherwise force us to change.


1. Lopez-Claros, Augusto, Arthur L. Dahl and Maja Groff. 2020. Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 545 p. doi:10.1017/9781108569293…

2. Meadows, Donella. 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland, Vermont: The Sustainability Institute. 19 p.

3. 'Abdu'l-Bahá. 1875. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1957.

4. His collected talks in America fill two volumes, but a relevant summary is 'Abdu'l-Baha. Foundations of World Unity. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1945.

5. Pope Francis. 2015. Laudato Si': on care for our common home. Encyclical (18 June 2015)…

6. Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2019. In Pursuit of Hope: A Guide for the Seeker. Oxford: George Ronald. 194 p.…. For reading on smartphones:

Last updated 2 April 2021

Blog tags