Ethics, Love, and the Primacy of Thriving Relationships

Our knowledge will take its revenge on us, just as ignorance exacted its revenge during the Middle Ages. —Friedrich Nietzsche

In the previous article, I asked “What if schools’ primary purpose was to nurture thriving relationships?” I did so thinking about “21st-century skills,” which are so often pushed by industry and education. I am not quite sure when these skills became the exclusive property of the 21st century, but I will venture to guess that it had to do with the changing capitalist landscape. Corporations realized they needed knowledge workers (with different skillsets to previous generations of workers) to compete in the post-service economy and they put pressure on transnational organizations like the World Economic Forum to “reveal” periodically the top 5,10, or 20 skills employees will need for the future. Every so often, these reports fall into the hands of a well-meaning school administrator who then pushes competency development into the curriculum and calls it “future ready.”

Today, in addition to competing on test scores and grade point averages (which suffer from grade inflation) students get to compete on their so-called 21st-century skills—say, how creative and ethical they are—which in itself might not be so crazy; however too often the documentation of the skills speaks more than the skills themselves.  We assign a number or a color on a report to quantify creativity, communication, or whatnot, and maybe we write a brief comment. The number speaks more to creativity than the creation itself. (I find it particularly ironic that the system gets kids to compete on how collaborative they are.)* These skills are largely “measured” through the individual. There is little, if any, sense of context or the collective. We include the stories of the environment or the other people who also participated in the learning experience.

I have nothing against developing individual skills (though I don’t know how it’s possible to assess individually, removing the individual from the context in which the skill is demonstrated); I just think that if we remain stuck here, we will perpetuate the problems of separation and atomization. We can go beyond these.

Relationships are a process, not fixed entities, and their importance is primary because every structure (thing) is a manifestation of this process, and therefore secondary. Let’s call this notion the primacy of relationships, which is different from the Cartesian conceptualization of the world that is so dominant in Euro-American culture**. The world is more like a pool table, where separate entries (including our mind and body) act on and react to one another by keeping their separate forms. This notion of the primacy of relationships in the unfolding and emergence of the universe has been a central teaching of ancient wisdoms for thousands of years in indigenous communities as well as the wisdoms of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. It is also one of the bases of Quantum physics as well as several theories in philosophy, psychology, biology, and more. 

Admittedly, the primacy of relationships is not unanimously accepted in these last disciplines to the extent that it is in physics (where Quantum mechanics have displaced Newtonian mechanics), but there are enough cross-connections for us to notice patterns emerging. Turn of the 20th-century mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl spoke of intersubjectivity, where things are what they are because of our shared experiences within a context; nothing exists on its own. Psychologist Iain McGilchrist writes that “we neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality, but [there] is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn ‘calls forth’ something in the world.” Philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of assemblages is another lens, as are the works of several linguists who believe language could only arrive in relational spaces….

I am looking down this deep rabbit hole, but I’ll step over it today. My point is that there is a large literature from voices across time, space, and disciplines that speak of the primacy of relationships.

Why should we in schools not listen? Why should we in the community not pause to hear?

Right now schools are largely driven by market forces and classical ideologies, dehumanizing adults and children by most often providing one path to success: grades and exam marks. In exchange for money (fees or taxes), a child goes through a system for at least twelve years, to be taught knowledge and skills that meet certain requirements and standards so that, by the end, they can receive a diploma (receipt?) and a transcript that attest that the child has reached a certain level of achievement, expressed as a set of numbers or colors (see above). This is a form of quality control, to make sure that said child, now a graduate, is fit to enter university or certain fields of work. 

Schools promote themselves by posting the average standardized test scores their students receive and displaying the list of universities to which their students were admitted. Should a school not meet a certain standard themselves or not send students to the “right” schools, it will most likely be shut down by the local authorities or the market. It is expected that schools prepare kids for the future, as we project our own experiences as adults. Yet we dehumanize kids when we prepare them for a version of our future (or is it our past?), not theirs.  (The market focus is systemic, not personal, as teachers and students often develop powerful and beautiful relationships beyond the transactions of the market.)

We can change the system—at least the one within a school or learning ecosystem—by changing what the system values. If we value relationships over achievement, a new system emerges with a new purpose, and success is then re-conceptualized. In a system that values thriving relationships above all else, success is measured (I use the word with irony) with love. When we accept the primacy of relationships, I cannot thrive unless you thrive because we are interconnected. This is different from a transactional relationship, where each party is looking to gain or control (extract) from an interaction. These interactions are momentary scenes that dissipate as soon as an exchange is made and do not exist long enough for relationships to thrive. Deprived of nourishment and love, transactional relationships are stillborn.  

Thriving relationships grow because of what is between us, because the dynamics of these relationships are grounded in love, which is the fundamental basis of ethics. Biologist Humberto Maturana writes

Ethics is a network of doings and emotioning in which the care and concern for the consequences of one’s actions on others is present in what one does, and one acts in a way that entails accepting the consequences of that care and concern. Ethics belongs to the domain of emotions, not of reason, and as such it belongs to the domain of love.

In other words, in order to act ethically, we must see oneself in the other through the primacy of relationship. When cultivated and reflected upon, this leads to a shift in identity as we move from the separate I to the relational We. This shift is not a rational one, it is an emotional one. We might conceptually know that we are all connected (say, through the study of Quantum physics), but we only understand and embody this by feeling it, through thriving relationships, which are based on love, the emotion of connection, and oneness. We use the word “love” in our culture to describe romantic or filial relationships, but if we extend the concept of love to encompass care, kindness, respect, and empathy, we can perhaps feel more comfortable with the word, which is, ultimately, an umbrella term for all the ways in which we help each other thrive and how we give to others in a selfless way. Phenomenologist Max Scheler, a colleague and friend of Martin Heidegger, believed that love was the primary affect that grounded all experiences, and he saw humans as ens amans, a being that loves. Maturana referred to humans as homo amans

On a practical level, the ethics that nurture thriving relationships also become the basis of the “curriculum,” a term I use loosely because it too must be reconsidered. The curriculum can no longer be non-living: plans that sit outside the contexts of students and locality, scopes and sequences that are largely unalterable despite who or what participates in the learning experiences. Schools whose primary purpose is thriving relationships have living curricula that are place-based and brought forth from the relationships between all stakeholders in the community—which we call the bio-collective, all living things that have a shared interest in the healthfulness of the planet. These relationships thrive because they are grounded in values (beliefs) that guide our actions through ethics (rules). As such, living curricula within schools whose primary purpose is thriving relationships are proudly values-driven because they embrace their ethics, recognizing that ethics are about love, the necessary ingredient for thriving relationships.

An ethical living curriculum grounded in thriving relationships allows learning experiences to emerge from context, from the choices of humans who increasingly see themselves as a member of the bio-collective. This ethical living curriculum finds inspiration in the Social Reconstructionism of the first half of the 20th century (whose prominent figure was educational philosopher George Counts) as well as the Critical Pedagogy that developed during the second half (which includes Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux). Both schools of thought recognize how the “hidden curriculum” reinforces deep social structures and shapes the manner in which students, now and as future adults, might continue to contribute to the worsening of society’s problems unless we develop a vision of a better world. Both understand that teaching is never neutral and that truth, knowledge, and action are always contextual and values-laden. As Counts writes, society is “bound merely by our ideals, our power of self-discipline, and by our ability to devise social arrangements” suited to our situation. For these thinkers, learning has a tripartite nature of thought, commitment, and action.

I propose that to tackle the crises of today, we develop a pedagogy of Ecological Reconstructionism, which shares the spirit and legacy of the 20th century efforts of Social Reconstructionism and Critical Pedagogy to find emancipation through challenging the system. But this pedagogy asks different questions on the behalf of all life on earth, not just humans. Ecological Reconstructionism continues to seek to educate the youth to reconstruct our current civilization, to create a better civilization—an ecological civilization—that eschews anthropocentrism, no longer placing humans at the apex, but rather valuing all life. Ecological Reconstructionism is about taking action based on the commitment and intentions born from our values, so that the relationships between every member of the bio-collective can thrive.

I have written before about the need to go through the inner work, and part of the inner work is modeling for others. This inner work is a process of becoming, for we can choose who we become through how we think, feel, and act. It is not easy and we will not be perfect. But it is important because the ethics we live every moment—in the ways we think, feel, and act, that is, how we choose to become—serves to inspire others. This is what Maturana meant when he said that changing the conversation (in the sense of our inter- and intra-actions) changes who we are individually and collectively. This is what McGilchrist refers to when he writes that “the great human invention, made possible by imitation, is that we can choose who we become, in a process that can move surprisingly quickly.” Modeling and imitation could lead to epigenetic changes that open us to the ecological civilization we wish (need?) to create.

Ecological Reconstructionism creates learning experiences that seek to create a better world and that connect to local contexts in every sense of the term: the environment, the resources, the people, the animals, the plants, materials, the weather, whatever lenses we choose… These learning experiences emerge from shared experiences, which therefore help hold meaning for the learners because they have relationships with the context. These learning experiences are forcibly values-laden because all learning experiences are values-laden, and they are openly, honestly, and authentically designed to nurture thriving relationships within the community, for an ecological civilization, because that is what Ecological Reconstructionism values.

Recognizing these values and discussing them openly is key. Not all actions are the same even if they are the same action. Digging a well is an action, but the meaning behind it depends on the intention behind this action and on the values behind that intention. Did we dig a well because we were told to? Because we wanted to say that we dug a well for our college application? Because we wanted to provide drinking water for the local community? Because we wanted to provide drinking water and make sure we protected the wildlife? Ecological Reconstructionism is aware of the intention behind our actions. It is the inner work put into the service of creating an ecological civilization. Ecological Reconstructionism values the individual but insofar as the individual acts with a commitment to bringing about a better world, not selfishness. It is wary of individual agency, which psychologist David Bakan distinguishes from communion: “Agency manifests itself in self-protection, self-assertion, and self-expansion; communion manifests itself in the sense of being at one with other organisms. Agency manifests itself in the formation of separations; communion in the lack of separations.”

As such, we move away from the isolation of relying on individual assessments of skills. We don’t abandon these altogether, but we realize that they acquire value when we take action together when the potential energy of knowledge is transformed into the kinetic energy of action. Ecological Reconstructionism is about taking the additional step of coming together and embracing learning, thinking, commitment, and action as a social endeavor to create a better world, an ecological civilization that values the thriving of all relationships. The living ethical curriculum emerges from the actions we take to create that better world, defined by the quality of the thriving relationships we have with all living things. In this, Ecological Reconstructionism is the 21st-century child of Social Reconstructionism and Critical Pedagogy because it goes beyond the human, to help us face the ecological crises anthropocentrism has helped create.

Ecological Reconstructionism is guided by love, the basis of all ethics. When we approach learning and experiencing as such, we begin to open up to the possibilities that lie beyond the current system, through new conversations and a new narrative. We eschew old values in favor of new ones, new ones based on love that connects.

*Sometimes graduates submit portfolios or exemplars, but this is all too rare and the competencies they’re supposed to highlight remain de-contextualized.

** Cartesian-Newtonian lenses displaced indigenous ways of thinking around the world in what is nothing less than intellectual colonialism and white supremacy. International schools that have exclusively Euro-American education models delivered to local/non-Euro-American populations are reinforcing the idea that these ways are superior, and that they offer the road to “progress” and “development,” two more Euro-American notions. They invalidate local cultures, customs, and ways of thinking and push an agenda of linearity, separation, and individualism, which is so prevalent in Euro-American culture. This is part of the global system of extraction and domination that has existed for at least 400 years.

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