From Sophists to A New Pedagogy: Using Nature to Break Free

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

It seems the Sophists got the Western world off on the wrong pedagogy, the echo of which is still with us today. These educators-for-hire based their teaching on the belief of an unchanging reality (Crosby, 1995). This allowed an efficient transmissive education of objective truth and unchanging reality to passive students who had only to unquestioningly memorize and recite the opinions of their teacher. Debate was unnecessary; if reality is knowable, known, and unchanging, what is there to debate?

Remarkably, examples of this classical rote “education” and transmissive pedagogy can still be found in contemporary mechanistic schools producing (to borrow terms from Star Trek: The Next Generation) Borg-like drones only capable of uncritically performing their assigned function (work-life) for the Collective (their work-organization).

General examples of characteristics associated with this transmissive education, applicable to both schools and organizations, include:

(a) the teaching of subjects in silos, for instance, as if the current economic theory in and of itself describes all interactions and is separate from the “externalities” of ecosystem processes and thermodynamics;

(b) the use of competition and standardized vocation-oriented goal achievement as the only measurable indicators of performance and effectiveness;

(c) the use of classrooms and texts as the only facilities for learning to the exclusion of practical experience in the real world (especially from nature, from which we have become particularly estranged);

(d) denial that education is by its nature political and “…cannot be neutral; by not paying attention to the political aspects of education, it by default supports the dominant paradigm…” (Itin, 1999, p. 94); and

(e) the independent groupings of academic departments whereby, for example, the Business School faculty never talks to the Environmental Sciences department, and neither offer courses in the other’s classrooms (Wheeler and Bijur, 2000, p. 87).

Humans seem to innately possess curiosity and creativity

This classic and still traditional pedagogy continues to produce too many Borg Drones, hurtling through space, acquiring more energy and materials from which to grow their Collectives, while leaving nothing but destruction in their path; collectively we have destroyed much of our space (our world), in a similar way. Thankfully, there is ample evidence that, unlike Borg Drones, humans seem to innately possess curiosity and creativity that cannot be programmed out of us or dispossessed from us. This is evident even in the face of the extreme inanity and disrespect for this human trait shown by the Sophists and their contemporary counterparts, the proponents of mechanistic education, who extol us to “compete and consume, rather than care and conserve” (Sterling, 2004, p. 21).

It is important to recognize that people never behave like
machines. When given directions, we insist on putting our unique
spin on them. When told to follow orders, we resist in obvious
and subtle ways. Life is born from this unquenchable need to be.
One of the most interesting definitions of life in modern biology is
that something is considered alive if it has the capacity to create
itself. The term for this is autopoiesis- self-creation. Life begins
from the desire to create something original, to bring new being
into form (Wheatley, 2007, pp 19, 24).

Humans thrive when given a challenge

Humans, as innately creative beings, thrive when given a challenge that requires cleverness and participation within a community that values its members and their ideas. The challenges are before us. What we lack are the communities of learning that enable transformational change within the members of the community themselves, and then support the necessary creative and adaptive work that comes from such communities as they transform our troubled world.

What facilities, information, and capacities are needed to bring about these communities of learning and, as a consequence, change? I would venture that there are none that we don’t already possess. There are many organizations and institutions from which to create communities of learning. They may not practice this particular pedagogy yet, but the knowledge and technological facilities are available to do so. Breaking free by going back to nature is also available to us.

Breaking free by going back to nature is also available to us.

Capacity, in several forms, is the critical element. From a human perspective, the required motivational capacity is passion. People, by nature, are passionate. The trouble is that in the current paradigm this human quality is not highly valued. We are told from early on to conform and reign in our passions to such an extent that many people then suffer through passionless lives. “We have fostered ‘the minimal self'” (Lasch, 1978). O’Sullivan speaks of the nihilist self-encapsulation: “…a deeply truncated sense of the self that has caused great suffering, alienation, and fragmentation in our century” (O’Sullivan and Taylor, 2004, p11).

“Undeveloping for Wildlife” by Richard Pritzlaff

Another needed capacity is the interdisciplinary synthesis of existing knowledge, from the natural and social sciences to the spiritual and indigenous stories and rituals practiced all over the world. What becomes clear, and is most important about this type of capacity, is the context within which this knowledge is presented, processed, practiced, and eventually learned. This must be done under the rubric of trying to understand whole systems. As Sterling (2004) cogently states “…the reorientation of education toward sustainability is frustrated partly because there is insufficient vision and elaboration of the basis of such reorientation. I believe that ecological or whole systems thinking offer the potential both to critique current educational theory and practice and to provide a basis by which it may be both transformed and transcended.”

For me, it happened while standing in line waiting for lunch…

By necessity, transformative education must begin with the individual and build outward from there. However, knowledge and passion alone are not enough. There needs a catalyst that throws a person into the new world that awaits them, a space they have always physically occupied, and from which there is no escaping back to their point of departure. What this catalyst maybe is likely different for each person. For me, it happened while standing in line waiting for lunch; I doubt that would be typical. Granted, I had been experiencing new worlds while traveling around the world. But I can imagine certain common events that might bring about personal transformations.

Most likely this catalyst can be found in an experience or series of experiences that force us out of a comfortable place and into something new and unfamiliar. A walk in nature always seems to me to bring that ancient sense of insecurity which heightens our senses and engages us physically, emotionally, and intellectually. But my “aha” occurred during a reflective moment and having the ability to reflect upon experience is as important as having the experience itself. This is the important role played by “going out”; providing opportunities from which one might acquire not only new insights but perhaps experience a transformational catharsis that opens the way to a whole new world.


  • Crosby, A. (1995). A critical look: The philosophical foundations of experiential education. In Warren, K., Sakof, M., & Hunt, J (Eds.).  (1995) The theory of experiential education. Dubuque, IA. Kendall Hunt.
  • Bentz, V. & Shapiro, J. (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Itin, C. (1999). Reasserting the philosophy of experiential education as a  vehicle for change in the 21st century. The Journal of Experiential Education. 22 (2) 91-98.
  • O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning toward an ecological consciousness. New York, NY. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sterling, S. (2004). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, UK. Green Books.
  • Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding our way: Leadership for an uncertain time.  San Francisco, CA. Berrett Koehler.
  • Wheeler, K. & Bijur, A. (2000). Education for a sustainable future.  New York, NY. Kluwer Academic/Plenum