As mentioned in our our description of our approach, at Hilltop Education Connections, we practice a form of education based on wholism with a specific focus on supporting all participants forming deep connections in general, and with ourselves, others, and the rest of the natural world, in particular.
A comparison of a reductionist point of view and our wholistic worldview will help elucidate why we focus on three types of connection are especially important. Of course, these kinds of connecting are all interconnected, but each also at least makes a useful focus when thinking about learning.. Most schools in the USA embody an analytic/reductionist worldview that philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls the story of separation. This story has led us to the precipice of our own extinction. The central idea behind the analytic and reductionist worldview that Eisenstein calls the story of separation is that all of us and all things are separate from each other and everything else. This story includes the following ideas:
- The most productive way to look at the world is to reduce complexity by analyzing multilevel systems down to their component parts, isolating each from its context.
- Given that each of us is an isolated part, each with our own independent goals and needs, competition for limited resources is inevitable.
- Conformity increases a community’s ability to treat its participants as interchangeable parts, so conformance to standards is essential.
- To maintain standards and keep the competition from getting out of hand, power and knowledge must flow from the top down via an authoritarian hierarchy using extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments) to get individuals to behave and conform.
- We are rulers of the world, not of it. We can and have shaped our world, as we have liked, becoming the masters of our planet. The best thing for us to do is to complete our conquest.
Reductionist-Analytic thinking reached its pinnacle in the industrial age with the invention of the factory. Factories are places where products, designed to perform specific functions to exacting standards, are mass-produced. Products move along an assembly line where parts are added in a prescribed sequence to maximize efficiency and each product is tested throughout the whole process to ensure that each complies with rigorous standards that ensure that each product is interchangeable with the next.
Factories are both a product of and a contributor to reductionist-analytic thinking. Since their eruption onto the scene, factories have heavily influenced systems thinking with its emphasis on systems as assemblies of parts into larger and larger wholes. Worse, they have heavily influenced our educational system. The idea that the most productive way to look at the world or anything else is to isolate everything from its context and break it down into component parts has been implemented in schools in a wide variety of ways.
The pillars of education based on the story of separation include: breaking knowledge into separate subjects areas, sorting students into age-based bins, separating children from their communities, assigning children tasks removed from any meaningful context in which they might be applied, emphasizing conformance to standards and using authoritarian hierarchy along with rewards and punishments to maintain standards and keep competition from getting out of hand, and assessing children using the same inane grading system the USDA uses for sides of beef.
Nora Bateson and Charles Eisenstein (among others) call for a new point of view on how the world and other living systems work. This worldview emphasizes an appreciation of complexity, context, connections, and cooperation. Our version of this worldview currently includes the following interrelated aspects:
- The most productive way to look at the world and almost anything else is wholistically as a multilevel living-system. In making sense of any system it is always important to look at connections and the multiple contexts in which the system is embedded. Analysis is useful as long as consideration of the whole system is used to guide it and interpret its results.
- All living systems change as they interact with other systems. These kinds of changes are of the same type as the kinds of systems-change we call learning in humans (though they may happen at different time scales and levels of organization). When living systems interact, learning is always mutual (Nora Bateson). Such learning interactions always occur in a context that has as much to do with the outcome of the interaction as do the particulars of the participants.
- All of us are beautifully unique with our own points of view.
- People are intrinsically motivated to connect with others and to make sense of the world around them. Extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments) get people to do things they don’t want to do and take the joy out of learning.
- High quality cooperative connections (interactions and relationships) between diverse participants increase a living system’s (community’s) adaptability and sustainability.
- Effective communication between participants including making and responding to requests and giving and receiving feedback is paramount in all living systems. Lichen, mycorrhiza, subcellular organelles, basketball teams and blues bands all involve extreme cooperative integration and very well developed communication pathways.
- When we cooperate through mutualistic relationships where each of us can express our individual differences and put those differences together, we can accomplish things beyond what we each can accomplish on our own. We share power and knowledge among participants in our community. Hearing all voices maximizes the success of communities.
- Living systems exist at many levels. At each level the system is a dynamic collection of participants. Living systems are always interdependent with the larger systems they are embedded within.
- All of us are inseparable from the rest of our world and all of the other living system we participate in. We are of the Earth, not rulers of it. All living beings are interconnected. The best thing for us to do is to join with other species in sharing our unique gifts for the betterment of each of us, each other and our planet.
Our goal to support all participants in our programs connecting with ourselves, each other, and the world around us is derived from this worldview. As mentioned previously, we believe that these three forms of connection are all interconnected, but each also makes a useful focus of our attention.
 In his wonderful book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, Colin Campbell uses wholistic in place of holistic to remind us that we are talking about whole systems not necessarily holy systems. I prefer this spelling because we are talking about “whole” systems not “hole” systems.