What is Biocratic Education?

Christopher Hynkow - April, 2008

Guest Column

Christopher Hrynkow is Lecturer in Catholic Studies and in the Social Foundations of Education at the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice, University of Manitoba.

In Dream of the Earth, geologian Thomas Berry writes poignantly about the contextual importance of a movement beyond democracy to biocracy. Berry defines a biocratic future as “a period of mutually enhancing human-earth relationships.” To constitute this reality, the institutional features of even the best liberal democracies would have to be “greened” in such a way that the larger-life community would be able to participate in the human decision making processes. Within this expanded moral context, human affairs would gain their meaning through intercommunion. Value and worth would then mark all professions, occupations and activities, precisely to the degree that they enhance and contribute to the larger life community. For, in Berry’s estimation, it is only when we take our cues “from the very structure and functioning of the universe [that] we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.”

   Viewing teaching as a key profession in this regard, biocratic education seeks to foster a complex notion of intercommunion. This vision embraces not only a space for the participation of diverse people and groups, in line with the imperatives of democratic or multicultural education, but also makes a place for the natural world within the classroom. The enlarging of the moral community is seen as contextually necessary given the realities of the present earth crisis.

   For instance, today, the wealthy are living in a manner that, if adopted by the entire world’s human population, would lead to ecological collapse and perhaps even to our own extinction. In that ecological collapse could precipitate the end of homo sapiens on this planet, our current way of being in the world is often termed suicidal. As Dennis O’Hara of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Environment argues, over consumption by the wealthy should also be considered homicidal because it is the economically poorest members of the human family, those least responsible for the current malaise, that are bearing the heaviest burden of the ecological crisis.
Even if the vast majority of humans could somehow survive ecological collapse, it would nonetheless remain a tragedy, as we would have destroyed the life processes that sustained and created us over millennia. In line with this reasoning, Berry terms our tendencies towards greed and over consumption as “pathological.” In support of this  characterization, Berry posits that as we lose biodiversity we are, in a real sense, losing ourselves by destroying humanity’s essential existential reference point in the natural world.

   Biocratic education seeks to use the power of insight to transform this situation. The approach engages the clout of learning to heal the social pathology that is ruinous to the creative functioning of life on this planet. Herein, diversity is viewed as a strength. A biocratic methodology of peace education does not seek artificial placidity. Rather, biocractic education actively works to create space for dynamic learning. Such a vibrant approach has the potential to reform destructive and pathological tendencies in the discourses educators both present and model for students.

   Because biocratic education works on the level of insight, at first glance it may seem overly abstract. Yet, the approach cannot and must not remain an abstraction if it is to be transformative. It follows that an essential premise of biocractic education is that a realization of the fractured nature of the current human-earth relationship will lead to changes in behaviours that address injustice on multiple levels.

  In practical terms, this transformative potential of biocractic education rests on attentiveness. As part of my own teaching in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Manitoba, I have been given a mandate to raise future teachers’ awareness of larger social phenomenon that will affect their work. Starting with the realization that moral neutrality is not an option, and working together as a learning community, we interact with issues surrounding class, ethnicity, culture and gender in a discursive format. The section of the course under my charge ends with a discussion of biocratic education.

  In their reflections on the course, despite being trained in diverse subject areas, many students choose to comment on how a biocratic perspective will inform their teaching careers. Most of these reflections deal with a form of attentiveness. So that, just as these future educators demonstrate a firm ambition to model good contemporary democratic behaviour by being attentive to issues surrounding class, ethnicity, culture and gender, they also commit to walk lightly on the earth. There is no disconnect between these goals for a biocratic teacher. Indeed, in my experience, such holistic attentiveness is a crucial part of what most teacher-candidates view as their fundamental responsibility to a diverse and sustainable future.