Ted Trainer




If the “limits to growth” analysis of consumer society is valid, then we must work for transition to a very different society, of the kind outlined in The Alternative, Sustainable Society.  There would have to be a society in which we lived relatively simply in small, highly self-sufficient and cooperative local economies, with very different values to consumer society. 


In such a society learning would be very important. A highly self-sufficient community involves the continual exercise of a wide range of practical, personal and social skills. Because each individual would be spending so much time doing many different productive things it would be important for all people to learn to read, to research, to develop many skills and to organise learning for themselves as individuals and groups. The average person would have far more knowledge and a much wider range of skills than at present, and much greater involvement in continuing learning.  This is in part  because most people would work at their “career” specialism only a few days a week and spend the rest in a wide variety of useful activities within the community.


However, for most people, school credentials and access to careers would not be very important, again because most would not be devoting five days a week to their factory or office job. Education would mostly be a matter of individuals and small groups becoming more knowledgeable on the topics they felt a need to know more about, and for most people certificates of competence would not be very important, or would be irrelevant. One would know whether one was good enough at soldering, or chairing a meeting, or growing vegetables or using the library.  One's prospects for a satisfying and socially useful life would depend very little on what educational credentials one had acquired and very much on one's capacity to make socially useful contributions to one's household and neighbourhood. Because most people would need little cash, it would not be crucial to struggle through years of boring and largely irrelevant coursework to secure the credentials which sort out who can have access to  good j obs and satisfactory material living standards.


Most learning would be informal or spontaneous, occurring during the process of growing up in the community or working with other members of it. Probably all learning could be entirely voluntary, and this in turn would mean that we would be unlikely to have anything resembling schools as they are today. People would learn most things 'on the job', cooperating with others to carry out necessary activities. (There would still be many formal courses.)  They would mostly organise their own learning. There would be little or no place for 40-minute periods, teacher power, exams, petty rules, or  coercion of any sort. There should be no problems of discipline or attendance because everyone would know how important it was to be able to do the many things one must do in order to be a worthwhile contributor to the welfare of one's household and neighbourhood. In

any case, the tasks in question tend to be interesting, e.g., involving

caring for animals, designing useful items, and maintaining a wide range

of alternative technologies.


Most teaching would be carried out by ordinary people.  Communities would have extensive skill registers, whereby anyone could have quick access to someone who knows what one wants to find out or learn.  However there

could be many professional teachers available to run courses as requested and for consultation. There  would be no point in them having any power; they would just be there for people to approach when they felt the need for expert assistance. As Illich (1972) suggests, their reputation as effective learning facilitators would determine their fate.


Educational resources would be generously provided by the community, although the community itself and its daily functioning would be the main educational resource. Many educational activities would make use of normal productive and social processes and would actually contribute to those processes, for instance by having learning groups    help build houses, make and organise events.


All members of the community would be teachers, keenly aware of the need to help each other, especially younger people, to increase understandings and skills.  Children might attend “lessons” for a few hours a day, but it would be up to the community to determine where this was necessary or whether young people were learning satisfactorily from  their participation in community life.  Remember that everyone would always  be helping others, especially children, to learn things.


Learning would mostly be a cooperative affair. There would be a

strong incentive to help others learn and to share new ideas or discoveries or sources of information. At present, our highly competitive learning situation encourages us to keep insights and information from others. In the cooperative neighbourhood where everyone's welfare would benefit if the general level of expertise were improved everyone  would be keen to share new ideas and to help each other to learn things.


Education would be a matter of the continual building of one's own meanings in response to felt needs, as Dewey, Illich, Friere, the Self-Actualisation psychologists such as Rogers, and many others have advocated. It would not be the “jug to mug” acceptance of what the authorities deem to be “objectively” true

and important knowledge, to be learned whether you like it or not and

to be “banked” now, as Friere says, even though it might not be used for

years.   Learning would often be prompted by encountering a 'problem', such as something that is not working well or some puzzling phenomenon in one of the local systems one is dealing with. One would learn through the intrinsic motivation, the interest one would have to understand this problem or find out how to organise things more effectively.   One’s knowledge and skills would be constantly expanding in directions determined by one's felt needs. The individual would be constantly adding to the capacity to understand or to make meaning of experience, and to control experience.  We would have the sort of learning arrangements and institutions typically recommended by progressive educators, free-schoolers and de-schoolers. Indeed, it is only in a post-capitalist society that these educational ideals of intrinsic motivation and freedom could be fully implemented. Industrial-consumer society will not tolerate them on a large scale, and it would not be reproduced if they were widely adopted.


            Higher education


There would of course continue to be an important place for higher education, both for professional training and for general education. We would need far fewer technocrats than we have now (since most of them are producing either goods we don't need or items we can produce for ourselves) but obviously we would promote high technology, research and development in the many fields likely to enhance the quality of life. The resources available for education, as distinct from mere training, would be greatly enriched compared with the present.  We would also have far more time than at present to take advantage of these. Many of the vast quantities of resources presently wasted on the production of non-necessities would be transferred to socially useful purposes and consequently, all who wished to pursue humanistic studies or the arts etc could do so. Almost anyone would be free to enter any course at a level appropriate to their current skills and to work their way up through the necessary prerequisites from that level.  Those who wanted to become an engineer but knew little about maths could be helped to start at the appropriate level and to pick up those skills.  People would not be barred simply because they didn’t have a School Certificate.  Of course “teachers” would be around to help people to learn and to decide whether or not to persevere if they were finding the going difficult. Problems of access deriving from possible limits on the numbers of places available would best be dealt with by ballot. They would certainly not be settled by selection according to 'matriculation' or similar examination performance.


What about general Education; Education for its own sake”?


While it is plausible that the learning of many practical skills would take place in the way described above, what about the learning of history, the study of literature, and 'learning for its own sake'? In other words, what about Education?


I have no doubt that in the alternative society described far more Education would take place than occurs in our present schools. That society would be very Educationally stimulating. Many interesting processes are taking place every day, and one could not  be very involved and useful unless one did a lot of learning. Your daily activities are not just interesting to participate in but they are thought-provoking and they are directly connected to theory, inquiry, research and learning. You are continually under a strong incentive to further your understanding of how things work, and you therefore frequently seek advice and consult reference books. When you have found the answer it can be interesting and useful to read on for a page or two. You reflect on connections; for example, how might that principle help make our chiid-care coordination committee function better, would that effect also explain why the newly planted trees have done unusually well, would that mechanism enable us to increase the insulation efficiency of all our local greenhouses?


Again, it must be understood that the motivation here can be carrot rather than stick. It is not implied that continual, grudging effort will have to be made to turn off the TV and get back to reading up on how to solve some boring problem. In a conserver society it is intrinsically interesting to get things to work well, to maintain mechanical, biological and social systems, to trouble-shoot and to find new and better ways. To do these things and to continually improve the insights and the skills they require can become a dominant and deeply rewarding life orientation.


In addition, The Simpler Way is a much less distracted by mindless consuming and the passive acceptance of images and decisions from distant sources, or by the trivial entertainment delivered by commerce. Households would flourish not just as sources of productive activity, but as places where discussion, debate and inquiry, and much creative activity (arts and crafts and writing) take place. Remember that there would be many important local issues to be thrashed out and voted on, issues on which it would be important to make the right decisions since the welfare of all would be directly affected by the soundness of the options chosen. Study and critical evaluation of systems in use in other locations would be important before the neighbourhood referendum was held, and members of the community would be involved in drafting position papers, circulating arguments and preparing presentations in the locally run media, conducting meetings and debates and study groups.


Most people would live as generalists, specialising for perhaps only one or two days a week, meaning that they would spend most of their time involved in a broad range of local activities, issues and decisions.


One’s daily life experience would be close to and highly dependent on a thriving local ecosystem. The more complex, varied and integrated nature of life in a conserver society, where one carries out many functions  in a normal day and where individuals and groups have to deal with many tasks presently performed for us by specialists, is in  itself a force for general Education. For example, we would have experience with aged, handicapped, chronically ill, and dying people. At present most of us hardly ever come into contact with any of these,

thanks to a managed, aseptic and packaged way of life in which bureaucracies, professionals and corporations have taken from us almost everything but our own specialised job. We would also experience many more aspects of phenomena that the consumer role obscures and therefore numbs us to. To take another example, it is much more difficult to ignore questions to do with animal rights and vegetarianism if one is caring for animals that one gets to know and like as individuals (as distinct from the relation between a typical commercial farmer and his herd).


The increased visibility of small scale productive activity and systems would be a stimulus to thought and learning.  There would be many small farms, enterprises, factories, laboratories, offices, stores and many ponds, waterwheels, windmills and other devices all around us.  We would often be involved in working bees maintaining or using local  forest gardens, recycling systems, energy sources, etc.  We would know those who owned and worked in these small farms and firms, and would often drop in to watch and to chat, prompting thought about the processes and materials.  Again we would be conscious of our dependence on them and therefore prompted to think about and to learn about their functioning.


Our situation would therefore reinforce the wholistic, integrated and socially responsible thinking that must be central in the new paradigm. We would be more conscious of the functioning of whole systems and their ecology, from the local water catchment system, or the local informal 'welfare' system, to global social  and ecological systems. We would probably see the

emergence of many more drama societies, poetry-reading

groups, wrlters' clubs, astronomy groups.


Easily overlooked is the very important educational effect of being a

member of a participatory democracy. If we all had the responsibility

for running most of the activities in our town we would have to think

carefully, discuss and debate, research, learn and practise communication       

and political skills, integrate diverse factors involved in specific issues,

take initiatives in inquiring and arguing, participate in forums and public

campaigns, and above all constantly consider the welfare of the com

munity. These would be powerful forces encouraging our growth as

persons and as citizens. 


Bookchin's works argue strongly for the return to small self-governing communities such as the Greek polis, the medieval towns and the New

England towns. He stresses how important participatory democracy was

in these societies for the personal growth of the individual, pointing out that in such a situation the society is depending on the individual to think carefully, to attend to the welfare of all, to take initiative and responsibility. 'Every citizen is fully aware of the fact that his or her community entrusts its destiny to his or her moral probity, loyalty and rationality' (Bookchin 1987b, 259).      Participating in the political life of the self-governing Greek city state... was the'school' in which the citizen's highest virtues were formed and found expression ... Politics, in turn, was not only concerned with administering the affairs of the polis but also with educating the citizen as a public being who developed the competence to act in the public interest.”  (Bookchin 1987, 59).


Bookchin contrasts the experience of the polis with the educational effects inflicted on us by having to survive in a market-dominated

society. The present market society makes us attend almost solely

to individual gain, competition and advancement. It does not encourage cooperation and it systematically destroys community. It thus privatises us and eradicates citizenship. It drives out considerations of morality and thereby contributes to the brutal insensitivity and numbness that enables the rich to ignore the starvation and misery suffered by a billion people. Hence, as Bookchin says, “…our economy is grossly immoral ... the economists have literally demoralised us and turned us into moral cretins' (1987, 79).


            The education of a citizen.


A good society cannot be expected to be achieved or maintained without considerable and constant effort. There must be continual critical review of goals, procedures and assumptions, and reflection on experience and on the history of the society and of other societies past and present. There must be research and experimentation, and attention must be given to ensuring that the necessary insights and values are communicated in the process of socialising new members of society. Our very unimpressive historical record shows what great difficulty humans have in establishing and maintaining  good societies. We can expect to succeed only if we devote a great deal of conscious and deliberate thought and effort to the task.


The task here is to educate citizens. We cannot expect to have a good society without good citizens. We might never settle precisely what constitutes a good citizen, but surely the answer must be in terms of the understandings, values and dispositions that will lead individuals to be concerned about their society, to think in an informed and critical way about it, and to be directly involved in the conduct of civic affairs.


Bookchin, M., (1987), The Rise of Urbanism and the Decline of Citizenship, San            Francisco, Sierra Club.


            See also


Education; Outline Of A Radically Critical View.


Education. How Should We Conceive It?