05/28/2010 02:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Lessons for the Next Millennium

In a recent article in the Huffington Post by Stuart Whatley, (Financial Reform Won't Alter Capitalism's Icarus Trajectory ) the author astutely analyzes the basic problem with today's economic system:

Rather than capital being invested productively for future creation and innovation, the collective wealth of Western society is instead slowly sucked out and squirreled away through financial speculation by a wealthy minority, who have the means to make money from money. Economic bubbles based on imaginary prosperity inflate and pop with increasing regularity, and the victims are always those with no horse in the race nor any ace up the sleeve. Those with immunity are the cherished wunderkinds who planted the bomb in the first place. In any other society they would be hard at work curing cancer, but in this one they are cultivated and harvested from the top educational institutions to cleverly shift paper around while the great empire that conceived them rots from the inside out.

Nothing better illustrates this "rot" than the present environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico which threatens not only to damage permanently the wetlands of the Gulf Coast but eventually move up the Eastern Seaboard and who knows where else? Although Whatley refers to the "imaginary prosperity" of the financial industry as an economic disaster, the short-sightedness, inexcusable carelessness, and indifference to possible consequences that the oil industry exhibited is yet another aspect of this habit of mind in which the drive for profits trumps the dangers that are risked by tunnel vision.

According to some reports there are about 1,000 days' worth of oil in the blown well -- enough, I would not find hard to believe, to poison the entire natural environment of the planet. Although made of salt water, the sea, which covers 7/8ths of the earth's surface, provides the environment that makes life possible through the evaporation of salt water into the rain water distributed over land through the natural wind currents of the earth. If the sea becomes heavily contaminated with oil, the rain water we depend upon to nourish our crops and provide us with drinking water will have to be specially treated in order to be non-toxic. Exactly how our technology, which obviously is not competent enough to cap an oil well one mile beneath the surface, will be able to do so is a mystery to me.

The disaster that might have been easily averted if a number of basic safety provisions had been enforced by a negligent and probably corrupt governmental agency and what might well be found as a criminally irresponsible nest of corporations would probably have happened sooner or later. The endless and addictive need for increased profits would drive companies to cut corners, make serious mistakes, and lead to an environmental disaster like the one we are faced with. This includes my view of nuclear power, where just one more catastrophe, like Chernobyl, might be enough to poison our environment, that is, what is left when and if the well blowout is ever contained.

But given the best possible outcome of this disaster, I wonder if teachers and their supervisors whose goals for education have descended into meaningless statistics, might consider that we need to change the way in which we are treating our environment -- that is, if Mother Nature gives us another chance. Instead of looking toward the immediate future, we should consider what the future of humanity will be like not in ten or fifty, or a hundred, but a thousand years from now. Will we be the stewards of the planet for future generations so they can live civilized lives, or will there be a "devolution" of humanity into barbarism as some of those "Road Warrior" movies or a novel like Cormac McCarthy's The Road anticipate?

Teaching for the next millennium would mean giving young learners more instruction in low-energy-demanding forms of entertainment, recreation and creativity like art, music, dance, and the most basic expression of human invention: story-telling. Teaching for the next thousand years would mean schooling children not to "do more with less" but "enjoy more with less." It would mean moving toward a self-sustaining environment, if we still have one that is habitable, in which what is grown locally can be eaten or preserved to be eaten in the future, and in which the simpler pleasures of life, in harmony with nature, become central to our existence. That is, teaching for the millennium would mean introducing young learners not only to accept the inevitability of a much less techno-centric life, but to find it enjoyable, desirable, and more humane than what is being offered in the present.

Of course, the economic system we now are stuck with which is based upon senseless growth and waste, would have not only to change but, over time, become obsolete as the resources that it uses with the abandon of a greedy child in a candy store will have to be carefully preserved. Those who have an unquestioning belief that "technology will triumph over nature" should now realize the simple fact: we can always compromise with each other over nature, but nature won't compromise with us.