Disclaimer: This blog is written co-creatively by Jasper Box and Thijmen van de Gevel. It is a combination of quotes of our dialogue and later on added written insights. Jasper has a main interest in transformative dialogue and Thijmen in educational systems. 

Today we had a welcome break from writing a thesis, we decided together to have a conversation about our insights and thoughts connected to our journey through education and life. This text will give insight in our conversation, enjoy!

Education: An emphasis on individual knowledge-gathering & debating

Thijmen: ‘I remember, during Dutch class in high school, I was taught how to debate. How to choose a side, an opinion, find reasons to substantiate my opinion and defend it. A way of communicating from which I later found out that it is really common and broadly accepted as the way to go when we want to create meaning in our society. I also do not see a big difference between my first time in Dutch class and the way the Dutch government communicates. Also there, people decided on picking a perspective, picking an opinion and sticking to it. A shouting contest for grownups. Why is this communication by debate so interesting?’ 

The focus on individual knowledge-gathering within our educational system creates polarisation. From a young age forward we are clustered into different groups based on our individual capabilities and knowledge, creating a dysfunctional reality of people thinking they are only good for 1 thing. The effect of this polarisation is that, when finished with education, people have the belief that their expertise only has an effect on their field of interest, resulting in an individualistic way of thinking. We both see education as the base of the way we frame and look at the world in this individualistic way. 

The way that people frame and interact with the world can also be described as “the narrative of interactions.” According to Eisenstein, for a long time, a narrative of separation has informed our interactions. This story of separation says that you are an individual, among other competing individuals in a world that is also separate from you (2019).

Measuring by impact

‘Thijmen: Well, in relation to an individualistic way of thinking, I think most of it lies in the way we look at and measure success. We value success by money and quantity of goods. Can’t we value what we do by positive impact? Ideally we would live in a society where we value what we do by positive impact made, rather than time spent or money earned.’ 

Jasper: ‘Yes, but how are we going to then determine what is a positive impact? And what happens when people fail to achieve this?’ 

We are both noticing how society at the moment is in a search to ‘do good.’ From governments to multinationals to individuals. We all feel the need to contribute to society and the planet. Pressure to take part in ‘movements’ that either aim towards sustainability, equality, inclusion or value creation, is growing…. However, what happens when this is the norm? That all we do has to be founded in mutual benefit? It will result in a paradox in which striving for an inclusive society focused on mutual benefit will create polarisation in society. This made us realise how striving for a society in which all we do is good and doing good is all we do, will still create polarisation in society: those who fail to do good are unsuccessful. If the aim of creating positive impact as a starting point in education could still have negative effects on society, what would be the right educational model for the future?

An unkown future

According to Dr. Holfelder, our understanding of the future determines what knowledge and which skills are considered to be important (2019). However, according to historian Harari, the future is highly unpredictable (n.d.). This indicates that it is hard to determine and create an optimal structure or model for education that prepares people for the future, regardless of the aim of education; whether it is the accumulation of individual knowledge or creating impact.

The way we approach each other

Because it is difficult to create a “perfectly suitable” educational system that prepares people for the future, perhaps it is more about focusing on a mindset and attitude that suits the future, rather than acquiring hard skills and knowledge. According to Harari, because of the unpredictability of the future, the most important ability is that people have the ability to reinvent themselves, again and again. Rather than trying to picture and hold on to a “perfect image” of the future and education, it is about focusing on how we approach each other, collectively embracing uncertainty, and “living the questions together.” As opposed to a relational narrative of separation, these are qualities of a narrative of interbeing (Wahl, 2016), which is a story of ecology, interconnectedness, interdependence. This story understands that you are not a separate individual, but all of your relationships, a mirror of the entire world (Eisenstein, 2019). 

In the near future, change is going to happen faster and faster, so you can ask yourself whether the current system is obsolete. Might we not need a new educational system in which people learn qualities of interbeing? So that people become more resilient, open and inventive and more open to accepting that “we don’t know the answers, but we are willing to look and search together for what else could be possible’. Instead of forcing interest and opinion onto others, because I want something a certain way. (which is individualistic, competitive, operating from narrative of separation).

To conclude, both of us being students of Social Innovation, we believe that if we want to improve society and education, we have to change the way we approach dialogue. Not aiming for a fixed opinion, but an open attitude. One that is striving for acceptance and understanding of others instead of persuading others in understanding you. Fostering (transformative) dialogue and qualities of empathic listening as well as aspects that invite people to be curious about another, instead of having to prove that they are right, and the other is not. Isn’t that right?