A Web View: Education for an Integral Society


Over the last 30 years, divorce rates, violence and materialism have gone up while participation rates, test scores and public trust have gone down. Most reformers who try to tackle these trends have approached education as if schooling were broken but, in fact, turmoil in schools reflects turmoil in society at large.

For educators to understand what needs to be done in schools, they must first understand what needs to be done in society. This requires understanding the larger change in which we are currently involved.

I believe, as many do, that we are going through a cultural transformation similar to the one 400 to 500 years ago when the medieval world ended and the modern world began. This time modernity’s "machine" metaphor is being replaced by a "web" view of the world. Today’s transformation, like the last, is taking place in all aspects of society--from economics, politics, spirituality and science to family and education.

Here I introduce the concepts of integral society as the culture that will replace modernity and integral science as the scientific shift that supports and explains this change. (For details, see my book After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society.)

The emergence of integral society has major implications for virtually every aspect of education, from pedagogy to community relations. My job, as a scientist who studies nonlinear dynamics (chaos), general evolution theory and other branches of what sometimes is called "the new science," is to integrate ideas from these fields so you can see how a web world works. This integration adds a practicality and a profundity to the web vision that only a few people yet understand.

Before discussing education, however, notice that the basic web view is already with us. Computers connect us and a global economy makes us all interdependent. Awareness that we are inextricably entwined with the natural world now pervades society. Web thinking also shows up in:

  • Holistic alternatives in health (integral medicine);

  • Efforts toward sustainable communities and economies;

  • Hope that the World Wide Web will one day serve as the vehicle for a global civil society;

  • A renewed sensitivity to spirituality now defined in broader and more tolerant terms; and

  • Efforts toward more meaningful, integrated and empowering education, which also teaches the social skills and environmental respect needed for a sustainable civilization (integral education).

    More examples of web thinking will appear as they are driven into being by the many failures of the modern world--pollution, overpopulation, frenzied lives, fraying social fabric, meaninglessness, alienation, violence, greed, corruption, economic instability and institutionalized deceit. Mechanistic thinking is increasingly seen as narrow, misleading and often destructive. One need only think of economic theories that promote layoffs or health theories that neglect prevention to see the problem. Clearly, simplistic machine-age prescriptions have led us down a cultural primrose path. Handling issues in a more integrated way is crucial to making our society sane and sound again.

    Practical Benefits
    Unfortunately, knowing that mechanism is flawed is not enough to solve our problems. Web thinking already is considered more complex and holistic than its predecessor, but what exactly do we need to do?

    This is where integral science comes in. Every field in science--anthropology, biology, economics, math, neurophysiology, physics, etc.--is undergoing a similar web change. Science is expanding and views are changing because modern electronics allow researchers to explore more complex causality. Popularized names for these changes include chaos, complexity, gaia, self-organization and the new biology.

    Beneath these is a remarkably coherent and understandable view of how webs work that applies as readily to human organizations as to biological ones. For integral society to become sound, everyday people will need to discover the practical implications of this integral science.

    The unifying theme of integral science is (unexpectedly) a new theory of evolution. Instead of a story of struggle and selfish genes, evolution is reconceptualized as an outcome of self-organizing forces--pressures, interdependent dynamics and energy flow. This broader theory of evolution, called dynamic evolution, explores standard cycles of growth and development that play out in all webs, including human societies. It shows how the mind is a natural part of evolution. Among its other unexpected discoveries are:


  • A physical basis for the importance of cooperation and diversity;



  • An increased appreciation of evolutionary cycles;



  • New laws governing organizational growth and development; and



  • New rules for evolutionary competence (that is, survival) with a particular emphasis on learning in human societies.


    Profound Implications
    Integral science and dynamic evolution radically change the context of educational reform. They have implications for curriculum because so many scientific images are altered. They have implications for pedagogy because, as brain research now tells us, children learn best in collaborative, problem-solving teams with lots of hands-on experience, real-world motivation and emotional support. (They support the many educators who already recognize that the old competitive educational atmosphere and formal, memory-based testing are generally destructive to learning.)

    Integral science also has profound implications for community structure and the kind of citizens we want to produce. It explains why a fine-grained social fabric--that is, one made up of strong families, neighborhoods, communities and local economies and one that embraces diversity--is crucial to maintaining safety, social intelligence and societal strength. It also adds clarity and common sense to what has become a Tower of Babel of social and educational reform. Suddenly one can see, for example, why collaborative learning fits with multidimensional learning and greater community integration. One can see why all these are necessary to produce the creative, collaborative, thinking citizens that are crucial for prosperity in the high-value economy that is also in the offing.

    For educators, the three key lessons of dynamic evolution are:

  • Collaboration as the central path of biological evolution and the best way to thrive.


    Schools, businesses, communities, families and societies are all collaborations. For these to work, children and adults alike must learn the skills and appreciate the importance of being part of a collaborative web. Collaborative webs give each of us the support and motivation we need to live meaningful, unique lives in a way that serves self and others, a phenomenon I call "interdependent individuality."

  • Connective tissue as the bonds that keep collaborations working.


    Our society has placed such a high value on growth that we have forgotten that connections are what hold all organizations together. A sound social fabric is like a lace tablecloth, filled with small and intricately entwined circles. We must learn to reconnect from the grassroots on up because when connective tissue fails, collaborative webs fail.

  • Ongoing learning as the central strategy of evolution and the cornerstone of human societies.


    The two key lessons of evolutionary learning are: (1) There are no final truths, only the pursuit of better ones; and (2) Pursuit of better ideas requires that we cherish differences, collaborative synthesis and critical thinking and questioning.

    A Logical Change
    Albert Einstein once said: "You will never solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it in the first place." So it is for society and education today.

    We need to develop the thinking and practices that will allow us to survive and thrive in an increasingly interdependent, global human and biospheric web. Our schools are perhaps the single most crucial place for this development to happen. A mechanistic world view cannot support it, but integral science can.

    Sally Goerner is director of the Triangle Center for the Study of Complex Systems, 374 Wesley Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. E-mail: sgoerner@mindspring.com