The intent of this article is to utilize an integral viewpoint to look at our world and bring a
quality of awareness that has yet to be fully distinguished. An integral perspective is committed
to weave together the seemingly isolated, fragmented and disconnected phenomena that take
place in our world, in a manner that allows for seeing with new eyes. It encircles horizontally
and is at the same time deeply rooted vertically. When people experience and understand how
different occurrences connect together to create a full picture, it changes the way they think, act,
speak, and listen, and the way they view the world— a larger picture becomes apparent and their
relationship to that image is made clearer.
A number of areas will be addressed in the following pages regarding the current educational
approach in the United States and the quality of the world it creates and perpetuates, as seen from
various vantage points, e.g., scholars, educators, students. Integral Education is presented as a
model of our future education with its commitment to educating for an integral worldview.
Quality of Education = Quality of World
The premise of this paper is: we get what we educate. The world we live in, feel, and observe
around us is directly correlated to our educational experiences. What is happening in our world
and our responses to it, whether it is close—as in family, friends, school, community or city—or
farther away—as in state, nation, region or globe—reflects the context, content and practices of
our education. The focus of this article is an inquiry into the nature of our world and the impact
our way of educating has on that world. The United States and its approach to education are
highlighted and extrapolations can be made to other countries.
This article is an invitation to its readers to an inquiry of the highest order: to engage in
questions around the quality of world being created by the kind of education we are providing
ourselves and our young people. If our education is the foundation for our future, what is the
quality of future we are living into given our current approach to education? What is going on in
our world, in business, in our communities, in our religious institutions, and throughout our
educational institutions... in our collective consciousness, how we think, the quality of that
thinking, how we feel, about ourselves and each other, the way we relate to one another, what we
think is important, our values, etc.?
There is an active conversation among educators, scientists, policy makers, the media,
parents, government, and business people about the role education should play in preparing
people to live successfully in a complex world. Practitioners in many disciplines are divided over
this role, and offer an either/or approach; e.g., either “we must produce more graduates in
science, math and technology,” or “simply adding analytical skills to traditional curricula would
be wholly insufficient to convey a general understanding of complex phenomena;” or “modern
sciences fail to acknowledge the complexity of the real world, and foster a misleading certainty
of expectations that leads people to pursue simple solutions for complex problems, and to
discount contrarian ideas and ‘inconvenient truths’” (Abeles, 2010, pp. 2-3).
Our world is increasing in complexity exponentially. It involves many intricate parts that
require an ability to make linkages; e.g., bringing the seemingly unrelated to a place of
relationship and connection. This complexity of new technologies, diverse cultures/belief
systems intermingling, internet/information access, media proliferation, international economic
and political interdependencies; globalization of businesses, cultures, awareness, connections;
the reinvention of the family constellation, education, politics, religions, and so on, has
multifaceted everything. “Our culture is in a constant state of change and evolution” (Robinson,
The 21st century complex world demands an integral approach, one that encompasses seeming
paradoxes with a both/and viewpoint—a complete transformation of our established
epistemology. A new paradigm is required now which is gradually emerging, representing the
beginnings of a true transformation in the way we think and act. Susanne Langer, an American
scholar of the philosophy of mind, captures it with this imagery:
"A new idea is a light that illuminates things that simply had no form for us before the light
fell on them and gave them meaning. We turn the light here, there, and everywhere the
limits of thought recede before it" (as cited in Robinson, 2001, p. 73).
The intent of this paper is to shine that quality of light on our world today.
The Void in Education
Sri Aurbindo, the Indian spiritual philosopher, educator, and activist saw the evolutionary
turmoil humankind was undergoing in the 20th century. In his writings and teachings he spoke
about the quality of society being manifest: “Man has created a system of civilization which has
become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited
spiritual and moral capacity to utilize and manage” (Ghose, 1976, pp. 1053-1055).
Three decades later he is echoed by Ervin Laszlo, a philosopher of science, a systems and
evolution theorist, and integral thinker. “We are in a spiritual crisis at the moment. We need to
upgrade and update our consciousness. Our technology has evolved faster than our spirits have;
we need a spiritual revolution” (Laszlo, 2005).
Peter Senge (2004), an MIT professor, system theorist, and consultant to businesses, adds his
agreement in his most recent book, Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future,
“…the industrial age school continues to expand, largely unaffected by the realities of children
growing up in the present day” (p. 7). The task of encouraging thoughtful, knowledgeable,
compassionate global citizens in the twenty-first century is not being addressed consistently with
the world we are living into. These educator/scholars are joined by many other voices.
Robert J. Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale University and director of
its Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise, is committed to
educating for wisdom:.
I do believe that we need to rethink our goals in education. Increased academic skills may
be necessary for many kinds of success, but they are not sufficient. Students need
something more. We need to teach students not only knowledge but also how to use that
knowledge well, e.g., thinking wisely and encouraging students to develop their own
values while understanding multiple points of view. Teaching for wisdom recognizes that
there are certain values—honesty, sincerity, doing toward others as you would have them
do toward you—that are shared the world over by the great ethical systems of many
cultures. (Sternberg, 2002, pp. 1-3)
Sternberg also stresses balance: “students learn to include their own interests with those of others
and those of larger entities, like their school, their community, their country, even God” (p. 2).
Sir Ken Robinson, author, speaker, and international advisor on education, also “challenges
the way we're educating our children and champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to
cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence” (Robinson, 2010). One of his
major contributions is continuing to explore the importance of creativity in the educational
system and its link to the economy of a country. To the question, “Why don't we get the best out
of people?” he retorts:
It’s because we've been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers.
Students with restless minds and bodies—far from being cultivated for their energy and
curiosity—are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. We are educating
people out of their creativity. (Robinson, 2010, Ted Talks).
Uncovering Vicious Cycles
A vicious cycle is a complex series of events, which reinforces itself through feedback loops.
Each iteration of the cycle reinforces the previous sequence, ultimately leading to detrimental
results. It is a situation in which the solution to one problem creates a chain of problems, each
making it more difficult to solve the original one. The cycle will continue in the direction of its
momentum until an external factor intervenes and breaks the series. Our current way of
educating has created many vicious cycles. Inquiring into our system of education is about
shining a bright enough light so the unseen can be given the quality of form necessary to
illuminate the meaning sufficiently to unravel the vicious cycle.
In 2011, the world we live in is no longer rooted in the economic model of industrialism and
the intellectual model of academicism. Both are outdated and inadequate to what is needed today
(Robinson, 2001, p. 23). This leads to an education curriculum that is separated from the real
world and less relevant to being successful in the real world. And, everything inside this vicious
cycle, e.g., the teachers, administrators, parents, students and the public, more often than not,
continues to reinforce one another.
Teachers teach inside of, and are assessed using criteria within, this outmoded paradigm;
parents want their children to succeed inside this outmoded paradigm, schools and universities
want funding inside this outmoded paradigm, students either want to achieve and continue in the
outmoded paradigm, or they drop out in many different forms, which is becoming more often the
case, e.g., from 23% in 1969, to 31% in 2007—46% of black students, 44% Latinos, and 49%
Native American did not graduate in recent years (Khadaroo, 2010).
The public often continues the cycle with ignorance, denial, confusion, complacency,
reactivity and/or righteousness. As Mahler puts it:
…false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation.
If you support the teachers union, you don’t care about the students.
If you are critical of the teachers union, you don’t care about the teachers.
If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools.
If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal
society’s most cherished values.
If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability.
It goes on and on. Neither side seems capable of listening to the other. (Mahler, 2011, p. 9)
Trying to change things inside of a disintegrating paradigm provides nothing; the system needs
to be reinvented (Robinson, 2001).
Because of its nature, the vicious cycle is very difficult to see or grasp. There are so many
“feedback loops, with each iteration of the cycle reinforcing the previous,” it acts like a haze that
covers what is there …it seems impossible to really get one’s hands around it sufficiently to get
the traction to take definitive action, e.g., “academics gets confused with education and
qualifications with abilities” (Robinson, 2001, p. 57). “The high-stakes testing movement, for
example, seems to emphasize knowledge acquisition much more than the socially desirable use
of that knowledge” (Sternberg, 2002, p. 2).
There are very deeply seated beliefs, assumptions, and values, which stem from before the
Renaissance about what it means to be educated and which we continue to take for granted—we
come to think of our views of this reality as, “the way it is” or “common sense.” “The
relationships between our education and the world we actually live in are being stretched to
breaking point and they need now to be entirely rethought” (Robinson, 2001, p. 93).
Vicious cycles also show up in how we value our education, the amount of money we are
willing to pay our key influencers of our children’s educational experiences; we allow
mediocrity to go unaccounted for, e.g., the lack of interest in creating mutual accountability
throughout our educational institutions. We spend more money on prisons than schools, “six
times the amount” (Lehrer, 2011) and we compensate our professional sports players abundantly
more (between 3 and 20 times) than the keepers of the keys to our future. We fund weaponry and
wars before excellence in education. At least 200 billion dollars more is spent on war than
education (Conetta, 2010) & (US Department of Education, 2010). These examples all indicate a
way of thinking that is worthy of our inquiry.
How do we relate to our media and the role it plays in creating our educational experience of
our world? Watching television, entertainment, sports and music events, advertising, listening to
radio…what is the quality of the communications to people? What “world” are they creating?
How well do these mediums continue the vicious cycle? Where does the cycle start ….and end,
or does it ever? Is it our education which brings us to thinking in a particular way, or is it our
culture, our families, our government, politics, religious affiliations, the media, …”the way
everyone else thinks,” that has us believe that this is the way is should be? Is this a great example
of the vicious cycle in action? Our education and our culture continually reinforce each other
without external intervening factors that break the cycle.
Current US Education Approach
Tony Wagner, past Director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s
graduate school of education and author of the seminal book, The Global Achievement Gap,
addresses many vicious cycles in education. His book is filled with data from interviews with
teachers, students, parents, and business people, and observations of schools and university
teacher education classrooms. He spent time in the "best" schools with the highest SAT scores
and found students more focused on a “right answer” than creative reflection and serious inquiry.
J. King, an MIT professor remarked about students who have top scores in Advanced Placement
courses, “They don’t know how to observe.” When asked to describe what they see, “They want
to know what they should be looking for—what the right answer is” (Wagner, 2008, p. 7).
Deborah Meier, professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education agrees: “We've also left
precious little space in school for our youngsters to ask serious questions that have no "right" or
"wrong" answers” (Meier, 2010). The mood in the classrooms Wagner observed was mechanical,
students unreflective and rigid in their responses to questions. Teachers were teaching to a “core
curriculum,” (standardized tests) with much memorization, methods that “are quickly becoming
an epidemic in our nation’s schools” (Wagner, 2008, p. 59).
Students’ relationship with learning felt stilted, linear, and detached. Diane Ravitch, Research
Professor in Education at NYU and educational historian adds her agreement to that of Wagner,
Meier, Sternberg, and Robinson cited above, “The schools will surely be failures if students
graduate knowing how to choose the right option from four bubbles on a test, but unprepared to
lead fulfilling lives, to be responsible citizens, and to make good choices for themselves, their
families, and our society” (Ravitch, 2010, p. 1).
Stephanie Pace Marshall, internationally acknowledged educator, in her book The Power to
Transform, critiques the current approach to education in the United States by asserting that our
current patterns, processes, and structures of schooling are not designed to ignite our children’s
joy, intellectual energy, and imagination. She believes that this is because they are conceived and
framed within a context of scarcity, deficiency, and fragmentation, rather than a dynamic or
integrative approach that would enable our children to engage with passion in exploring their real
questions about life (Marshal, 2006).
Teacher education is another major contributor to the vicious cycle. Arthur Levine, the former
president of Columbia University Teachers’ College, in two highly influential studies of teacher
education, found many students graduate without the skills and knowledge they need to be
effective teachers. Sixty-two percent of responses, (alumni and students) report schools of
education do not prepare their graduates to cope with the realties of today’s classrooms.
According to Levine,
…education school faculty’s lack understanding of the current challenges in schools and
classrooms….the experience of faculty were not recent or long enough,… lessons are often
out of date, are more theoretical than practical, thin in content. The curriculum is often
fractured, with a lack of continuity from one course to the next, and [there is] insufficient
integration between course work and field work. The schools foster docility with too many
lecture courses and too few opportunities for problem solving and original thinking.
(Levine, as cited in Wagner, 2008, pp. 145-146)
Students in our schools are taught by people who are educated in a “teacher-education
curriculum that is a confusing patchwork, with academic instruction and everyday issues
disconnected” (Wagner, 2008, p. 148). This is the ultimate of the vicious cycle. “Take a
disjoined collection of course of uneven quality and then pass tests that rarely measure the skills
that matter the most” (p. 148). Add to that, “close to fifty percent of the teachers in the United
States come from the bottom third of college classes and teacher compensation is much lower
than other professions graduates can choose” (Jones, 2011, p. 33).
Levine also looked into the educating of school principals, including those programs at
Harvard and Columbia, and concluded that …
The core curricula of the nation’s principals are a random collection of courses. …a grab
bag of courses… If one removed the class on the principalship from the list, it would be a
real challenge to guess the purpose of the program. (as cited in Wagner, 2008, pp. 147148)
Wagner (2001), in his research of education in the United States, distinguished four major
themes, which provide more powerful examples of the vicious cycle and how it manifests, often
subtlety, in our educational institutions and ultimately in our “educated” populace. The culture of
our education creates and perpetuates reactivity, compliance, isolation, and no real sense of
accountability. Educators have to react to a cacophony of urgent needs and demands
Every day. We can’t say no, and everything is a priority. Most of us haven’t developed the
discipline of reflection as a way to remain focused on the truly important. The education culture
has tended to reward compliance to authority at all levels over active questioning or genuine
discussion of issues. School district leadership rewards compliance rather than creativity and
Educators work alone more than any other professionals in modern America. Most
professions have come to recognize the value of teamwork as a better way to understand
and solve ‘problems of practice.’ Groups are far more likely to come to a deeper
understanding, and to better solutions, than are individuals working alone, no matter how
talented…. Broad ‘ownership’ of the problem a school or district needs to solve is rare in
compliance-driven change efforts, where concern for positive PR trumps true public
engagement and unfavorable data are downplayed…. To be effective, however,
accountability has to be two-way and horizontal as well as vertical. What is our reciprocal
and relational accountability to one another. (Wagner, 2001, pp. 1-6)
A New Educational Paradigm: Creating Virtuous Cycles
That intelligence plays an epistemological role in our education is a universally accepted
premise. The idea that intelligence plays an ontological role as well represents a transformation
in the purpose of education. Ontology is the study of the nature of being, i.e., one’s essential
nature, the nature of reality. Acknowledging the importance of an ontological framework for
education shifts its primary intention and attention from knowing to being. If accepted, this
expanded interpretation qualitatively alters how we relate to education.
Emphasis transfers from knowing first, to being first—recognizing that who one is being in
the process of knowing, is senior to what one knows in the process of being. What is suggested in
this thinking is that including the nature of being and reality at the beginning of the process of
knowing would substantially alter the quality of knowing occurring and the subsequent actions
taken as a result of that knowing.
An example might be that when one brings a sense of wholeness and integration of one’s
experiences of the physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental intelligences, the learning occurs
inside of a worldview that is capable of generating a paradigm of connection, relatedness and
integration, i.e., both/and, rather than separateness and isolation, i.e., either/or. This way of
viewing the world provides a very different learning context than that of dichotomizing,
competing, winning, losing, e.g., either you or me… either them or us. Both the philosophical
and pragmatic aspects of education represent the creation of our essential nature and our
relationship with reality. Integral education has the potential to transform our essential natures
and our experience of what is real.
Integral education is an approach to education that provides a powerful foundation for living
life and preparing people to live in a complex and ever changing world. In this model, the first 18
years of a person’s life are focused on developing and integrating the physical, spiritual,
emotional and mental intelligences. From a very early age, young people learn to relate to the
world with an integral worldview. Thus, the introduction to the adult phase of their life is
grounded in educational experiences which have interwoven these powerful expressions of
human consciousness. The focus is foremost on the ontological aspects of intelligence, i.e., the
being of the human being, which in turn provides a life altering context in which learning occurs.
The living of one’s life is viewed through the lens of wholeness and relationship: connection
to oneself, others and all of nature as an embodied phenomenon. This is an education for
wholeness in a human being. Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means “becoming more
real by acknowledging the whole of who I am” (Palmer, 1998, p. 13).
Physical intelligence is seen as fundamental to an integral education experience. There is an
acknowledgement of the essential relationship between biology (earth), chemistry (foods,
substances), and physics (energy) at the core of this approach to education. There is
“groundedness,” consciousness, and connection with the natural elements. There is a tacit form
of knowledge in bodily knowledge (Adams, 2006). “The clues that allow us to know anything
come from our relatedness to reality–a relatedness as deep as the atoms our bodies share with
everything that is, ever has been, or ever will be” (Palmer, 1998, p. 98).
This embodiment of the physical has ontological implications. It communicates a particular
reality and way of being that introduces students to what is real for them; what is real for them is
in their body, in their experiences, and senses. It also has epistemological connotations. What
and how these students know as a grounded embodied individual influences the way they relate
to knowledge; it is relevant to them on a very basic level. It is learning that is connected on
many layers–energetic, cellular, muscular, sensory, and kinesthetic (Adams, 2006).
The emotional intelligence plays a relational role in integral education. Connections are seen
throughout. People are in community; they are in communication, with themselves and each
other; they are caring and cared for; they are learning the skills to remain in community and
communication, e.g., conflict resolution, dialogue, and mediation. Focus is placed on the
experiences of safety, belonging, relationship, love, being known, self-expressed, responsible,
service and mentorship of others to support the development of emotional intelligence in
everyone, e.g., students, teachers, parents, etc.
This relational pattern in the emotional domain has ontological implications. It communicates
a particular reality and way of being that introduces students to what is “real” for them; they are
related. It also has epistemological connotations. What and how these students know as
relational individuals influences the way they interact with what they are learning. What they are
learning is connected to them. What is being learned is not separate or disjointed; it is related to
them (Adams, 2006).
At a conference hosted by The Mind Life Institute, and attended by close to 4,000 participants
from around the globe, with scholars, educators and a number of deans from major American
schools of education (e.g., Harvard University, University of Michigan, Stanford, Pennsylvania
State University, Rice University, University of Wisconsin, Carnegie Foundation), the major
conference theme was developing emotional intelligence in our populace, e.g., “the education of
hearts as well as minds; socio-emotional development; compassion and empathy; and generating
authentic relationships. Experience based learning; belonging, caring, community, sense of
mastery, responsibility, owning one’s own power, generosity etc…” (Mind Life Institute, 2009).
The natural role of the mental domain is respected in the integral curriculum. Mental
intelligence is known to expand in an environment in which students are encouraged to love
learning, be curious, and follow their passion. When the learner is respected, trusted, and
honored as an individual and educated to think and learn for him/herself, given choices and
responsibility for what is studied, the natural quality of learning is activated.
Students exposed to curriculum that is experiential and relevant can embody the content and
the context. The growth of mental acumen is equated with trusting the human being in his/her
natural quest of learning. There is a recognition that the purpose of education is to provide an
environment in which the inherent attributes of the individual can naturally grow and take root.
If the context is known and the learning is relevant, the learner can also be at choice and
responsible for her/his education.
The inferences from these interpretations are valuable when considered from an ontological
perspective. The reality is—humans have a natural love of learning and curiosity that only
requires room to express and grow; children can be responsible and trusted with their own
education. Who we are as human beings at the most fundamental level are natural learners.
Epistemologically, these interpretations offer an essential shift away from current educational
practices. They suggest the natural aspects of learning - learning belongs to the individual
Modern brain research shows clearly that children are natural learners. They are born
wanting to learn and would continue being voracious learners if they were in an
environment that is truly learner centered. They need the kind of learning environment that
is not a system, but which enables them to find the help and information THEY need and
ask for. They need adults around them who respect them as individuals, know how to listen
to them and can help guide them to the resources they need. (Mintz, 2011, p. 1, emphasis
in the original)
Spiritual intelligence plays a contextual role in integral education. It gives a sense of
congruency to life. Students are educated in ways that their sense of “spirit” can show up in their
lives, i.e., seeing themselves in relation to a larger world, feeling connected to themselves,
others, and nature. The holistic approach provides practices to support individuals getting more
related to themselves and others through internal experiences such as contemplation, self-
reflection, journaling, silent time, meditation, yoga, exercises, etc. The integral curriculum
includes understanding and honoring the world’s religions, learning the distinction between
spirituality and religion and having clarifying conversations that bring people together and
promote interfaith inclusion rather than exclusion and derisiveness. In addition, key to
developing an integral point of view is discovering the connection of science and spirituality–to
experience the awe in both expressions of “spirit” (Adams, 2006).
The ontological inferences from addressing the spiritual intelligence in an integral education
are immense. Reality takes on an inclusive nature, a both/and quality as opposed to the either/or
dualism that has been engrained in our current educational reality, that we so often take for
granted as the way it is. How students relate to one another is more from appreciative inquiry and
understanding throughout their education. Epistemologically, knowledge is recognized for its
multifaceted quality. All sides are presented. Students are educated to take multiple points of
view and experience what it is like to be in the shoes of the other. The whole and the parts are
seen in relationship with one another. Analysis and synthesis and the subjective and objective
brought together yield a different quality of knowledge and understanding and an opening for
wisdom to appear. “Wisdom is a quality of ‘seeing’ and relating to life that reflects an ability to
synthesize its disparate aspects. Wisdom mirrors wholeness—as it reveals all sides” (Adams,
2006, p. 353).
What kind of world do you want to live in? When you listen to the news and read papers and
magazines, what kind of narratives do you want to represent you and the world you are creating?
The world we live in and the future we are living into are up to us. How might your worldview
shift to move from ways of being that are separating, isolating and fragmenting yourself and
others, to ways of being that are connecting, relating and integrating for yourself and others.
What can you do or say or who can you ‘be’ that will begin unraveling the existing vicious
cycles and start creating many more virtuous cycles. Let’s own our future together.
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Anne Adams, PhD, has designed and led seminars, workshops and educational programs for
professional groups, individuals, corporations, and educational institutions for more than 30 years. She
has been a teacher, school director, university instructor, a manager in an international educational
corporation, and a business consultant to both corporations and companies. Her company, ACS, provides
consulting in organizational transformation to all people in companies and educational institutions,
specializing in large-scale cultural transformation and change, communication skills, team collaboration,
integral leadership development, coaching and individually designed programs. Anne has worked with
many Fortune 50 companies, nationally and internationally.