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Educating Toward Direct Democracy and Ecological Sustainability: Theory of Social Ecology as a Framework for Critical, Democratic, and Community-Based Education

"The aim of this dissertation project was to explore and extrapolate the work of the left-libertarian social theorist, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), paying particular attention to his theory of social ecology and to examine its implications for and use as a comprehensive philosophical/theoretical framework for alternative secondary education that has as its central aim direct democracy, a new conception of citizenship premised upon such an aim, and a more balanced, less destructive relationship between humans and non-human nature. The dissertation attempts to answer two fundamental questions through both a theoretical examination and an empirical study. First, what ideal of citizenship is established within the theory of social ecology? Second, what outcomes would indicate that a school using the theory of social ecology as a curricular centerpiece is successful in creating or fostering this ideal of citizenship within students? In attempting to answer these questions, I first engage in a close reading and critical examination of the theory of social ecology and its underlying philosophy as articulated and developed in the work of the late Murray Bookchin. I mine the literature in order to draw out its central concepts related to citizenship and democracy, shed light upon the political philosophy that acts as its foundation, and extend these findings in order to deduce their implications for education. Secondly, I conduct an empirical study at a small charter high school in a large metropolitan area whose explicit aim is to empower students “to engage in critical thinking and social transformation, from the classroom to the Puerto Rican community” (Mission and Vision Statement, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School homepage, retrieved January 4, 2012) through the use of social ecology, social-emotional learning, and critical pedagogy as guiding theoretical frameworks. The aim of this empirical study was to gain an understanding of how social ecology is used within a school to foster a particular ideal of citizenship and the degree to which it is successful in attempting to do so. I outline the distinctions between anarchism as a political philosophy and that of liberal democratic theory upon which much of educational philosophy is based. As social ecology is largely rooted in the social anarchist tradition, I sketch out the principles upon which the social anarchist position (on the state, on authority, on human beings’ way of interacting with and relating to one another) rests and identify some of its major tenets as they are specific articulations of anarchist principles within the realms of philosophy, politics, and social relations that I feel have particular relevance for an educational model aimed toward direct democracy and ecological sustainability. I then move into a theoretical discussion of dialectical naturalism - the philosophy of social ecology - and its attempt to formulate an objective ecological ethics. I examine and explore libertarian municipalism – the politics of social ecology – paying particular attention to its goal of re-orienting the modern western definitions of democracy, politics, and citizenship. Next, I report my findings from the empirical study of a school that utilizes social ecology and community-based education to move its students toward enhanced self-actualization through active participation in nurturing greater community autonomy and self-sufficiency. Finally, through creative imagining, I consider the implications of the philosophy and politics of social ecology for the structure, form, and content of an alternative small-school movement rooted in place and aimed at ameliorating social and ecological crises at the grassroots level."
Kevin J. Holohan
Michigan State University
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