How do we approach a contemporary philosophy for adult learning in a sustainable world? Peter Kearns


The timely and provocative articles by Shirley Walters and Han Soonghee in PIMA Bulletin No 26 raise fundamental questions about what kind of society we should aspire towards, and the role of adult learning in achieving such a society.

While climate change is a critical issue, it is happening in a context of deep societal change driven by influences such as new technologies including artificial intelligence, demographic change with ageing populations, the decline of many traditional influences that have bonded communities, and the emergence of unstable tribal groups linked by social media: a world of turbulence and dislocation.

Professor Han puts the choice starkly as a confrontation between capitalism and the Planet. Such a confrontation raises difficult political choices that impede action in democratic capitalist countries such as Australia. Is a middle path possible that could lead to a sustainable democratic society?

Economist Jeffrey Sachs is among those who argue for such a middle path in his book The Price of Civilization. This has the sub-title “Reawakening virtue and prosperity after the economic fall”. His argument for such a middle path, closely linked to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is elaborated further in his subsequent book The Age of Sustainable Development, which comments on issues confronting the achievement of the UN SDG objectives.

In discussing what he sees as pathways to a sustainable society, Sachs sees the need for an integrated approach linking economic, social, environmental, and political objectives.

The first part of sustainable development t- the analytical part - is to understand the interlinkages of the economy, society, environment, and politics. The second part of sustainable development - the normative part - is to do something about the dangers we face, to implement the SDGs, and to achieve them. (Sachs 2015:42)

PASCAL has been interested in integrated cross-sectoral approaches to learning city development for some years through the EcCoWell initiative, taken up by the city of Cork.

Sachs returns to the point raised by both Shirley Walters and Han Soonghee of the need for active citizenship and building a sense of community as the conceptual platform for sustainable development. This is linked by Sachs to building a mindful society, with eight dimensions of mindfulness set out. The centrality of citizenship entails social and political responsibilities.

Without accepting social and political responsibilities, the individual cannot actually find fulfilment. (Sachs 2012:163).

This interestingly links the social and political responsibilities of the individual to their happiness and fulfilment. The notion take us back to the UNESCO philosophy of ‘learning to be’, elaborated by Vaill as learning as a way of being (Vaill 1996). The middle path of responsible citizenship sought by Sachs has a long historical pedigree with links to both Buddha and Aristotle. The link to happiness and personal fulfilment then takes us to the use of the annual World Happiness Reports as a better metric of social progress than the traditional GDP measures, which serve the developmental causes of capitalism.

In finding a sustainable middle path, then, it is important to go beyond the GDP measures of capitalism which favour on-going growth objectives, but which tell us little about the quality of life and well-being of the bulk of the population. The World Happiness Report metrics are useful in this regard.  A further example is provided by the General Progress Indicator (GPI), which serves as an economic indicator incorporating environmental and social factors not taken into account by GDP assessments.

Linking active citizenship to happiness and personal fulfilment is interesting in its opening up of a broad approach to the qualities needed by an individual, and indeed communities, to thrive and survive in this era of dislocation and turbulence. Authors as varied as Schwab (founder and CEO of the World Economic Forum) and Vaill have noted this requirement.

Schwab in The Fourth Industrial Revolution responds to the technological megatrends of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, arguing the need to nurture and apply four different kinds of intelligence in this context in moving towards ‘a truly global civilization’:

  • Contextual (the mind) - how we understand and apply our knowledge;
  • Emotional (the heart) - how we process and integrate our thoughts and feelings and relate to ourselves and to one another;
  • Inspired (the soul) - how we use a sense of individual and shared purpose, trust, and other virtues to effect change and act towards the common good;
  • Physical (the body) - includes personal health and well being.

Like Schwab, Vaill sets out a range of types of learning needed to thrive in the ‘permanent white water’ of the contemporary world. While most are familiar to educators, the one I find most interesting is his ‘spirituality and a sense of meaning’ and ‘spirituality as holistic perception’. Thus both Schwab and Vaill see the need for spiritual/inspired perceptions in learning and creating meaning and purpose, and in building the qualities, such as trust, needed in a sustainable society.

All this, I believe, sets an agenda for adult learning which we need to pursue in community and other social contexts such as learning neighbourhoods, business enterprises, and other organisations.

In doing this, I agree with Han that we need to redefine our concept of a learning city: from a community using its resources to open learning opportunities throughout life for all residents, to one denoting a community engaged in a learning journey towards a good sustainable future that brings a sense of meaning and purpose to the lives of citizens, including understanding the responsibilities that local and global citizenship entails. These matters require considerable thought and elaboration. The papers by Shirley Walters and Han Soonghee serve to open up landscape that we need to explore for a contemporary philosophy of adult learning in a sustainable world, where inclusion brings civic responsibilities and a necessary ethical and moral platform for such a world. What are the next steps?

Peter Kearns

Republished from PIMA BULLETIN No. 27, Nov 2019



Sachs, J. 2012. The Price of Civilization: Reawakening virtue and prosperity after the economic fall. London: Vintage

Sachs, J 2015. The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Colombia University Press.

Schwab, K. 2016. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

Schwab, K.  2018. Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A guide to building a better world. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

UNESCO, 1992. Learning to Be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO

Vaill, P. 1996. Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for survival in a world of permanent white water. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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