JONATHAN DAWSON - Schumacher College

Jonathan is a sustainability educator, currently working as Head of Economics at Schumacher College in Devon. Until recently a long-term resident at the Findhorn ecovillage and a former President of the Global Ecovillage Network, he has around 20 years’ experience as a researcher, author, consultant and project manager in the field of small enterprise development in Africa and South Asia.

Jonathan is the principal author of the Gaia Education sustainable economy curriculum, drawn from best practice within ecovillages worldwide, that has been endorsed by UNITAR and adopted by UNESCO as a valuable contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. He teaches this curriculum at universities, ecovillages and community centres in Brazil, Spain and Scotland. He has also adopted the curriculum to virtual format and teaches it through the Open University of Catalunya in Barcelona.


Q: I would like to start with E.F. Schumacher’s quote “If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things.” I am curious about this “depth of things”. From what I understand your institution’s answer is ‘whole person learning’ and ‘learning by doing’. Could you please illustrate how that differs from a traditional university both in form and content? How does it affect learning and idea generation?

What I have noticed with Economics students is that they are demanding to enlarge the scope of study, to have a broader theoretical basis. However, this “student rebellion” is more focused on curriculum than methodology. Students haven’t thought yet enough, that the way they are taught may also need to change. Our curriculum at Schumacher is quite distinctive. The theoretical part is largely based on complexity science, ecosystem design and Gaia theory. But where we differ most is though pedagogy.

Once you start to study education, you conclude that currently, there are three core assumption about pedagogy:

-         the role of the teacher is transmissive

-         transmission is solely done using the intellect

-         education is an individual and not a group process

At Schumacher, we have over the years, decided to change all this, in particular, for the teaching of complex issues. For complicated issues or highly technical ones, the prevailing education has still a lot to offer, but it is inadequate for complex issues. Our philosophy of education has emerged through practice and on every one of these points, Schumacher College is swimming against the prevailing current.

On the first point of transmissivity, I don’t lecture much. I see my role as facilitating the discourse of the students and helping their ideas emerge, adapting myself to what they wish to discover.

This realisation occurred to me about 15 years ago. I noticed that when lecturing on problems such as global warming, or revenue inequality, or global poverty, students went straight into problem solving mode. There was no emotional reaction to these problems, which I did not feel was normal. At the end of the class, it was as if nothing had happened during the two-hour discussing these issues. The students came out as they came in. Not much learning had happened and no change had occurred, at least, no behavioural change.

So, I decided to try and use theatre in the classroom. I asked the students to group themselves into “continents” and each group to walk in a circle: the number of students per continent proportional to the continent’s population relative to the world, the diameter of the circle proportional to the continent’s average wealth per capita. The students in the “North America” circle said afterwards that they felt a little lonely looking all that was going on in the “African” circle for example and saw the feeling of community that large number of people in close proximity generated. That is learning that would not have happened in a classroom with only facts, figures and theory.

I then decided to research neurosciences and psychology. I learned that some researchers believe we only learn through the body and then, make sense of it with our minds. Students in the Economics of Transition Master, and in general at Schumacher College, are invited to be the new economy not to only study it.

More broadly speaking and because of the institute’s history, we are strongly influenced by Mindfulness and oriental tradition. This is why, group learning is also important within the College (peer assessment, teacher assessment…). Psychologists have shown that business students are “meaner” that other students because of what they learn (the world is cutthroat, competition, etc.). The type of community learning that happens here helps with that.

To come back more specifically to Economics, in the world of social science, the volume has been turned up on one discipline: economics, and turned down on psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and all the other fields. One needs to remember that initially, economics was moral philosophy but with the introduction of mathematics, that changed. It is a mistake to believe that you can forecast the future using linear models. To paraphrase Karl Polanyi, our practice should be much more about re-embedding the economy into social relations and recognising the great transformation that has happened over the last three hundred years: that social interactions have become embedded into the economy.

At Schumacher, we are coming back to economics as a moral philosophy and emphasising the power of narratives and frames to help us understand the way we experience the world. The way we perceive the world today, in the words of Gregory Bateson, is an “Epistemological error”[1]. We have lost touch with our world as a species.


Q: Your Master is called “Economics of Transition”: How do you define this transition?

We created the program with a lot of input from the New Economics Foundation and the Transition Network.

It means the transition from a dysfunctional, unsustainable and largely unjust socio-political environment to one that has a chance of seeing us through to a post-carbon world.

We are entering a turbulent time which contain multiple dangers and opportunities. Both with our pedagogy and our perspective of Economics, we are bringing complexity theory centre stage. We’re abandoning the childish idea that we can predict the future with linear cause and effect. The world is not random but non-predictable. The idea that we have leavers that we need to go out and find, pull and push to solve issues, turns out to be a pretty childish idea.

We try to step back and become what I call, “Historians of the near future”. To look back and find the patterns that may reveal leverage points, where we may be able to intervene in systems, so that we can enable some kind of a transition that does not look like falling off the edge of a cliff.


Q: What content do you teach?

We do have a curriculum but it has the flexibility to adapt to where the students wish to take it.

There are three core pillars to our program:

- The first is a hypothesis: to understand the economy, one should look at the principles and patterns underlying Ecosystem Design. Human culture adds another layer of complexity for sure: It is not because lions eat kudu, that we do not have more agency than other species. Of course we do, but looking into natural complexity, Gaia theory and such, is a good place to start to understand the design of a resilient and efficient monetary system say.

- Recognising that Economics began as a moral philosophy and then veered off into mathematics, and that the questions and enquiries we need to answer now, are more to do with philosophy than econometrics. This leads to the importance we put on narratives and frames in our teaching. We want students not to focus on tinkering with the system to make it a little better, but to ask questions such as, what would an economic system focused on wellbeing instead of consumerism look like.

As a side note, from my own experience of living and working in West Africa and seeing communities which seemed to me more functional and healthier with a fraction of the income, it is clear to me that there are many ways to improve human wellbeing, and consumerism is just one, and quite a poor one at that.

- A very strong emphasis on learning by doing and spending a lot of time with pioneers and people who are not just thinking about, but defining new relationships in providing for needs. For example, next month, we are going at a Bristol community bakery. We are going there with students to look at how they manage their finances in a setting, where they are not aiming for financial maximisation but helping the community.

Finally, there is no mathematics modelling.


Q: Do you look at how to implement the changes in the economic system you create / advocate for?

There are three modules that happen before Christmas. The first of those is Ecological Paradigm, where we look at complexity theory and Gaia science. During the second and third modules, we bring in a lot of professionals who are actively trying to implement a shift.

For example, have you heard of Form for the Future? They do a lot of futures work - called 3 horizons methodology - which is looking at different scenarios in context, so as to become Historians of the near Future. They also work with businesses to look at likely disruptors in their field and help them to make the transition in ways that would be socially and economically helpful.

For most of the first term, students will self-organise around contexts and themes and then use the guest presenters as a way of gathering more information to deepen their understanding of transition, in their particular context.

During that phase, students build networks with these practitioners and those practitioners usually become their dissertation supervisors. We do not accompany them after they leave the college, though we have crowdfunded a platform for the Alumni to self-organise.


Q: Does the faculty publish research?

We are a teaching college. So, no, but we work with other organisations, as I mentioned previously, which do publish.


Q: Finally, you personally worked in Africa for several years. How do you think these trends impact the “Developing World”?

My word, that is a huge question [laugh].

I think that the future will really stretch us conceptually. Things for example like, we’ve grown up in a world where there is an unquestioned link between work and income. That may well need to break. I think Marx is smiling broadly, as he watches this core contradiction of capitalism.

Automation is clearly happening at a very fast past, both in physical goods and services. However, most of what would be called “Good Work” in the Buddhist or Schumacher tradition, is non-automatable. Good Work is what you would choose to do with your life if you did not need to work.

If we take a step back, some people argue that we should embrace automatization to save ourselves from the drudgery of work. Schumacher, in the 1950s, went to Burma and came back with two wonderfully subversive insights, which at the time, were quite revolutionary. One was that people achieved abundance not through accumulation of wealth but by reducing their needs. The second was that utility is not consumption but work. Our lives get meaning by “Good Work”. This Good Work as I said, is largely non-automatable. It is relationship work, urban gardening, it is looking after each other.

In the “developing world” (I don’t believe in that term for a moment) and in particular, rural Africa, the role of material commodity is reduced and the human connectedness is increased, so the transition of automation is maybe not going to be as much of an impact as it is in the “developed world” (same dislike for that term).

In the course, we look at this theme of the future of work and there are many more questions than answers at this stage. However, I resist quite strongly this idea of a society of leisure. We are not a species of leisure. We definitely could do with more idleness today, but we are a crafty species that needs to work out problems and issues. Solving problems with our hands and our intellect is what makes us happiest. I do not believe that we would be happy doing nothing. Just look at Florida: not a happy

[1] For more on this idea: Epistemological Error : A whole systems view of Converging Crises, Jody Joanna Boehnert, PhD Candidate at the University of Brighton