Global emergencies: educating to ecological thinking

With Max Weber, 100 years later

by Rosa Tiziana Bruno

Coincidences always have something magical. One of the most surprising concerns the link between two protagonists of the twentieth century, both witnesses of that immortality in which we all, after all, hope. To begin, they bear the same name: Max.
One is the protagonist of Sendak’s Where the wild things are, the other is the sociologist who has given us a key of sense to look at ourselves, Weber.
Max Weber, a scholar of encyclopedic knowledge and a man with a complex personality, feels the strong need to hunt down the monsters that torment his century. Just like little Max, who ventures into the land of wild monsters. Neither is under the illusion of defeating the monstrous creatures, what is important is knowing them well, to lure out them, to better face them. This is why at night the two Max challenge every authority and set out on an adventure, like warriors in the dark, to see the resulting effect.

Weber stayed on books and on his notebook until dawn, where he wrote down the observations of the day. Because the sociologist’s task is exactly this: looking at reality from several points of view, considering the multiple variables that determine it.
From the early years in which I was studying Sociology, I sensed that the profession of the sociologist closely resembled that of the writer. A good book and Sociology have the same task: staging the different possibilities of human existence. A book offers readers the opportunity to find each other, allows you to recognize your own existence among many others. Similarly, Sociology allows us to find ourselves within the complex reality in which we live, it helps us to understand who we are and who we could become.
Monsters are the uncharted terrain of our fears, from which other emotions come to life, such as anger, which we strive to keep at bay, often with limited success.

Little Max is a complicated kid, like any person at any age, and he explains to us that wild monsters behave like humans and act in the dark. Sociologist Max integrates this explanation, reminding us that the night is terrible for those who do not have tools to face it.

Talking about tools, are we sure that we have enough of them to educate children and young people to face life in its growing complexity? This is the question I asked myself when the Italian Association of Sociology organized, at the end of 2020, an international conference to reflect on Max Weber’s thought. A hundred years have passed since his death, and the light that the scholar threw on contemporary reality remains fundamental for the understanding of the scenarios of our existence.

Weber also dealt with education, observing the way we deal with children and highlighting the ‘monsters’ that often dominate the educational path.
The worst monster, Weber thinks, is the rationalization that pervades society, with repercussions in our individual circumstances and, obviously, in the educational context. Rationality, he thinks, is something wild to keep at bay, like unbridled irrationality. Modernity is characterized by a ‘rational’ action that pervades every sphere of life. Pseudoscientific racial theories, for example, are a rationalization of the practice of racism. But there would be many examples because almost everything around us is determined by the principle of performance: the idea of a sporting record, of compulsory results at school, the perennial calculation and control of the result of the action.
From this widespread rationality comes the imperative of economic efficiency and the need for a bureaucracy inspired by business ethics. A bureaucracy that also includes teachers, then as now. But rationalization for Weber is also the decline of the feeling of the magical and the sacred, in favor of a disenchantment of the world. In rational society, the principle of impersonality replaces feelings with the efficiency of technique, this is how the world gains in performance and loses in creativity and beauty. But the prevailing rationality, in the long run, also produces other effects, namely the recourse to a dangerous irrationality, a defense reaction observable in various social spheres.
As in Sendak’s book, Weber also ventures to face the monsters generated everywhere by ‘rationalization’ and does so through the only weapons he possesses: meticulous observation and scientific reflection.

For me, a sociologist of education, his reflections are enlightening, they help me look for new teaching strategies, which I believe are urgently needed.
It therefore seemed necessary to me to participate in the debate of the scientific community of sociologists and I spoke at the conference on Max Weber, introducing the essay Educating to ecological thinking. In my speech I talked about sustainable relationships and how Sociology is indispensable for the search for a new educational paradigm. Even in today’s fragmented society, the relationship model based on productivity, to which Weber refers, remains unchanged.
The prevailing social stratum imposes its own educational model which, in turn, generates microsocial behaviors of competition, oppression and predation. School output is conceived in terms increasingly linked to the needs of the productive world.
Hence, re-reading Weber’s rationalization can help us respond to modern educational challenges. Observing the “educational rationality” helps to understand the mechanisms that determine the diffusion of the modern cognitive-rational educational paradigm.

As a sociologist, but also teacher, I propose alternatively a socio-relational paradigm, which integrates the exclusively transmissive model, nowadays obsolete. In my opinion, the new paradigm must be developed in the dialogue between sociology and pedagogical sciences, for the construction of sustainable relationships, with positive repercussions on other institutions: family, politics, law. The study of behaviors in the school environment, or micro-social realities, allows you to fully explore the system of educational relationships and allows you to think about socio-didactic interventions, in the context of today’s strong social change.

Proposing a socio-relational educational paradigm is a concrete goal. But how can Sociology help to achieve this?
In fact, only Sociology possesses the detection and investigation tools necessary for the study of the relationship system in the school and for the development of intervention strategies on the micro-social reality and in the school-family relationship.

My research in this field starts from these assumptions, experimenting the introduction in school of an education in sustainable relationships and ecological thinking, and therefore of a new communication style, the result of an encounter mediated by narration, in all its forms, starting from that of the illustrated books.
In the essay Educating to ecological thinking I describe concrete activities carried out in schools of all levels, opening alternatives for the future.
We still have time to build better relationships and give a different direction to our inner world, as well as to the life of our planet.

L’articolo in italiano è sul blog Topipittori

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