Restoring Hope to the Future Through Critical Education of Leaders

by Margaret Wheatley March 30, 2001

by Margaret Wheatley, 2001
First published in Vimukt Shiksha 

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This is a dark age, when everything must justify its existence in terms of how it benefits the economy. The economy is no longer seen as the means to create just and good societies; it has become the end in itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of education. We educate students so they can get jobs; we collect statistics that demonstrate the monetary benefits of education to the individual; we increasingly focus schools and higher education on training, teaching those subjects defined as important by the workplace. As with all other aspects of modern life in the era of globalization, education has become just one sector of the economy.

But stretching back over millennia, education has always been the means to change society, to create new ideas and practices, and therefore new futures. And in the 20th century, the practice and theory of Critical Education emerged as a powerful demonstration of how education, used with the poorest, could develop the skills and understanding needed to change their world. Quite recently, as I’ve been increasingly distressed over how education everywhere is being usurped by the economy, I have returned to the work of Paulo Freire, Cesar Chavez, and other Latin American revolutionary thinkers. They have helped me determine what I can do to try and reverse the destructive and dehumanizing trajectory created by the New Economy. I would like to describe how their inspiration has materialized in the work that I now do.

When I feel brave enough to say it (which I do now) my new work is to create a populist revolution among leaders everywhere. I, with many talented and exceedingly dedicated colleagues around the world, are working to establish leadership circles in local communities everywhere. We believe that as leaders meet regularly and talk about their practice, their concerns, their hopes, that they will develop enough clarity and courage to stand up to the pressures of globalism and act as leaders who support and nourish the human spirit and all life.

It’s important for me to state at the outset that we have a rather revolutionary definition of “leader.” We believe that a leader is anyone who wants to help at this time. We meet these people everywhereof all ages and in all communities and professions. It can be a mother who wants her children’s school to change; a local nurse who wants clean water in the many villages she serves; a teenager who refuses to wear the clothing of a corporation that uses sweat shops; a corporate executive who wants to stop unethical practices or the day-to-day disregard of the needs of employees; a farmer who wants to preserve traditional farming methods.

These new leaders are appearing at an increasing rate in local communities around the world. They each are motivated by a desire to change some aspect of their world. They are not motivated by self-interest or greed. They want to help others. But they often feel isolated and alone. Few of them realize their concerns and generosity are shared by an increasing number of people. And it is difficult to act with courage when you feel you’re the only one.

The Healing Century

by Margaret Wheatley January 16, 1998

by Robert Theobald, 1998
Introduction by Bob Stilger, 2008

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Robert Theobald and I met in the late sixties. He was a noted social commentator. I was a brash young college student. He became one of my closest friends and colleagues for the next thirty years. In 1997, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and came to live in Spokane with my family to complete his life and work. Shortly after having his esophagus removed at the end of 1997, he wrote “The Healing Century” as a speech for the Ontario Arts Council. Ten years later, his analysis of where we need to be paying attention is still uncannily accurate.

For the next two years, until he died at the end of 1999, Robert and I worked under the banner of Resilient Communities. We believed that beneath the fervor about Y2K there were actually critical questions being asked about how to make our communities and our lives resilient enough to navigate the rapids of change. Similar questions about community resilience are at the core of Berkana’s current work.

While the commentary Robert offered ten years ago in The Healing Century remains largely accurate, what Robert could not have foretold was all that has happened over these years. People, all over the world, engaged in making communities and lives that work are finding each other. Ten years ago, World Café was a way to host conversation known only to a handful of people. The Art of Hosting wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes. Pioneers of Change was a seed ready to be grown. Shambhala Authentic Leadership Institute was a dream long held by a small group of people. The Leadership Learning Centers that Berkana currently works with around the world were in many different stages of formation and certainly not yet in relationship with each other.

I think Robert would see this all with a twinkle in his eye and with hope for the future.

The Healing Century

Despite the widespread frustrations of our time, I believe that we can and must live with hope. We are capable of making a profound positive shift in our thinking over the next few years. The heart of this shift would be for us to conceptualize the 21st century as the healing century just as the 20th will certainly be defined in the future as the economic and technological century. Only a change toward a more caring and compassionate culture at all levels from the personal to the ecological can avoid massive breakdowns.

I am all too well aware, however, that the message of hope I intend to send will only be welcome to those who are aware that the current directions of the global culture are unacceptable and unsustainable. If you still believe that our current commitment to maximum economic growth and international competitiveness, based on ever-increasing technological competence, will solve our problems then my message will seem pessimistic and, indeed, highly negative.

We currently face a series of unavoidable crises which are already visible to those who care to look beyond the dominant headlines. These crises are due to our past successes rather than our failures. We have achieved what we wanted to. We have so far failed to recognize that it is now time to move on and to seize the new opportunities which are currently available to us. We urgently need to rework our concepts of success.

I shall start with the economic, social, environmental, moral and spiritual crises of our time. I shall show that there must be profound shifts if we are to avoid the breakdowns that threaten our future.