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JE&CB 11:1 (2007) 63-71

1366-5456

Harro Van Brummelen


Reconciliation, Constructivism, and
Ecological Sustainability: A Review
Essay
THIS ARTICLE REVIEWS and explores the links between Chet Bowers recent book on
constructivist theories of learning and the paper by Gormas, Koole, and Vryhof on learning
for reconciliation published in this journal (Spring 2006). The reviewer holds that Bowers
critique of constructivism has merit, but that his emphasis on eco-justice leaves gaps in both
the foundations and practices of education. While the Biblical concept of reconciliation
is more encompassing, the reviewer questions whether it can be the sole chief purpose of
education and suggests that Christian educators need to develop a defensible comprehensive
pedagogical framework.
Key Words: constructivism, ecological sustainability, liberalism, reconciliation
Recently I read two publications that differed much in theme and worldview
perspective. However, reading them at the same time made me draw a number of
connections. As I read, I felt as if two spiders had woven two separate but incom-
plete webs in my mind that gradually coalesced into one complex network. That
fusion was richer in meaning than each separate one and yet had some missing
as well as dangling threads. The first text was the paper by Jan Gormas, Robert
Koole, and Steven Vryhof about reconciliation and education in the Spring 2006
issue of the Journal of Education and Christian Belief.1 The second was a recent book
by Chet Bowers called The False Promises of Constructivist Theories of Learning: A
Global and Ecological Critique.2
Chet Bowers, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon, first caught my
attention twenty years ago when he questioned the basic assumptions of small-l
liberalism. In his Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education3 he made a cogent
argument that education theorists as diverse as John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Carl
Rogers, and B.F. Skinner all used the common generative metaphors of liberal-
ism: human self-emancipation, knowledge as power, and change as linear and
progressive. This triple faith in autonomous individualism, indubitable rationality,
and evolutionary progress, he concluded, disallowed a common paideia to flour-
ish in our society since it undercut communal authority as well as shared moral
commitments.
According to Bowers, educational thinkers as divergent as Piaget and Freire
failed to understand how all persons are integrally interwoven elements of their
culturally-embedded communities. Therefore they also did not recognize that the
educational enterprise necessarily entails being a bearer of traditions (in the case

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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

of Piaget et al., according to Bowers, the tradition of Enlightenment positivism).


Yet a vital and unavoidable role of education is to preserve the spiritual, moral,
social, and economic strengths of particular ways of life.
Modern educators deceive themselves and their students, Bowers argues, by
suggesting that education can always be an emancipatory activity, and that it
can nurture students to be autonomous individuals. Not only are we rooted
in particular traditions, but personal and communal responsible action calls for
interdependency and a shared vision that leads to a healthy commons. The
self-determination favoured by both constructivists and critical theorists, Bowers
continues, is predestined to contribute to an individualistic consumerism enslaved
by the treadmill of technological and market innovation.4 Seeing the rational
individual as the supreme source of authority and progress undermines what is
essential to our humanity: tacit understandings and moral commitments, a com-
mon memory, and a vision based on a balance between personal and the public
good. When students are made the epicentre of their social world, the prospects
of a healthy civic life become increasingly problematic.5
Education has moved on since Bowers wrote this. For one, the term construc-
tivism was virtually unknown at the time. But, by and large, neither educational
thinkers nor practitioners have heeded his warnings. The two most common edu-
cational discourses today are the academic achievement and the human devel-
opment ones. These are most often characterized, respectively, by high-stakes
testing and by constructivism. Though in many ways dissimilar, both of these
approaches share individualistic Enlightenment notions about individualism and
progress. The academic achievement discourse assumes that test scores and grades
lead to individual success: entry into college and, eventually, well-paying jobs
in a consumeristic society whose basic structures and values are unthinkingly and
naively accepted as leading to continuous progress.6 The constructivist discourse
holds that autonomous thinking and inquiry leads to empowerment and progress.
It does not need to take into account cultural traditions and contexts. Students
create or construct meaning through individual or social acts of discovery and
interpretation. Ultimately constructivism fails to recognize that some form of
intergenerational knowledge transfer is necessary for sustaining culture and for
critiquing our taken-for-granted cultural patterns of thinking and acting. Con-
structivism does not allow us to move beyond the Enlightenment mind-set of
the West.7
Moreover, both the academic achievement and the constructivist discourses
often lead to an acceptance of the relentless (and superficial) media messages
that identify consumerism with individual success and happiness.8 The academic
achievement discourse assumes that competition is healthy: competition between
students, between schools, and between countries. It assumes that competition
leads students to work harder and achieve more. They are then successful in gain-
ing high marks on standardized tests with the implicitly promised reward of a
better job and a better future, i.e., a more affluent materialistic life. Constructiv-
ism, somewhat paradoxically, leads to a similar attitude. It encourages students to
choose their own values. However, basic value principles without which a healthy
society cannot exist are neither considered nor promoted. As a result, students

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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

also tend to accept the values that the media insidiously promote. Interestingly,
while the term values clarification may no longer be in vogue, constructivism
has kept the classic values clarification lifeboat problem alive and well: Who de-
serves to stay in and who must be thrown overboard if the boat cannot accom-
modate everyone? A substantial number of public school graduates in one of my
recent classes had still been asked to solve this problem on the basis of whatever
individual values they had chosen for themselves. The basic assumptions of con-
structivism are not that far removed from those of values clarification, and both
contribute to self-centered individualism.
In his 2005 book on constructivist theories of learning, Chet Bowers reiter-
ates that constructivism affirms individual autonomy as the key ingredient of pos-
itive change and progress. In the West teachers encourage students to construct
their own knowledge and meaning, but at the same time they narrow students
encounter with the spiritual, communal, and social roots of their cultural heritage
and context. Consequently, students will tend to re-enact many harmful, taken-
for-granted societal customs. Typically they will also become rootless individuals
who serve the interests of hyperconsumerism.9 But Bowers in this latest book
takes his argument one step further. In the world beyond the West, constructivist
pedagogies have become another mode of Western colonization that will con-
tribute to the further degradation of the earths life supporting systems.10 If
knowledge is the outcome of an individually centered rational process, education
will ignore the diversity of cultural-knowledge systems, as well as the wisdom
that many of these knowledge systems achieved about sustainable living within
the limits of local bioregions.11
Bowers thus claims that there is a built-in pro-western, pro-technology, pro-
capitalist bias in constructivism, and a bias against cultures and communities that
value intergenerational knowledge and that want to sustain their own societies.
Constructivism sanctions practices associated with the Western root metaphor
of evolutionary progress as moral, even though in ecologically centered cultures
those would be considered immoral. Bowers demonstrates that in countries such
as Albania, Turkey, and Pakistan the implementation of constructivist theories
that ignore human and symbolic aspects of culture as well as the ecological crisis
is intensifying societal stress. And in Mexico many indigenous cultures are ac-
tively resisting what they perceive as yet another effort to undermine their tradi-
tions.12 Constructivism, Bowers concludes, ignores cultural diversity and how
cultural traditions provide moral and social frameworks that can sustain mutually
supportive and sustainable communities. Teachers, Bowers concludes, should be-
come cultural mediators who understand the historical, conceptual, and lifestyle
pattern assumptions and impacts of diverse cultures. Only in that role can they
help to revitalize the commons of their society. They need to ask with their stu-
dents, What needs to be conserved (and why), and what needs to be changed?
but in a conservationist frame rather than the misnamed conservative one that is
promoted by religious groups.13
Before I respond to Bowers, let me consider the theme developed by Gormas,
Koole, and Vryhof in the Spring 2006 issue of the Journal of Education and Chris-
tian Belief: learning and teaching as and for reconciliation.14 The authors develop

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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

important themes: the reconciliation of the child and God, of the true and a con-
trived self, of the student and others, of the person and nature, and of the self
and society. These are important mandates that schools neglect at their and their
students peril. Reconciliation should be a high priority for schools, especially in
an age where self-centered individualism is fostered through classroom methodol-
ogy, through weak commitment to the common good, through media messages
that consistently proclaim and promote consumerism (You deserve this), and
through a conception of tolerance that has accepts anything and everything on
an equal basis except for objections to the acceptability of anything and eve-
rything.
I appreciate how Gormas, Koole and Vryhof describe how reconciliation in
an educational setting requires personal transformation, vulnerability within the
learning community, supportive interdependency, freedom and truth, subject in-
tegration, formative assessment, and a meaningful curriculum that incorporates
all of these aspects. I laud how they describe the goal of Christian educators: to
lead us into caring for ourselves and our fellow human beings, helping us think
and act with intelligence, sensitivity and courage, enabling us to be faithful to
Gods call and claim on our lives.15 I also appreciate how Hill in another article
on reconciliation in the same issue of the journal says that our societal status
quo is morally deficient, with our existing social structures needing prophetic
exposure, and that at the heart of the problem is sin and the need for the atoning
death of Jesus Christ.16 As Paul already said in Romans 7, within ourselves, our
students, and society in general we face the chasm between knowing the right
and good and desiring and doing it.
I began by stating that the webs constructed by Bowers and Gormas et al. are
meaningful but incomplete, but that they enrich each other. Let me first point to
some themes that they share in common. Both Bowers and Gormas et al. believe
that Western society is too individualistic, too commercialized, too materialistic,
and too competitive, with schooling practices often exaggerating such societal
norms.17 Further, both are critical of making individual merit and high test scores
the focus of school learning. They also agree that the earth is probably quickly
reaching its ecological limit, and that this is a critical issue for our civilization.18
Bowers, in my view, is worth reading because he shows how the assumptions em-
bedded in the theory of constructivism can undermine cultures and sub-cultures
that want to follow a different and more morally responsible and ecologically
sustainable path than that of Western technological, consumerist industrialism.
He concludes that Christians are a large part of the problem, regrettably without
recognizing, as Gormas, Koole and Vryhof do, that reconciliation a reconcilia-
tion rooted in forgiveness, love, and stewardship is at the heart of the Christian
gospel.
I appreciate Bowers emphasis on allowing cultural diversity to flourish when
it promotes ecological sustainability. He also thoughtfully shows that communi-
ties and therefore schools must be morally, historically, and culturally grounded.
But without an overarching understanding of reconciliation and how it can be
brought about, his analysis falls short. He puts all his eggs into the basket of
ecological sustainability. He naively assumes that if we can break with our cul-

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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

tural assumptions as exemplified in constructivism we can build a society that will


truly be conserving even as it changes. He does his best to erect a roadblock to
stop education from nurturing self-centered consumerism. However, his alternate
route recognizes neither the sinfulness of humans nor the need for the types of
reconciliation described by Gormas, Koole and Vryhof except for the reconcili-
ation of humans with nature. While vital for the future of our earth, in the end
his call for a culturally informed eco-justice neglects other essential aspects of
healthy communities. He assumes that as long as a culture or society promotes
and practices ecological sustainability, one spiritual commitment, one set of moral
standards, and one social or political arrangement is as good as any other.
Significantly, the only faith commitment that Bowers criticizes is that of
American fundamentalists. Those, he feels, have formed an unholy trinity with
the military and the industrial/government complex. North American Christians
(and I am one of them!) certainly need to be self-critical about their historical and
current role in society. Yet Bowers himself, while critical of moral superficiality,
Enlightenment individualism, and Darwinian evolutionary progress, fails to offer
and justify a comprehensive alternative. I do not want to downplay the impor-
tance of Bowers call for education contributing to responsible eco-justice, nor
his insight that eco-justice is closely linked to many other shortcomings in West-
ern society. However, our society faces problems that include but go beyond the
scope of eco-justice. The power of sin and selfishness manifests itself in violence,
fraud, sexism, racism, and a lack of respect for sexual mores. A framework that
includes Biblical reconciliation, truth, and justice as well as the Biblical notions
of Sabbath rest, jubilee, and the fruit of the Spirit would give Bowers case much
more breadth and depth. His lack of awareness of the work of Christian envi-
ronmental organizations such as A Rocha, environmentalists within institutions
connected with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, and many
Christian development agencies working in culturally-responsible ways through-
out the world has caused him to have a narrow, distorted view about Christian
contributions to eco-justice.
In their paper, Gormas, Koole, and Vryhof try to define reconciliation so
broadly that it fulfills what they call a larger purpose for Christian schooling.
Indeed, Bowers call for eco-justice fits within their broad reconciliation descrip-
tion: Bowers hopes that education will help to reconcile humans with nature.
Now Gormas et al.s concept of reconciliation is much broader than Bowers
eco-justice. Yet, as for Bowers, I do wonder whether they also put too many eggs
into the one basket of reconciliation. Other writers have written that the larger
purpose of Christian schooling should be educating for shalom (Wolterstorff
and Groome), for justice (Wolterstorff and Groome), for gratitude (Wolterstorff ),
for truth (Palmer), for a Christian paideia (Lockerbie), for the Kingdom of God,
faith and freedom (Groome), and for responsive and responsible discipleship (Van
Brummelen).19 Two of my colleagues and I have written about four touchstones
for all of education: justice, gratitude, imagination, and transcendence.20 Does
reconciliation by itself do justice to all these worthwhile overarching aims? Does
it really provide a clear and uncluttered purpose which is central to the task of
the Christian life and fleshed out in all areas by the articulation of ones world-

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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

view?21 Arent there other aspects of Gods creation that must be incorporated
in education in order to nurture students to responsible and responsive disciple-
ship?
Let me give an example based on how I taught mathematics some years ago.
The concept of reconciliation was not absent from my courses. For instance,
when I taught graphing linear functions in grade 11, we considered an applica-
tion called linear programming, a method to maximize income and profit. We
always discussed how corporations using such methods had an obligation to look
beyond the mathematical technique. They needed to reconcile their need to maxi-
mize profits with promoting the welfare of their employees and that of the wider
community. However, much mathematical content did not involve reconciliation.
We solved problems that had unforeseen outcomes (How much longer than the
circumference of the earth should a rope be that is exactly one meter above the
surface all the way around the earth?). We marvelled at the astonishing, wide-
spread appearance and applications of the Fibonacci sequence throughout the
natural world. We explored how the discovery of irrational numbers shattered
the religious faith of the early Pythagoreans. We saw how notions of math-
ematical proof and truth were rooted in cultural assumptions. We wondered at
the implications of Goedels theorem that a mathematical system cannot both be
complete and consistent. We used our creativity in solving problems. We applied
mathematical concepts in imaginative ways. We also slogged through difficult
algorithms in order to be able to extend our understanding and use of mathemati-
cal concepts. We did all this within the context of mathematics being a good gift
from God that reveals His glory and providence, and that serves His benevolent
purposes in society. Reconciliation did come into play in a general sense: students
learned how mathematics can be absolutized and misapplied but can also be used
to enrich life. But my goals of teaching and learning mathematics transcended
reconciliation. I wanted my students to stand in awe of and be grateful for Gods
faithfulness in His wonder-full creation. I wanted them to develop their math-
ematical gifts in imaginative ways. I wanted them to apply mathematics so that
it promoted justice. Arguing that all of these could be included under the rubric
of reconciliation would, in my mind, stretch the concept of reconciliation to the
point where it would lose its essential meaning.
A point less central to the article by Gormas, Koole, and Vryhof but relating
to Bowers claims concerns the impact of constructivism on educational thinking.
Gormas et al. are not radical constructivists. Throughout the paper, they note that
education involves a search for truth and ways of uncovering truth. They agree
with Parker Palmer that to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is
practiced. They would reject leading constructivist Ernst von Glasersfelds claim
that the existence of reality can be neither affirmed nor denied, and that there
are no external standards of right and wrong, or even of correctness. Yet the lan-
guage of education has embraced constructivism to such an extent that they un-
critically accept statements that declare, without evidence, that knowledge must
be constructed by each individual, and that true learning does not take place until
students create meaning for themselves.22 Yet many elements in our experience
are not personally or socially constructed, even if our interpretations are. In this

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regard Bowers is right that basic concepts in life such as compassion and justice
are not just human constructions. Their meaning goes far beyond what students
can personally create. Different persons make sense of the same experience in dif-
ferent ways, but that is rooted in the fact that they experienced the same thing.
Moreover, our students do learn meanings from our teaching, and we can evaluate
to what extent they have grasped a meaning; they do so more or less accurately.
The meaning of creation, sin, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation, as well
as physical concepts such as energy and gravity, is something that is inherent in
Gods creation, even though our understanding falls short. Teachers play a large
part in transmitting knowledge about the meaning of such concepts through
presentations, discussions, modeling, structuring activities, and assessing for learn-
ing. Even language is to a large extent transmitted as it is mastered. In short, we
need a more lucid understanding of the shortcomings of constructivism, and a
clearer grasp of a defensible framework of sound pedagogical strategies (some of
which will overlap with those that constructivists propound as their own).
Let me conclude. Both Bowers and Gormas, Koole, and Vryhof stretch our
thinking about the aims of education. Both want education to rise above todays
narrow emphasis on standards-based literacy and numeracy. Both want schools
to do more to oppose the materialism and consumerism that corporate America
has engrained in Western culture. Both want schools to do more to encourage
and enable students to participate in building a sustainable future. But Bowers
needs to do more than campaign for eco-justice and oppose constructivism as he
develops his theories. And Gormas, Koole, and Vryhof need to set their sights
on more than reconciliation as a basic purpose for schooling, and also consider
in more depth a defensible pedagogy that rejects both traditionalism and radical
constructivism. Nevertheless, both Bowers book and the paper by Gormas et al.,
I believe, help us to re-weave our web of education into a more compelling one,
even if it is bound to be a more intricate one as well.

Notes
1 Gormas, Jan, Robert Koole & Steven Vryhof, Learning as Reconciliation, Learning
for Reconciliation: New Dimensions for Christian Secondary Schools in Journal of
Education and Christian Belief, 10:1 (Summer 2006) pp. 9-31.
2 Bowers, C. A., The False Promises of Constructivist Theories of Learning: A Global and
Ecological Critique (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).
3 Bowers, C. A., Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education (New York: Teachers
College Press, 1987).
4 Bowers (1987) p. 25.
5 Bowers (1987) p. 32.
6 Armstrong, Thomas, The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform
Educational Practice (Alexandria: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Develop-
ment, 2006).
7 Bowers (2005) p. 28.
8 Bowers (2005) pp. 90-91.
9 Bowers (2005) p. 43.
10 Bowers (2005) p. 5.
11 Bowers (2005) p. 9.

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12 Bowers (2005) p. 69.


13 Bowers (2005) p. 120.
14 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006).
15 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006) p.29.
16 Hill, Brian V., Teaching as Reconciliation, in Journal of Education and Christian
Belief, 10:1 (Summer 2006) pp. 35, 36.
17 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006), p. 18; Bowers (2005) pp. 76-77.
18 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006) p. 26; Bowers (2005) p. 11.
19 See Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learn-
ing (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002) pp. 101ff., 274ff., 265ff; Groome,
Thomas H., Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent (New York:
Crossroad, 1998) pp. 367-368, 359ff.; Palmer, Parker, To Know as We Are Known: A
Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) pp. 69ff.; Lockerbie,
D. Bruce, A Christian Paideia: The Habitual Vision of Greatness (Colorado Springs:
Purposeful Design, 2005) pp. 3-4, 235-237; Groome, Thomas H., Christian Religious
Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980) pp.
33-99; and Van Brummelen, Harro, Walking with God in the Classroom: Christian Ap-
proaches to Learning and Teaching (Seattle: Alta Vista, 1998) pp. 2, 12ff., 90, 233ff.
20 Van Brummelen, Harro, Kimberly Franklin & Monika Hilder, Creating Space for Per-
sonal Meaning in Schooling, in ICCTE Journal, 1:1 (2005), http://www.icctejournal. .
org/ICCTEJournal/past_issues/vol1issue1/v1i1brummelenfranklinhilder (08 Jan
2007).
21 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006) p. 24.
22 Gormas, Koole & Vryhof (2006) pp. 14, 20.

Bibliography
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Critique (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).
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Reconciliation: New Dimensions for Christian Secondary Schools in Journal of
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Groome, Thomas H., Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Fran-
cisco: Harper and Row, 1980).
Groome, Thomas H., Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent (New
York: Crossroad, 1998).
Hill, Brian V., Teaching as Reconciliation, in Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 10:1
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Purposeful Design, 2005)
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Harro Van Brummelen: Reconciliation, Constructivism, and Ecological Sustainability

org/ICCTEJournal/past_issues/vol1issue1/v1i1brummelenfranklinhilder [KI1](08
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