The Transformative Education Alliance

Our shared challenge is not so much to be, but to become the change we wish to see in the world. Jonathan Rowson introduces The Transformative Education Alliance, TEA

What follows is a sketch, the first of several posts outlining the scope of the Perspectiva-led initiative. Our aim to build an alliance of actors seeking to understand, create, pilot and support forms of transformative educational practice throughout the lifespan while making the cultural and policy case for their development in a broader economic and political context. We have published a position paper by Dr Zachary Stein, further outlining the theoretical basis of TEA, and indicating its potential implications for policy and practice. The initial development of TEA is supported by the JJ Charitable Trust and The Fetzer Institute – thank you, and we are in the process of building further institutional partnerships, both with funders and other organisations working in this domain of inquiry.

Perspectiva believes the most important crisis of our time is the meta crisis lying within, between and beyond the materialist perspectives from which we view our current challenges; we construct problems in ways that confound our capacity to address their root causes. The challenge of our time is epistemic, cultural and spiritual renewal, but that is daunting in a context of economic, political and technological upheaval and cascading ecological collapse. Clarifying what that predicament means and what follows for society requires sustained intellectual leadership and new institutional forms. 

TEA aims to devise new methodologies and institutional niches that recognises the significance of the distinction between formal (eg schools and universities) informal (eg clubs and societies) and tacit (eg TV and social media) education has almost completely broken down. In that fluid context of technological, cultural and educational forms, we seek to devise and coordinate processes of teaching and learning throughout the lifespan that are fit for the purpose of responding to four of our most profound interlocking crises which together encapsulate our meta crisis:

  • Intelligibility – what is going on? 
  • Legitimacy – who has authority to lead and decide and why? 
  • Capability – do we have what it takes? 
  • Meaning – what ultimately matters? 

We believe that these core defining questions for civilisation (distilled by Zak Stein) are fundamentally educational in nature (see a recent interview on this site.) We also believe responding to them as co-emergent and inextricably connected phenomena is necessary, but very difficult – we need to learn to reach beyond our current cultural and institutional grasp, which is why TEA is necessary. Such questions cannot be answered definitively, but the survival of civilisation depends upon asking them whenever we are faced with the more familiar question: What should we do?


Perhaps the single most important concept at the heart of TEA is Bildung, a Germanic term with English and Greek roots and Nordic and American fruits. As I outlined in a recent essay for CUSP, the direct translation is ‘formation’ but the original includes elements of education, enculturation and perhaps most profoundly realisation, in the sense of fulfilling one’s true nature of purpose. Bildung can be thought of as a combination of societal vision, educational philosophy and policy agenda. The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, was the first to emphasise the importance of ‘inner Bildung’, our inner formation, not merely for its own sake, but because the nature and quality of our inner formation (and realisation) is reflected in ‘outer Bildung’ in the systems and structures of society, and their nature and purpose. The active ingredient we seek to work with is not so much about what we know, but how we know; that mixture of perception, emotion, thinking, meaning-making and embodied skill that the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury grasped as being generative of the formation of society. To give the concept further texture, Bildung includes the following elements:

  • Sense and soul. Philosophical Foundations, informed by both biological and theological perspectives: Humans as bio-psycho-social-spiritual organisms. 
  • Piaget for adults. A theory of change grounded in scientific psychology about how humans can and do develop throughout the lifespan. 
  • A eudaimonistic society. Social critique and vision based on a commitment to a substantive vision of human flourishing (eudaimonia) and the good life, including a sense of shared responsibility to ensure the conditions for the good life are widespread. 
  • Social futures. Anticipatory vision on technology: an intuitive grasp of the need for social and moral progress to keep pace with technological change. 
  • A lodestar and touchstone. An applied philosophy of education that informs assessments of social and economic policy. For instance, it is conceivable that a fee and dividend approach to ‘taxing’ fossil fuels could help fund a universal basic income, which might help make a four day working week viable, the minimum requirement of both could be some participation in Bildung-related activity. (This is one approach of many of course, and not inherent to Bildung.)
  • Growing freedom. A political theory. An emphasis on (positive) freedom to grow rather than (negative) freedom from coercion and on the societal/institutional conditions that enable that. 
  • Aesthetic sensibility. A proactive relationship with culture: For instance not just reading a book or watching a movie but engaging with it aesthetically and existentially, considering what moral choices one would make in a similar situation as presented in the story. 
  • At home in the world. A reflexive civic nationalism: The importance of roots, place, and belonging, but also firm emphasis on the value of expanding our circles of belonging. 

The authors of The Nordic Secret, Lene Rachel Anderson and Tomas Bjorkman put it like this:

“Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms. It is the enculturation and life-long learning that forces us to grow and change, it is existential and emotional depth, it is life-long interaction and struggles with new knowledge, culture, art, science, new perspectives, new people, and new truths, and it is being an active citizen in adulthood. Bildung is a constant process that never ends.” 

This kind of educational vision goes by many names. In Northern Europe they call it Bildung (formation and realisation) which is our initial focus, but in ancient Greece they had a related notion called Paideia (enculturation) which was about preparing citizens to be effective members of civil society or polis; and today, in the context of the first truly planetary civilisation, we need a new global Paideia, as argued by Zak Stein. In the American pragmatist tradition they have sentimental education (e.g. Rorty) and democratic education (e.g. Dewey). In India transformative education has been known as Swa-Raj (‘self-rule’ – Gandhi), in China it is a form of virtue cultivation (Confucian). These forms of education are not identical by any means, but across the world there are a range of initiatives trying to keep transformative education alive. They currently lack the financial capital and political will necessary to revive them and make them policy priorities, but the premise of this project is that they amount to our last best hope to save civilisation from itself. 

In activist circles the expression ‘We must be the change we want to see in the world’ is still popular. It turns out that Mahatma Gandhi never actually said this, or anything very much like it, which on reflection is perhaps no surprise. It is not so easy to change who we are, even harder to meaningfully change the world for the better, and the relationship between the two things is complex to say the least.

Our shared challenge is more subtle, namely to become the change we wish to see together, which means learning to be the change we wish to see, which today means changing the processes of cultural reinforcement and learning, which involves an encounter with power, and takes allies, and time. TEA is therefore an integral part of Perspectiva’s urgent 100 year project.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Co-founder and Director of Perspectiva and author of the recently published book, The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life. You can follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Rowson.

Image: Tea of different fermentation by Haneburger. Public domain via Wikipedia

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