One-Straw Education

Masanobu Fukuoka was the godfather of modern permaculture… he developed the idea of natural farming and demonstrated that it was possible to live an abundant, satisfying life with a minimum of effort.  His ideas can easily be transposed into education.


In his deeply inspiring “The One-Straw Revolution”, we find a One-Straw Revolution which is not so much about food or farming but the attitude by which he came to his realisations… Fukuoka manages to show the full potential of agriculture when we allow nature to do what it does best.  The less we interfere and work in harmony with the forces and cycles of nature… the more we are free to enjoy the bounty of what existence can share with us.  He clearly demonstrates how farmers who depend upon technological means of production have a very low quality of life compared to the peaceful existence he enjoyed until the ripe old age of 95.

Natural farming refutes the need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and the arduous digging and weeding of the soil.  One doesn’t need to ‘prepare’ the earth which naturally brings forth a bountiful supply of food.  In the absence of trust, human beings go to great lengths, using practically all of their time in corralling life into doing what it does best.  Fukuoka realised that the earth will thrive and provide ample resources to meet our needs creating enough leisure time to permit a very high quality of life.  As soon as we begin to tamper with nature and place demands on it, urging plants to ripen before their ready or to look a certain way, grow to a specific size… we lose time, we lose money and we lose heart.

Applying the principles of the One-Straw Revolution to education, what would natural education look like?  How does nature develop the human mind?  Have humans had to consciously apply effort in the development of intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge?

We can answer emphatically: “No!”

Learning is child’s play… literally.  All the sages of history have highlighted the necessary conditions for the acquisition of understanding… the beginner’s mind.  Curiosity naturally flows through human beings when they are placed in environments of freedom and self determination.  Only when we sit expectantly watching the pot does it fail to boil.

Natural farming means we enter into a relationship of trust with the forces of life… we see the cultivation of food in harmony with nature… if we consider the raising of children instead of crops,  how do we best adapt this approach to develop a natural education?

Surely it must begin with the same trust in nature that Fukuoka’s farming demonstrated.  Everywhere  humans interfere with nature, regardless of their intentions and further problems are compounded.  The more we allow nature to fulfil its own destiny, the more we can relax.

Look at all the ways that contemporary education demonstrates this lack of trust by continually preparing the young mind for knowledge.  The fertiliser of contemporary education takes the form of pre-packaged, throw-away information which is only temporarily useful for the developing character.  Information is not retained beyond the year’s harvest (exam time) and must be continuously reapplied to stimulate growth.  In order to focus a student’s mind on learning they are hounded with drills, bells, punishments and discipline-building obedience trials spoiling an otherwise enjoyable and rewarding process that would occur freely if given the opportunity.

Learning is a natural pleasure for all intelligent beings.  Intelligence simply demands variety.  A state of awe and wonder can be observed in all animals who have not been domesticated… who have not been controlled with obedience training nor lived under the threat of fear.   Curiosity arises naturally as a response to the mystery of life.

What we need are mystery schools: temples of learning where the exploration of the endless unfolding of existence is enjoyed by all sections of society.  A child naturally wants to learn without any inhibition or resistance right up until the day they are coerced to learn things for which they have no natural inclination.

Of course, the artful educator has the power to trick a young person into developing a fascination for what they might not have otherwise come to themselves… this process requires an infectious passion and a capacity for seduction… inspiring the student who draws life-affirming enthusiasm from the teacher in the same way plants suck nutrients out of the soil by osmosis.

Just how long will people tolerate sending their children to these backward institutions before they say “This is the last straw.”

the last straw

NB. In recent years I’ve encountered some fervent advocates of ‘un-schooling’ which can look, on the surface, to be an attempt to adapt the process of natural farming to the field of education.  My experience of some parents who employ this approach is that they can make the same mistakes that Fukuoka made when he first took over the running of his family farm.  Refusing to prune the trees in a bountiful orchard, he quickly learned how disastrous the results could be if one abandons the pruning the tress have come to depend on.  Once nature has been interfered with, simply not doing anything will quickly lead to a writhing mess in the garden, his whole orchard was ruined by the sudden withdrawal of attention.  True, he grew other trees which he left to develop according to their own whims and things went much better… but he learned that those ‘civilised’ organisms which have been cultivated by society cannot be abandoned to follow their wild ‘buddha-nature’ without risking a collapse.  Some people mistakenly think that allowing the young people in their care to follow every naturally arising desire they may have will undoubtedly draw them towards the fulfilment of their potential.  I suspect that allowing young people to gorge themselves on computer games, Facebook and as much sugar as they desire may well backfire for those parents who think that to intervene would unquestionably undermine the process of self-discovery.