Herding Cats and Dogmas

To understand permaculture education and its curriculum, it may be useful to learn a bit more about its roots.

In a way permaculture started with the brief period in the 1970’s when David Holmgren and Bill Mollison met in Tasmania, Australia. The different characters of our founding fathers explain perhaps the divergence in permaculture practice, research and education.

At that time Bill was senior tutor at the Psychology faculty of the University of Tasmania. David was a student at the Environmental Design school of the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. In an essay “Permaculture – A personal history” Holmgren describes it as follows:

“I [Holmgren] was immediately attracted to his [Mollison] ideas without having any knowledge of his position (Senior Tutor in the psychology faculty of the University of Tasmania) or rather, his infamous reputation in Hobart academic circles. This was the beginning of an intense and productive working relationship with Bill Mollison, Hobart bohemian, ex fisherman and wildlife researcher, environmental activist and political candidate.

Over the following two years, 1975-76, I shared house with Bill, his second wife Philomena and her son on a small urban fringe property. Bill and I developed an extensive garden and arboretum of useful plants and our relationship was that of student to mentor. The permaculture concept emerged from the seed of an idea that Bill suggested as a possible subject that would fit my interest in design, ecology and agriculture. I wrote the permaculture manuscript, maintained a tenuous relationship to Environmental Design adequate to be awarded my degree but not enough to ever have a sense that I belonged there in that gathering of radical designers and activists, or to stay for postgraduate studies. I also found myself the outsider amongst the radicals. I put my passion into more practical work, building, hunting and gardening and handed the permaculture manuscript to Bill for edits and additions that became Permaculture One published in 1978 to substantial fanfare and even acclaim. But my days of working with Bill Mollison were limited to those three years that my self-effacing youth allowed me to ignore his difficult personality. I had already concluded that an evolution into a truly collaborative relationship was not possible so I quietly disengaged.”

Holmgren continued to develop his permaculture design philosophy following an action-centred design approach and action research. Mollison focused on “spreading the good word” by touring the world, lecturing, authoring publications and radio and tv appearances.

Mollison Curriculum

Mollison designed his Permaculture Design curriculum around his superb storytelling skills. He published an eclectic collection of stories, rants and raves as “Permaculture: A Designers Manual” and declared it the curriculum for his Permaculture Design Course, the exclusive entry into the world of permaculture.

The Designers Manual as curriculum includes relevant subject matter, with an extensive collection of stories as examples of permaculture design ethics and principles. Lacking – in the context of being a curriculum – are explicit learning goals, methods and criteria for learning activities and assessment.

In education, a curriculum (/kəˈrɪkjʊləm/; plural: curricula /kəˈrɪkjʊlə/ or curriculums) is broadly defined as the totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process.

[…] Curriculum may incorporate the planned interaction of pupils with instructional content, materials, resources, and processes for evaluating the attainment of educational objectives.(Wikipedia)

This is not to say that these key properties are missing, but that they are implicit – hidden if you like. Much as what is hidden in any kind of curriculum: cognitive imperialism of those designing and implementing deliberate training.

Words to describe Mollison’s curriculum that come to mind “dogmatic”, “evangelistic” and “exclusive”.

Holmgren Action Learning

Holmgren’s approach to permaculture design can best be described as “skeptical”, “humanist” and “inclusive”. Holmgren is quietly developing a living example of his permaculture ethics and design principles. He’s published many of his action research results. He produced a “Teachers’ Kit”, which consist of learning materials and a registration of workshops covering his design philosophy. Holmgren has always been critical of the PDC-phenomenon.

There doesn’t appear to be a published comprehensive curriculum by Holmgren. Please correct me if I’m wrong.