Note: This assignment for Bio.345 (service course in Human Ecology) exemplifies my attempts to bring all students to recognize the unity of all knowledge; in this case by introducing a problem at a level of abstraction unfamiliar to them and requiring them to reflect and comment on their own academic or other experience. This, like all of my most successful assignments, was ambiguous enough to draw a very broad range of responses. This led to a series of class discussions comparing various disciplines whose work impinged on the terms of reference of the course, and to several group research projects inspired by the assignment.


A writing assignment based on Our Common Future

It would be difficult to deny that everything that is seen by human beings is seen from a point of view, everything that is thought rests on beliefs about reality, and everything that is done is done from a set of operating principles that guide, direct, and even determine the consequences of action. A simple extension of this notion is that all observers, thinkers, speakers and actors exist in the context of other observers, thinkers, speakers and actors, all of whom are embedded in a cultural matrix of diverse and often incompatible points of view. Separate cultures may rest on different fundamentals, and so may subcultures within any society, such as professions and academic disciplines. This diversity of fundamentals makes social interaction rich and interesting, and, given that policy is usually generated by groups rather than individuals, it intensifies the challenge of managing a complex and interconnected world.

This challenge is heightened by the fact that the deepest beliefs tend to be subconscious, and are manifested only in indirect and implicit, yet extremely powerful ways. These deep unarticulated biases are a "background of obviousness" that underlies rational behaviour and characterizes both whole fields of human endeavor and individuals within them. To the extent that these biases remain subconscious and unquestioned, our universes of "obvious" reality remain separate, we act automatically within our differently biased realities, and we rarely really hear others who entertain other views of the world. It is reasonable to conclude that discovering and questioning biases in ourselves and others opens the potential for powerfully constructive, creative, and cooperative interactions with other people that may not be possible otherwise.

Our Common Future calls for many circumstances to be changed quickly and dramatically all over the world for our common good, and suggests that this will require greatly increased local participation in regionally, nationally, and globally significant decisions. That implies collective decision-making processes that include, ultimately, all individuals. We may wonder how individuals who live in separate realities can participate constructively in this way, and this will be the subject of your essay.

Your essay will be a critical examination of your own academic discipline, your profession, or your "calling" in life. The object is to use the challenges of Our Common Future as opportunities to discover, describe, and explore the consequences of the "background of obviousness" against which your field operates. You will already be aware of many formal assumptions and commonly accepted operating principles, but there will be many others to discover. Discover them, and share them with us. The objective is neither to defend nor attack your discipline, although it may contain some elements of this, but to critically examine its roots. Neither should it be a critique of Our Common Future or the assumptions underlying that book, although it may contain some elements of this. It is less a formal academic exercise than a personal examination of your discipline, although it will contain many elements of formal writing and scholarship. Clearly your essay will be from your personal point of view, and that is what we want.