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Johanna Kallio: From sprouts to shoots – Thoughts about self-cultivation in a time of ecological crises

A human being is like a shoot – we grow, root in values, communicate and influence others. For a shoot to grow, its roots need new nutrients. They require self-cultivation.

I have been sprouting peas and growing them into shoots for years. At first, peas need water and darkness to sprout, but these conditions vital for sprouting must not continue for too long. When the peas start to grow, you have to bring them into daylight at the right time for the buds to open and the sprouts to grow into shoots. When the transition from sprouts into shoots is at hand, we face perhaps the most challenging phase. If there is too much sunlight too early, the buds will dry and never grow into shoots. But if you keep them in conditions that are too dark and humid for too long, they will rot.

To grow, sprouts thus need both favourable conditions and care.

But wait a minute why am I talking about growing sprouts into shoots in a Sivistystori blog? My first text, which I wrote last spring, was about gardens as places where we find sprouts of ecosocial knowledge and ability (in Finnish). I promised to continue with this theme this autumn and describe what happens when we have found the need to grow towards wider ecosocial awareness as a person? How can we consciously grow both ourselves and our thinking from sprouts to shoots?

About cultivation of the spirit and the prerequisites of life

The father of the idea of the Western culture and civilisation, cultura anim, was Cicero (106 BC–43 BC), a Stoic philosopher who lived in antiquity. Cultura anim has often been translated as “cultivation of the spirit”. A person can begin the cultivation of the spirit, or self-cultivation, through self-examination. It means a pedagogically oriented attitude to life, in which the person begins to actively educate themselves – to change their thoughts and actions. The aim of self-cultivation is to fulfil the goal the person has themselves set for their growth.

Cultivation of the spirit has remained living as a concept in the history of Finnish education. Last spring, Jyri Manninen reminded in the social media discussions concerning my previous Sivistystori article how the concept of “cultivation” was used as a synonym of education in literature in Finland at the beginning of the 20th century. Cultivation (for example, of the will or of the mind) is also a key concept in modern literature and literally means tillage or turning of the soil. In our time, the metaphoric links between cultivation and education may need to be highlighted more. 

In his recent blog post (in Finnish), Björn Wallén outlined in an interesting way how the concept of Bildung (deep education) could be expanded on the basis of philosopher Arne Næss’s deep ecology and educational philosopher Veli-Matti Värri’s ideas. In his text, Wallén highlighted how issues such as humanity, citizenship and worldview are intertwined with the issues of biodiversity.

I propose that it is fairly useful from the point of view of self-examination to begin to examine one’s own thinking from the point of view of the connection between the body and the mind, engagement in society and one’s own worldview. What has everything associated with these different dimensions made us, what will it make us and how will it affect our thoughts?

And how do, for example, the prevailing values and views related to the economy modify our understanding of what is right and wrong? Which is more important to us, a living standard that has risen with economic growth or preserving the preconditions for life?

About the slowness of the change

In the Finnish history of adult education, especially professor Urpo Harva (1910–1994) was a strong advocate of values that were not only critical of consumption, but also promoted environmental protection. He considered these issues extremely topical in his own time.   Active citizenship was important for Harva: he thought people should educate themselves actively about these important themes and demand measures that would lead to a more sustainable society. In my thoughts, I keep going back to the following quotation from Harva’s book on adult education (Aikuiskasvatus 1958):

“Today, nature protection has become extremely topical because the expansion of industry destroys nature to a growing extent and detaches people from a direct contact with nature. In the field of nature protection, we are severely backward as a people; the deterioration of our cultural landscape is just one example of it. The values related to nature protection are not only economical but also aesthetic and moral. As discussing issues concerning nature protection is extremely suitable for many of the forms of adult education, much more attention should be paid to it than has been done so far.”

– Harva 1958, 53–54.

What I find the most startling about this citation is that today, more than 60 year after the publication of the book, the same key issues continue to be topical: for example, we know that we continue to need forests as carbon sinks and that they play a central role in the development of the human immune system and increase psychological wellbeing. Still, the economy and the ethos of constant economic growth continue to be the most central values of our time, subjecting the continuity of life and nature as a whole to the conditions of economic growth. We therefore continue to need measures that focus on changing the prevailing values and views. To my view, the importance of ecosocial knowledge and ability as a means of changing the current values and views is above all the following: by focusing on the ecological and social dimensions of life as ethical and moral questions, we will also become more aware of ourselves and the life events that have modified our views of the world.

About growing a shoot

From a botanical point of view, a plant has two parts: the roots and the shoot. The purpose of the roots it to keep the shoot in an upright position and transport nutrients form the soil to the other parts of the shoot. For the plant to be healthy, the roots must be fertilised and sometimes even divided. The soil around the roots therefore needs tillage so that the roots will find new nutrients and the shoot will grow stronger.

The metaphorical shoot that I referred to at the beginning of this text and above describes an individual as a being that grows, influences others and communicates with others, while the metaphorical roots describe the set of values and thinking adopted by the individual. For the individual to be able to grow, the thoughts, views and adopted values must be cultivated, or modified. This is what I refer to when I talk about self-cultivation.

J. A. Hollo (1885–1967), a classic thinker from the field of education philosophy tells educators to treat the persons they bring up “like a gardener treats his beloved trees”. In other words, in education, it is important to cultivate thoughts and feelings and to learn to question adopted values. According to Hollo, the same applies to all education – also to self-cultivation. This self-cultivation that shakes up the roots is necessary for us to be able to grow and blossom fully as people, as shoots. We need a fertiliser and a hoe – sometimes even a storm that shakes even our roots.

Again, I propose that to reach values that are in accordance with a collectively more sustainable way of living and to reach towards ecosocial knowledge and ability, we must care for and feed both ourselves and the soil around us. We can do both by rooting ourselves to our environment – be it by gardening, maintaining an allotment garden, growing house plants or caring for pea shoots. When we nurture the soil, we also nurture ourselves – after all, as people we will always be part of nature and children of the earth.

Johanna Kallio

Johanna Kallio is a grant researcher in the EnAct – Researching Environmental Activism and Self-Cultivation research project at Tampere University and a member of the board of the Finnish Society for Research on Adult Education. She loves gardening and a wide variety of animals because life in all its forms is valuable in itself and worth cherishing.


This article is part of the Sivistystori blog series of the SVV (Freedom and Responsibility of Liberal Adult Education), in which articles by liberal adult education researchers, experts in this field of education, and the SVV's partners are published roughly once a week.

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