Cognitive Dissonance

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I came home late last night from a 2-day gathering of the faculty of the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability. It was the first time we have met in numbers more than a few at a time for a year or so. The program is just about three years old, but has greatly matured judging from the richness of the conversations that took place. As we exchanged details of each of our courses with one another, I realized how complex and challenging the program is.

An MBA degree implies that the holder will most likely work somewhere in the world of business, although the Marlboro students have a much broader view of where they would like to end up. This means that the curriculum must carry a strong dose of business-as-usual theory and practice. Even as these students leave and find a place in an entirely new sustainability world, they will still have to deal with institutions and customers deeply rooted in the present ways of doing business.

At the same time, the school is committed to turn out professionals with a starkly different vision of what sustainability means. The entering students are a self-selected group with aspirations to change the way business is done in hopes of creating a world that works. This combination of two separate and often conflicting world views poses a huge challenge to the teachers and the students. How do you teach so that the students learn and unlearn at the same time?

Someone talked about the process of unlearning racism as a analogy. The foundations of consumerism are buried deep in our culture and in everyone's bodies. It's not enough to make or buy "green" or "sustainable" products if the goal is to turn the economy completely upside down such that we flourish within the limits of the world's resources. Or reverse the direction of inequality. Most of the students accept the idea that growth cannot continue without limit, but study how to create growing businesses. This is only one of the many dissonant threads of the Marlboro program and a few others like ours.

Unlearning is a much harder process than learning. The predominant norms are reinforced by the existent cultural institutions. The best of intentions are thwarted by the power of current beliefs and norms. Many more are committed to the status quo than want to change it, even as their lives are not what they long for. But that longing is driven by visions of a future largely shaped by the past. No matter how hard one tries to escape the confines of the past, it is always there until an unlearning takes place.

I usually try to end each blog with a concluding sentence or two that grabs its shape from what has preceded it. This time I am just going to stop and leave things hanging. That's the way I felt at the end of our sessions, knowing that I had much left to understand before I could deal with the dissonance of learning and unlearning at the same time.

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