The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the backseat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and head will be occupied, or reoccupied, by our real problems — the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion1.
We are nearly at the summit. The air is bracing, and opening up on the far horizon are range-after-range of massive mountains, basking in the sun. Before us is a vast plain, the home of many people. But what is that? A vast cloud covers everything. But this is not the mist that heralds a beautiful day, but rather a man-made, threatening cloud of pollution. We are shocked; what we had expected to be a vision turns out to be the ultimate question — mist or pollution; a sustainable or a collapsing world?2
Let us forsake metaphor, and reappraise civilisation’s “march of progress” heralded by the Jewish prophets of old who, standing on similar mountains, told the people “To have dominion over… everything that creepeth upon the earth… to go forth and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it”3. We have learnt to do that too well; all those depleted fish stocks, falling water tables, ravaged forests and exhausted minds. We have had an unquestioning faith that scientific discoveries will avert every imminent crisis, perhaps even turning them into opportunities. Don’t worry, we have told ourselves, there really aren’t any limits to growth4.
We may be perfecting recycling techniques but we are still recklessly consuming our seed corn, always gambling on future expansion. With all the reforms governments propose for education, the recipe seems always about more of the same, only more efficiently delivered, more equitably assessed, and more stringent5. Which misses the key point. An education system that starts out being preoccupied with the economic bottom-line is like the short-sighted manufacturer whose prime motive is to get the biggest profit, rather than striving to produce the very best product. Such a utilitarian view of education sells children short. It is the child who has been educated to understand life in its fullest sense who represents a far better prospect for the future well-being of society, than a child specifically trained to sustain a particular economic model6.
More than ever we need to view education as “the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena” (Th. ___). It is not subjects on their own which matter, it is how they relate to each other that is important. It is these essential connections that would give us a curriculum for Sustainability (which is life sustaining) rather than to a curriculum that is essentially about specialising in one part of life’s vast jigsaw.
We need a curriculum that enables us to confront all the problems implied by humanity’s embarrassingly large ‘ecological footprint’7. Children have to learn, almost along with their mother’s milk, that these problems won’t be solved by fantasies about some future spaceships bringing from other planets all the resources needed to lift living standards to those of the most affluent. It may seem ultimate triviality to talk about children realising why they must turn lights off when they leave the room, put on extra sweaters rather than turning up the heat when it gets colder, not eat more than they need, walk to the shop, and learn to ignore the pernicious claims of advertising, but no child is too young to learn that nothing comes without a cost, and that cash machines don’t really give money away. The poorest child in the slums of Sao Paulo can see on somebody else’s television how much nicer it would be to be rich8. It’s only a matter of time before the argument for a reallocation of resources, across countries and around the world (“it’s all so unfair”) reaches a flashpoint. “But you won’t ever get such a redistribution”, people say resignedly, “because human nature means we will always fight to hold on to what we’ve got”.
To a sixty-year-old looking back over half a century of turmoil, that’s a fair comment, but twenty-year-olds can’t be so sanguine. They know that greater equality will depend on their generation’s ability to trust the wisdom of future scientists, politicians, spiritual leaders, diplomats and statesmen. There will be no chance of relying on barricades to keep the masses out of our backyards, or guns to fight them. And that is why a sustainable, Humankind curriculum9, is essential; a curriculum that helps young people to appreciate the tensions in themselves created by the four basic drives that shape human nature. A curriculum that helps them understand why it is they are as they are; why other people don’t necessarily agree with them, and why quality education must enable every youngster to go beyond routine learning. There needs to be a different rationale for learning within school; the teaching of physics and chemistry, for example, needs to return to where it once was — so intrinsically interesting (and difficult) that youngsters study such subjects for the shear joy of finding things out, not because of some distant prospect of a higher-than-average salary. The world as it begins to dig itself out of its present ecological dark pit will need vast numbers of mathematicians, historians, linguists and philosophers.
You had better take another big gulp of mountain air. The implications of all this are massive. No one in future will be able to keep a youngster in school, or kick him or her out of bed on a bad day, with the threat that they might just miss out on that precious piece of information which, if they included it in their exam, would finally get them to that university (or whatever) of their dreams. Education for education’s own sake is what really captures people’s imagination; it’s the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it’s about flow, and a constructivist form of learning. It’s about what Aldous Huxley warned us all of 80 years ago… beware of the teacher who “by dint of brilliant teaching succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process”.
Thesis 96: 30th August 2006