Fine in theory, what about the reality?

11th October 1996 at 01:00
EDUCATION FOR SUSTAINABILITY. Edited by John Huckle and Stephen Sterling Earthscan Pounds 17.95.

The concept of sustainability is a bit like being good. You won't find anyone arguing against it - but it has become a kind of pious ecological hope, expressed as a finger-wagging exercise addressed to children, or a politician's soundbite. It has its own catechism of "thou shoulds" competently described in the second essay in this book and summarised in italics.

The introductory essays are an academic analysis of the need for it and the way it should work. The problem is that the argument is both so obvious and so far from being put into practice. On the one hand are the high-minded platitudes and the practice of government, and business; and on the other the increasing desolation of the poor and the mean-minded scrimping and carping at education; between them is a gulf too great to be comfortably overlooked. This is not to say that the case is not cogently argued and rational - it's that life is not. I would guess that we need something a little more lively to get us further down the road.

Things are not as entirely bleak as Jonathan Porritt indicates in his introduction. It is by no means true that children believe the future will be worse than the present (that is, as always, the prerogative of the over-fifties) but nor do they think things are getting better every day in every way. I find in the main that teenagers exhibit a clear-eyed, fairly optimistic pragmatism, which is what we find also in the essays here which are by teachers and practitioners themselves.

This book takes off when it gets away from the theory and politics of sustainability, to the work that goes on in companies, in families and in schools. We find people who believed primary children incapable of understanding the economics of resource management, astonished at how quickly they grasped it; there is a mature sophistication of thought in secondary students.

One of the most important and interesting things to emerge is that while very young children can understand difficult concepts, they get hopelessly confused when what they are being taught is contradicted by what they see around them in their immediate environment. One has sympathy, but this predicament again suggests a parallel with religion and gives currency to the feeling that the ideas of sustainability are also worthy but unattainable.

A more robust approach, however, means challenging the existing political system (the thing which made the reformers of the 1970s anathema). An illuminating dialogue between an environmentalist and a science teacher demonstrates how neatly the real issues can be avoided, by keeping to the straight and narrow exam syllabus, leaving the tricky bits to other teachers who, of course, are also passing on responsibility. When a school is stopped from doing a traffic survey because of its political implications you can understand their position.

Education for sustainability means having the means, the intellectual training and the ability to find and interpret information in every aspect of life. As a practitioner myself, my principal criticism would be that there is not enough emphasis on the need for constant reappraisal of ideas.What is the best practice at one stage may be far from adequate in a year - or even a few months. The world is complex and dynamic and educational practice has to be so too. If this book is rather heavy in places on key words and fruity multi-referenced sentences, which when decoded are fairly meaningless, it is worth persevering. The modest ambition to set out the theory and practice of sustainability as it is now, has resulted in a useful outline attended by good bibliographies for each essay.

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