Pain of learning worth the battle

31st July 1998 at 01:00
SOME kinds of learning are more painful than others. Learning to smoke came more easily than learning to stop, for me at least. Although I gave up 15 years ago, I can remember the daily struggle to overcome a powerful drive, and the uneasy recognition that I am compulsive. It took me a couple of times to pass my driving test too. My head, hand and eye co-ordination was not that impressive. But once you can drive it is easy enough to forget the struggle it took to acquire the skill.

I was prompted to think about this at the latest meeting of the Government's Sustainable Development Education Panel, which is chaired by Sir Geoffrey Holland, reports to John Prescott and David Blunkett, and is packed with people who know the percentage of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere that we produce in our houses. There was a discussion on the usefulness of weeks where you clean up the local canal, and it was eventually agreed that even if they have only a marginal impact on the ecosystem they have a positive effect on morale, and perhaps that is a necessary precursor to attitude change.

I feel in awe of the dedication, scholarship and energy the members bring to the work. Many of the strategies that can make a difference are well understood, and I can certainly testify that children's enthusiasm for saving the planet can persuade you to save the plastic, and trundle down to the bottle dump. Still, the work of the panel is about more than green politics. It attempts, as much of the Government's work does, to join up thinking in areas where there are difficult choices to make. I remember being appalled by Tony Crosland at a public meeting in the Sixties. Confronted with an impassioned plea from the floor that trains were more environmentally sound than motor cars, he drew up his rather well-fed frame and explained that the car was sacrosanct for working-class people, for whom it represented escape from collective life. But for my father and his friends, buying their first car was a moment of freedom - less so for my mother and me, pushing it up Cornish hills when the engine faded. Or for my grandmother, who was increasingly stranded as bus services shrank in the face of the new freedoms.

It is the same argument Chinese policy-makers use when the case is made that we cannot afford the ozone depletion that will result from refrigerating China. It is easy to see the problem over a cold beer in an air-conditioned hotel in the industrial West but it reads differently if you have never had a fridge, and the milk has gone off. The point is that sustainable development, if it is to be something everyone can accept, has to go hand in hand with regeneration and anti-poverty strategic.

The choices can be hard ones. A friend of mine in the International League for Social Commitment in Adult Education worked as an environmental educator in Puerto Rico, mapping the impact of industrial pollution from a soft drinks bottling plant on fragile water supplies in a poor urban community. He showed that the result was a rise in fatal diseases related to the pollution, and a fall in life expectancy for people reliant on the water. Yet despite a brilliant popular education campaign, his work was unsuccessful. Local people recognised the risks, yet traded jobs, and food for their children today for risks tomorrow.

Still, my son has an acute peanut allergy, like dramatically increasing numbers of people. It seems likely to have been affected by deteriorating air quality, resulting in part from the exercise of the freedoms Tony Crosland was defending. I try hard to learn the lesson of this, and use the car as little as possible.

But when it rains, or when I have taken home an over-ambitious bag of papers, or when I am tired I find good intentions hard to put into practice.

It is difficult to find a language to capture the choices we make as individuals, neighbourhoods and nations that affect the quality of life our grandchildren are likely to enjoy. "Green" politics, for all its common sense, excludes people without the information, the time or the money to live in a sustainable way. And it is hard to say "Sustainable development education" without sounding as though you have just swallowed a dictionary on political correctness. The difficulty with language highlights the challenge in bringing regeneration and ecology together - how to find words that include the hope and imagination of all our communities for lives that can be lived in dignity with choices, and avoid telling the poor how to live their lives. The same challenge faces adult educators making the case for lifelong learning. It is all a lot easier if we can find the words to persuade ourselves and others that the pain of learning, as well as the joy, is worth persevering with.

Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education

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