What do we teach kids at the end of the world?

30th September 2011 at 01:00

I spent one weekend in August sitting in a beautiful, sunny field talking about apocalypse. Around me were engineers, poets, cyber-security experts, economists, farmers, mothers, historians, writers, former senior civil servants and a man in a combat jacket from HM Treasury who seemed to have found himself there by accident.

The Uncivilisation Festival is an event where people come together - in the words of its founders, environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and writersocial inventor Dougald Hine - to figure out what to do now that "the future hasn't worked out quite the way the grown-ups said it would".

Up for discussion were economic bubbles, how they form, and how to survive them; the power of stories and myths to create new ideas of the future; a panel on "collapsonomics" (including stories from Ireland, Iceland and Russia about what happens when economic and political systems implode - it's not pretty); and practical workshops on improvisation and scything (not together - it's best not to improvise with scythes).

The festival put into stark relief the impoverished imagination of most education conferences that proclaim to speak for "the 21st century" in the UK. Where educational futures tend to be dominated by technology-drenched visions of the global knowledge economy, this event presented an altogether more complicated and richer picture of the futures we may need to prepare children for. The festival presented the possibility both that things might get very much worse than we currently imagine and very much better.

Surely this orientation to the future makes sense? A child born in the UK in 1911 would come to experience trench warfare, economic depression, the rise of fascism, more war, the building of the welfare state, sexual revolution, women's rights, growing cultural and religious diversity, the internet and the mapping of the genome. A child born in 2011 may be facing imminent economic collapse, the possibility of the rise of fascism (a disturbing observation at the festival was that the BNP is the only party other than the Greens paying serious attention to what happens when oil runs out), ecosystem degradation, new biosciences and cyber-surveillance.

Most of these issues aren't on the agenda when it comes to talking about the future in education, although we can see worries about them leaching in at the margins. There's always the uneasy shrug and well-intentioned reference to "the environment" and to overcoming "inequalities" in conference speeches. In schools we dedicate small boxes in the timetable to scaring the living daylights out of children about "climate change" before pushing them back into English and maths, where they can suppress those anxieties and get back to "business as normal".

The Uncivilisation Festival offers a different approach. It explores strategies for responding to these possibilities, from new forms of storytelling to energy resilience and educational co-operatives. It suggests we look at our worst fears head on, recognise that collapse is in progress and explore how our capacity for building new stories about the future, for creative invention and mutual self-help, might help us create better futures than we imagine.

Education for the apocalypse

One example of this sort of creative response was exemplified by the Hexayurt being constructed at the festival by a group of students called Engineers Without Borders. A Hexayurt (six-sided, yurt-shaped) is a low-cost dwelling, based on a very simple design that can rapidly be built out of local materials to provide cheap housing in case of disaster. It is the product of engineer and Gandhian activist Vinay Gupta's tendency to stare apocalypse in the face and try to figure out how to live well and fairly within it (his other projects include working out plans with the Pentagon to secure nuclear stockpiles in case of US state failure).

Over the course of a day at the festival, this small group of young engineers drank beer, used power tools and built the Hexayurt with encouragement from Gupta and a set of tiny lasered modelling shapes brought along by a Belgian engineer using templates produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was not the nostalgic parochialism of which alternative thinkers are often accused, but a form of serious, playful learning that will come in handy in times of crisis. It is a distinctively 21st-century response that draws on learning resources, expertise and ideas from around the world to work out what we might do when confronted with the possibility of disaster.

There is power and optimism to be found in looking at the fragility of civilisation and figuring out how to live well if that civilisation fails. This, rather than the swing between paralysing fear and profound apathy that we too often present our pupils with, is what we need in education today. We need to start designing a system of education for the apocalypse, rather than for what increasingly looks like a bankrupt assumption of continued growth. We need, as Kingsnorth and Hine argue, to recognise that "a fall is coming" and to work out how to live with the crumbling of old myths and the creation of new ones. If we do so, we might find ourselves surprised by the ideas, ingenuity and inspiration that we would unleash in ourselves and our pupils.

Keri Facer is professor of education at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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