Founder of the philosophical school known as idealism, the classical thinker Plato is also the first historically known individual to have written a complete intellectual treatise on education – the Republic. In this monumental work, human ignorance is portrayed through allegorical parable as a group of humans imprisoned since birth in a cave. The captors of the humans project shadows and illusions onto the cave walls and define these images as “reality.” Breaking out of the cave is Plato’s analogy for the moment in which an individual transcends ignorance into the higher plateau of self-knowledge – the “real” world. This allegory reveals humanity’s indoctrinated or “trained” ignorance, emphasizing our capacity to break through this passive state and become authentic participants in the universe.
In general, institutional education fails to provide individuals with a transformative process. Instead, the system of knowledge transmitted to students is developed within a network of caves, instilling deeply unsustainable and highly complex levels of ignorance. Education that promotes a series of interconnected caves built to mirror (yet obscure) the “real” world through pedagogical concepts, curricula, and exercises cannot incite deep change within humanity. It makes little difference whether the subject is science, religion, metaphysics, or ecology. If our teaching system is based on unsustainable values, it cannot inspire individuals to develop sustainable practices. Creating new approaches to education is not enough. Often the new ways of education parallel the old methods on a deeply subconscious level. The only “real” result from this subconscious parallelism is a human populace further entrenched within their caves, transfixed by increasingly complex shadows.
The United Nations has dubbed this period, from 2005 to 2014, the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Despite its timelines, the ESD initiative is not a direct response to current media trends that paralyze the population with statistics about global warming or the resource consumption crisis. Instead, the Decade is a response to thirty years of impotent failure on the part of developed nations to address the impact of economic development, poverty, and population growth on Third World Countries.(1) While it seems timely now, in actual fact, this initiative is long overdue: the concept was introduced at the Stockholm Summit in 1972 and addressed again in Agenda 21, Article 36 of the Rio Declaration in 1992. What is unfortunate is not that the ESD initiative is finally here, but that the previous decade already attempted to implement Education for Sustainable Development materials across curricula. The attempts proved to be as otiose and essentially meaningless as the environmental education pedagogies that have been in place since the 1960s.
As far as I know, only one individual other than myself has so far challenged the goals and long-term efficacy behind ESD (and its slightly improved follow up program, Education for Sustainability [EFS]) from within the education sector. In 2001, Stephen Sterling published a book called Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change that addresses the major concerns with ESD.(2) Along with many other educators, Sterling encountered many problems while trying to implement ESD within primary and secondary education in the UK. He argues that it was a lack of support or effort that caused the systemic failure of ESD in Britain; more precisely, Sterling identifies the process and design of ESD itself as insufficient, lacking integrated systems thinking. In his briefing on the topic and through subsequent writings, Sterling provides sound theoretical foundations for a truly transformative approach to education that he calls “Sustainable Education.” Concomitant with Sterling, in 2003 I began to form practical methods by which to implement the processes of Sustainable Education within communities, using schools as case-study sites.
Sustainable Education not only offers the opportunity for students to learn about sustainability issues in the classroom; it takes them through what Sterling refers to as a “transformative process,” requiring a “whole systems approach.” In order to begin development of this program within schools I ask administrators and teachers to participate in informative training workshops. The process of Sustainable Education must totally transform the entire school environment and be provided with adequate support to do so. Teachers and administrators then work to integrate the pressures of standardized education requirements within a step-by-step Sustainable Education learning platform. This platform provides a pivotal center around which core subject areas form an integrated web. The main focus of this core is to stimulate students to use analytical and critical thinking skills to source, research, and provide long-term solutions to local environmental resource issues that affect the basic needs for living organisms: food, air, water, and shelter.
Using scientific methods, inquiry, and the integration of technology as a way to disseminate their actions, students become participatory rather than passive in their communities. This helps learners – especially those at young ages – recognize the power of choice and its impact on an interdisciplinary, rather than individualized, level. Sustainable Education is not just a process to reform education within the classroom –the classroom is a mere beginning. Sustainable Education provides a structure to help individuals and communities identify choices, to learn to use the skills necessary to take responsibility and shape current and future human development. In order for members of communities to begin to identify the penetrative power of educational goals – environments and values within cultural systems – a series of questions that challenge the current epistemological roots of education must be addressed. A few examples of “whole systems approach” questions are:
- How can students become interested in learning about their environments and actively engage themselves as ecologists when the media – their principal educator – only creates stimuli to continue consuming the natural environment for personal enjoyment?
- How can students become environmental citizens when the actions of their educators and parents reflect patterns and habits that contradict addressing environmental issues?
- How can students gain confidence to work on environmental issues when the results never last longer than an exercise or a single day dedicated to the Earth, in which the trees that are planted or the projects that are completed are not incorporated into long-term academic goals and objectives?
- How can students effect real change if the process of environmental awareness and action is contained within one or two classrooms, rather than supported holistically within all levels of a community?
- How can students truly understand global environmental concerns when they cannot even understand their own immediate issues?
Once a dialogue begins, real effort at the individual and collective levels are needed to form practical and applied approaches to implementing Sustainable Education. This can only work at an intensely participatory local level in which organizations, schools, and communities create an interconnected web of learning and action. I refer to this process as a “bottom-up-top-down response”: bottom-up means effort taken at the individual, educator, parent and student level that motivates a top-down response from administrative, media, community, and government sectors, which in turn support and complement local initiatives.
The current measures to implement ESD within the U.N.’s initiative are based upon the very dangerous assumption that the education sector can teach sustainability through funding, government mandates, and generalized curricula packages alone. Without meeting the aforementioned top-down solutions from a deeper level of participation and understanding from educators, administrators, parents and students, education systems seemed doomed to failure. As a former educator, I have witnessed first hand the dispiriting effect that failed environmental education has on students. There is no quicker way to promote indifference and defeat than setting students up for failure by using ineffective, hypocritical education strategies which lead to superficial mentoring and learning environments.
When I first founded The Organization for Education and Science Integration (OEDSI) in 2003, my colleagues and I implemented three sustainability pilot projects within schools in upstate New York; Seattle, WA; and Nguna Pele, Vanuatu.(3) A year after our pilot projects were underway, I came across Sterling’s work. I found that his theories as to why Sustainable Education could not be implemented within the U.K. corroborated with the difficulties OEDSI faced during the pilot studies in 2003. OEDSI’s pilot studies were able to produce short-term enthusiasm and participation in the classroom and school communities surrounding the design and initial execution of Sustainable Education. However, after the first year of implementation, there was no long-term follow through or continued support from the schools. Our studies in the U.S., along with Sterling’s briefing, have revealed that developed countries in particular are faced with the most significant challenges to integrate Sustainable Education models within schools.
There are two primary reasons for this. First of all, the relationship between schools and local communities is severely fragmented and non-participatory. Secondly, individuals in developed countries maintain little or no conscious awareness of the direct impact of their lifestyle choices on the environment. Post-disaster responses rather than preventative actions are a part of inherent societal values. In contrast, we found that the principles of Sustainable Education were easier to convey at our most remote and underdeveloped test site: Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. Although there were other issues inhibiting our project in Vanatu – inadequate funding being the main one – the materials and methods of Sustainable Education had a much higher success rate and were practiced for a much longer period of time than in the U.S. schools. A significant reason for this is that there is relatively little difference between the school and the social community; they function together as a seamless extension of one another.
In 2004 I was invited to diagnose the potential for Sustainable Education reform in the Galapagos islands of Ecuador. As the Galapagos are still considered underdeveloped, yet are significantly more so then Vanuatu, I was able to identify a consistent revelatory thread to problems facing Sustainable Education in general: it would seem that the higher the level of economic development and centralized education, the more difficult it is to teach transformative practices of sustainability. When OEDSI began to apply for funding to set up Sustainable Education programs, many potential donors refused our proposals because they felt that OEDSI’s objectives for Sustainable Education were too idealistic. Sustainable Education programs do not show strategic plans for widespread placement or short-term results that are quantifiable in terms of dollars or testing scores. When something cannot be immediately quantified or statistically verified in this culture, we tend to dismiss it as unrealistic.
In actual fact, educational programs that are unable to confront the highly diverse issues of environmental education are not sustainable, or ultimately realistic. In short, new education initiatives inspired by the Decade are simply old education initiatives veiled behind a new lexis. The real paradox of the U.N.’s Decade is that its participants have good intentions – most are genuinely trying to provide a higher level of globalized environmental education – but they suffer from highly educated ignorance. The ignorance caused by misguided education is one of the most pressing challenges potentially sentient beings face. If humans are unable to transcend their educated ignorance, how will they be able to introduce precautionary actions through education that mitigate current unsustainable practices?
The captors in Plato’s allegory of the cave keep their captives in the unreal world, in ignorance. At this point in time, the captors have also fooled themselves. Using pedagogies that teach sustainability based on unsustainable principles is not only highly contradictory, but also extremely idealistic, and ultimately destructive for the planetary community. If the captors of education form the collective behind what is “real” in the world, then globalized education is at the mercy of its own self-created ignorance machine.
In Plato’s idealist philosophy, a universal mind exists which creates universal truths that can be found through disciplines such as math, science and geometry. Although humans have generally perceived this universal mind in the form of a deity, or an entity separate from themselves, whole systems thinkers and deep ecologists believe that individual thoughts and actions collectively create truths in the world. Thinking of idealism in the latter manner is both liberating and limiting: it suggests that individuals are collectively part of a universal mind, belonging to something greater; yet it leaves room for the possibility that individuals are simply ignorant of this, and are therefore unable to envision the potential connection between individual actions and resulting truths in their world that do not necessarily bode well for them. Some educators would argue that the philosophy of idealism is not important, being replaced pre-nineteenth century by the more dominant theories of realism. However, it seems to me that, rather than petering out, as most historians suggest, idealism has remained a recessive gene in education. This may explain the reason behind human-driven environmental crises, as well as the current nature of the “new” education revolution brought on by the Decade.
The efforts being made by the U.N. to encourage sustainability education are derived from the auspices of well meaning ignorance. I fear that the results of the Decade will be yet another layer of educated ignorance in which humans will become transfixed, rather than addressing the real issues preventing sentience. While The Decade for Education for Sustainable Development has the potential to offer humanity a new transformative paradigm, the program was not designed or intended to break free of the “cave-like” restrictions of institutionalized education and transcend itself to allow for a potentially sustainable educational system to manifest. The Decade treats the subject of sustainability as another illusion or shadow that educators can project for their students. These illusions of sustainability that are provided in an unsustainable context can never really be transformative, as that would challenge the educational paradigm at its core.
Concerned individuals and groups will need to form a support network to break through the confines of educated ignorance and take responsibility for creating a sentient universal mind that is sustainable, and “universal truths” that correspond to our lived experience on this planet. Communities must become active and make real efforts to create pathways toward sustainable learning that can engender profound realizations and growth on a local level. When we diversify and transform practices at the local level, the larger global community inherently benefits.
One of the most difficult components for skeptics to grasp is that Sustainable Education does not provide answers: it only illuminates the choices that individuals have and gives them a methodology, so they can become skilled in making decisions for themselves. This type of pedagogy requires participants to strip away their degrees, practices, and belief systems, and trust in the process. The advantage of such a method is that, ultimately, it gives individuals the inner strength to find their own answers through a guided structure, rather than accepting what others tell them.
Trusting in the individual’s capacity to learn, make difficult choices, and take personal responsibility for his environmental impact is, clearly, a different model from the current systems of educated ignorance, which rely on generalized models usually provided by groups who profit from an unthinking populace. However, the worsening conditions of the global environment no longer afford individuals the luxury of ignoring the consequences of their actions simply because they have learned to expect an easy solution. While the principles of Sustainable Education are fairly new, and require a deeper level of participation than most individuals are used to, the method offers a means for learning to live in a different relation to the environment around us.
As the United Nations Decade for Sustainable Education continues, we have the opportunity to participate and shape the effect it will have on our world. I believe that Sustainable Education offers a working model that could transform the U.N. initiative into something that can fundamentally transform humanity’s relationship to the Earth. I don’t think that this challenge should attract individuals out of fear that there is no other alternative; it should attract those that want to believe that, as a species, we are sentient and therefore have the potential to evolve beyond the compartmentalized reality we currently live in toward a whole systems approach. Sustainable Education is a first step toward this discovery. Whether or not people can truly embrace sustainable processes remains to be seen.
(1) Education for Sustainable Development was first cited during the Stockholm Summit of 1972 and then again during the Rio Summit. As a result it was written into the Rio Declaration in Chapter 21 of Article 36. It was brought up once again in the Jo’Burg Memo of 2002 as an issue that had been buried among the other initiatives within the Rio Declaration. Visit www.unesco.org for more in-depth information.
(2) Sterling, Stephen. 2001. Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books. Devon, United Kingdom.
(3) For more information on OEDSI visit www.oedsi.org.Tweet