Interesting Diagnosis, but flawed Prescription

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In a recent Opinion Essay for JESD [Vol. 5.1], Rolf Jucker offers "some reflections on environmental education and ESD" under the title: ESD between Systemic Change and Bureaucratic Obfuscation.  Jucker paints a gloomy view of the slow development of ESD in Switzerland from his position of director of the Swiss Foundation for Environmental Education.  Through this picture, he puts forward five "basic points of ESD".  These are:

  • The current education systems (re-)produce unsustainability
  • Today's best education is destructive for the future of the planet
  • Paradigm change is needed
  • A fundamental redesign of education is needed
  • The paradigm shift must embrace systemic approaches based on the ecological insight that we live on a planet with physical and material limits.

... and in all this, the usual suspects are cited utterly irreflexibly: Capra, Daly, Einstein, Gandhi, Orr, Selby, Sterling — and Jucker.

It seems to me that [1] is probably inevitable; [2] is putting it too strongly to be of use to anyone; [3] is covered in [5]; [4]  has always been the case (and maybe always will); and in [5] the first three words might usefully be replaced by "We".

However, whilst there is much to agree with here in relation to his broad diagnosis of the problems that society (and its formal educational provision) faces, are these really the  most significant five points that might be made?  I think not, and offer the following by way of counterpoint:

1. Formal education inevitably reflects current social values and aspirations, which are themselves historically constituted and culturally embedded.

2. Because of such sociolo-political inertia, societies can find it hard to evolve swiftly in the face of changing circumstances, even when evidence shows that such a (paradigm) shift looks necessary because the threat is existential.

3. Because formal curriculum change are political processes mediated through existing socio-cultural systems and structures, the formal school system in a free society cannot be expected to be in the vanguard of (any) society-wide change. However, whilst "we should continue to push for all those changes in education systems that we rightly deem necessary" (Jucker),  it does suggest that other activities are as /more important as well.

4. As a result of [3], the impact on society on formal schooling must always exceed that of schools on society.  However, experimentation in schools is possible where curriculum framing, parental and community support, teacher interest and school leadership allow, and this offers the possibility that [i] insights into appropriate future curricula and pedagogy can emerge, and [ii] students (and others) might learn something socially (as well as personally) valuable.

5. Liberal societies, because of their legacy of freedom, trust, scepticism, innovation, and plurality are in the best position to enable, and benefit from, such experimentation through explicit encouragement, monitoring and evaluation.

These are, of course, are not quite the same points as the four made by Jucker, but there is some overlap and complementariness between them.  However, they seem (to me at any rate), to be offer greater ecological validity in relation to society as we find it.  They also refrain from the reification of ESD, preferring to focus on the need to change education itself in a co-evolutionary way with society — as does Jucker himself in the paper, when he remembers.

But his messages are muddled, there is much wishful thinking, and some absolutist views.  Take the following:

"... only if what we do most of the day contributes directly to a sustainable future, are we engaging in meaningful ESD"

"... the entire educational process should be a collaborative process to bring sustainability into existence"

"If the tutors do not change themselves to become role models for the students and their communities — akin to the function of elders in indigenous societies — there will be no transformation"

"... ensuing change in society should not serve the powerful political and economic elites, but rather the resilience of the biosphere and a just and equitable society on Earth"

... and so on.  My immediate reaction to all this is to ask "How could this happen?"  Indeed, this is the most significant question that the Opinion Piece has left me with — with lacunae not addressed by any of the examples of supposed good practice set out in the piece (and not discussed here).  Others, not as immersed in the theology and mysticism of ESD, as JESD's readers may well be, might just be asking "Why?"

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