Spectators and ESD

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I've got out of the habit of writing about attempts to impose curriculum change on university teachers through the 'introduction' of ESD.  When I did, [*] I used to try to argue that reform ought to begin by looking at and learning from what universities were already doing, rather than by trying to force everyone to do what activists wanted.  It seemed a reasonable position given how much interesting work was going on by academics who were expert in their fields.  But the activists preferred the certainty of their narrow-minded certainties and so we find ourselves where we are today.

I recall that ESD activists used to talk to each other in their echo chamber about how great it would be when venerable institutions (Cambridge was always mentioned) toed the line, and when the national media took ESD seriously.  Well, I don't know about Cambridge (though I suspect I actually do), but the media scrutiny has happened.  Although Mae West used to argue that being looked over was better than being overlooked, I'm not sure if the ESD cadres will be all that happy with what John Armstrong wrote in the The Spectator the other day (not that they'll have read The Spectator, of course).

Armstrong writes:

"... there remains scope for improvement in how we turn these good intentions into practical results.  One attempt to address this is Unesco’s programme of ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ (ESD) which seeks to ‘reorient education to address sustainable development’, an objective enshrined in the UN’s Agenda 21. This has been adopted enthusiastically by UK educational quango the Quality Assurance Association for Higher Education (QAA) who now urge all UK university degree programmes to incorporate ESD. But is ESD the answer to our climate woes, or might it be another case of misdirected good intentions?  One thing is certain: ESD is a radically ambitious programme. ESD abandons the traditional approach of higher education where academics develop modules and courses based on their own academic expertise. It replaces this with a top-down model where the UN sets the agenda and enforces it through national education bureaucracies."

Just so, as I have already noted.

Armstrong continues: "As the name ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ indicates, it seeks to challenge the very purpose of education. It rejects traditional educational objectives, such as personal development and understanding, in favour of promoting the UN’s vision of sustainable development."

Advance HE, a charity, says that ESD refers to the "pedagogical approach of learning about and developing skills for ‘sustainable development’.  The principle of sustainable development originates from the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm 1972 where the interrelated nature of human activities and the environment was officially recognised by the international community.  It is generally accepted that sustainable development is fundamentally about trying to achieve a balance between the economy society (people) and the environment."

Armstrong, however, concludes that ESD is grounded in Freire's critical pedagogy, and that it might be more accurately viewed as a rebranding of this.  I'll let you read the rest of the argument to see if it makes sense to you.

His final words are to warn against indoctrination:

"... we should surely carefully weigh the obvious risk of indoctrination before we decide to embark upon a radical educational revolution. Inane virtue signalling has no more place in our universities than it has at the Crucible [theatre]."

Indeed.  But the approach to ESD adopted over time by the hopeless HEA and the hapless QAA is so poor that I'd say that it offers little opportunity for this as its modus operandi dissuades people from getting involved.  All in all, a missed opportunity to build on and share the good work that academics and institutions have been doing for years.


* If you have any interest in reading what I've said about all this in the past, the best way to get access to it is to search for "QAA".






Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • We have a wealth of expertise about the environment and ecological systems, not all of it needing to be from academia. I like the emphasis by Armstrong on the perils of bureaucrats and technocrats deciding what ESD 'ought' to be, rather than discussions within communities about what resiliency looks like at the local level as they try to become sustainable.