Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Greening the sprouts

Charlotte and Steph have been telling us about the greenness of their school education. Now when I was at school, while I would bore my fellow students and any teachers who would listen, senseless, with the wisdom of EF Schumacher, I certainly never got any encouragement in return. My physics teachers were pro-nuclear of course, although one also signed me up to Amnesty International. 

It never occurred to me that we might learn about something quite so intensely political as the environment, at school. Rather, I took it as my mission to bring this wisdom to my peers, along with that of any other hard-left causes I came across as a member of a poor middle class minority in a working class area.

Clearly all that changed, more or less as soon as I left school. I was shocked to see my daughter's Y3 school play about the rainforest, complete with evil loggers, noble savages and talking animals. Not that it was entirely, or even largely, wrong. Simplistic, black and white, saccharine, yes, of course it was all of those, what do you expect. But it seems that environmental values - not just environmental science - is now on the syallabus.

What should we make of this? Despite the special claims of faith schools, all schools are beacons of values, they all teach good behaviour, reponsibility, self-respect and so forth. So it makes sense to add environmental consciousness to the list. Yet there are legitimate political debating points that are necessarily brushed aside by this clarity of moral purpose.

And the more specific we get, the more problematic it becomes. Environmentalism is replete with received wisdom of variable quality, largely defined by the mass media, and therefore not a few contradictions. We wouldn't teach physics from articles in the Sunday papers, so why environmentalism? Surely the question of whether expanding nuclear power is an appropriate response to the threat of global warming, shouldn't be taught. Investigated, yes, debated, yes, but taught?!

Environmentalism also bears some of the scars of its years in the wilderness: a focus on the personal above the political, even when the personal is utterly symbolic; a tendency to blame corporations or profit for everything; a normal human tendency to evaluate evidence on the basis of where it comes from, and whether it fits the answers you are already proposing.

Still, clearly a whole generation of people has decided to teach the next the importance of doing something it wouldn't do itself. The only axe-grinders I remember teaching me were an anarchist, a Conservative and a Christian. Yet unlike those three, we have something nearing a consensus that environmentalism is the way forward. And when did that happen? Somehow, without my noticing, my views went from cranky to mainstream, without changing much.

All we need now is to do something about it. So what could be better than teaching our kids how to save the planet? (Other that doing it ourselves of course) Well how about teaching them how to crtically evaluate evidence and arguments? Include in that examining values and evaluating ethical arguments. Yet how many schools study philosophy and ethics? We need to learn to ask the right questions, not just be given what others think are the right answers.


thomas said...

I get the feeling you're almost making an argument against the generalist philosophy promoted by the comprehensive education system.

Anders said...

I know what you mean. I went to a school with Nick and was astonished how political they were being about the environment. One pupil even said that she had been told by another person invited in by the school how the Lib Dem council were against windfarms.

I remember being considered quite radical when I did an talk at my school about how polluted the seas were.

Joe Otten said...

thomas, am I? Possibly. What philosophy is that then?

Is the public, prep or grammar school sector any different?

thomas said...

No, not really, but I think you need to treat the different sectors differently.

I think there is a weakness in the comprehensive system because it tends to oppose differentiation and therefore prevent the development of specialisms.

On the other side of this the independent sector has a habit of specialising at the expense of providing a well-rounded education (which means socially an vocationally as well as acedemically).

There is no single answer to the problem and sometimes I'd almost call for 'split schooling' so that kids can see the advantages and disadvantages of different types and then work out what is best for them.

But that is a choice our parents most often dictate for us, so how will anyone ever really find out I don't know. I guess it's just the luck of the draw!

Costigan Quist said...

Joe - I agree. Despite being a keen environmentalist, I was somewhat uncomfortable recently attending a CofE primary school harvest festival.

As with your experience, environmentalism was presented unquestioningly as a good thing (which it is), but the issues covered were at a "this is what we read in the papers" level that seemed a good deal more superficial than other subjects, even for KS2.

When I later discussed the relevant issue with my son, he had no trouble understanding why the issue wasn't as black-and-white as had been presented.

I'd love to see more lessons on critical thinking in school.

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