The phrase ‘education, education, education’ was used nearly 20 years ago by UK politician Tony Blair to gain political power — and the theme of education as the panacea for all ills is with us still. It emerged as a central theme at two recent science conferences I attended: the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, (4-7 November) and the TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) 26th general meeting in Vienna, Austria (18-21 November).
At the TWAS meeting, there were constant references to the significance of education. At the World Science Forum, while many discussions focused on the interface between policy and science, the central notion that came to the fore was grounded in a belief in education: human minds around the world have to change to address the Sustainable Development Goals (and in particular the challenges of climate change).
At the forum, Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center think-tank, pointed out that, while a quarter of global aid is now climate-related, this does not reflect the public’s priorities. In a recent UN global survey, climate-related issues came last out of 16 aid topics presented to some 8.5 million people worldwide. Education came top.
So it seems politicians are well-advised to continue to focus on education in their campaigns.
Education delivers development
This set me thinking about education, its value and its impact. In Vienna, social scientist and demographer Wolfgang Lutz made several bold and impassioned statements about how education is the ‘root cause’ of sustainable development. Education, he said, enhances democracy, slows population growth because educated women have fewer children and better prepares people for risk, making them less vulnerable to disasters. Great things are clearly expected of education. But what do we actually mean by the term?
Anette Kolmos, of the Denmark-based Aalborg Centre for Problem Based Learning in Engineering Science and Sustainability, commented in Budapest that it is not enough to acquire theoretical knowledge — rather, the focus should be on teaching people how to identify, and solve, problems.
Education is, and has always been, many things to many people. When I did a postgraduate certificate in education in the United Kingdom in 1980, there was a notable tension between ideas of education as putting knowledge into people’s minds versus education as bringing out what is already in those minds.
The word education is rooted in the literal meaning of the Latin word educere, which means “to lead out”. The dangers of an education consisting entirely of ‘putting in’ were highlighted for us as trainee teachers in the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, which was just released in 1980: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.”
Education can indeed be an attempt at thought control, and not only in the hands of repressive regimes. Teachers do not — arguably because they cannot — always explain the full logic or background behind facts, but simply expect children to accept them.
Similarly, governments sometimes ask the public to accept that certain things are true or necessary. However, as children may fail to take in facts that are not fully explained, so the public may reject facts when they do not understand their basis. This is especially likely to happen with scientific knowledge, because science is so complex.
Climate change is an issue where this problem is rearing its head. Lomborg’s comment, quoted above, indicates that people are not responding to being told by their governments that this is an issue that must be addressed. This may seem odd from a European perspective where governments have come under considerable pressure to act on climate change.
Nevertheless, Lomborg insists that the UN survey results speak for themselves.
So, in view of these claims, what kind of education can focus the minds of the public on climate change?
“Education is required about acting on climate change — but a profound rethink is needed about how this kind of education should be done.”
Kaz Janowski, SciDev.Net
Given that non-scientists (and maybe even some scientists) do not comprehend the full complexity of the processes that are argued to be leading to climate change, is the answer simply to tell people over and over again that climate change is happening and that human activity is responsible for it?
Part of a bigger whole
A different approach may be needed to change attitudes and behaviour in order to tackle climate change — one that draws on the idea of education as ‘leading out’.
I would argue for a focus on the importance of nurturing the relationship between humans and the natural environment.
People have an innate sense of the importance of their relationship with the natural world, and a profound unease about how we have come to ‘use’ other species, from trees to cattle, seeing them more as commodities than fellow travellers on the planet. Drawing on — and more to the point, drawing out — this innate sense of the deep intertwining of humans with the rest of the natural world would do more to change perceptions than focusing on communicating the potential impacts of climate change.
So yes, education is required about acting on climate change — but a profound rethink is needed about how this kind of education should be done.
Einstein is said to have stated that: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” The problems leading to climate change are grounded in a thinking that separates humans from the rest of the natural world — using the earth merely as a source of products and services. This needs to be replaced by a way of thinking — arguably deeply rooted in humans already — borne out of acceptance that humans are part of a bigger whole, part of the world. And they should not, therefore, be using up and destroying the other parts of that world.
Kaz Janowski is joint editor at SciDev.Net