Education: a constraint or a catalyst to sustainable development?

Submitted by admin on 30. May 2011 - 23:49
Thoresen, Victoria W.

Education: a constraint or a catalyst
to sustainable development?

Victoria W. Thoresen
Assistant Professor, Hedmark University College, Hamar, Norway

Papers presented at the 5th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
19-21 October 2001, Hluboka nad Vltavou, Czech Republic

[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]

The establishment of a just society maintained by noble individuals has been the goal of human civilizations throughout the ages. It has not, however, been easy to agree upon what justice is or what characterizes a noble, morally astute individual. It has been even more difficult to achieve consensus as to what form of development will lead to such a goal. Rapid economic advancement has for decades been the guiding star of development. Today's global community has finally begun focusing upon the need for "sustainable development" which includes social, economic and spiritual development; development which encompasses the transformation of individuals as well as man-made social structures and markets.

This "focusing" on sustainable development has taken numerous forms since the international gathering in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the initiating of the Agenda 21 action plan. And as always, the most common response to any call for a better tomorrow is: educate the children.. . . education being, of course, much more than just transferring information. Education in such a context must be seen as the systematized, value-based process of socialization.

Values, knowledge and education

Values compose the foundation of, the parameters to, the conditions for the use of knowledge. Values are, to use a simple metaphor, like the baking tin into which cake batter is poured. Knowledge provides the ingredients of the cake batter, the contents of education. These contents alter and grow both in relation to the collective intellectual and spiritual advancement of mankind as well as in relation to the degree of social acceptance for certain types of knowledge. In western society, with its traditions of rational logic and specialized scientific thinking, knowledge has dominated over values in many situations. However, in many other parts of the world the opposite is true. There values and social norms take precedence over measurable factual "knowledge", as it is defined in the West. The role of education is to "empower", to facilitate, learners so that they can apply the knowledge they have acquired, within the framework of the values they have taken to heart, in order to function as responsible creative world citizens. As educators through the ages have discovered, this is no easy task, especially when the criteria for "responsible world citizens" is not yet universally agreed upon.

Nonformal education

Education occurs in modern society in several arena. No longer do families, churches, schools and politics have a monopoly on the socialization process. Commercial interests, mass media and private organizations have entered the fray with full force. They select values and nurture norms, present knowledge and stimulate behavior patterns and lifestyles in ways which are as effective, if not more so, than the socialization processes occurring in homes and schools.

Commercial education

Commercial interests are "need inventors". Their admitted goal is to create a steady demand for the products they produce and sell. Although moral and ethical codes of business conduct are discussed, statistics clearly show that the free market economy is far more preoccupied with cutthroat competition than contributing to conscientious consumption leading to sustainable development. Nor are the human qualities which modern society needs and which Baha'u'llah has described as among others being: trustworthiness, compassion, altruism and generosity, qualities which characterize the present market economy. Thus one can assume that the “education” carried on by advertisers and mass media is in most cases a constraint to sustainable development, though there are conditions, which shall be mentioned later, under which even commercial interests can contribute to sustainable development.

Non-governmental organizations

The well-known saying which goes, "For everything there is a time and a purpose" has been known to have been rewritten to state, "For everything there is an NGO". The number of interest organizations working for, among other things, sustainable development, has increased constantly during the last ten years. Environmental groups, consumer groups, local, regional and international groups have all endeavored - each in their own fashion - to stimulate sustainable development. Their methods vary greatly from for example: lobbying to informing to protesting. The results are often fragmented and hard to measure as they often define similar concepts quite differently and approach similar challenges with highly varied methods. The socialization which can be traced to their efforts is in most instances strictly issue-oriented.

Formal education

Formal education must also bear the criticism of being a constraint to sustainable development. When one refers to comparative studies of educational systems around the globe, a number of common traits appear.

Educational systems tend to
1. be much more occupied with transmission of cultural heritage than preparing learners for functioning in the present and future
2. present national and regional perspectives to the detriment of global perspectives
3. deal with abstractions and theory without sufficiently relating these to the learners own everyday life experience
4. be highly subject-specific, thereby, to a great extent, ignoring the inter-relatedness of processes, systems and information
5. encourage competition rather than cooperation.

Structural hindrances

The structure of many educational systems hinder education which has as its goal sustainable development. The following is a diagram of the different approaches to environmental education. Some educational systems have official mandates emphasizing value education and themes such as global cooperation and sustainable development. In many countries, however, national educational ministries have been more preoccupied with their own agendas or too busy trying to attract some of the much sought after billions of dollars connected to ICT learning, to put actions and resources behind the goals related to sustainable development education. The education systems who may have clear goals about these matters may at the same time have specific subject matter in the school curricula which undermines the stated goals. Or in other cases the subject themes may be highly relevant, but the individual teacher or school exercises their privilege to interpret the curricula thereby weaken the cumulative effect. The most common structural weakness in educational systems is the lack of interdisciplinary themes dealing with contemporary issues. Environmental education may be well covered in natural sciences but seldom presents the economic and social aspects of the question of sustainable development. Without such, education for sustainable development, and value education in general, becomes fragmented and in danger of being relegated to the category of unessentials. To the extent that an educational system utilizes one or more of these approaches, it can be assumed that the system is not a constraint but a channel for initiatives.






all lead to


The pessimist pitfall

In addition to structural hindrances to education for sustainable development there are two methodological obstacles which can be identified. One of these can be referred to as the "pessimist pitfall". The pessimist pitfall is where students descend when education manages to point out all the negative consequences of social change and individual behavior without empowering the students to deal with these problems. Students become aware of the dilemmas of development which often involve the sacrifice of quality for quantity, of long-term benefits for short-term benefits, of cooperation for competition, of individual identity for global participation and of human dignity for material wealth. The hedonistic individual often justifies his or her unsustainable, egocentric behavior patterns with the claim that "Nothing I can do can affect matters significantly, so there is no need to try." Without the conviction that "trend is not destiny and that change is possible", students can find environmental education to simply be another warning of a world on its way to disaster.

The moralist muddle

The moralist muddle occurs when teachers command the students to act in specific ways in order to become "ecologically conscientious citizens". Certain ethical principles constitute the core of environmental education, but the task of preparing students to be able to make their own decisions is not identical with making those decisions for the students. Teaching materials and teaching methods that demand "reform" without assisting students to identify the need for reform themselves, nor encouraging students to contribute ideas for new ways of dealing with problems, tend to undermine the positive aspects of education for sustainable development. It is also an undeniable fact that environmental issues are constantly changing in a global society in rapid transition. The responses of today may not be sufficient or relevant for tomorrow's situations. Education should lead to active, knowledgeable citizen participation in order to establish new approaches to tomorrow's concerns.

Possible prerequisites for education which stimulates sustainable development

Despite the many ways in which commercial and formal education function as constraints to education for sustainable development, there is clear evidence that education can be a catalyst and stimulate sustainable development. In other words education can become more a participatory, knowledge-based and value-driven process. Many educators and educational systems have as their spoken aim, the "furthering of sustainable development." Evaluating the direct consequences on sustainable development which an educator or an educational system has, is an ambitious task, which has only been done, as far as I am aware, by focusing upon specific aspects of environmental or economic achievement. Some social anthropologists have researched the degree of increased participation in local, national and global governance exhibited by individuals with specific educational backgrounds.

If one looks at the experiences of educators who attempt to carry out value-based education for sustainable development the following prerequisites seem to be present in most of their efforts:

1) the recognition of new patterns of cognitive understanding and moral development amongst today's children
2) the awareness of children and youth's pressing need to clarify their own identity and purpose in life, and to be motivated to achieve lofty, selfless goals
3) the importance of helping children and youth to gain insight into the processes and systems behind sustainable development
4) the value of learning how to find, sort and apply information

1) The recognition of new patterns of cognitive understanding and moral development amongst today's children

The assimilative, accumulative and adaptive developmental process of cognitive comprehension springs from egocentric experiences in the child's surroundings based on sensory perception, emotional impressions, physical activities and language codes. Social construction of meaning springs from the contact and training individuals receive from their immediate environments. Even taking into consideration Vygotsky's cultural historic school of thought or Wittgenstein's linguistic approach, added influences are generally limited to the teacher's experiences and knowledge. Modern society, however, confronts children with sights, sounds and other sensory experiences and language codes which are multicultural, historically complex, morally diverse and most often unrelated to their earlier impressions. The process of integrating information into meaningful units of understanding becomes extremely elaborate, difficult and for some distressing. The global culture demands of children, quicker reactions, greater flexibility and more extensive creative capacities than ever before. In addition it requires more comprehensive morals, which encourage actions based upon compassion, trustworthiness, self-discipline, and generosity.

The logarythms of the past are not always applicable to modern situations. Two short anecdotes to exemplify this: The traditional understanding of material welfare is that a rich country or a family who receives sufficient income, will be able to cover their basic needs. Explaining why some families and countries choose to use their incomes and riches not to supply themselves with food and shelter, but rather to invest in alcohol, drugs, etc. is a challenge for educational systems which have not included time to consider the moral implications of social behavior.

Another more concrete example of new patterns of understanding leading to motivation for acquiring new knowledge is the following: What do you associate with a white bird? A dove of peace? Noah's ark? A magician's hat? What du you associate with a white swan? The fairy tale, "The ugly duckling"? The symbol of the Nordic Council of Ministers? Or perhaps the Nordic label which indicates an environmentally friendly product? The later is important if one is to function as a conscientious consumer in the Nordic countries. Learning about environmental labeling is based upon the realization that the nature needs protecting and that labeling is one way of achieving this.

2) The awareness of children and youth's pressing need to clarify their own identity and purpose in life and to be motivated to achieving lofty, selfless goals

To claim that "economic imperialism has eroded the fabric of personal and collective integrity" is a striking accusation. None the less, millions believe that drinking a Coke, or smoking a Marlboro makes you more of a "man", and that wearing products from Gucci or Armani makes you more of a woman. Recent research indicates that even in the villages of Sub-Sahara Africa, more and more people will buy a cd player or cell phone before they invest in schoolbooks for their children. Recently the Ugandan minister for development and gender issues described her visit to a large developing country. She visited the poorest slums of a big city and was surprised to see that atop all the cardboard and sheet metal shanties were tv antennas. She inquired of some of the inhabitants as to where their tvs were, since she had not noticed them when inside the huts. The answer was that to be respected as a worthy person one has to be as everyone else. They have antennas for appearances, but no tv sets. They cannot afford them.

Identity used to be the composite result of geographical, professional and inherited factors. Today modern researchers define identity as "the ever changing interpretation human beings present of themselves. The product of signifying with the help of culturally available signs, of personal experiences." Thus, signs indicating, for example, that "skinny is beautiful" or that "violence is hip" contribute to the creation of identities anchored in market and media images, rather than in the value based traditions of religion or humanism.

Schools have the responsibility, together with parents and religious groups, to provide ways of stimulating reflection by the students on their identity and purpose in life. Schools face the challenge of teaching the concepts world citizenship and encouraging attitudes that foster world unity. Are, for example, the lifestyles which are marketed viable, meaningful and morally consistent? Do they contribute to sustainable development? Empowering children and youth to become conscientious environmentally aware consumers is to contribute to the "humanizing" of development. The humanizing of development goes beyond recognition of theories connected with Maslow's concepts of self realization where individual attainment is the ultimate goal. Humanistic economists such as Sismodi, Ruskin, Schumacker, Tawny and Wissenkopf, to mention a few who are seldom taught about in mainstream economic courses, emphasize that individual attainment must be subservient to mankind's collective needs. The Baha'i Writings offer many insights into the subject of modern identity and the purpose of life in this age.

3. The importance of helping children and youth to gain insight into the processes and systems behind sustainable development

Education for sustainable development must deal with how we make choices and how we manage our resources. Which systems and processes must be maintained and which are defective and in need of alteration? What is the individual's role in relation to the larger mechanisms of the society? How can he or she influence production, marketing, sales, pollution, recycling, etc? Which rights and responsibilities exist and which are lacking? These are essential questions to be dealt with. Another way of categorizing these issues are as some educational systems do:

Making choices - practical and ethical aspects of making choices
- external factors effecting choice making
- personal factors effecting choice making
- the choice-making process
- values that direct our choices
- commercial persuasion and the media
- choices at the marketplace, in the home, at school and in society at large

Managing resources - planning, using and protecting resources
- human resources ( spiritual and creative capacities)
- environmental resources ( energy, materials, etc.)
- economic resources
- technological resources
- laws and regulations
- resource protection

Two useful models which have been developed in Germany and Norway, contribute to developing the above skills. The first is a general description of the inter-relatedness of values, needs, influences, choices and consequences.



The second model is more specifically connected to balancing one's choices in the marketplace. Here the elements of sustainable development come to light in the connections between the different categories. The question of values is highlighted in the definition of needs and desires as well as rights and duties.


Magic SQUARE of consumer choice

Needs and Desires
Products and Services
Prices and Costs
Purchasing Power and Resources
Rights and Duties

4 The value of learning how to find, sort and apply information

Knowledge management is the term business uses when discussing how to deal with the constantly increasing flow of information. A number of well known scientists, among them Edward de Bono, have emphasized the importance of simplifying knowledge, of removing unnecessary information, and learning to categorize information in order to better use it. Information processing is a way of clearing the path as one wanders through the jungle of alternatives.

Education for sustainable development must, in addition to teaching values and attitudes, deal with how conflicts can be solved and how individuals can contribute to the future. Such education must include training in

- communication skills
- decision making skills
- problem solving skills
- creativity and change management

Some educational systems categorize approaches to these skills in the following manner:

Solving problems - diverse strategies for conflict resolution
- cultural norms
- rights and responsibilities
- misunderstandings and conflicts
- accidents and illnesses
- informal ways of solving problems
- consultation and formal conflict resolution

Contributing to the future - change management and social involvement
- visions of the future
- change management
- attitude development
- developing co-operation
- grassroot participation

Non-formal education as a catalyst

Despite the drawbacks which education carried out by commercial interests, mass media and non governmental organizations can experience, these "teachers" have an important role to play. They disperse valuable information. They provide concrete opportunities for involvement, as well as fora for discussion and debate. Even the phenomena of the global culture of the teens, characterized by fashion, entertainment, eating habits and behavior patterns from around the globe, stimulate ethnic integration and increase knowledge of other cultures, natural resources and events. Mass medias reports on social, economic and ecological catastrophes and successes, challenge the awareness of the observer. The overriding question is, can ( and should) non-formal education for sustainable development be based on a common ethic and coordinated towards more precisely defined collective goals.

The pace

Education has often been compared to the turtle -- slow, determined, and stalwart. In ancient mythology, it was the turtle upon whose back the universe rested. Education may not be the quickest way to sustainable development, but it can be in the long run one of the most comprehensive ways, and one of the surest ways of putting knowledge into a constructive relation to values. Baha'u'llah has assured us that education is the greatest means of advancement of the world of being and the upliftment of souls (Synopsis and codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas p.15-16).

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Last updated 16 October 2001