Corroding the Curriculum: Sustainability v. Education

Austin Williams

Author’s Note:This essay explores the ubiquity of the sustainability agenda in higher education in the United Kingdom (with some parallel examples from the United States) with a view to pointing out its corrosive influence on educational ambition. In so doing, I suggest that the prevalence of sustainability within education has only been possible because academia has lowered its own critical faculties and allowed academic institutions to be colonized by social policy objectives to the detriment of knowledge for its own sake. Fundamentally, I want to explore the effects of today’s doctrinaire approach to education, which, as far as I am concerned, has resulted in the degradation of students’ expectations, the abrogation of responsibility by those in erstwhile academic authority, and the failure—or refusal—of the academy to defend education in its own terms.

“Sustainable development principles must lie at the core of the education system, such that schools, colleges and universities become showcases of sustainable development.”1 So says the British government…in a booklet produced by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

What—you might ask—has education policy got to do with a government department that deals with streetlights, salmonella, and swine flu, among other things, especially because a department dedicated to education already exists? Well, even though the very essence of sustainability is the promulgation of limits, it seems that there are no parameters when it comes to offering an opinion about sustainability’s educational merits. Everybody is allowed to interject; to pontificate on the ways that sustainability should be taught, but there is virtually no debate about whether it should be taught. It is taken as read that sustainability ought to be central to the curriculum. The remaining debate, such as it is, has become merely a matter of presentation.

Indeed, the UK schools’ ministry has described sustainable development’s central place in the curriculum as “non-negotiable.”2 Or as Andy Johnston, head of the education program for the influential environmental UK lobbying organization, Forum for the Future (www.forumforthefuture.org), says: “Higher education does not have the option of opting out.”3 Within a relatively short period of time sustainability has become a mainstream determinant of education policy. How has this happened…and why?

The Copernicus Charter, which originated in Stockholm University in 1993 as a response to the June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro—known as the Earth Summit4—stated that it is the “duty” (my italics) of universities “to promote the practice of environmental ethics in society.”5 Each of the signatory bodies has agreed to focus its curriculum on economic growth, social development, and environmental protection: otherwise known as the triple bottom line of sustainable development. With only 320 educational institutions signing up across thirty-eight European counties, it might be considered that sustainability has had limited success; after all, the UK’s Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability closed down after three years.6

However, even though the UK’s university sector has appeared reluctant to sign up to collective expressions of sustainability, it has unquestionably succeeded in becoming a defining feature of all campus life. Regardless of whether the extraordinary number of charters, statements, and pledges promising to spell out the education sector’s loyalty to the sustainability agenda are signed or consigned to the recycling bin, the actual practice of sustainability is much less formal, and more insidiously naturalized than official paper mandates suggest.

In the U.S., 653 college and university presidents had committed by 2008 to take actions to make “sustainability a part of the curriculum” within two years. Sixty-six sustainability-focused academic programs were established that same year, and around thirteen sustainability-themed research centers were opened with plans for creating thirty-three more. Ever since Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit demanded that sustainability be made central to the curriculum by the “reorientation of education” all across the world, universities have been striving to ensure that every aspect of their education policy and practices embodies “sustainable principles.”7

Needless to say, the higher education institutions that are flourishing in the sustainability stakes in the UK are less likely to be the top research universities such as Oxbridge, the Russell Group, and the so-called “1994 Group.”8 Instead, they are more likely to be institutions struggling to prove their place in the academy, typically new universities, former polytechnics, and so on, often popularly accused of being at the forefront of running “Mickey Mouse degrees.” For example, in the UK the student-led “People & Planet” named a “Green League 2009,” which awarded universities “degree-style classifications based on their environmental management and performance”: Nottingham Trent University is shown to be better than the London School of Economics; the University of Worcester beats Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities.9

In fact, the top twenty universities identified by their environmental excellence in the “Green League 2009 Tables” include the universities of Central Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Bradford, and Huddersfield, whereas Oxford or Cambridge do not get a look in. I don’t think I am being too controversial when I say that while these less academically-orientated universities may fall down in the intellectual stakes, they more than make up for it by occupying the moral high ground. Such “green league” tables warp the criteria used to judge what a good university is supposed to be.

With the announcement in 2003 by then-UK education secretary Charles Clarke that “[u]niversities may lose out on grant allocations if they fail to adopt sustainable development as a guiding principle”10 it would seem that institutions with lower academic pretensions may thrive and further distort the meaning of educational standards; after all, they are the ones being flattered, feted, and are driving the sustainability debate. Ofsted, the UK government’s inspection body for further education (FE) colleges, now sets standards for sustainable development as part of their inspection process, so colleges will be assessed by the content of their garbage bins as well as by their educational achievements.11

Universities that have concentrated their resources on becoming early leaders in the sustainability stakes have a flying start. Those with a track record in prioritizing educational excellence will undoubtedly find that their academic work will need to be sidetracked to fulfill their sustainability targets if they want to survive economically. Presumably, everyone looked on enviously as the East Midlands became the first UK region to be designated by the United Nations as a “Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development”…with a concomitant flow of cash.12

As more and more colleges and universities are lured by the siren call—or the blackmail—of sustainability, it has become a badge of honor as well as a Unique Selling Point. Ironically though, it becomes less and less unique as every university feels compelled to subscribe to the orthodoxy and finds itself upping the ante. The Princeton Review now includes a “green rating” in The Best Colleges, its annual guide to American colleges, with the intention of influencing the choices of prospective students.13 In its 2008 guide, for example, Ripon College in Wisconsin is highly rated for its decision to give freshman a “free mountain bike, helmet and lock if they do not bring a car to campus.”14

People & Planet publishes the annual Green League with the explicit purpose of enticing students to eco-credible colleges and encouraging students at non-sustainable colleges to lobby for change. But are students’ choices really swayed by the fact that a college has “a unique earthworm recycling method” as at Southern Illinois University, or a biomass project that is being used as a case study by the Scottish government as at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University?15 Or that Oxford Brookes became the UK’s first fair trade university? How about the great news that the University of Worcester has bought a £3000 second-hand milk float? After all, according, Worcester’s services manager Chris Dunn, “The students and staff love to see it going around campus.”16 As it happens, many young people are indeed convinced by this type of pseudo-ethical grandstanding, but what a pathetic way to win students to your university.

Should students really be making one of the biggest choices of their life—what university to attend—on the back of such parodic eco-policies? Undoubtedly not...but sustainability is a bandwagon, and an absence of evidence is generally perceived to be evidence of absence. In other words, universities seem to believe that they must display their sustainability peacock feathers as gratuitously as possible in order to keep their environmental credentials in full view. This self-fulfilling, promotional vulgarity has resulted in sustainability becoming the most dynamic aspect of college life.

For example, Rebecca Earley, a lecturer at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in the UK, is aware of how keen student desire to be part of the green revolution has become: “In 1999...seven per cent of the new students chose eco themes for their essays compared with 68 per cent this year.”17 In a separate study for the UK’s University Career Advisory Service, a survey shows that: “The track-record of the university or college on sustainable development issues was important for some applicants, with 45% of those intending to study education, social sciences, architecture, and building and planning saying a good track record on sustainable development was important or very important in choosing where to study.”18

An inability to argue for educational values, per se, has left the academy looking for its raison d’être. By clinging to sustainability as a coherent framework by which to understand their role, it is inevitable that colleges are becoming blasé about laying claim to sustainability’s educational equivalence with subject-based intellectual pursuits. Daniel J. Sherman, Luce Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy and Decision-Making at the University of Puget Sound, says that “Sustainability is a concept with tremendous opportunity for the kind of pedagogical applications that usher in broad and enduring social changes….Sustainability is a rich concept that can offer big ideas complementary to and overlapping with most, if not all, traditional disciplines.”19

Sustainability is seen as the miracle-cure for all the ailments of contemporary education. Iain Patton, executive director of the UK Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges imagines the higher education sector as “a great opportunity to explore new ways of living and trading.”20 Professor Janet Beer, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, thinks that patronage is more appropriate: “I see the potential for the education sector to act as a role model.”21 Through the prism of sustainability, educationalists can once again envisage changing the world, not by creating a knowledgeable, critically-engaged generation of enlightened subjects, but by an objectified generation taught to regurgitate pious claims to eco-salvation.

Eco-Literate

It is taken as read that sustainability should be central to higher education’s curricula and operational practices, and higher education institutions are now mandated to equip all students with “environmental literacy.” As Jim Butcher, author of The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand…and Saving the World? (Routledge, 2002) points out: “Sustainability literacy is now identified as a ‘core competency’ for graduates by government.”22

Literacy is an interesting word in this context; Butcher’s usage implies that students—i.e., adults—need to be taught to read anew and to display their proficiency in the new environmental language. Such functional literacy is a formal process of learning the rules, as opposed to “the ability to learn autonomously and to exercise flexibility of mind.”23 Under the new orthodoxy, literacy has a proscribed agenda.

Forum for the Future, which has worked closely with education departments in the UK, stipulates three criteria for sustainable literacy. One must

  • understand the need for change to a sustainable way of doing things

  • have sufficient knowledge and skills to decide and act in a way that favours sustainable development

  • be able to recognise and reward other people’s decisions and actions that favour sustainable development.24

This organic, proscriptive approach to education is anathema to the centrality of scholarship—of stretching students intellectually—which is generally assumed to be the job of the university. Indeed, Michael F.D. Young, professor of education at the University of London, has argued that “the belief that the knowledge acquired through the curriculum is (or at least should be) cognitively superior to people’s everyday knowledge has been the major rationale for the massive expansion of formal education in the past two centuries.”25

Unfortunately, it seems that this is no longer the case. Instead, education has become less about subject knowledge and more about an idiosyncratic garnering of personal responses to environmental concerns. As University of Kent sociology professor Frank Furedi argues in his introduction to The Corruption of the Curriculum (Civitas, 2007), issues of pedagogy have been subordinated to political expediency. With the academy’s inability to defend pedagogical standards, it is hardly surprising that it has opted for sustainability to provide self-justification. Unfortunately, this results in what Denis Hayes, University of Derby education professor, calls “a philistine pedagogy that rejects standards of excellence.”26 All the more reason, I would argue, to halt sustainability’s corrosive impact on subject knowledge and to defend education in its own terms.

Green Students

We can see that higher education is buying into the established mantra of sustainability, but aren’t students supposed to be a bit rebellious? Well, the experience of sustainability seems to have turned many intelligent grown-ups into nothing more than passive infants. Take, for instance, Stanford’s “green dorm” project that “monitor(s) room by room energy use and student behaviors.” The student representative for the project…says that he’s impressed with students’ willingness to turn off lights and unplug appliances, but he’s still bothered by the “amount of garbage generated in dorms.”27 In a more enlightened age, this busybody would have been told to mind his own business and get on with some work; today he has been elevated to a legitimate policing role and given official credibility. The high school prefect is alive and well and based in a university. (Not to mention that students are being criticized for the very thing they are renowned for—untidiness!)

This creeping acceptance that an individual’s perfectly legal, personal behavior on campus is no longer his private concern shows how much sustainability has torn autonomy asunder. And yet no one protests. As a matter of fact, such intrusiveness is regularly welcomed, sanctioned, and seen as a good thing. Independent thinking—if it is deemed to involve irresponsible thoughts—is as marginalized as so-called irresponsible behavior. With students oblivious to the possibilities of challenging trivial authority and colleges posing as moral guardians, the historic role of universities to “search for wisdom and liberate the mind” has been reduced to one of merely inducing “correct opinion.”28

Surely there must be some level of autonomy and critical enquiry left in universities? Why do college and university students put up with the intrusion, the manipulation, the doctrinal approach to subject matter, the political one-sidedness, the lack of alternatives, the consensual vacuity of it all?

Well, it is primarily because freethinking and critical thinking have all but been eroded by the time that they leave secondary education. For many college students today, regurgitating the mantra of sustainability is their only frame of reference and it is unheard of to challenge its precepts. To criticize is still an option…but it marks one as ethically suspect.

The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005–2015 is a strategy initiated by UNESCO to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainability into all aspects of education and learning worldwide. The instrumentalism of contemporary education policy means that the specific subject matter is a mere delivery device for the sustainability message. After all, the UK government’s 2005 strategy paper, Securing the Future: Delivering UK Sustainable Development Strategy, states that “[b]y linking teaching to issues of direct concern to young people—their personal quality of life, and the wellbeing of the communities and environment around them—their learning becomes more relevant and compelling, with positive impacts on standards of achievement and behavior.” It continues: “Working towards sustainable development goals can also increase the sense of purpose felt by staff in schools, colleges and universities, with impacts on morale, retention and recruitment of new staff.”29

In “Teaching and Learning Geography,” Daniella Tilbury writes: “Geography lessons need to teach rules for sustainable living, including those of social responsibility, concern for all life forms, harmony with nature, understanding and tolerance of different values, and commitment to work with and for others.”30 Even though it sounds like a primary school Bible study class it is actually what masquerades for degree-standard geography in universities these days. Tilbury is professor of sustainability at Gloucestershire University (which, lest we forget, won the Green League in 2008) and in her university department she picks up where the curriculum left off: “We have put [sustainability]…at the heart of our University development plans. We are seeking to weave it into the DNA of the institution through the curriculum.”31

As far back as 1990, geography was described by the UK National Curriculum as the “principle vehicle” for delivering environmental education.32 It stated that geography provides the main focus within the curriculum for understanding issues about the environment and sustainability, including transport. At Key Stages 1 and 2 [five- to seven-year-olds], pupils are able to investigate how changes to traffic volume can affect the environment. This can include travel to school.”33 The UK Department for Children, Schools and Families says that “sustainable development…reflects the growing awareness of how environmental influences affect life chances from an early age.”34 Undoubtedly children still learn about stuff, but they are being taught politicized rather than neutral subject matter.

Take science, for example. The UK Department for Education and Skills states that Key Stage 4 pupils (fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds) should be “taught about the efficient use of energy, the need for economical energy use and the environmental implications of generating energy.”35 In this lesson plan, some energy sources are deemed better than others. What type of science education starts off with an assumption that there is a good—and a morally bad—way to generate energy? Understanding the science of energy production is educative; condoning or opposing one form of production over another is a political statement of intent. And a dubious one, at that.

In the UK, it is a statutory requirement for pupils to be taught about sustainability in four subjects—science, geography, citizenship, and design and technology—but in fact sustainability straddles every aspect of education these days. For instance, The Earth Charter Guide Book for Teachers is an official learning tool, which informs teachers that

each principle of the Earth Charter can be applied to the subject that you teach….A 3rd grade teacher can adopt the principle as the inspiration of a year-long theme on “Global Citizenship”….A gym teacher could lead a class where students use recycled materials for games….A mathematics teacher can design numerical problems based on the concept of “regenerative capacities.”36

As we can see, every subject is tweaked by the drone of sustainability. Even physical education becomes a springboard for a moral message about responsible, sustainable behavior. In terms of subject-based teaching, the British education system is in meltdown, but Education for Sustainable Development is one area that is flourishing.

An Ofsted survey, “Schools and Sustainability: A Climate for Change,” states that “Primary schools were more successful than secondary schools in promoting sustainability.”37 In its “You Can” series, Scholastic, the biggest school book publisher in the world, states that “sustainable schools aim to prepare young people for a lifetime of sustainable living.”38 As the self-proclaimed “most trusted name in learning,” it’s worth delving into Scholastic’s checklist of books and descriptions:

  • Horrible Geography Handbooks: Planet in Peril, by Anita Ganeri: “From climate change to carbon footprints, this is a Horribly useful guide to the environmental issues children are most concerned about and offers oodles of ideas of things readers can do to help to save the planet.”

  • Homes and Cities, by Sally Morgan, examines “the problems of overcrowding, the senselessness of waste, and the causes of pollution, this book offers solutions to housing issues.”

  • Tourism in Balance, by Sally Morgan, “discusses the negative effects of tourism on the environment.”

  • One Good Apple, by Catherine Paladino: “Looking for an excuse to skip your veggies? This alarming account of the dangers pesticides pose to our food supply, our environment, and our health may be your answer.”

  • Thunderbird, by Marilyn Sachs: “Tina is crazy about cars, especially old cars. Dennis, the boy she meets in the library…just wants to save the environment. Could two such different people ever fall in love?”

  • Nowhere Land, by Katherine A. Applegate: “The last surviving humans are still fighting for the survival of their species.”

  • A Tale of Antarctica is a “tale about penguins in modern-day Antarctica, and how their environment is threatened by man’s increasing presence.”

  • Earth Day, by Trudi Strain Trueit, in which “readers can learn about all the ways they can help the environment by celebrating Earth Day.”

  • The Industrial Revolution, by Mary Collins, which explains that “Industrial Revolution helped make the United States one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but the progress came at the expense of workers and the environment.”

  • 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, by Sophie Javna, is self-explanatory; as is Every River Needs a Friend, by Nat Gabriel, Caretakers of the Earth, by Kathlyn Gay, etc., etc., etc.39

It seems that children are being brow-beaten or terrified into towing the environmental line long before they get to college.

Advocates in the Classroom

Ironically, often it is academics in the field of education who are complicit in the decline in scholarship by endorsing, encouraging, and promoting the paradigm shift away from “knowledge as something with an objective existence.”40 Undoubtedly, the academy may be loathe to act out the propagandistic logic of green orthodoxies within higher education establishments, but too many of them are happy to theorize about the need to move away from subject-based learning in schools and towards uncritical environmental advocacy.

John Fien, director of the EcoCentre at Griffith University, speaks of our unsustainable consumer-oriented, materialistic world and wants to save children from “this absolute warping of moral values.” The problem, as he sees it, is that “teachers have been trying too hard to be neutral and objective, because in education we have been taught that is the professionally ethical thing to do.”41 Professor Fien’s views may chime with the times, but they are provocative and contentious and merit a critical response; but with advocacy usurping education, Fien’s viewpoint is likely to become an untouchable “official” version of events. We are therefore experiencing the creeping legitimization of political and educationally-marginal bodies—including explicitly partisan teachers—into positions of authority within mainstream education. Whereas this bias would have been frowned upon in the past, “sustainability” has the virtue of being regarded as the epitome of non-political common sense (despite its promotion by an unashamedly partisan environmental and sustainability industry). From moralistic library books to message-driven geography lessons, the collapse of pedagogical certainty drives schools, desperate for sustainability expertise, to look to outside advisors to propagate, and inculcate, the message.

Infamously, Al Gore’s propaganda movie An Inconvenient Truth was sent to every school in the UK. There was some criticism by parents about this overt political intrusion into the classroom, but for several years, on the back of government and academic endorsement, NGOs have been sneaking into the primary school system unchallenged. Friends of the Earth run annual environmental activities for Key Stage 3 pupils (eleven- to fourteen-year-olds).42 In the U.S., The Story of Stuff, a political animation arguing that consumerism is destroying the planet, is the center of a high school educational module.43 And Focus the Nation, a shadowy organization in the U.S. with major environmental corporate funding, organized a “teach-in” where one million students were persuaded to “put aside business as usual” in order to concentrate on climate change.44 This story is replicated internationally.

If “brainwashing” is too strong a word, it is perhaps more fashionable to say that children are being “nudged” in the right moral direction. At a time when many liberals are concerned about the rise of faith schools and religious indoctrination, it is curious that preaching an environmentalist message in classrooms raises no eyebrows. Whereas parents and teachers would be horrified to find political parties wandering into schools to push their partisan agendas, everyone seems perfectly happy for environmental lobbyists to roam around handing out leaflets, writing lesson plans, and preparing coursework and subject matter.

Sadly, environmentally-committed teachers who buy into sustainability think that they are being radical don’t realize that they are utterly mainstream and doctrinal. Activists and advocates for a particular environmental position no longer need to get their hands dirty with hard arguments and instead can simply ride in through the back door of school policy. Where once children were perhaps overly protected from the nefarious influences of adults with political agendas, nowadays schools erstwhile in loco parentis are willingly offering up their charges to be used and manipulated.

Taken as a whole, the education sector is undermining the very essence of education. By promoting itself as a school for sustainability advocates, the notion of education in schools, colleges, and universities has become corroded. In the past, governments advocated world-class education because it was a good thing in its own terms. Nowadays education in general, and sustainable education in particular, are simplistically promoted as devices to achieve non-educational, instrumentalist objectives. This is not mind-expanding; this is propaganda that closes the mind—and blinds children and young adults to idea of asking difficult questions.

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