Education’s New Assignment: Sustainability

 

For a shift away from consumerism to occur, every aspect of education—from lunchtime and recess to class work and even the walk home—will need to be oriented on sustainability. Habits, values, preferences—all are shaped to a large degree in childhood. And throughout life, education can have a transformative effect on learners. Thus, harnessing this powerful institution will be essential in redirecting humanity toward cultures of sustainability.

No educational system is value-neutral, but all teach and are shaped by a certain set of ideas, values, and behaviors, whether that be consumerism, communism, religious beliefs, or sustainability. As UNESCO states, “Education is not an end in itself. It is a key instrument for bringing about the changes in the knowledge, values, behaviours and lifestyles required to achieve sustainability and stability within and among countries, democracy, human security and peace. Hence it must be a high priority to reorient educational systems and curricula towards these needs. Education at all levels and in all its forms constitutes a vital tool for addressing virtually all global problems relevant for sustainable development.”

The more sustainability can be integrated into existing school systems—whether at a Catholic school, a private university, or a public elementary school or through less-formal educational institutions such as museums, zoos, and libraries—the more people will internalize teachings of sustainability from an early age, and these ideas, values, and habits will become “natural.” If education can be harnessed, it will be a powerful tool in bringing about sustainable human societies.

This section investigates a sampling of what is happening around the world as educators work to shift from a cultural pattern of consumerism to one of sustainability. Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson of Gothenburg University and Yoshie Kaga of UNESCO describe the formative role that early education can play in teaching children to live sustainably when effectively incorporating key environmental lessons into curricula. Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood focuses on how important it will be to reclaim childhood from marketers and provide children with unstructured and creative playtime that does not stimulate consumerist values or desires.

Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino of the University of Cardiff explain that school meals are a particularly important part of the school day that could be better used to teach environmental awareness, while helping establish dietary norms that are healthy and sustainable. And David Orr of Oberlin College considers the two important roles that universities play in reorienting learning on sustainability: teaching environmental thinking to students and modeling sustainability both for students and surrounding communities.

Included within these articles are several shorter discussions of other important developments: the benefits of getting children and adults back into nature, toy libraries that have started up in dozens of countries, the effort of one museum to become a center of sustainability education, the role of professional schools in cultivating a sustainability ethic, and the proposed Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, which could be used to mobilize the academic community to investigate how best to shift human cultures.

Incorporating sustainability education into teacher training and school curricula and providing lifelong opportunities to learn about sustainability will be essential in cultivating societies that will thrive long into the future. The key now will be to expand programs like the ones described here and embed them deeply into leading educational institutions. This will help transform education’s role from one that too often reinforces unsustainable consumer behaviors to one that helps to cultivate the knowledge essential to living sustainable lives.

—Erik Assadourian

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