Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Education is not sustainable according to a new book reviewed here by Dennis Hayes

Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project, architect, illustrator, author, and host of the innovative and entertaining ‘Bookshop Barnies’ is something of a renaissance man. His latest book, The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability,* provides a defence of reason, truth and progress that the early humanists would be proud of; but it is no return to tradition. It is an almost unique attempt to reconstruct the drive for a new enlightenment in the twenty-first century. Its style is witty and ironic. Williams does irony very well. One academic described his book as a ‘polemic’. Intended as faint praise, it backfires. ‘Polemical’ books are the thing that academia fears most: books produced by intellectuals outside of universities that have something interesting to say rather than the unreadable research academics produce for the Research Assessment Exercise.

Williams, according to Philippe Legrain, has a ‘gift for lobbing well directed grenades’ and readers will enjoy his ironic explosion of the puffed-up and doom-mongering ideas of the irrational and hysterical individuals who issue quasi-religious edicts about how mankind is an excrescence on the planet, but won’t argue their case.

The enemies of progress that are intellectually coalescing around the reactionary, backward-looking notion of ‘sustainability’ are not just irrational individuals. The enemies of progress are ideas: localism, nihilism, pessimism, primitivism and misanthropy. These ideas spread self-doubt, confusion and fear. In Chapter 4 ‘The Indoctrinators’, Williams uses example after example to show how education about sustainability has become a matter of manipulating children’s minds by scaring them with stories of environmental devastation and destruction that cannot be questioned. The consequence is that ‘critical thinking has been redefined…around the ‘givens’ of sustainability and environmentalism’ (p 74). He agrees with Mick Hume in the claim that Education, Education, Education has been redefined as Indoctrination, Indoctrination, Indoctrination. Because of the sustainability agenda teachers are being transformed into indoctrinators, teaching truths that cannot be questioned.

No sooner was Williams’ book on the shelves than Ofsted issued a report on Schools and Sustainability** calling for all schools to be ‘sustainable’ by 2020. They bemoaned the fact that ‘Work on sustainability tended to be piecemeal and uncoordinated….rather than being an essential part of the curriculum.’ What was needed was a ‘whole-school approach’. There is no question here of a critical – that is educational - approach. Ofsted’s chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, has an entirely instrumental attitude to the question, praising teachers who use ‘stimulating discussion and activities to engage pupils in issues relating to sustainable development’. No more critical thinking then. Gilbert is right though, too many teachers are more concerned with giving children some subject knowledge and teaching them how to think critically and don’t see their job as brainwashing future generations. They remain, for the moment, educators.

Where Williams is wrong is in seeing the transformation of education into indoctrination as ‘underhand’. If this is ‘underhand’, it is hard see what an open-handed approach would be.

In summary, Williams is in favour of the car, roads, cities, planes, travelling as far as you want on holiday, eating food flown in from all over the world and enjoying it out of season (so **** off, Gordon Ramsey). He is for allowing the unqualified development of China, India and the Third World. He wants us to reach for the stars rather than the recycling bin.

Engaging children in stimulating and critical discussion about the human potential these things express would be a start on really defending standards in education. A copy of this book should be sent to every school in the UK. What about that, Christine?

*Austin Williams’s The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, is published by Societas/imprint academic, Price £8.95, May 2008

**Ofsted’s Report Schools and Sustainability: A Climate for Change, was published on 21 May 2008