Do schools and our current educational system function in sustainable ways—and do they prepare students to live sustainable lives? Hundreds of years ago, the people knew waht this meant, but many of us seem to have forgotten. One of the Great Laws of the Iroquois was ‘In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation.’
In 2000, Penn State issued a report that points out that while schools and colleges teach that the many of the vital signs of the Earth are in decline, they still prepare graduates to ‘contribute to, rather than mitigate, the growing array of environmental and social problems now plaguing us.’ It goes on to suggest that the concept of sustainability must become the new organizational principle for education. [‘Green Destiny: Penn State’s Emerging Ecological Mission’]
The U.S. has only about 5% of the world’s population, but we use about 25% of the world’s material resources and 25% of the world’s energy. Valuable as it is, recycling is the 3rd of the 3 R’s: First is to reduce the amount we use; 2nd is to find other uses so things are reused and do not have to be discarded. Our immense demand for cheap energy and ‘stuff’ is obviously unsustainable—and the idea of raising others to our level of consumption and waste is absurd.
If students are lucky enough to be in a school that discusses the concepts of sustainability in depth, does the school involve students in the practices of sustainability? The great educator Thomas Dewey often reminded us that it is not enough to study about a subject—children [and adults!] learn from experience.
Ask these questions to see how your schools and colleges are doing:
- Do students understand that Martin Luther King, Jr. worked towards justice for all—not just an end to segregation, but an end to what he called the evil ‘giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism’?
- Do students gain an understanding and appreciation of ecology, the interdependence of all living things and the environment in which they survive?
- Are students prepared to thrive with only their fair share of the world’s energy and material resources?
- Do students understand that prosperity based on exploiting others is wrong and unsustainable?
- Are students prepared to participate effectively in an inclusive, democratic society?
The phrase ‘democratic education’ or ‘democratic school’ usually refers to schools where students are actively involved in making decisions about their own education—and about how the school works. Done well, this approach invigorates education and empowers students in ways that no study of democracy can.
Is your school preparing young people to be part of the solution or part of the problem?