Today’s blog is written by Ben Ballin. As with all our authored contributions, what follows are Ben’s views which are not necessarily shared by NAEE.
Towards the end of Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant state-of-the-US-nation novel ‘Unsheltered’, its central character Willa has a moment of revelation, while watching her prickly, unconventional daughter Tig set up home in an upcycled garage. Here are some of Willa’s parental musings:
“She aimed to be immune to the ambitions and disappointments that had maimed her parents’ existence and now were stirring up a national tidal wave of self-interest that Willa found terrifying … Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood and melting permafrost, with everyone still grabbing for bricks to put in their pockets rather than walking out of the wreck and looking for light.”
The novel mirrors Willa’s situation with the story of a nineteenth-century Darwin scholar, a teacher who is expelled from his job, home and town for his refusal to submit to the religious orthodoxies of the time. In both instances, as Kingsolver’s own website pithily notes, “the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.” (“Us”, please note, not “them”; “have”, not “had.”)
As a middle-aged man, a parent and educator, with over four decades of activism and educational work under my gradually-expanding belt, I am well aware that generational shifts are nothing new. Heck, this piece starts with Bob Dylan setting out the challenges in 1964, when I wasn’t yet at school. My teenage years saw punk rock announce a revolutionary reboot for popular culture: many successive waves of cultural and political change have happened since. History just keeps on happening.
The prospect of imminent nuclear catastrophe that haunted my childhood and adolescence has now been replaced by another huge existential crisis: climate catastrophe and its attendant impacts on the biosphere (including humanity). Once more, the young, the real Gretas and the fictional Tigs, are visible at the leading edge of historical change.
So how, this time, do experienced educators best respond? Do we best get out of the new road … or can we lend a hand? Which of our old ideas and ambitions are now like bricks in the pockets of the young, and which can perhaps help offer ways out of the wreck?
I recently came across an environmental education project, breezily showing young people how to make recycled tote bags. I remember being involved in just such a project in 1999. It seemed a good idea then, but when does a good idea like this hit its expiry date, or do some good ideas always stay good? I’m genuinely not sure. What would Darwin say?
When she finished her ’A’; levels, one my nieces memorably announced on Facebook, ”Hurrah – no more global dimensions!” A few weeks ago, a European colleague told me of pupils with environmental-education-fatigue: “Please, no more! Anything but the SDGs!” Even allowing for a certain rhetorical element, I find these utterances more than a little provocative. Of course, not every young person is a Greta or a Tig, but sometimes too, well-intentioned schools and programmes can kill-off interest as well as engendering or nurturing it. How do we best understand such comments and really hear what is being said?
Such critical questions seem to have gained an extra edge, even edginess, at this oh-so critical moment for humanity and the non-human world. Not all of those questions will be easy, but now seems to be a good time to set aside the bricks, clamber out of the wreck and do some seriously unsheltered thinking … while the light still holds.
NAEE is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, which to my mind means asking a great many questions about the future as well as celebrating the best of the past. A middle-aged birthday means recognising that the world will be lived-in by a fresh set of faces: it will be them that will take the decisions, make the choices, experience the frustrations and the fun.
It’s a good time to make bold plans.
Ben Ballin is a primary geography consultant and a Fellow of NAEE. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org