Oz Blog News Commentary

University of Life

May 18, 2020 - 02:33 -- Admin

Ecology and Earth systems, from which all life flows, should be at
the heart of learning.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 13th May

Imagine mentioning William Shakespeare to a university graduate
and discovering they had never heard of him. You would be incredulous. But it’s
common and acceptable not to know what an arthropod is, or a vertebrate, or to
be unable to explain the difference between an insect and spider. No one is
embarrassed when a “well-educated” person cannot provide even a rough
explanation of the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle or the water cycle, or
of how soils form.

All this is knowledge as basic as the intelligence that
Shakespeare was a playwright. Yet ignorance of such earthy matters sometimes
seems to be worn as a badge of sophistication. I love Shakespeare, and I
believe the world would be a poorer and a sadder place without him. But we
would survive. The issues about which most people live in ignorance are, by
contrast, matters of life and death.

I don’t blame anyone for not knowing. This is a collective
failure: a crashing lapse in education, that is designed for a world in which
we no longer live. The way we are taught misleads us about who we are and where
we stand. In mainstream economics, for example, humankind stands at the centre
of the universe, and the constraints of the natural world are either invisible
or marginal
to the models

In an age in which we urgently need to cooperate, we are educated
for individual success in competition with others. Governments tell us that the
purpose of education is
to get ahead
of other people or, collectively, of other nations. The
success of universities is measured
by the starting salaries of their graduates. But nobody wins the
human race. What we are encouraged to see as economic success means
planetary ruin

Large numbers of people now reject this approach to learning – and
to life. A survey
reported this week
suggests that six out of ten people in the UK want the
government to prioritise health and well-being ahead of growth when we emerge
from the pandemic. This is one of the most hopeful results I have seen in

I believe that education should work outwards from our principal
challenges and aims. This doesn’t mean we should forget Shakespeare, or the
other wonders of art and culture, but that the matters crucial to our continued
survival are given the weight they deserve. During the lockdown, I’ve been
doing something I’ve long dreamt about: experimenting with an ecological

I can’t claim to have found it easy, or to have got it all right.
As millions of parents have discovered, there’s a reason why people undergo
years of specialist education and training before qualifying as teachers.
Persuading children to see you as a parent one moment and a teacher the next is
especially challenging. But, working with an eight- and a nine-year-old (my
youngest daughter and her best friend), I’ve begun to discover that my dream is
not entirely ridiculous.

I’m not talking about teaching ecology as an isolated subject, but
about something more fundamental: placing ecology and Earth systems at the
heart of learning, just as they are at the heart of life. So we’ve been
experimenting with project-based learning, centred on the living world. We
started by constructing a giant
, composed of 15 A4 panels. Each panel introduces a different habitat,
from mountaintops to the deepest ocean, the forest canopy to the soil, onto
which we stick pictures of the relevant wildlife.

The painting becomes a platform for exploring the processes and
relationships in every ecosystem, and across the Earth system as a whole.
These, in turn, are keys that open other doors. For example, rainforest ecology
leads to photosynthesis, that leads to organic chemistry, atoms and molecules,
to the carbon cycle, fossil fuels, energy and power. Sea otters take us to food
webs, keystone species and trophic

We’ve done some fieldwork in soil ecology, an extraordinary and
neglected subject, upon which all human life depends, that you can study at
home or in the park. It introduces basic scientific principles and experimental
design, and leads us into various aspects of maths and writing.

We’re now making a model landscape, to demonstrate the water
cycle, river dynamics, stratigraphy, erosion, soil formation and temperature
gradients. To the greatest extent possible, I’m letting the children guide this
journey. But because of the circular nature of Earth systems, it doesn’t matter
where you begin: eventually you go all the way round. As on many previous
, I’m struck by children’s natural affinity with the living world.
The stories it has to tell are inherently fascinating.

There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a
matter of emphasis more than content, of centralising what is most important.
Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education.
As local authorities in Scotland point
, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to
school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement
with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its
many benefits
, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has
been cut to almost nothing.

This is the time for a Great Reset. Let’s use it to change the way
we see ourselves and our place on Earth. The conservationist Aldo
Leopold wrote
that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that
one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on
land is quite invisible to laymen.” If everyone has an ecological education, we
will not live alone, and it will not be a world of wounds.