Political “stranger danger” in classrooms

Austin Williams | 10 August 2009 (The Australian)

SCHOOLCHILDREN are being brainwashed with an environmental message in the classroom. Children are not just being pinned down in the classroom and force-fed what to think: it’s worse than that. The next generation – from primary schoolchildren through to college students – is being taught not to think, merely encouraged to accept the official line. It ought to be a national scandal but no one seems to think that there is anything controversial about environmental indoctrination in schools.

The UN is midway through its global Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, a strategy initiated by UNESCO to integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainability into all aspects of education and learning. In its latest action plan, Living Sustainably, the Australian government states – with Orwellian overtones – that it will be “reorienting education”. Who would have thought that any government would have the chutzpah to boast it “seeks to ensure that education is integrated with other policy tools utilised to deliver Australian government policy and program outcomes.”

Indeed, the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, argues: “Higher education is pivotal to achieving environmental sustainability, improving social inclusion, engaging with our region and strengthening the institutional framework of our democracy.” Knowledge, learning, critical thinking and intellectual development don’t feature in the list of aims of sustainable education. This is hardly surprising because sustainable education has nothing to do with education.

Unfortunately, this story is being replicated internationally. Sustainable development is explicitly central to Britain’s national curriculum, which states that sustainability must be “built into the fabric of (all) school building”. Al Gore’s propaganda movie An Inconvenient Truth was sent to every school in Britain. On the back of government endorsement, non-governmental organisations are sneaking into the education system. Crispin School in Somerset has won a World Wildlife Fund curriculum management award.

In the US, The Story of Stuff, a political animation arguing consumerism is destroying the planet, is part of a high school educational module. And Focus the Nation, a shadowy organisation with environmental corporate funding, organised a teach-in where one million students were persuaded to “put aside business as usual” to concentrate on climate change.

If brainwashing is too strong a word, it might be more acceptable to say that children are being nudged in the right moral direction. Whereas parents and teachers would be horrified to find political parties wandering into schools to push their partisan agendas, everyone seems happy for environmental lobbyists – presumably thought to be the epitome of political impartiality – to wander around schools, handing out leaflets, writing lesson plans, and preparing coursework and subject matter.

If governments want to sell an environmental policy, in normal circumstances they would have to convince the public through active political engagement. Nowadays, they simply get third-party agencies to do it for them. For instance, the UN has published a media resource aimed at journalists to help them get “on message” for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. It doesn’t mince words, telling budding journalists to avoid artificial “balance” and directing the press to influence the direction of education so it can “translate passive awareness into active concern and to sustain behaviour change through daily habits”.

Sadly, environmentally committed teachers and journalists who buy into sustainability think they are being radical without pausing to realise that they are utterly mainstream and doctrinal. Activists and advocates for a particular environmental position no longer need to get their hands dirty with hard arguments; they can simply choose to ride in through the back door of schools’ policy.

Where once children were perhaps overly protected from the nefarious influences of adults with political agendas, nowadays schools erstwhile in loco parentis are willingly offering up their charges to be used, manipulated, and made to manipulate others.

By pursuing this environmental trajectory, the education sector undermines the very essence of education. By promoting itself as a school for sustainability advocates, the notion of schooling per se is corroded. In the past, governments advocated world-class education because it was a good thing in its own terms; nowadays, education is promoted as a simplistic device to achieve other non-educational, instrumental objectives.

We can but hope that children, being children, will rebel and start to ask the awkward questions that environmental activists never bother to confront. Let’s hope that adults, being adults, will start to lead the way.

Austin Williams was speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies Big Ideas Forum in Sydney today. See www.cis.org.au


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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