“Educating for Hope in Troubled Times” by David Hickman

Hicks_Educating_for_HopeISBN 978-1-85856-553-8. “Educating for Hope in Troubled Times – Climate change and the transition to a post-carbon future” was written by David Hicks and published by the Institute for Education Press in 2014. This represents the first time we have reviewed the work of an educational academic that was written largely for other academics in the field. David kindly approached us last year requesting the right to quote our very own Post-carbon Living “Ten Steps” in their entirety. Of course we were delighted, at first, then a little intrigued about the context. So, for a layman-amateur (such as us) what is the take-away from a work such as this? Well, it’s complicated and “troubled” in its own way.

We have little experience of the teaching of young minds despite having two children and a member of the family in the teaching profession. This book really is not meant for the likes of us – this will be a poor review outside of the ivory tower. Still, we’ll do our humble best… we had considered home-schooling at one stage and talked with many home-schooling parents. Certainly this may well have been a book we could have picked up if this matter had gone that way…. However this is not a book for home-schoolers either – it contains limited practical advice or activities.

So let me start with my own story: when I was asked by a home-schooling parent what I had to contribute to home-teaching I spoke to her of Transition Towns, sustainability and Superhomes. She looked slightly puzzled and then told me that it was all ‘environmentalism’ to her and I should teach “the environment stuff”. I had visions of me leading the kids on nature-trails in which I could tell the kids nothing about what they could see whilst I was dying to tell them about the limits to growth.. Meet my nightmare. Yes, I have ‘issues’ – post-carbon living (for me) is manifestly NOT some new ‘aspect’ of environmentalism. The reasons are well explained throughout my writings – I shall not repeat.

Why is this relevant? Well, like our well-meaning home-schooler we believe that Hicks has implicitly internalised the “post-carbon-transition-as-environmentalism” meme. “Educating for Hope” is the most recent work from him in a line of similar books that deal specifically with sustainable schooling. The fact that we have not come across this before reveals the narrower academic target audience. Still we feel that he is touching upon an important matter and it deserves critical attention and, indeed, a much longer treatise for the popular audience. This must be supported but re-orientating our education system to build a world-worth-living-in will always be a contentious issue. Hicks is right to highlight the impacts of political ideology upon teaching but he largely treats it as a problem for which there is no solution. Indeed he implies that teaching methods that fall inline with current “neoliberalism” are in danger of being co-opted by it.

We have written a fair amount over the years about how ideology effects our ability to build a sustainable world for our children. Our principle objection to dogma is that (self-evidently) it is not pragmatic. It favours faith in ‘what-should-work’ over ‘knowing-what-does-work’. It may well be that

“…neoliberal education colonises young people’s futures into a restrictive business-centred-framework so that education becomes, rather than a public good, merely a tool for promoting economic competiveness.”

…but I would contend that this is not necessarily a problem. Indeed, like a bout of Judo we may well benefit from using our opponent’s weight against them. To believe it is is to assume that a business-centred-framework is at odds with sustainability. This is a value that is commonly internalised by environmentalists as an operating assumption. It must be challenged.

Having not read any of Hicks’ previous books it is hard to say whether “Educating for Hope” reflects his previous style but (to me) it resembles more closely a meta-study rather than an original work. This is not a criticism – if anything it resembles my own work in that respect – we have read a lot of books but cannot engage in any original research ourselves. Large parts are dominated with quotes lifted directly from other sources. It is like browsing Hicks’ bookshelf; I did find all the most quote-worthy sections were actually wisdom from other authors! For example the quote above was actually intended to refer to the work of Debra Bateman & Wendy Sutherland-Smith in “Neoliberalising learning: Generating alternate future consciousness“. What this revealed to me is that there is already a rich seam of knowledge in the area of sustainable learning and this should be opened up to the general public in an accessible form.

So we can agree, as Hicks writes, that “there is no such thing as value-free education” whilst also asserting that there is no such thing as value-free academic literature about education. Whilst Hicks suggests that political dogma may well be a problem his line of solutions is also dependent upon assumptions that will leave many of us deeply uncomfortable. He is quick to pick up on Hulme’s definition of Climate Change being a “wicked” problem and Greer’s idea of Peak Oil being a “predicament” but he doesn’t quite run with these – preferring instead to emphasise “emotional literacy” and the need for “hope” in the minds of the young. We found the need for these unconvincing and no doubt many teachers would agree. In a world where you are trusted to turn out educated young people, ready for the world of work and commerce, where will you find time to give them hope and a hug? I would suggest neither need tackling directly. Do young people really need to express their feelings quite as much Hicks argues?

His view is that Climate Change Denial is all a matter of fear – hence if children can address their fears this would help them accept the science. An alternative view may well be that those who deny science are very well attached to the emotions – indeed that is the problem: over-attachment to emotional reaction without the tools to over-ride emotion with reason. If the enlightenment experiment is to continue then young minds need to get better ‘tuned-in’ to reality, not their inner-feelings. The need for emotional literacy is great amongst a narrow clique for whom this already works. It is an already internalised-value which they project onto every member of society. Yet we have to move beyond narrow academia and into a broader spectrum of subject matters acceptable to the public. If we deliver solutions that educators are less-comfortable with then they will not adopt them. it would argue that our education system is already well equipped to form the young mind into becoming inquisitive, sceptical and challenging. From the subjects of History and Geography through all the sciences, young people are taught to judge matters from the evidence. Denial comes from the minds of people who are unable to grasp evidence preferring instead their own culturally-reinforced prejudices. This is most common amongst the old, not the young.

Where I believe Hicks can contribute is in his belief that children need to “question the future”. The reason why this is important is because children already do this all the time. When I last wrote [in “Futurism: Changing the World with Stories“] I argued that storytelling and science-fiction are fantastic avenues for exploring things to come and our concerns about the limits to growth. Whilst writing that piece I was not initially thinking necessarily about educating the young – but I do believe this is applicable.

I would contend that, far from loading the curriculum with emotional baggage, we should insert storytelling into the narrative of the young. Their minds are eager to soak up new ideas so why not use storytelling them to engage them in thinking about futures that will be their own? Only from that landing craft should we start to talk about building a beach-head of “hope”. Hope is the moral characteristic children will grow-into that leads them to believe that they can change the future. It is exactly the same characteristic that leads them to believe that they can start their own business and be their own boss in our neoliberal, state-capitalist society. Having a business-orientated education culture is not necessarily part of the problem, we can make it part of the solution because the ingredients are all the same.

So what we can say about Hicks’ work is that it is the equivalent of the old adage about a man with a hammer who sees all life’s problems as nails-to-be-hammered. For us education is important, but we already have all the tools we need within it. This has absolutely nothing to do with “eco-schools” or whether children have time to spend in nature. Hicks quotes me at length but he is cut from a different cloth. Here I am quoting him, quoting me (which is kind of weird but bear with me):

“This post-carbon life is not environmentalism. It isn’t “green”. It isn’t “eco” this or that. This isn’t a “lifestyle” choice. It is just how life will be.”

Hence we have to move on from the narrow eco-dreams of the minority to the Realpolitik of the majority. Not what we want. Instead; what everyone needs. So let us get a little ‘real’ and seriously challenge assumptions such as this:

“Primary schools could consider an alternative programme for younger pupils, which could develop a sense of environmental awe, wonder and responsibility.”

Seriously? ‘Awe’? This seems almost flippant, who knows a primary school child that isn’t full of ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’? How does an educator steer ‘natural wonder’ in a useful direction? A more appropriate response may well be to target the very young with some of the basic rules of scientific endeavour. Not just “is it wonderful?” and more like “how does it work?”. Or maybe I am being unrealistic? I feel we need to recognise that finding nature ‘awesome’ has almost nothing to do with either the limits to growth, peak oil or climate change. Again we bear witness to the basic operating assumption: that sustainability challenges have something to do with the environment. They do NOT as I have demonstrated down the years. If you want to raise children to hug trees and recognise bird song then that is one thing, if you wish to prepare them for the choices they face as grown-ups then they will need another tool-set.

Take an example: a child’s parents work in coal-mining. You present them with the undeniable evidence that coal will deplete and must not be burnt even if we had it to burn. That child is in school because of a family’s lifetime of experiences that screams at them, from every atom of their existence, that coal is good. How do we arm that child to make the right decision that a future in coal-mining is NOT for them, or, indeed, anyone ever again? That takes more than just a scientific analysis of the evidence; it takes the force of personality to overcome the overwhelming weight of cultural expectations. Coal miners love their children and have probably taught their children to recognise every breed of caterpillar out there. Their weekends could be filled with nature, wonder and “awe”. Yet they will be hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the changes that confront their communities and their families. Hicks does not address this.

What children have to be equipped to do is to tackle significant change in their lives. More change than their parents ever had to deal with. What is really wrong with our “neo-liberal” education system is not that it resists sustainability or that it equips children for a role in commerce. No, it is that it doesn’t equip them to handle a world where they could be over-whelmed with change. Whatever the current orthodox doctrine is in play will not make any difference if it doesn’t accept change: if the current ideology is committed to business-as-usual then they are going to be disappointed. Children need to see a different world coming in which they all have important and exciting roles. Their parents never got to change the world – but these kids do. This will be the most exciting time for children yet Hicks portrays this as a nature walk. We have to move beyond this paradigm if children are to be empowered and, let’s face it, all fired up to deal with the challenge ahead.

Dealing with the work of futurists Hicks quotes Christopher Barnatt who nicely sums up the dilemma:

“…we are entering an age of unparalleled technological possibility just at the moment when the cupboard of Planet Earth is starting to run bare.”

He then goes onto quote the National College for Leadership in Schools and Children’s Services who asked:

“Should schools be in the business of reflecting back to young people the contemporary paradigm of progress – in terms of values, material aspirations, consumerist behaviours – that has dominated people’s lives since the middle of the last century? Or should they be actively preparing them for the very different world that awaits them and will be asking very different things of them?”

The College goes onto list a range of measures that strangely included “bringing the natural world back into the school“. So dominant is the meme of “nature-is-good” in these thinkings that even when they address the problem directly they still resort to natural ‘shock & awe’ to somehow “reconnect” young people to the “environment”. For us this remains a distraction. Yet this distraction continues to go to the heart of Government where education for sustainable development still has some purchase. In 2013 the Sustainable Schools Alliance launched arguing that by engaging schools in:

“…reducing their carbon emissions they protect the environment…”

…as if that is all kids have to worry about. It ranks right up there with ‘litter’ and ‘graffiti’ – take my word for it. This will not (and can not) engage, either the young mind, or their communities. Hicks remains essentially right though when he implores the reader to engage with their local Transition initiatives as

“…a vital resource for schools demonstrating active citizenship at local levels in all sorts of inspiring ways.”

…although the flip-side of that is that the Transition movement itself is largely a facet of environmentalism. Instead of preparing young minds for great change the ‘local inspiration’ could lend itself to little more than planting wild flowers.

Overall though I do applaud what Hicks has tried to do within his study. He may not have worked out a way to plug Transition into schools but he has brought together a set of references here that is invaluable. Maybe it says too much (or too little?) that Hicks’ bookshelf is the best asset he has. The answers are all there even if they are not rationally laid out in this book. You dip into the various quote panels within the book and lift out all kinds of interesting tools, some of them even from the author himself. Just check out the “Source of hope” section across pages 111 and 112 as but one example.

I also found great cheer in work that Hicks did back in 2006 where he found that in students’ preferred futures there were many shared and key elements. It underlines my point about this being an open door we should push against. Most of us do have a shared vision of what we want the future to look like. Few of us probably understand that future or what threatens it but most of us can agree that we need clean power, peace, justice, community, work, health, food, equity and so on. There is more that bonds us than divides us. This kind of insight will prove valuable.

However Hicks’ narrative suggests that there is just a tension between “light green” and “dark green” that boils down to inequality. Without wishing to belittle the importance of inequality there is vastly more to it than that. This is not an argument that can be corralled into the simplistic narrow confines of one type of “green” versus some other kind of “green”. We argue here that this is not a “green” issue at all! There is more to this than just “scratching the surface” versus “getting to the roots”. Root and branch change would be nice but we must be realistic. The systems we have must evolve; children will need the tools to invoke that revolution. Yes we must question the cultural and political framework; but is this biting off more than we can chew when there is so much else that can be done within today’s cultural confines? It doesn’t just boil down to consumerism versus eco-living. If we treat it in such a facile way then we condemn it all to be a ‘lifestyle choice’ which it can never be. Hicks, as always, seems so close to the truth yet he always bails at the last minute and dives for his comfort zone which appears to be a semi-mystical relationship with nature and fate.

I agonised over this book. I wanted it so much to be the direction education should be taking but sometimes it seemed to barely touch the surface of a deep and complicated matter. The truth is that we have yet to live in “troubled times” and the opportunities for “hope” are limited within the class room. But what I did love about “Educating for hope” is that it found a role for Transition and it embraced the language of post-carbon living. Indeed I don’t think I have seen the phrases “post-carbon life” and “post-carbon living” invoked quite so many times in the written word (outside of my own work). When I selected my language back in 2008 I had never consciously seen either phrases used actively as terms with any specific meaning. It cheered me no end to see them adopted in a work of serious academia.

I want to heartily thank David for his inclusion of my work in his book. He is onto something and we will use his work as a good source bible for years to come. Although we don’t quite think he has truly got quite under the skin of the issue at stake we certainly don’t wish to claim this is a bad book; it is just that we seem at cross-purposes. Hicks introduces our “Ten Steps” with the phrase “on a lighter note”; the Ten Steps may not be a serious work of an academic for academics but they had serious intent. Hicks suggests that Ten Steps are not steps that “one would immediately choose” and that they might “not appeal”. Maybe. The Steps are the result of research into things that people can actually do in their homes and communities. They exclude such concepts as “protest” or “politics” directly, preferring concepts that should be relatively acceptable, achievable & comfortable for most people. The Steps are not any attempt to take people back to the “good-old-days”. They were designed to be as non-threatening and reasonable as possible. They are things people can actually do and they do not involve any need for romantic attachments to trees, emotional literacy, “feelings” or any of the other soft-human-concepts that Hicks sees as his tools.

So we must agree, maybe, to disagree. I will use hard tools, he must use soft tools, but somewhere between us there are the answers that will suit all the people all the time. For if we cannot find the answers then the next generation will need to be equipped to find them. Our mission is to give them with the tools. Let’s make it happen.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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