What Education Should Include for the Survival of Our Grandchildren

Personal Credo of Michael Bassey, Web-site Author

Education, to me, is based on nurture, culture and survival. As noted on the home page, I am an emeritus professor of Education, with many years of practical and research experience of schools in England. But rather than describe my educational experience and list my publications I set out this essay of hope.

I grieve at what is happening in our schools and fear for the future of my grandchildren’s generation. They are being prepared (poorly I believe) for an economic world that is crumbling and cannot be rebuilt. They are not being prepared to tackle creatively whatever problems of survival (inevitably now unknown) may arise in their lifetimes. What we can expect is that these problems will arise from climate change, economic turmoil, and the human consequences of global shortage of food, water and energy. We can hope that they will find ways to establish sustainable ways of living with a reasonable quality of life for themselves and for their successors across the planet. The legacy that we will leave them is much worse than the one we inherited. At least we should ensure that they receive an education that equips them for survival in troubled times.

Education for Creating Sustainable Ways of Living

One summer a few years back, I was teaching in Finland at the Rantasalmi Environmental Education Centre with Pekka Hynninen (Director of the Centre) and Professor Mauri Ahlberg of the University of Joensuu. We developed an educational model for students learning to create sustainable ways of life, as in the diagram. The model shows how the processes of learning need to be integrated and cumulative if they are to lead to creating sustainable ways of life and, hopefully ones of good and satisfying quality. The model uses Ahlberg’s approach to concept maps, in which, as in the next paragraph, one should be able to read the diagram as prose and so garner its meaning.

Young people need to develop for their survival: cognitive skills, environmental and social sensitivities, and civic skills. Cognitive skills and environmental sensitivity are needed for gaining environmental understanding. In addition environmental and social sensitivities are needed in order to acquire and develop convivial values. Convivial values and environmental understanding, as well as cognitive skills are needed in order to engage in critical reflection on society’s actions. Civic and cognitive skills are needed for students to acquire empowerment to act and this is needed, in conjunction with critical reflection, in order to take steps to achieve a sustainable way of life. This holistic view is completed by recognising that a sustainable way of life is needed for the survival of life. It needs to be taught in the context of concern for the quality of life and so should be learned with joy and not through drudgery.

Survival Needs Cognitive Skills

The acquisition of cognitive skills is a part of normal schooling: here it is taken to include reading, writing, talking, listening, thinking, analysis, critique, synthesis, and creativity, as well as mathematical competence and statistical understanding.

Survival Needs Environmental and Social Sensitivities

The deliberate development of environmental sensitivity is sometimes, but not often, a part of present day schooling. It is about valuing nature for its own sake: savouring the rain and the sunshine, the forest and the field, the butterfly and the sparrow, the rocks and the stream. For some it comes from early childhood visits ‘into the country’ with parents, or through camping and hiking with scouts or guides, or from the acquisition of a garden and the need to tend it.

My late colleague Malcolm Plant argued in his book Education for the Environment: stimulating practice that favourable childhood experiences spent in nature are a basis for cherishing this identity with nature in later life and he noted how George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss beautifully captured this idea in these words:

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it ... What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known.

There is good research evidence, as Plant has shown, that childhood experience of nature can be a significant factor in the development of personal commitment for the environment and so, if we are trying to prepare young people to strive to save the world, we need to ensure that they get this kind of experience in suitable abundance.

Schools, particularly those in urban areas, need to organise regular visits and expeditions into the countryside. In England some do at present but the demands of national curriculum, assessment and inspection impede the practice. In Scandinavia, perhaps because of the rigours of the winter climate, schools are more geared to the surrounding countryside.

Likewise young people need to learn to savour their cultural environment: the literature, arts, sciences, heritage, and ideas that abound and are accessible to all who choose to seek them. Schools are often more focused on this than on the natural environment. Involvement in both the natural and cultural environments matters in order that children, and the adults they grow into, learn to enjoy and revere things rather than persistently seek for and squeak at the next thrill. It is the antidote to boredom.

The development of social sensitivity is equally necessary. This includes the awareness that others are people with feelings like ourselves and deserve to be respected as fellow human beings. Schools are usually well versed in this aspect of education.

Survival Needs Civic Skills

Civic skills overlap with the cognitive skills, but go beyond them in being the ability to marshal arguments, formulate questions, ‘think on one’s feet’, and make a case, with clarity and civility, in a civic setting such as a school debate, community meeting, or public enquiry.

Survival Needs Environmental Understanding

Environmental understanding embraces the chemistry, physics, biology, ecology, mathematics, geography, geology, psychology, sociology, economics, history, philosophy, etc that impinge on natural and social environmental issues.

Survival Needs Conviviality

On a number of public occasions I have elaborated a green coherent moral vision called ‘conviviality’. In part the formulation comes from ideas expressed by Ivan Illich (1973) in Tools for Conviviality and by E F Schumacher (1973) in Small is Beautiful. It encompasses the environmentally- and socially-oriented values that many teachers subscribe to, and which I believe are needed if the world is to survive as a habitat for humankind.

Conviviality has a profound meaning concerned with the nature of life. A convivial person is trying to achieve a state of deep and satisfying harmony with the world, which gives joyful meaning to life. Convivial people are striving for harmony with their environment, their fellows and their self.

• Striving for harmony with their natural environment convivial people use it for their needs, but do not exploit it; they revere the Earth and living things which the Earth supports and, seeing themselves as stewards, aim to conserve and safeguard the Earth for future generations.

• Striving for harmony with their cultural environment convivial people seek to explore and to understand the world of worthwhile ideas and, where appropriate, to relate them purposefully to the world of action.

• Striving for harmony with their fellows, they seek to co-operate rather than to compete with them; they neither exploit them nor are exploited by them; they try to live in concord with their fellows - to love and be loved.

• Striving for harmony with the self, convivial people have sufficient understanding of both their rationality and their emotions to develop their talents effectively; by using their talents harmoniously in relation to society and the environment they experience the joy of convivial life.

How do people develop values? To require a particular set to be learned and used to underpin actions is considered by teachers to be indoctrination and is properly rejected by them. Instead the approach is to enable children to grow up in a climate where particular values are held by those whom the children respect and for the children slowly to be encouraged to acquire similar values. This is why the values held by teachers are important and why the activities referred to under the heading of environmental and social sensitivity are vital.

There is a terrible tension between these convivial values and the hedonistic and acquisitive values of consumerism, where exploiting the riches of the Earth and the labour of others is not only seen as acceptable but is lauded. Rampant consumerism, pursued by millions of people, is damaging the Earth by polluting it and causing it to overheat. Strangely, most people individually subscribe to some form of convivial values, yet en masse pursue hedonistic and acquisitive values. Herein lies the hope that education can, in a phrase, turn the heat down.

Survival Needs Critical Reflection on Society’s Actions

Everybody who recognises changes in the annual weather pattern can engage in a debate on global warming. The ill-informed can simply disregard the scientific evidence of global warming, or its causes or its likely consequences. The same applies to those who are so blinkered with their own affluence and its growth that they put everything else to one side. Those who recognise the scientific evidence but who embrace the view that each generation must solve its own problems, will want to take no action. And for nearly all of us who understand the issue and have environmentally-friendly values, myself included, there is the utter inertia of feeling that anything we can do is of such minor consequence that it is not worth putting ourselves out to do it. This is when we need empowerment.

Survival Needs Empowerment to Act

Most people are reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. Empowerment to act is about helping them to do so. Empowerment is to give people the self-confidence to strive for what they believe in: the courage to stand up and argue their case. Empowerment is cumulative: one successful experience encourages the next and reinforces the view that active citizenship can make things better. It is only learned experientially.

In England the government encourages schools to reduce car use getting children to school. As with most government actions, it is a top-down initiative. Suppose that instead it became a bottom-up development with classes in primary schools in England taking it on as a project. It would require skilled and courageous teaching to guide and support the children. Suppose that the children monitored how many people travelled to and from their school by car, calculated how much petrol is turned into carbon dioxide, and campaigned to reduce car use by getting more children to walk - along safe routes - to and from school. Suppose they succeeded in reducing car usage and invited the local press to report on their project. These children would know that they had begun to tackle global warming and would learn that well-orchestrated campaigns can work. It would empower them to continue.

Perhaps next, and more difficult because of the commercial implications, they might begin to campaign with their families to buy more locally grown food and so help reduce the consumption of fossil fuels in intercontinental food transport Undoubtedly such campaigns would cause friction with the business world because of a clash between business ethics (based on profit and power) and school ethics (based on environment and community): but this is the battlefield on which all of our futures depend. Suppose that schools put reports of their ecological campaigns on school web pages on the internet. Suppose that they began to email schools around the world, urging them also to campaign.

I know that many will say that children should not be embroiled in this kind of activity. But this is to fail to understand that the children’s world is seriously threatened, and so it is right that their education should empower them to strive to protect it.

Empowerment is potentially dangerous. It needs to be community-focused and not consumer-based. This is why the fostering of environmental and social sensitivity and the development of convivial values must be its educational precursors.

Survival Needs a Sustainable Way of Life

The aim is that critical reflection on society’s actions, coupled with the empowering experience of the kind of campaigns described above, prepares the next generation for saving the world from predicted eco-catastrophes. In part these reductions can come from individual actions, but most will be achieved by legislation: in the democracies of the world such legislation is crucially dependent on the electorate understanding and accepting the need for tough measures. That is a rationale for the kind of education described here. Fundamentally it overarches the present governmental drives to raise standards of literacy and numeracy in schools: these should be recognised as just one of the tools for convivial survival.

Governments throughout the world are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. What are the consequences for the large number of people whose work entails carbon dioxide production, and become unemployed: those in the transport industries engaged in moving goods across the world (and burning fossil fuel to do it), and those who grow the food or manufacture the goods which are transported, for example?

The answer is that food and goods production needs to become more local and, using what Schumacher called ‘intermediate technology’, needs to be more labour intensive. Eddie Gallagher, once chief executive of the Environment Agency, said, Stand on a bridge on the M1 and count the biscuit lorries travelling north and the biscuit lorries travelling south: you’ll find there are hundreds of them, the counts are the same, and they are all full of biscuits. Can’t Edinburgh shortbread be made, and eaten, in London?

A hundred and fifty years ago, and still today in many parts of the world, a large proportion of the population grew some of its own food and made with their own hands some of the domestic goods that were needed. We will probably need to do the same in the future. If we decided to we certainly could do it, and with much greater surety of success than in the past because of the scientific and technological knowledge now available. The starting point for the mind shift and the necessary skills should be school.


An account of education based on survival is a far cry from what our government sees as required today. But sadly a ruling establishment which couldn’t see the coming crash of the global economy, still hasn’t seen how imperative it is that our young people are prepared for the daunting ecology of the future and not the failing economy of the past.

Does 'survival, survival, survival' worry you? Then click on here to visit a discussion of education in which this is embedded:
Education as nurture, culture and survival