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“Green” Education Does Not Belong in Public Schools: Yukon College Professor Explains   4 comments

Why I Don’t Want my Children to be Educated for Sustainable Development: Sustainable Belief

By Bob  Jickling  Yukon College

Bob Jickling is instructor of environmental studies at Yukon College in Whitehorse. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education Saint Paul, Minnesota, September 1991.

There is considerable debate about the merits of sustainable development and the actions it requires. As we enter the 1990s, this term has become, for many, a vague slogan susceptible to manipulation. For some it is logically inconsistent. For others there are concerns that efforts to implement it will obscure understanding of the economic, political, philosophical and epistemological roots of environmental issues, and adequate examinations of social alternatives. This raises questions about the idea that anyone should teach such a thing in the first place. With this in mind, I wish to examine two concerns.

The first concern arises from my observations of the research seminar held during National Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)’s 1990 conference held in San Antonio. Amid discussions about quantitative, qualitative, and action research, talk about philosophical analysis was conspicuous by its absence. The lack of attention to educational philosophy, and the research methods employed by philosophers, has been an impediment to the development of environmental education. This is a matter of considerable importance.

The second concern relates to the proposed relationship between education and sustainable development, particularly as it is described in the phrase “education for sustainable development.” I will argue that this locution epitomizes a conceptual muddle that environmental educators ought to do something about.

These two concerns are of course related. It is precisely the lack of attention to philosophical analysis of the concepts central to environmental education that allowed the expression and proliferation of such questionable ideas. I will begin by briefly talking about environmental education and the importance of philosophical analysis in this field of study. I will then critique sustainable development education and in so doing will illustrate the importance of philosophical research which employs techniques of conceptual analysis.

One of the problems in environmental education has been the failure of its practitioners to reconcile definitions of environmental education with an . priori conception of education. It is important to understand that concepts such as “education” and “environmental education” are abstractions, or ideas which describe various perceptions. While studying how a word functions will provide some understanding about the enterprise or phenomena that it represents, the analysis remains an interpretation of an abstraction in peoples’ minds. It is a mistake to think of concepts as objects or concrete entities; they are nothing more than conventional signs or symbols. This is not a precise business. For this reason the idea of a true, correct, or perfect statement about a concept is implausible. Analysis of concepts is essentially a dialectical business and such analyses are in constant need of re-examination and clarification (Wilson, 1969).

These points can be illustrated by attempting to identify some of the criteria useful in describing an educated person. For example, we might ask ourselves if acquisition of knowledge is a necessary condition. Many would affirm this, claiming we would not normally say that someone is educated but that they do not know anything. However, while the dissemination of information is an important function of schools, we might continue our analysis by asking if the accumulation of mere facts and disconnected information is enough.

For example, my son at nine years of age, could go to a map of the world and identify an astonishing number of countries, but this was hardly sufficient to convince me that he was educated. We expect the educated person to have some understanding of the relationships between these bits of information which enable a person to make some sense of the world; the educated person should have some understanding about why a relationship exists. We might also wonder if the ability to think critically is a necessary criterion for the educated person. Again we would expect to find considerable agreement; we would be reluctant to say that a person was educated if we judged that he or she could not think for him or herself.

While this constitutes an abbreviated analysis it does provide a glimpse at the general approach taken in this kind of research. The philosopher, thus, attempts to find out which of the possible criteria are necessary. It is important to note that this analysis cannot provide a definitive or complete answer, but only a collection of logical arguments of greater or less merit. This point is frequently misunderstood. For example, one of the pitfalls for researchers working in fields such as education and environmental education is to think as if abstract nouns were:

the names of abstract or ideal objects: as if there were somewhere, in heaven if not on earth, things called `justice’, `love’ and `truth’ [and environmental education]. Hence we come to believe that analyzing concepts, instead of being what we have described it to be, is really a sort of treasure hunt in which we seek for a glimpse of these abstract objects. We find ourselves talking as if `What is justice?’ [or environmental education?] was a question like `What is the capital of Japan?’ (Wilson, 1969 p. 40)

What this means for environmental education is, of course, that the claim environmental education “does have definition and structure” (Hungerford, Peyton & Wilke, 1983) is unlikely. Or, to attempt to solve the so called “definitional problem” in environmental education in any fashion, let alone by the American Society for Testing and Materials (Marcinkowski, 1991), is misplaced. In the field of environmental education we appear to be witnessing a treasure hunt for an infinitely illusive abstract object. Environmental education will surely continue to wallow along rocky shores until this field allows an important place for conceptual analysis within its research community.

My preview of conceptual analysis also identifies some criteria useful for understanding the term “education.” Having identified such essential criteria, in this case the acquisition of knowledge, understanding, and the ability to think for oneself, I can now introduce the next task of the philosopher. This job is to examine the implications which logically follow from use of the concept to see if application of the term is consistent with those essential criteria teased out during analysis. While this analysis of education is by no means complete, the criteria proposed are sufficient to illustrate this task. At the same time the adequacy of “educating for sustainable development” can be examined.

While environmental education is in the midst of a conceptual muddle the same can be said for sustainable development. For example, at the 1990 NAAEE conference Slocombe and Van Bers (1990) reminded us that this term is only a concept and that it is characterized by a paucity of precision. Their observations are not unique. Like Slocombe and Van Bers, some researchers acknowledge that there is no agreement about an overall goal for “sustainable development” (e.g. Huckle, 1991; Disinger, 1990; & Rees, 1989). Analysis of the term has not yet been able to identify sufficient criteria to elucidate common meaning and coherence.

It is also possible that that conceptual coherence cannot be achieved. For Huckle (1991), the term “sustainable development” has entered the dialectic which characterizes modern environmentalism. For him, it has taken different, and possibly irreconcilable, meanings for technocentrists and ecocentrists. According to this view, the term is contested and its shared understanding is rendered impossible by inherent contradictions arising from these divergent world views. Disinger (1990) reports views which reinforce these doubts. He states: “To some, sustainable development is an oxymoron – a self-contained non sequitur between noun and modifier.” (p. 3) It appears that there are those who are troubled by questions of logical consistency when “sustainable” is juxtaposed against “development.” If such inconsistency is borne out, the conceptual muddle that surrounds sustainable development will be perpetuated.

The observations reported in the previous two paragraphs accentuate the need for philosophical research, particularly conceptual analysis. Clarifying common understandings of “sustainable” and “development” and examining the logical coherence of their association will help to assess the usefulness of sustainable development. In the meantime disagreement exists. The implication of this reality upon education is foreshadowed by planner William Rees (1989) who argued that a prerequisite to developing acceptable policies and plans for sustainable development is a satisfactory working definition of the concept. It seems equally improbable that we can accept any educational prescription in the absence of an adequate conceptualization of sustainable development. It therefore seems unlikely that I should want anyone to educate my children for sustainable development when it is not clear what on earth it is that they are aiming for.

If, however, an adequate conceptualization of sustainable development was argued, we would still be concerned with the educational appropriateness of aiming for it. In spite of such misgivings there does appear to be considerable momentum amongst environmental educators who wish to teach sustainable development. For example, John Disinger in his article “Environmental Education for Sustainable Development?” (1990), discusses the development of this momentum in North America. Noel Gough (1991) suggests that much environmental education in Australia is concerned with land protection and is often associated with “conservation for sustainable development.” And, UNESCO (1988) has looked to environmental education as a vehicle to promote “training, at various levels, of the personnel needed for the rational management of the environment in the view of achieving sustainable development.” (p. 6) In Canada the environmental education arm of UNESCO, MAB/Net, affirms this objective and characterizes its mission as “Education for Sustainable Development.” However, this momentum is not without anomalies which should raise our suspicions.

Disinger (1990) also reports that many environmental educators have difficulty identifying their own positions, particularly with reference to the eco-anthropocentric continuum. However, he claims that educators generally place greater emphasis on “wise use” than on non-use perspectives. While the implications of these observations are not perfectly clear, there is the suggestion that teachers have sought to identify their preferences in order to determine what perspectives to espouse. Noel Gough (1991) was more explicit. According to his view, environmental education has been overcome by promoters of instrumental land values which are frequently associated with sustainable development. Does this mean that environmental education has frequently become a promotional tool? It seems thus far that many educators implicitly or explicitly assume that their task, teaching sustainable development, involves the advancement of a particular agenda.

Inspection of comments in Our Common Future (1987) illustrates this problem:

Sustainable development has been described here in general terms. How are individuals in the real world to be persuaded or made to act in the common interest? The answer lies partly in education, institutional development, and law enforcement. (p. 46)

This statement suggests that sustainable development is in the common interest and the public must be persuaded, or made, to pursue this end. Further, education can be contributory to the process of persuasion or coercion required. This raises the question: Should education aim to advance a particular end such as sustainable development? Is it the job of education to make people behave in a particular way?

To seek answers to these questions consider first the idea that environmental education should promote “training for the rational management of the environment in the view of achieving sustainable development.” (UNESCO, 1988, p. 6) As I have argued elsewhere (Jickling, 1991), training is concerned with the acquisition of skills and abilities, and frequently has instrumental connotations. We generally speak of training for something; we might be training for football or training for work in a trade. Further, training tends to be closely associated with the acquisition of skills which are perfected through repetition and practice and are minimally involved with understanding. Thus, the capacity for rational management is inconsistent with the means suggested for its achievement.

In contrast we speak of a person being more or less well educated indicating a broader, and less determinate understanding which transcends immediate instrumental values. We would not normally speak of educating “for” anything. To talk of educating for sustainable development is more suggestive of an activity like training or the preparation for the achievement of some instrumental aim. It is important to note that this position rests on several assumptions. First, sustainable development is an uncontested concept, and second, education is a tool to be used for its advancement. The first point is clearly untrue and should be rejected; there is considerable skepticism about the coherence and efficacy of the term. The second assumption can also be rejected. The prescription of a particular outlook is repugnant to the development of autonomous thinking.

As we have seen in the earlier analysis, education is concerned with enabling people to think for themselves. Education for sustainable development, education for deep ecology (Drengson, 1991), or education “for” anything else is inconsistent with that criterion. In all cases these phrases suggests a pre-determined mode of thinking to which the pupil is expected to prescribe. Clearly, I would not want my children to be taught sustainable development. The very idea is contrary to the spirit of education. I would rather have my children educated than conditioned to believe that sustainable development constitutes a constellation of correct environmental views or that hidden beneath its current obscurity lies an environmental panacea.

However, having argued that we should not educate for sustainable development, it is quite a different matter to teach students about this concept. I would like my children to know about the arguments which support it and attempt to clarify it. But, I would also like them to know that sustainable development is being criticized, and I want them to be able to evaluate that criticism and participate in it if they perceive a need. I want them to realize that there is a debate going on between a variety of stances, between adherents of an ecocentric worldview and those who adhere to an anthropocentric worldview. I want my children to be able to participate intelligently in that debate. To do so they will need to be taught that these various positions also constitute logical arguments of greater or less merit, and they will need to be taught to use philosophical techniques to aid their understanding and evaluation of them. They will need to be well educated to do this.

For us the task is not to educate for sustainable development. In a rapidly changing world we must enable students to debate, evaluate, and judge for themselves the relative merits of contesting positions. There is a world of difference between these two possibilities. The latter approach is about education; the former is not.


Barrow, R. St. C., & Woods, R. G. 1988. An introduction to the philosophy of education (3rd. Ed.). London: Routledge.

Disinger, J. F. 1990. Environmental education for sustainable development? Journal of Environmental Education, 21(4), 3-6.

Drengson, A. R. 1991. Introduction: Environmental crisis, education, and deep ecology. The Trumpeter. 8 (3), 97-98.

Gough, N. 1991. Narrative and nature: Unsustainable fictions in environmental education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 7, 31-42.

Hamm, C. M. 1989. Philosophical issues in education: An introduction. New York: Falmer.

Huckle, J. 1991. Education for sustainability: Assessing pathways to the future. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 7, 43-62.

Hungerford, H. R., Peyton, R. B. & Wilke, R. J. 1983. Yes, EE does have definition and structure. Journal of Environmental Education, 14(3), 1-2.

Jickling, B. 1991. Environmental education and environmental advocacy: The need for a proper distinction. To see ourselves/to save ourselves: Ecology and culture in Canada. (pp. 169-176). Montreal: Association for Canadian Studies.

Marcinkowski, T. 1990-91. The new national environmental education act: A renewal of commitment. Journal of Environmental Education, 22(2), 7-10.

Rees, W. 1989. Defining “sustainable development.” CHS Research Bulletin, UBC Centre for Human Settlements.

Slocombe, D. S. & Van Bers, C. 1990. Seeking substance in sustainable development. Paper presented at North American Association For Environmental Education. San Antonio, Texas.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization-United Nations Environment Programme (UNESCO-UNEP). 1988. International strategy for action in the field of environmental education and training for the 1990s. Paris & Nairobi: UNESCO-UNEP.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization-Canada/MAB (UNESCO-Canada/MAB). Environmental education for sustainable development (Brochure). Canada: UNESCO-Canada/MAB.

Wilson, J. 1969. Thinking with concepts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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What an incredible article.  The most important and clearest thought that I found was this:

“[E]ducation is concerned with enabling people to think for themselves.

Education for sustainable development, education for deep ecology (Drengson, 1991), or education “for” anything else is inconsistent with that criterion.

In all cases these phrases suggests a pre-determined mode of thinking to which the pupil is expected to prescribe.

Clearly, I would not want my children to be taught sustainable development. The very idea is contrary to the spirit of education.

I would rather have my children educated than conditioned to believe that sustainable development constitutes a constellation of correct environmental views


Soldier Hollow Charter School and Environmental Education   1 comment

Dear Principal Weber,

Thank you for giving my son and me a tour of your beautiful campus last week.  You were gracious to spend so much time with us, and we were impressed with the skiing and other wonderful programs your school offers, and with the care you show for the individual student.

Prior to the visit, we were not aware of the extent to which sustainable development is a part of the school’s educational emphasis.  The posters on the walls and the students’ artwork heavily promoted sustainable development.  Also, the information packet stated that the school’s charter is environmental education.

While studying nature is neutral, the sustainable development movement is not academically nor politically neutral. I don’t think it would be reasonable nor kind for me to have him attend the school and at the same time be critical of its main emphasis.  I am sorry we will be missing out on the other wonderful benefits of Soldier Hollow.

Thanks again very much for your kindness and time, and we wish you and your school the very best.


P.S. Here is a journal article that explained to me how environmental education is not academically neutral.

Excerpt:  “[E]ducation is concerned with enabling people to think for themselves.

Education for sustainable development, education for deep ecology (Drengson, 1991), or education “for” anything else is inconsistent with that criterion.

In all cases these phrases suggests a pre-determined mode of thinking to which the pupil is expected to prescribe.

Clearly, I would not want my children to be taught sustainable development. The very idea is contrary to the spirit of education.

I would rather have my children educated than conditioned to believe that sustainable development constitutes a constellation of correct environmental views”   – Bob Jinkins, Yukon College

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