The great dilemma of education

Education should urgently break the chains of society and economy so that learning can genuinely bring about new thinking, says Erkka Laininen.

Education plays a key role in pursuing a more sustainable future. We cannot change our thinking without learning, says Erkka Laininen, Expert in Sustainable Education, based in Finland.

– But the school system as an institution is problematic because it is about transferring the cultural heritage to future generations. Thus, it is always subordinate to the prevailing ideas, goals and values of the society.

According to Laininen, this is a problem, as the prevailing cultural heritage of mankind has drifted into a collision course with the boundaries of the planet. The environment is getting polluted, we have driven many species into extinction and climate change deniers are crying out of the narrowing margin.

In order to better meet the needs of the future, education should help people think and act in a radically new way.

– If we look at how school systems have evolved recently in the world, the trend is that they are more geared towards meeting the challenges of economic growth and national competitiveness.

If this is a task assigned to education, it limits other possibilities of education and learning: such as using them as a means for societal transformation towards sustainability, Laininen says.

– Education should somehow break free from the chains under which it operates in the society.

Erkka Laininen

  • is a 46 year old engineer from Espoo, Finland;
  • works as an expert in sustainability in education at the OKKA Foundation.
  • Since 2004, OKKA has had a national program for granting certificates on sustainable development for educational institutions. At the moment, all together 94 schools or educational establishments have received the certificate.

Thinking big

Bringing new thinking to the school world has been the mission for Erkka Laininen for a long time now. He works at the OKKA Foundation, which grants sustainable development certificates to Finnish educational institutions.

His extensive experience can be noted in the certainty with which he keeps dropping one radical view after another. Such as that the biggest limiter of sustainable education systems is our fixation on the Western worldview and the economic system of continuous growth.

This is a problem, because the virtue of moderation that would be needed to create a sustainable world, has not been in fashion in the current world. Politicians and advertising fuel completely opposite mindsets, suggesting that nothing is enough.

– Instead of moderation, competitiveness is seen as a virtue because, according to the trickle-down logic, everyone in the end will benefit from it, he says.

Now, the paradigm has lasted well relatively long, as the economy has grown and the less well-off people have also benefited. Unfortunately, one key variable seems to have been forgotten from the equation: we live on a planet that is materially finite.

– Now that growth stalls and we are meeting the boundaries of the planet, we are beginning to question the logic of the economic model that is seen disconnected from the biosphere and only looks at the circulation of money. Nevertheless, we still see that there is only one cure, and we try to forcibly push for more growth.

From the point of view of the planet, it is also noteworthy that economic activities, at least the traditional industry, cause pollution and destruction of ecosystems. Even if we were just staring at the numbers, we risk letting the ecocide and climate change to grow into such proportions that the costs of readjustment will explode.

– And the question of sustainable future is not merely about energy. If we came up with clean fusion energy, and we would have unlimited energy and unlimited possibilities to utilize natural resources, we would probably cause the planet’s disarray even faster.

Despite these facts, it seems that the most important decisions are made on economic terms, Laininen says. Economics is, however, a man-made model, whereas ultimately everything is governed by natural laws that cannot be undone. Which one should step aside?

– We must stick to the ecological boundaries to be able to live on this Earth. If we won’t, we will have no civilization, no economy and no education to begin with, he says.

– I think that in the long run,  giving up economic growth in the form we currently understand it is the only alternative.

Well-being in the era of scarcity

When considering the possibilities of economic growth, the physical environment is not the only variable.

Well-being must also be addressed in the world of scarce resources. But how much of our current wealth should we really give up to live sustainably?

Not necessarily that much. In the consumer society, we run after maximum momentary and material happiness, Laininen says. But material well-being alone cannot guarantee meaningful life.

It is, for example, witnessed in the fact that, now that there are more resources and possibilities than ever before, then, according to the consumer-based concept of well-being, we should be happier than ever. However, according to studies, this is not the case.

– After returning from a concentration camp, Psychiatrist Viktor Franklin summed up his life philosophy in a thought that ‘the deepest level of being a human being can be reached by orienting away from oneself, whether that is towards an another person or towards a higher goal’, Laininen says.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that we we have fully internalized this dilemma of welfare and we know exactly what to do to save the Earth. Do we, the ordinary citizen, have a say? And how will this evolve in the near future where in the name of efficiency, we are moving to ever-increasing digitization and robotization?

According to Laininen, some thinkers feel that technological development is beneficial for the whole of mankind. Others see that there is a risk that soon a small elite will own the technological system that can satisfy almost all needs for goods and services with automated production. In this scenario, we may face a society with a large number of people whose financial value to the system is round zero.

The question then is how will we solve well-being if the latter scenario will realize. Is the owning class willing to share the produced goods and services free, so that work may not be tied to livelihood, but to promoting common good? After all, the unemployed masses won’t have any purchasing power.

– Or will it be more like Steven Hawking predicts: that robotization can bring us a possibility for a world where everyone can live an abundant life, but according to him, thus far it seems that the owning class will not be very willing to share this wealth with others, Laininen says

If not, then where do we find the consumers of a growth economy, if technology causes mass unemployment?

Most economic activities cause pollution and destruction. By ignoring this, are we risking letting the ecocide and climate change to grow to such proportions that the costs of readjustment will explode?

The role of education in the needed change

When Erkka Laininen gets started with these topics, it seems that he could speak endlessly. He finds this topic important, one of the most important there is.

– Education for a sustainable future is about democracy. Everyone should have say in whether we want to keep struggling in this rat race in the world of scarcity, where the population grows and inequality increases, or whether we want to find something totally else, says Laininen.

In addition, we are in a rush. Laininen thinks it is important that the building of a sustainable future is seen as a lifelong learning challenge, in which people of all ages should be involved.

– We cannot only rely on the formal school system and wait twenty years for a new generation, that will bring about a change. Then it will be too late, change must start immediately.

According to Laininen, despite of the hurry and radical nature of the needed change of course, a change is possible.

The formal school system could play a pivotal role, but first, there should be a refinement of thinking. The weakness in a formal school system is that the focus is on an individual who learns and performs skill levels instead of transforming society.

In the minds of people, schools are also seen as buildings inside of which the learning happens. We need to break the boundaries between formal and informal learning.

– We ought to blow up this kind of thinking. We have a lot of learning communities in society: associations, households, jobs. Educational institutions should provide support for learning in these communities.

Steps in the right direction have already been taken. For example, in Finland, the concept of ecosocial education was incorporated into basic education core curriculum during the latest reform. It aims at teaching a more holistic and systemic understanding, so that the students understand their dependence on other people and  nature and that everything is interrelated.

In this way, it is sort of related to phenomenon-based learning. It gives the opportunity to think radically about innovative solutions in education.

But the question is how courageously will teachers meet this challenge.

– The culture of the schools and the thinking of teachers is partly based on historical development and worldview. Will the children and teenagers be encouraged to question things and look for new trails in the powder snow?