by Gabriel Yahya Haage
The Green New Deal seeks expansive changes for society, from climate change mitigation to job creation. Education reform, while certainly not the focus, is also included, particularly in advocating for free higher education for all people who wish it. As stated in the 2019 United States House Resolution 109, which outlines the ambitions of the Green New Deal, society must provide ’resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education’.
Certainly, progressive movements in many nations are fighting for free, or at least affordable, higher education. However, it is in the lower levels of education—primary and secondary school—that change is most vital in working toward the vision of the Green New Deal. After all, younger generations will face direr consequences of climate change. In fact, youth are one of the ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’ discussed in the Green New Deal House Resolution. Young people are leading the climate movement—see Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes. A truly transformative Green New Deal must be for and by the youth.
One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component.
The Green New Deal strives to put the government in charge of providing more social services, including government-funded healthcare and job training. But an important but largely undiscussed question for Green New Deal advocates is: What role should government policy play in determining what is taught in classrooms? One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component. Some may see this as a good way of creating the citizens needed for the current and future state of the world. To others, this would be an unacceptable overreach of government influence. Certainly, governments already influence primary and secondary school curricula as it is. Even where states do not control classroom content, teachers must still shape their lessons to standardized examinations. The Green New Deal’s vision may lean toward even greater influence, however.
In this piece, I do not take a stance regarding the ideal role of government in education. Rather, I offer examples to open a critical dialogue on the topic among proponents of the Green New Deal. As discussed below, governments could influence lower education indirectly by simply increasing access or more directly by ensuring accurate information, by reformulating disciplines and, most controversially, by setting moral education.
Indirect influence on lower education in the Green New Deal
Even without targeting what is taught in classrooms, the Green New Deal can still have a strong influence in the school system and the lessons that are imparted to students. For instance, by offering affordable daycare and preschool, more young children could be exposed to the education system. Increasing access to early education would also increase the diversity of preschools. Putting kids from different races, classes, and even countries together early on in life could instill a greater multicultural spirit. Of course, this requires well-trained teachers who can ensure that students of different backgrounds are not marginalized or bullied.
Factual content and teaching students to think
If one believes the government should play a role in what is taught in the classroom, the least controversial target may be ensuring that the content taught in classrooms is supported by science. Curriculum on climate change, for example, should be evidence-based. Unfortunately, as discussed in a National Research Council workshop on climate change and education, some teachers do not teach climate change as it is considered too controversial and others feel pressure to teach ‘both sides’ of the issue.
Science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason.
More generally, science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason. In fact, critical thinking is important beyond the sciences. In a world where people on both the right and left call the other’s facts ‘Fake News,’ people need a cognitive toolbox to evaluate the credibility of what they’re told. The internet, especially social media, bombards kids with a plethora of claims every day. Students must learn to wade through them and determine which are accurate.
For advocates of the Green New Deal, it is vital to discuss not just the importance of having the right information in school courses, but also potential policies to ensure this. This piece can not delve into specific policies, but, in general terms, how teachers are trained would be a good starting point.
If one is okay with government shaping the classroom, one can move beyond content and target the disciplines themselves. Which disciplines should be rethought and how can we change them? A movement of university students, for example, calls for rethinking education in economics, which has become dangerously separated from the knowledge of social and natural sciences. However, these changes target adult students and experts. After all, economics, whether mainstream, Marxist, ecological, or otherwise, is not a field universally taught to elementary or high school students. And yet, it is at these lower levels that the push for an ecological future must occur.
Just as ecology and our understanding of the biophysical planetary limits can help reformulate economics, however, so could the linking of academic disciplines be used to reform primary and secondary education. For instance, education on the history of developed nations could include a discussion of the environmental impacts of the industrial revolution. Another example is the Climate Change and Environmental Education (CCEE) curriculum, which incorporates environmentalism in all areas of study, emphasizing how the most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by environmental degradation. Examples such as these show how reformulating disciplines can be achieved by connecting concepts that, until now, where segregated into their own disciplines. Governments could, in principle, bring these changes to much broader swaths of society by forcing all public schools to adopt them.
Education and morality
Even those who feel governments should play a strong role in what is taught in the classroom may balk at the idea that governments should determine which moral lessons should be taught in school. Moral education, it may be argued, should be taught in the home, not in the classroom. But morality is already a part of US education at the lower levels. Religious instruction and the Pledge of Allegiance (a standardized recital meant to express one’s allegiance to the nation) are cases in point, even if the former is meant to instill the morals that the students’ parents are assumed to already espouse and the latter is not necessarily mandatory.
Several examples from the previous sections show how the current education system already has a moral component. For instance, teaching acceptance of students with different backgrounds helps develop empathy and inclusiveness. Teaching about the global environmental impacts of industry, which disproportionately target the most vulnerable in society, is unavoidably tied to the concept of moral responsibility.
In many cases, moral education may simply mean making the process more targeted and explicit. For instance, Child-Friendly Schools sometimes hold social cooperation and conflict resolution activities and seek to instill a ‘respect for nature’ in their students. As another example, the Humane Education movement advocates for activities explicitly meant to encourage empathy for others.
It will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training.
That morality is already inexorably tied to education does not mean that the government should be given a more expansive role in determining moral education in schools. There are always dangers in giving a central government too much control over its citizens, and this is particularly worrisome when its influence is related to young people. In terms of the Green New Deal, proponents must consider how expanding the influence of the government could have detrimental effects, particularly as the parties in power shift over time. Setting a precedent on how the government can intervene in education must be done with caution. There is no easy answer to the question of what role the government should play in determining what is taught in schools. A functioning Green New Deal proposal must wrestle with this issue and, hopefully, proponents can develop a position that is of benefit to both students and society in general.
Finally, while this piece focused on education, it will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training, and what such influence might mean to people needing those services, both now and in the future. It may even spark discussions for Green New Deal proponents on potential alternative modes of governance beyond centralized governmental control, both at the local, regional and international levels.
Gabriel Yahya Haage is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Canada. His research focuses on freshwater systems and the methods of understanding water demands in the ecological, social and economic spheres.