‘The Ministry of the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Fiction can change the world and the didactic approach or the ‘novel of ideas’ can be compatible with good storytelling. Like any work of art, a work of fiction can change us as individuals and, through us, help to make a difference. A powerful novel can both educate and motivate while telling a story well, and the most compelling stories are often those that teach us the most.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those potentially world-changing works of fiction. It has human characters and a narrative arc, but what matters most is the meta-narrative which is about nothing less than global human survival over the next few decades. Robinson has produced a handbook for the near future, a manual for action, using the same large scale social imagination and descriptive power evident in all his writing, whether set in the future (eg: The Mars trilogy, Aurora, 2312) or in re-imagined pasts (eg: The Years of Rice and Salt, Shaman).

Kim Stanley Robinson has described his work as speculative, rather than predictive:

“…more of a modelling exercise…you run this line in history, see what the conclusions are and don’t worry about the fact that it’s one of an infinite spread.”1

As the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Paris Climate Change Convention) we know there is a lot at stake and we fear that we may be doing too little too late. Here, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the creation at COP29 in the mid-2020’s of a new global agency – nicknamed the Ministry for the Future – to press for change where national governments have proved inadequate.

The themes of the book are those that preoccupy us today as we confront our multiple global emergencies. The catastrophic impact of climate change and unsustainable and inequitable systems of production and consumption. The urgent need for effective action on a global scale and on many fronts. The social, economic and political challenges of developing and implementing the kind of policies that could achieve a better, fairer and more sustainable world. The resources of hope, creativity, determination and collaboration which humans need to draw on to make change possible. This book has them all, and successfully packing this amount of scientific, social and political imagination into one novel is an extraordinary achievement.

The book is punctuated with didactic interludes, which make up a toolkit for renewal, rather like an encyclopaedic ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ for the 21st century. Each one provides a thread for the complex fabric of alternatives, all of which we will need and most of which already exist in some form: critiques of unsustainable growth and consumption and widening global inequality, better measures of progress, equality and ecological footprints, carbon taxes and economic incentives to decarbonize, alternatives to markets and the neoliberal world order, Mondragon-style co-operative networks, permaculture, rewilding and habitat corridors, basic income and job guarantees and many more. As we take all these ideas in, we begin to see how they might work together to give us some chance of survival.

Speaking about this ‘layered’ approach, Kim Stanley Robinson has said:

“The real is too big a term to be comprehended and so you break it down into lots of smaller systems that are trying to explain the whole. Together, you get a mega-system or a stack of systems.” 2

And of the climate emergency he has said:

“The story we’ve all been told is that the system is robust, permanent and massively entrenched…surplus value has always been appropriated out of the natural world in increasing circles, and now we’ve run out of circles, so the expansion crashes and the biosphere too…and so you try to find a pocket utopia where you’re not actively damaging the world. (but) No local solution is sufficient…” 2

Elsewhere, he adds: “No one solution will solve the climate change problem…so you’ve just got to try everything that seems good.”1

Despite the many setbacks and disasters on the way, the direction of travel presented in ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is positive and unstoppable and there is a bracing optimism about the possibility of change. Spoiler alert: we get to share the global sense of elation when at last, after all the action that’s been taken, atmospheric CO2 levels turn around and start to fall decisively; from 475ppm to 454ppm.3 By COP58, presumably in the early 2050’s, it is possible to perceive:

“… a break point in the history of both humans and the Earth itself, the start of something new … the birth of a good Anthropocene.”

Is this a utopian scenario? It’s certainly about the construction of a new reality, but it’s absolutely grounded in today’s challenges and solutions and it doesn’t make any of it seem easy. ‘The Ministry for the Future’ offers us the outline of a possible route to a better place, one where humanity could start to get things right.

Writing about modern fictional utopias, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, in his brilliant ‘Archaeologies of the future’, Fredric Jameson says:

“What is Utopian becomes … not the commitment to a specific machinery or blueprint, but rather a commitment to imagining possible Utopias in their greatest variety of forms. Utopian is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopian construct, but rather the story of its production and of the very process of construction.” 4

‘Educate, agitate organise’ is the activist motto coined by William Morris in the late 19th Century. As we face the prospect of global catastrophe in the 21st century. this book will certainly educate its readers. It’s then up to us to decide whether, and how, to agitate and organise. Kim Stanley Robinson has imagined for us the kind of urgent global initiative we need, can we now create our own Ministries of the Future in time?

See also:

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)


  1. What the hell do we write now? India Bourke, New Statesman (09/01/2020)
  2. The realism of our time, interview in Radical Philosophy (Feb 2018)
  3. Atmospheric CO2 has risen from 315ppm in 1960 to 415ppm in 2020.
  4. From chapter 13 The Future as Disruption in Archaeologies of the Future by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2005)
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Why the comprehensive college?

When we talk about education, we are talking about both the personal and the social – the ‘small’ and the ‘big’. As individuals, what we know and can do goes to the very heart of our identity. We are engaged in a lifelong construction project of ‘making something’ of ourselves, of knowing ourselves and finding ourselves – something which is uniquely ours. At the same time, education is also about our relationship with others and our ability to work with others.

We learn from others, with others and through others. What we know and can do is expressed in relation to the social world. So, becoming educated is as much to do with society as with our own personal motives.

This means that when we discuss education we are always talking about both the small and the big; about ourselves and our own needs but also about the needs of the wider society. The debate about what kind of schools, colleges or universities we should have – comprehensive or selective – may seem to be purely at the ‘big’ system level but it has its roots at the ‘small’ personal level; in other words, what does this actually mean for me or my children? When talking about the need for a comprehensive education system we are addressing both the personal and the social, thinking small and thinking big, and trying to make sure that self-interest and social interest coincide.

I want to make 3 key points:

  1. Comprehensive education is as important as ever.
  2. It is as necessary post-16 as pre-16.
  3. It needs to be applied at the level of the whole system in order to really work.

When we make the comprehensive case, we can do it on the basis of:

  • Fundamental beliefs, principles and values: it’s the right thing to do to promote greater equality, democracy and fairness.
  • Evidence and data about student achievement, social research and international comparisons: we know that like-for-like comparative studies generally show that selection does not lead to better outcomes.
  • Experience, which is a kind of evidence: while we value research, we also need to trust in our own lived experience of teaching young people in schools and colleges. This experience should be heard and respected.

The comprehensive idea has a long history; we can go back to Horace Mann who campaigned for the common, non-sectarian, free, universal public school in 19th century Massachusetts. Or John Dewey who said: “The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of their personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gifts they have.” And Jane Addams: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

I’m going to draw on my own experience; over 35 years working in education, 22 of those in post-16 colleges, 16 as a principal and 10 years at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc). All of that time spent in comprehensive, diverse urban settings. I could add, as a parent of 4 children, all of whom attended comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges.

I’ll start with NewVIc. The college was created in the early 1990’s in a wise and brave decision by the London Borough of Newham. Wise, because it was informed by principles, evidence and experience – including the experience of creating 2 new sixth form colleges in neighbouring Waltham Forest in the late 1980’s when, incidentally, I chaired the Education Committee and saw through the implementation of that reorganisation. Brave, because it was controversial; school sixth forms had to be closed and there was inevitably some opposition. At a time when staying on rates, achievement rates and progression rates were very low, the project was motivated by a strong belief that young people in Newham could do at least as well post-16 as students anywhere else in England.

It took an elected, accountable local authority to have the debate and make the plans and see them through. There was no question of creating a selective sixth form to serve only the highest achieving students.

Like other similar projects elsewhere, the experiment worked. Participation, achievement and progression have all soared in Newham since NewVIc opened. What was created was a college which aims to meet the educational needs of the full 16-19 age cohort and it’s been a successful, ambitious learning community by any standards. For instance, the number of ‘disadvantaged’ students progressing to university is regularly the highest in the country, an increasing number of students progress to Russell Group universities every year, and high numbers of students who left school with low GCSE grades also make it to university after 3 or 4 years of further education. These are students who wouldn’t even get a look in at the selective sixth forms and would have been written off as ‘no hopers’.

So where are we now? Is this comprehensive project under threat? Yes it is. The proliferation of selective sixth forms in Newham and other areas has created a de-facto selective system, albeit without the public debate which preceded previous changes. What does this mean for the comprehensive provider? We know that the existence of a ‘grammar school’ necessarily makes other local schools look more like secondary moderns even if they aim to be comprehensive. Is it possible to remain comprehensive when you are surrounded by several highly selective providers? When the context has clearly changed, should a comprehensive college give up on its aspiration to serve the whole age cohort?

What are the arguments? First, we need to ask: what is the case for segregation by prior achievement? Why is it so important to separate young members of the same society who are going to live and work together?

Proponents of selection argue that:

  • “The post-16 curriculum is more specialised, students’ needs are more diverse at this stage and selection simply sorts and groups them by their interests, focusing better on different needs.”

In all the colleges where I have worked, the diversity of students, of curricula and of need made the case for offering everything in one college. In effect they were an Art school, a Business school, a Science and Engineering academy, a liberal studies sixth form, a retake college, a special needs provider snd kn some cases an adult education provider, all under one roof, with no incentive to push students into any route other that what is best for them.

  • “By 16 we know who the ‘academic’ students are, and they will do better if they are with other students like them”.

This kind of deterministic labelling only holds students back, denying them the possibility of growth or change. There’s no evidence that equally qualified students do any better in a selective setting.

  • “Structures don’t matter. All that counts is good teachers and good schools.”

This fails to recognise the social setting and the messages being sent to students and parents about who and what is and isn’t valued. By placing institutional walls between students, for whatever reason, we limit opportunities for achievement and social cohesion and we risk reproducing existing patterns of success and failure.

By providing new reasons to turn people away, selective provision feeds people’s wish to get into somewhere which might reject them. This defines aspiration in competitive terms; you have to beat someone else to get that place and where you get in becomes more important than what you might do there. Selection changes us, it shapes our view of ourselves and each other and our model of human potential and human progress.

Since the creation of these local selective providers, we started to hear promising and ambitious students telling us they were ‘not good enough’ or ‘too thick’ to get into a ‘good’ college because they’d been rejected by one of the selective providers. This is not how we chose to talk about aspiration and it’s certainly not the language of a comprehensive system.

In summary, comprehensive colleges are alive and well and they have a track record of success – the evidence can be seen across the country. But they are often surviving in a harsh climate, where the institutional environment, the qualification system and the education market all encourage sorting and ranking of institutions and the creation of hierarchies of students and programmes.

We’re living in a difficult period; a time of fracture and division. If we want to address the many challenges which face us; economic, social, democratic and environmental; inequality, injustice, violence and prejudice, we will need a modern, comprehensive, public education system which is fit for purpose and which can foster a democratic culture in which everyone has a stake. The ambitious, successful and inclusive comprehensive college will be an essential part of such a system.

Based on a talk given at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in June 2018.

See also:

Many colleges in one (April 2015)

The comprehensive college (Feb 2014)

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Exam results – what just happened?

Most years, the national drama of A Level and GCSE results days in England plays out in two distinct but related acts one week apart, focusing on the performance of the education system and the young people navigating their way through it. We get to share the joy and disappointment of candidates and to agonise about ‘standards’ based on upward or downward trends. There is often some discussion of education inequalities; by ethnicity, by class, by school or college type and between male and female students. ‘Social mobility’ and widening participation in higher education get some attention. And then things move on.

This year, we experienced a wild, turbulent, continuous national psycho-drama with a constantly changing plot and contradictory narratives. It was a full-blown crisis with elements of both tragedy and farce, and the dazed audience hardly had time to keep up with the various U-turns and reversals of fortune.

It’s not the most life-threatening of the dramas unfolding around us, but for the students most affected and for the English education system overall, much damage has been done. We now know the outcome, and although it’s too soon to predict all the future ramifications, the consequences have already been serious and many lessons will have to be learned.

We may not yet be ready to write even the first draft of history for this issue, but it is useful to start jotting down some notes towards an outline of that draft. Education is a complex system with many separate interconnected parts and we need to try to understand how they interact at different levels to have any chance of grasping the whole. Responding to a crisis effectively, rather than staggering from one quick-fix to the next, requires the ability to take an holistic view. In this case it means taking into account the impacts on people, individually and collectively, including their feelings and perceptions, the policies and processes of the various agencies involved and the purpose, ideology and politics of exams and assessment more generally.

A complex system contains multiple interacting sub-systems, each with its own dynamic. The outcomes of these interactions at different levels are not predictable. Such a system doesn’t lend itself to the kind of linear decision-making where someone can use a policy lever at the centre to guarantee a particular policy outcome such as greater fairness or equality. Instead, when things are changing fast, issues which previously seemed marginal can emerge and grow in importance, tipping points are reached and new problems become major concerns. If the system isn’t able to ‘correct’ itself quickly enough then what seemed like a fairly stable structure can simply topple over. The flap of the butterfly wing triggers the storm or the calm water becomes a tsunami.

This year’s results crisis

So how did a set of A Level results which were actually ‘better’ than those of 2019, achieved through a process designed to be as fair as possible, manage to cause such controversy and come to be seen as such a disaster?

The scene was set on the results day of a smaller nation with a different exam system. The concerns raised in Scotland helped to frame the debate in England by raising key questions, such as the extent of adjustment and its impact on students by socio-economic status. Within a few days, the English A Level results were causing controversy before they were even known.

A few of the key stages:

Adjustment became ‘downgrading’

It was known from the beginning that some adjustment would be applied to Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) to correct for inconsistencies between centres and to aim for a broadly stable grade distribution. But there was also a sense that the CAGs would carry serious weight, even if some might need to be adjusted downwards. As soon as it became clear that 39% of CAGs would be adjusted downwards, the story became one of ‘downgrading’ and of a lack of trust in the centre assessment grades. Perhaps if the proportion being adjusted had been lower, 10% maybe, this might not have become such an issue. Faced with the scale of the changes, the narratives of ‘most CAGs will not be adjusted’, ‘only 4 in 10 CAGs will be adjusted’ or ‘96% of final grades will be the same or one below the CAG’ just didn’t cut it.

A ‘fair’ formula became unfair

Exams aspire to objectivity and applying a formula sounds objective. A well designed, formula will achieve what you want it to. However, with so many factors to consider, the key question was how would these various factors would weigh against each other, and that weighting was lost in a rather opaque algorithm whose ‘fairness’ people were asked to take on trust. In the end it was possible to criticise the algorithm both for what it did take into account, such as institutional history, as well as what it seemed not to, such as institutional subject value added. Without absolute clarity, the suspicion of inhuman, formulaic, ‘computer says no’ methods took hold.

Some cohorts were treated differently

Even if the formula had been fit for purpose, it seemed it wouldn’t apply to everyone. Small cohorts, of which there are many in the system – particularly post-16, are not susceptible to statistical adjustment, while larger ones are. This meant that the grade profile of smaller cohorts would be more likely to draw on unchanged CAGs despite being just as prone to ‘optimistic’ prediction as any other cohorts. Once this became clear, the conclusion was that centres with larger cohorts, such as colleges, would be proportionately disadvantaged and this was then borne out by the data for grades A and C.

In a high-stakes norm-referenced system, high grades are a valuable currency for progression. They are the ‘prizes’ which have scarcity value and are effectively rationed. For such a system to demonstrate that it is fair to all, in its own terms, the distribution of these high grades has to be seen to be based strictly on ‘merit’. But when this year’s small cohort effect saw the proportion of A* and A grades jump by a factor of 15 times more in private fee-paying school sixth forms than in colleges, any argument that this was deserved broke down. The claim that the system had not generated any more inequality than usual could no longer be believed.

Candidates and centres felt the impact

Once centres saw their results, it was clear that they were simply wrong on an unprecedented scale. For example, colleges with large and fairly stable cohorts were seeing their grade profile and value added fall below anything they’d seen in recent years. They were experiencing very high rates of CAG ‘downgrading’; well above 39%, and often 50% or more. The CAG predictions had taken account of real student performance and an historic understanding of their value added, applied subject by subject and student by student, but they seemed to have counted for little.

The next day, the shock and anger of college and school leaders were shared by many of their students as they received their results. Too many of them felt let down by a set of arbitrary and inconsistent processes which were completely outside of their control.

People lost confidence in the system

At tipping points, the key is often the balance of how people are feeling; their perceptions and anxieties about a process which affects them deeply. Being judged, measured, sorted and classified against common standards feels personal. It goes to the heart of our sense of worth and where we are placed in relation to others speaks to our sense of fairness. In the end, candidates and those who cared about them were more concerned about relative fairness within the class of 2020 than any potential unfairness to the classes of 2019 or 2021. There is a debate to be had about what ‘maintaining standards’ means – but defining it simply as ‘achieving a very similar grade profile year on year’ just couldn’t hold up against the evidence of systemic unfairness.

Going ‘full CAG’ became a serious option

Given that the Scottish government had already conceded this, it became a viable proposition for the other nations. It was resisted for some time on the grounds of ‘maintaining standards’ between years and not all stakeholders called for ‘full CAG’ as they could see its limitations. It would make it impossible to adjust any centre grades at all, risking exchanging one set of inequalities for another.

Independent agents, such as Oxbridge colleges started to announce that they would be considering CAGs for admissions because sticking to the calculated grades would make social mobility worse. Each of these separate decisions undermined the case for calculated grades and tipped the scales back towards the CAGs. As time ran out to resolve the problem, the choice became a binary. Centre Assessed Grades had to be better because the alternative was worse. With GCSE results looming, there was no good reason for any A Level U turn not to apply to GCSE too.

Anger, mistrust, and blame

A week after the ‘first’ A Level results day, students received their new ‘corrected’ grades based on the CAGs but preserving some which had been adjusted upwards. GCSE grades were issued as scheduled, also based on ‘CAG plus’. There was talk of mass complaints, data requests and litigation as some students still felt aggrieved about their final grade with some of this anger now directed at their centre.  There were also claims that some schools had approached CAG-setting very differently and might want the whole process to be re-opened for them. The idea that all these concerns could be adequately addressed through an individual appeals process, which tends to favour the ‘sharp elbowed’, became problematic.

In summary

A process which had started with broad support in principle foundered in its implementation through an accumulation of effects, the scale of which had not been predicted. These emerged gradually and amplified each other. Trust and confidence were eroded and the narrative of ‘ensuring fairness in a difficult year’ became harder to sustain. Whatever the strength of the ‘maintaining standards’ argument at the start, it was overwhelmed by the evidence of ‘greater inequality and more high grades for the better off’.

What next?

The first draft of history is still to be written but we now know how this phase of the results drama ended – we have ‘full CAG plus’ for both A Level and GCSE. As we continue to pick over the causes and consequences of this year’s process, we also need to hold on to all our underlying concerns about the system as it was, in order to consider what needs to be done to build a better, fairer system.

See also:

Before the A Level results were published, I wrote here about the questions which needed to be asked. I also wrote here about the particular challenge of grading post-16 GCSE retakes in English and maths.

England’s unexpected exams revolution (May 2020).

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Starting to rethink education.

There are different ways to think about life after a crisis. One is: ‘let’s try to get back to things as they were as quickly as possible’, another is: ‘we can’t go back to things as they were, this is an opportunity for fundamental change.’

The ‘get back to normal’ approach has its appeal; a desire for stability and security. But given the deep cracks in our society which have been exposed it must be clear that ‘things as they were’ is neither acceptable nor sustainable. So many layers of inequality have been revealed and so many assumptions called into question that there is an imperative for change.

What change though? We can each write our personal manifesto for a better world, making the case for particular initiatives we favour. However, what will bring social change is a collective shift in the consensus around what kind of common future we want. If we are to use the moment of crisis to re-evaluate our society, our economy and our democracy, we need to engage in a dialogue about what matters to us and what broad direction of travel we can agree on.

Without setting out a detailed programme, some of the elements of a possible consensus are starting to emerge and could be built on:

  • A general desire to ‘build back better’ in a way which is sustainable and life-enhancing.
  • A greater understanding of the reality of existing inequalities and injustices and their history together with a determination to work for greater equality and social justice.
  • A renewed valuing of the work that contributes to community resilience, health and flourishing and the vital importance of this ‘economy of care’ and the egalitarianism, solidarity and educational work which underpin it.
  • An understanding of the positive potential of an enabling state in protecting citizens and supporting them through economic and social change.
  • A recognition that when today’s crisis recedes, we will still face plenty of others which will require determined and concerted action on at least as great a scale.

Working together to build a better future is hard work and we won’t agree about everything. The dialogue will be political, but shouldn’t be the exclusive property of any single political party or movement. The process needs to be open and transparent and to allow for incremental progress, experimentation and a range of solutions at different levels.

We have had ‘national conversations’ before, but this one is more urgent than ever. We need to frame the questions and the debate in a way which is democratic and inclusive, and which could start to generate and build solutions in which everyone has a stake. This cannot be ‘business as usual’ or policy making by focus group.

Education has a part to play in supporting and informing this discussion as well as itself being a subject of debate. The purpose and organisation of education need to be revisited and this process has started with a number of consultations already contributing. There will be more and here are just a few current examples:

UNESCO Futures of Education

UNESCO has launched a global debate on how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. It is framed in the context of persistent inequalities, social fragmentation, and political extremism which have brought many societies to a point of crisis, while accelerated climate change highlights the fragility of our planet. UNESCO notes that advances in digital communication, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have great potential but that they also raise serious ethical and governance concerns, given that promises of innovation and technological change have an uneven record of contributing to human flourishing.

The Futures of Education project is founded on a belief in the transformative power of education: “knowledge and learning are humanity’s greatest renewable resources for responding to challenges and inventing alternatives. Yet, education does more than respond to a changing world. Education transforms the world.”

This idea is to mobilize the many rich ways of being and knowing, involving young people, educators, civil society, governments and other stakeholders, guided by an International Commission and reporting in November 2021 with a vision of what education and learning could become.

The appeal of this process is its global ambition and reach, but there is always a risk that this may lead to big talk and little action. The only way to shape it is to get involved, and resources are available here to support engagement this summer. In the UK, the Climate Commission will be running student focus groups in July and colleges, schools and universities could also organise forums to engage in this global consultation.

ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System

ASCL, the UK school and college leaders union, has produced this blueprint to promote debate about how to ensure that all children and young people in our society can benefit from a high-quality education, noting that at the current rate of progress the ‘attainment gap’ will take more than 500 years to close.

“We think that one of the richest countries in the world in the 21st century can do better. Our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System will explore ways in which we might improve the life chances of all children and young people and narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of secondary school.”

The questions asked include: What and how should children and young people be taught? How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported? How should the education system be structured? How should the education system be funded? How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to?

The call for evidence is now closed, but ASCL will be publish the blueprint in the autumn and this should prompt a lively debate. The submission from the Association of Colleges can be read here.

Independent Commission on the College of the Future

Focusing on the college sector in the UK, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future is asking two fundamental questions: What do we want and need from colleges in 10 years’ time? What changes are needed in order to achieve this?

This is set in the context of the seismic shifts which are happening across the UK, from demographic change, the climate emergency, the technological revolution and the changing demands of the labour market and it is premised on a belief that colleges are key to responding to these challenges.

The Commission’s progress report in November 2019 described colleges as being at the heart of an education ecosystem and addressed the role, scope and focus of colleges as an essential part of every community, the need for lifelong, flexible learning for the future and for innovation, sustainable funding and regulation to reinforce trust in the system.

The Commission continues to hear evidence and to deliberate, with a view to influencing the UK government’s agenda for Further Education.

Shaping the future.

Reviews, enquiries and commissions won’t in themselves solve our problems, but they can move our thinking forward, develop the ideas we need and start to gather people around a new consensus. The extraordinary time we are living through and the scale of the challenges we face require ambition and radicalism. We need to raise our sights and start sketching out the outlines of national and global education policies which can contribute to the wider agenda of human survival and flourishing.

In her wonderful book ‘Hope in the Dark‘, Rebecca Solnit offers many definitions of hope in a time of crisis, one of these is “the belief that what we do matters”. If we believe, as UNESCO does, that education can transform the world, then we must urgently realise that transformative potential as we need it more than ever and we have to hope that what we do can matter enough.

See also:

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020)

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Knowledge and education for the future.

Edgar Morin’s seven lessons for the future.

When the French sociologist Edgar Morin was asked by UNESCO for his thoughts on education for the future, he organised his proposals around seven key aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

In his introduction to Morin’s text (1999), the then Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor made the case for change:

When we look to the future, we confront many uncertainties about the world our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live in. But we can be certain of one thing: if we want this earth to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, human society must undergo a transformation. The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know… We must strive to build a sustainable future. Democracy, equity, social justice, peace and harmony with our natural environment should be the watchwords of this world to come… at the base of our way of living, of governing our nations and communities, of interacting on a global scale.

Education in the broadest sense plays a key role in this because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organizing knowledge. We have to redesign our educational policies and programs. And as we put these reforms into effect, we have to keep our sights on the long term and honour our tremendous responsibility for future generations.

Edgar Morin did not propose a curriculum framework or educational blueprint, his suggestions are in effect a response to the question of ‘how to adjust our way of thinking’. His aim was to identify key challenges that educational programmes should try to address if they are to better equip us for the future.

Edgar Morin’s suggestion is that these aspects of knowledge should be included in educational programmes and adapted for different cultures and societies. His starting point is that the knowledge on which we base our understanding of the human condition is always provisional and open-ended, leaving us with many uncertainties and unanswered questions and leaving room for philosophical and cultural interpretations.

In summary, Morin’s seven perspectives on knowledge for the future are:

  1. Knowledge and error: The purpose of education is to transmit human knowledge but also to teach what knowledge is; its structures, its weaknesses, and its capacity for error. Knowledge cannot be treated as a ready-made tool to be picked up and used without some understanding of its nature. We need to know about knowledge if we are to confront error and illusion and be armed in the fight for lucidity. We need to study the properties and processes of human knowledge as well as the psychological and cultural conditions which make us vulnerable to error and illusion.
  2. Knowledge in context: Our learning needs to help us grasp the broad, fundamental problems and also to situate partial, circumscribed knowledge within these. A fragmented learning divided into disciplines can prevent us from connecting parts and wholes. We need learning that can see subjects in their totality, their context and their complexity. We need to develop our capacity to place information in a context, within a whole, using methods which help to show the connections and influences between the parts and the whole in a complex world.
  3. Teaching the human condition: The human condition should be a key subject of education. Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social and historical beings. Separating this complex unity of humanity into disciplines can make it harder to understand what it means to be human. We need to become aware of both our complex personal identities and our shared identity with all other human beings. Can we assemble and organize the knowledge dispersed in natural and social sciences, literature, philosophy and art in a way that shows the interconnections, the unity and the diversity of all that is human?
  4. A global identity: The future survival of the human species is a global challenge. An understanding of rapid global developments and a recognition of our global citizenship is now indispensable for all of us. We need to teach global history, and this should include the ravages of oppression and domination, past and present, and an understanding of how all parts of the world have become so interdependent. We need to teach about the complex configuration of global crises and show how human beings share common challenges and a common fate.
  5. Confronting uncertainty: Science has helped us achieve much certainty, but it also reveals new kinds of uncertainty. We need to learn to navigate the sea of uncertainty which flows around our islands of certainty. Education should include the study of uncertainty, whether in the physical, biological, or social sciences. We should teach about dealing with the uncertain and the unexpected and help people develop strategies to respond to new information and to manage risk.  History shows how unexpected many major events and accidents have been and how unpredictable the course of the human journey. This should prompt us to be ready to confront the unexpected and educators should work at the very outposts of our uncertainties.
  6. Understanding each other: Understanding each other is both a means and an end of human communication. Our global survival calls for mutual understanding in all directions. An education for the future needs to develop mutual understanding among human beings at all ages and levels. This also means studying the nature of misunderstanding from its roots to its effects, including the origins of racism, xenophobia and discrimination of all sorts and their relationship to the exercise of power. This should also form the basis for an education for peace.
  7. Ethics for the human species: Education should address the three dimensions of the human condition: the individual, the social and the global. An ethics for the human species requires both control of society by the individual and control of the individual by society, ie: democracy. It also calls for global citizenship. This ethics cannot be taught through moral lessons, it needs to take shape in people’s minds through a growing awareness that we are simultaneously individuals, members of a society and members of a species. Every one of us carries this triple reality within them. Any truly human development must include a blend of individual autonomy, community participation, and sense of belonging to the human species. Education should not only contribute to an understanding of our home planet, it should help this find expression in the will to realize our global citizenship.

(I have paraphrased Edgar Morin’s own summary, any additions or misinterpretations are mine)

Two decades on, as we face a health emergency, a climate and environmental emergency, multiple global crises, conflicts, inequalities and injustices as well as the distortions of fake news and the threat of authoritarianism, Morin’s seven perspectives provide us with a good starting point for any educational project which aims to prepare us for the future. More than ever, we need the continuing commitment of UNESCO and others to an education which addresses global challenges and which places human rights, sustainability, peace and democracy at the centre. It falls to today’s educators to apply these perspectives to shape an education fit for the future and our current predicament should only serve to inject a greater sense of urgency into this work.

See also:

Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (UNESCO, 2001)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

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England’s unexpected exam revolution.

One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are embarking on an extraordinary national experiment in the way young people achieve their exam grades in England; switching from a heavy reliance on externally set and marked written exams towards much greater trust in teacher assessment.

Our education system has never seen such a rapid assessment turnaround. It was made necessary by the shutdown of school and college campuses for most students and the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE, A Level and other public exams.

England’s public exam system is complex, fragile and expensive, requiring careful management. From its origins in the School Certificates established over 100 years ago it has grown massively and now serves multiple purposes and audiences.

Public exams provide young people with rites of passage, generate evidence of learning and are used as passports or barriers to progression and as labels of success and failure – both for students and for the institutions they attend. The stakes are high and results prompt national debate about standards, along with being used as measures of national progress and competitiveness. They can also reveal deep social inequalities while providing a veneer of objectivity for them.

The sheer number of exams set and sat, the high dependence on external terminal assessment, the level of grade differentiation, the amount of checking and analysis required to establish validity, the degree of moderation and standardisation needed to achieve consistency and the mass of performance data generated; all this needs close management. It’s not surprising that the machinery required to run the system is so complex.

Previous changes, such as the switch from A*-G to 9-1 grading at GCSE or the move from modular to linear A Levels, required careful planning well in advance. This time, the revolution is happening in the space of a few weeks, steered by Ofqual, the exams regulator. In effect, the very experts whose job it is to hold the superstructure of exams together are now tasked with showing how well we can manage without it. Together with the exam boards, they are having to design a new system almost from scratch while keeping the interests of students and their progression at the heart of all their decisions.

We now know in broad terms what teachers and centres will be expected to provide by June for every student entered for an exam. In most cases it boils down to two things: a centre assessed grade based on the evidence available and a ranking within each grade for all students entered for that exam.

This is a radical shift. The current system’s dependence on external assessment suggests a lack of confidence in teacher assessment whereas this new process requires a high level of trust in teacher judgement. This is very welcome and, once established, that public expression of trust is something which could be built on in future.

Everyone involved will want this process to be valid and robust so that this summer’s grades can be valued and respected across the board, including by the colleges, universities and employers to which students are planning to progress. But we need to ensure that it doesn’t disadvantage those students already most at risk.

Clearly, every student’s education has been disrupted this year, but not all will be impacted equally. There is some evidence that black and minority and disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-estimated and go on to perform better in exams than predicted. Without exams this year, this under-prediction could disadvantage many.

Ofqual will be undertaking an equality impact assessment and this should take into account any evidence of systemic under-prediction and try to correct for it. And if the system can’t predict precisely what grade every single student would have achieved, the least colleges and universities can do is to be flexible about their entry requirements and generous in the additional support they provide for the Covid-19 cohort once they progress in the autumn.

Equality concerns also apply to the proposed additional autumn exam series. Opening this up widely could undermine this summer’s grades and lead to new inequalities, so it is important to clarify exactly who this is for. Rather than being offered to anyone who is dissatisfied with their result, this opportunity should be for those candidates who couldn’t be assessed in the summer or whose progression is in serious jeopardy. The focus in the autumn should be on supporting students to move forward and succeed on their new programme rather than looking backwards and spending time improving on a grade they achieved in summer 2020.

Two further issues should be considered if the process is to be as manageable and fair as possible:

First, combining all the gradings and rankings coming in from colleges and schools nationally requires some moderation and standardisation. We know that this will take into account three main elements: the previous results in each centre, the expected overall national results and each student’s prior achievements – generally the strongest predictor of results. There needs to be maximum transparency about how the national statistical model for adjustment will balance these factors. While the global pattern of results may be fairly predictable, what matters to each candidate is that their personal results represent their achievements as fairly as possible. This is particularly tricky when applied to post-16 GCSE re-takers whose progress is less easy to predict because they are not a whole age cohort and are more ‘bunched’ around a few grades.

Second, large centres need help with ranking very large numbers of students. It is reasonable to expect teachers to rank the students they teach. Without this, it won’t be possible to create a sliding scale to which any statistical adjustment can be applied. But ranking every individual candidate on their own ranking point in a centre where there are several hundred in a single grade is neither practical nor more accurate. Take GCSE maths; around 100 colleges enter over 500 students and some more than 1,000. In comparison, England’s 3,500 secondary schools enter an average of 150 Year 11 students each for GCSE maths. It would make sense to limit the number of ranking points per grade and to allow centres to place some students on the same ranking point. After all, in an exam, several students can achieve the same score.

This process, and the issues it raises, reveal a system which is very sensitive to minor changes. Because the stakes are high, grade boundaries become cliff edges and small differences in outcome can have life-changing consequences. But should the distinction between grades 3 and 4 or 8 and 9 at GCSE, or between an AAB or an ABB at A Level really be so critical?

This year’s unexpected turnaround shows that major system change is possible. Once we get through this, we should take time to consider whether we really want to return to things exactly as they were. We could have a debate about what we’ve learnt from 2020 and the benefits of increasing trust, reducing the stakes, spreading the risk and dialling down the pressure. We might well conclude that simplification would be in the best interests of students, their teachers and their places of learning.

See also:

AoC response to the Ofqual consultation on grading A Levels and GCSEs (April 2020)

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Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’.

The personal is political, and this wonderful book is both entirely personal and deeply political. Nervous Conditions (1988) is the story of Tambudzai, a young woman growing up in rural Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) in the late 1960’s, told entirely in her words. Her personal struggle for emancipation is seen through her eyes and her experiences and emotions are those of a determined and single-minded individual trying to make sense of where she comes from and where she might be going.

The development of Tambudzai’s feelings about the challenges she faces is meticulously charted and we share the lessons she learns as she learns them. At the same time, her situation and the options open to her are shaped by the structural sexism, racism and colonialism  which are ever-present.

Tsitsi Dangarembga avoids explicit sociological context-setting or political analysis, showing rather than telling, immersing us in Tambudzai’s lived experience and allowing it to speak for itself without the perspective of hindsight. Through Tambudzai’s story, we become aware of the difference between the poverty and hardship of her rural home and the relative affluence of the mission where her uncle runs a school, between ‘traditional’ and ‘Western’ belief systems and between the value attributed to Shona and English. We see how gender, race, culture, language and education all intersect as signifiers of status, and currencies of respect.

Soon after moving from her village to the mission, Tambudzai describes her feelings:

I expected my sojourn to fulfill all my fourteen year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world…

For Tambudzai, reading voraciously is a major part of this transformation:

Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds. It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything gravitating towards me.

Tambudzai’s awareness of the structures of male power and white power and the realities of subjugation emerge gradually from her accumulated experience. Her cousin Nyasha is one step ahead in developing her race and gender consciousness and for Tambudzai, Nyasha’s perspective is both fascinating and unsettling. Should she also be challenging the authority of the man who is making her liberation possible through education? Should she also question the system which seems to offer her the opportunity for emancipation? While present and troubling, these decisions are postponed in the interest of getting on with the all-important self-education project she has embarked on.

Tambudzai is expected to commit to transforming her life and that of her family while also accepting the many oppressions of racism and sexism. She senses that she will only have one opportunity and is determined to grasp it. But she is simultaneously experiencing liberation and subjugation, with the added challenge that the principal agent of both is a single individual, her uncle Babamukuru, a man she can neither completely hero-worship nor completely reject.

Tambudzai finds herself caught between the solid certainties offered by her benefactor, on condition of conformity and the questioning and challenging of everything he stands for which emanates from his daughter Nyasha:

I thought my direction was clear; I was being educated…these were the goals and this was how we would reach them. Babamukuru was my touchstone who showed me that this was true…But Nyasha’s energy, at time stormy and turbulent, at times confidently serene, but always reaching, reaching a little further than I had ever thought of reaching, was beginning to indicate that there were other directions to be taken, other struggles to engage in besides the consuming desire to emancipate myself and my family.

Tambudzai’s story is full of reminders that she lives in a deeply unequal and hierarchical society with many layers of oppression, some more explicit than others. While her experience to date provides few first-hand interactions between black and white people, there are many portrayals of the various ways women confront or negotiate with male power, whether rooted in tradition or acquired through education. On a visit to her homestead, Tambudzai witnesses a family conference which excludes most of the women affected. The women’s responses to the debate help her see that:

…it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced…

When Tambudzai later debates tradition and ritual with Nyasha, her cousin delivers “a lecture on the dangers of assuming that Christian ways were progressive ways” and makes the link between colonial power and the denial of culture:

‘It’s bad enough’ she said severely, ’when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.’

Reflecting on another family conflict, Nyasha again provides the opening for a different way of looking at things:

You grow and you compensate. You have to. There’s no other way. We’re all trying to do it, you know. All of us. But it’s difficult when everything’s laid out for you. It’s difficult when everything’s taken care of. Even the way you think.

The story takes us up to the beginning of another major transition in Tambudzai’s life and education, and leaves the reader eager to know what form her full emancipation will take and how she will confront the multiple injustices in her life and in her country. Nervous Conditions feels like the first instalment of a broader ‘coming to consciousness’ story and Tsitsi Dangarembga has written two sequels: The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018) following Tambudzai into adulthood through and beyond the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. While the political themes in Nervous Conditions are allowed to emerge gradually from personal experience, we can expect them to burst through into the foreground in these sequels.

This powerful novel demonstrates how intertwined the political and the personal are through being so personal in its telling and so political in its impact.

See also:

From Bamako to Timbuktu (Jul 2015)

W.E.B DuBois: black liberation and education for all (Feb 2016)

What if? – dystopias in fiction (Dec 2017)

Abdellatif Laâbi – attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

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Rebecca Solnit on Hope.

In a crisis, it is easy to despair. ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ is a good mantra in such situations. Mourning has its place, but our response should be neither blind despair nor blind hope. We need to understand the objective reality and to build our hope from a sound base. We must mourn, analyse and organise, oppose and propose, critique and build.

Another much quoted mantra is Gramsci’s: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. This offers a good warning against both wishful thinking and resignation. But as the writer Mike Marqusee pointed out in a 2012 piece, ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ should not be seen as being opposites. Relentless pessimism can be debilitating but excessive optimism can compromise intellectual clarity. We need rational grounds for optimism. To make hope real we need to invest in it and, in Mike Marqusee’s words, engage in ‘a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable human society, a better human future which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.’

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliantly lucid contributions to understanding the threats and opportunities of our current crisis are great example of this approach; constantly snatching hope from the jaws of despair. Her extraordinary and beautiful ‘Hope in the Dark’ (Original written in 2005, updated third edition in 2016) is just what we need; now and in future.

The hope it describes is not unfounded wishful thinking or “the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine” but a hope grounded in a clear-eyed understanding of what we face and have faced, as well as the possibility of what we could create based on our new awareness.

The dark we are in is not a total absence of light. In fact, there is enough illumination to perceive all around us the elements of different and better ways of doing things. The hope “is in the dark and the edges, not the limelight of centre stage” but it can be detected.

Listing some of Rebecca Solnit’s definitions of this form of hope creates a kind of poetic catalogue of praise for thinking, understanding, imagining, learning and acting in the world and for the world:


is a forward-directed energy

is a power you don’t have to throw away

is an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists

means facing realities and addressing them

is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable

demands things that despair does not

is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair

is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities that invite or demand that we act

is an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings

is a basis for action, not a substitute for it

is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point

requires clarity; seeing the troubles in this world … and seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable

is the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand

gets you there; work gets you through

is only a beginning

See also:

What coronavirus can teach us about hope – Rebecca Solnit (Guardian 07/04/20)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

Young people between hope and despair (December 2013)

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In praise of lightness – Calvino’s Leggerezza.

The Italian writer, Italo Calvino, was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1985 but died before he was able to deliver them. Luckily, we have the text of 5 of these 6 planned lectures and they are published in English as ‘Six memos for the next millennium’.

Each of these memos touches on a different quality which Calvino felt should be valued in literature. The first is ‘Lightness’ – Leggerezza in Italian.

Calvino may be talking about language and writing, but what he has to say can also be applied to the way we think about the world more generally. He draws on a dizzying range of literary sources without expecting us to be weighed down by them, and in praising lightness he is also clear that he values weight.

Speaking of his own writing, Calvino tells us that his method often involves the subtraction of weight:

“I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

He also highlights what he sees as two opposite tendencies in literature; the one trying to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things” and the other trying to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things.”

Lightness and weight may be opposites, but they are inseparable. Calvino illustrates this by drawing, among other metaphors, on the myth of Perseus who flies weightlessly with winged sandals while also relying on the decapitated Gorgon’s head, kept in a sack, to petrify his enemies and weigh them down once and for all.

Lightness of thought has benefits for all of us as we navigate the business of being human and living in the world. For instance, how are we to fully understand the world if we only have our own personal experience to draw on? We could simply learn more and more about other individuals and their lived experience as different versions of our own, accumulating more of the same type of ‘weight’. But if we want to better understand the human condition we also need to be able to shed some of this weight and make the leap to more social or global perspectives which, while they include multiple individual experiences, are not weighed down by their particularity. It is lightness which allows us to step up and take a sociological, political or planetary view.

So, this lightness  can help us see the whole beyond the parts we know personally. It allows us to reach beyond our first-hand experience, empathize with others, generalize and see our human experience at a wider, social or global level and even go beyond purely human concerns. Lightness helps us to shift to a new level of understanding and to see the bigger picture.

Calvino refers to the “forces connecting macrocosm to microcosm” and the way that the lightness of the parts which contribute to the weight of the whole. He quotes Jacques from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ describing his melancholy as “compounded of many simples…”. Calvino sees such emergent properties as a “fine dust of atoms, like everything that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.” The parts may be light and invisible, but they are what makes up the all too weighty whole which we inhabit.

The balance between weight and lightness is also a balance between attachment and freedom. While being attached to certain beliefs, preconceptions and values, we also need to exercise the freedom to consider alternative perspectives and other ways of being and doing things. The quality of lightness is what allows us to detach ourselves from the weight of what we know and to see it from a new place.

Reading Calvino’s ‘Lightness’ reminds us of the value of letting go and ‘taking off’ as well as the need for strong foundations. In this wonderful essay he helps us gain perspective, shift our point of view and move between levels, both in our reading and in our thinking.

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

Theodore Zeldin on ‘what is worth knowing?’ (August 2016)

Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)

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An A-Z for a world which has to change.

In the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic which threatens many lives, we need to remember that this is just one of several global crises we face which will change our world in profound ways. All these challenges require us to alter the way we think and the way we tell our story.

Here is a suggested A-Z of some of what we will need to draw on:

Adaptability: We have a tremendous capacity to adapt to changed circumstances and innovate but only as long as we feel safe and our basic needs are met. Through education, we can nurture our capacity for change but we also need to ensure that the people who face the most disruption get the most support.

Basic Income: in a crisis, it is clear how essential it is to protect every citizen’s basic income. Human welfare shouldn’t be conditional, and it shouldn’t take a disaster for us to see the benefit of providing everyone with the security of an acceptable minimum standard of living which allows them to participate in society and withstand economic shocks and crises.

Care: Our economy and culture need to shift permanently towards valuing caring and nurturing at least as much as production and consumption. An ‘economy of care’ would mean making different choices and investing in different priorities; the care and education of our youngest, oldest and most vulnerable for a start.

Co-operation: Acquisitiveness, selfishness and competition are of little use to us in a crisis. Working together for the common good is clearly the only way to address the challenges we face. We need to develop a culture and practice of co-operation and build the structures which can hard wire it into our society and economy.

Democracy: We cannot put democracy on hold bescause difficult decisions need to be made. We need to develop new forms of participation and informed deliberation which empower people and locate accountability and decision-making at the level where they can be most effective, whether global or local.

Economy: Our economy should serve human needs of survival and flourishing as well as planetary sustainability. It must be built on principles of care, equality, co-operation and solidarity and we have to factor in all the consequences of production, consumption and distribution in our investment decisions.

Equality: Our economic and social policies need to be based on an assumption of the equal value, equal rights and basic entitlements of every human being on the planet and a recognition of the injustice of prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, hatred and inequalities of all kinds.

Food poverty: Public policy should consign every variety of poverty to history: food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty, transport poverty, rural poverty, digital exclusion etc.

Global politics: The greatest challenges we face don’t respect national borders and cannot be tackled by any single state. Global challenges require a democratic global level of politics not beholden to national governments. Global structures like the United Nations need to be strengthened and democratised.

Growth: It is not sustainable to keep increasing production and consumption without end. We need to find ways to achieve a steady state economy which can meet human needs and support human progress in ways which are compatible with long term life on Earth.

Homelessness: Rough sleeping and homelessness are an affront to a civilised society, and we have the means to end this form of poverty, and others, if we choose to.

Inclusion: Wealth and power need to be distributed more equally and we need to remove barriers to access and participation to ensure that everyone can play a part in society.

Investment: Spending on public services, health and education are not drains on the public purse but investments which pay for themselves many times over. The way we value the returns on our investments need to take full account of the human, social and environmental costs and benefits.

Jobs: We need to redefine the value of work and its place in our lives, by sharing it more fairly and resetting the balance between constructive and nurturing purposes and destructive or unsustainable ones.

Knowledge: Our education system needs to value the knowledge and skills which people need to address the crises we face. We all need the political, cultural, scientific, economic and emotional literacy which will support a good understanding of our complex and interdependent world and the skills to make it work for everyone.

Localism: Every global crisis is experienced at a personal and local level and our understanding of the global must be rooted in our commitment to the local. We need to be citizens of somewhere to understand the challenges being faced by others elsewhere and everywhere. Globalization has brought many benefits but it can make us vulnerable and overdependent on systems beyond our control. We need to build resilient, self-sustaining communities around us.

Markets: Markets have a role in allocating resources, but they don’t deliver a fairer society. Public health, vaccines and treatments, education and social welfare should not be seen as commodities to be traded. There are many other essentials which cannot be left to the vagaries of the market.

Mutuality: The principle that we are all prepared to contribute to caring for others because we know they will contribute to caring for us can be applied to more than just the National Health Service. The idea of mutual aid makes sense in every context, at both the personal and social level, and it inspires some of the most creative grassroots community responses to our current crisis.

Nationalism: Love of country does not justify mistrust, prejudice or hatred, xenophobia or exceptionalism. National identities and values need to be seen as nesting within a shared human identity and universal values and any national sentiment should be capable of including everyone.

Openness: In a democracy, people need to have access to what the decision makers know and the reasoning for particular policies needs to be scrutinized and open to challenge. Transparency and accountability are essential in an open, democratic society.

Politics: A healthy civic life requires all of us to take part in discussion and deliberation and help make choices. Politics belongs to every citizen and should not be the preserve of a few leaders or representatives. We need to make it possible for everyone to have a voice, to engage meaningfully in the conversation about our future and help to shape it.

Production: Our productive capacity needs to prioritise what is socially useful and life-enhancing. If, in a crisis, we can convert production from weapons to life-saving medical technology, this begs questions about our priorities before the crisis.

Quality of life: Indicators such as GDP and measures of growth do not properly reflect human well-being or happiness We need to redefine what constitutes a good life and a good society and place this at the heart of public policy.

Questioning: We need to explore and define the challenges we face in order to tackle them. Secrecy and ignorance breed mistrust and irrationality and the antidote to prejudice and superstition is open, well-informed and critical public discourse.

Rationality: The truth matters, even if it is a provisional and partial account of reality, and we need mechanisms to establish and propagate it, particularly in the face of propaganda and fake news.

Resilience: Change can be sudden and difficult, particularly in a crisis, and making the transition to a different social and economic order will require practical and psychological preparation. Once individuals understand the power of working together, their communities can develop their collective resilience.

Solidarity: Looking out for others is in our self-interest and real solidarity is built on the commitment and determination of individuals. When we stand with others in challenging injustice or suffering, we are also setting a standard for what we expect of and for ourselves.

State: We need to be able to act collectively at the global, national regional and local level and hold to account those who exercise power on our behalf. We need a vision of the active and interventionist state; protecting, empowering and liberating people rather than being oppressive or bureaucratic.

Sustainability: The interests of future generations and our planet’s finite capacity for renewal should be factored in to all our decisions about production and consumption in the here and now.

Trust: Trust is an essential currency in all the transactions of an open and democratic society. In our complex and interdependent world, we need to be able to trust in the expertise, honesty and good intentions of others. We also need to learn to be worthy of trust ourselves.

Universalism: If equality is one of our key values, we need to ensure that our entitlements are universal rather than building barriers and placing conditions on who should have access to the social benefits of citizenships. Universal income should join universal health care, childcare and education as social entitlements for all citizens.

Value: A crisis forces us to re-evaluate what matters most. When this crisis subsides, we will need to hold on to what we have learnt about what we really value and use this to help shape our future.

War: We can and should mobilise phenomenal resources in ‘fighting’ for human survival, human health and human development. However, conflicts over territory and resources will never be properly resolved through violence. The only ‘wars’ we should be engaging in are against poverty, disease, ignorance, inequality and injustice.

Wealth: We need to recognise the injustice of glaring inequalities in wealth distribution and start by defining what all people need. Accumulated resources and power are of little value if they’re not used for the purpose of addressing human concerns.

Xenophobia: There are many ways in which humans are different from each other but what we have in common is so much more important. If we allow difference to justify building barriers and promoting prejudice, mistrust or hatred we are on a path which leads to injustice, violence and war.

Young people: The future is where we will all spend the rest of our lives and the young have the biggest stake in it. Young people regularly demonstrate their concern about the future consequences of our actions, or inaction, and they need to be full partners in developing the policies which can safeguard the future.

Zeitgeist: By learning the lessons from the crises we face we can shape a new spirit of the age based on what we really value.

The world will never be the same after this crisis. It’s already clear that things won’t just get back to ‘normal’, and neither should they. From A to Z, everything will change, and it is up to us to ensure that change is for the better. Right now, we can only sketch out the outline of where we’re going and describe in broad terms the tools we will need. We need to get through this and learn the lessons about what has to change.

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

Decarbonising education (march 2020)


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Decarbonising education.

The climate emergency is a global reality and the large scale catastrophic weather events we face on a regular basis remind us that it is affecting us in the here and now, while also threatening far more serious impacts in the future.

Such a crisis calls for urgent action on a global scale, going well beyond what is currently planned. There need to be more ambitious targets and more rapid progress in reducing CO2 emissions and our dependency on fossil fuels.

Around the world, young people have been central to the campaign for change. Within the UK student movement, two of the key organisations are the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK). UKSCN and SOS-UK have jointly drafted a Climate Emergency Education Bill which outlines how education policy could start to address the climate crisis.

The campaign for this Bill, called ‘Teach the Future’ (www.teachthefuture.uk/asks) is led by students, supported by Nadia Whittome MP and other members of parliament across the main political parties. I attended the launch of the proposed Bill a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the Association of Colleges and heard from some of the student campaigners who helped to shape it. Many of them are college students who are active across a range of environmental issues, working to raise awareness within their communities as part of programmes such as Friends of the Earth’s excellent ‘My World My Home’. They told me that the message is being well received by their peers. Their clear understanding of the scale of the problem and their commitment to bringing about change are impressive. But while 68% of students say they want to learn more about these issues, only 4% overall feel that they know enough about climate change.

The Bill combines urgency with pragmatism, calling for:

  • A review of how the English education system prepares students for the climate and ecological crises.
  • The inclusion of the climate and ecological crises in teacher training and development.
  • A national climate emergency youth voice fund and a youth climate endowment fund.
  • A commitment that all new education buildings will be net-zero from 2022 and existing education buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

Given the scale and impact of the climate crisis, these measures would be a modest contribution to the kind of transformative change which is necessary. Many other countries have already given climate education a higher priority within the curriculum.

The Teach the Future campaign is a great example of young people engaging constructively with the democratic process and prioritising one of the most pressing issues of the day with a high degree of scientific and political literacy. The call for a curriculum which prepares students to tackle this global challenge puts young people at the centre of a wider debate about the purpose and values of their education. Learning more about the causes of climate change and the environmental impact of human activity will lead to a better understanding of other major global challenges we face. It also raises questions about the sustainability of a social, economic and political model which depends on ever growing production and consumption but fails to meet the human needs of so many and tolerates stark inequalities.

The campaign has moved to its next phase with a meeting scheduled with the Education Secretary and it is in all our interests that the Bill’s proposals are taken seriously and lead to positive action. As the UK prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we need this campaign’s sense of urgency to be sustained and to help shape a more ambitious agenda for change, in education and across society.

See also:

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)


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The mighty pencil

The mighty pencil

It’s just a pencil

Making a mark in a specific place

On a specific piece of paper

On a specific day.

It only takes a second or two,

No time at all.

Such a simple thing.

But that pencil mark

In that place

On that paper

On that day

Is a momentous political act

Which can change the world.

That pencil mark can channel everything you know and care about

And your hope for a better future.

It won’t give you everything you want,

It’s not the only way to make change,

But don’t let anyone tell you it’s worthless.

It’s not a TV show, it’s not a foregone conclusion and they’re not ‘all the same’.

That pencil mark connects you to all the others making a similar mark,

It’s your transmission belt to a power beyond your own.

So, on that day, in that place, on that paper,

Wield your mighty pencil.






See also:

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)

The Mathematics of Survival (Apr 2017)

Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

Seeking refuge in poetry (Sep 2015)

Familiale (Jacques Prévert) (Mar 2019)

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Knowledge-rich and skills-rich

We can learn a lot from the telly. Skills competitions like ‘Bake Off’ and ‘Strictly’ and quiz shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Mastermind’ are among the most popular programmes on TV.

These shows fall into two main camps, reflecting a skills / knowledge divide. But both types speak to our deep interest in both learning and skills.

‘Bake Off’, ‘Strictly’ and other skills-based competitions celebrate the ‘doing’. We are shown both the process and the product of the contestants’ learning and the purpose is clear: to make something delicious to certain specifications or to perform something entertaining in a particular style or tradition. The purpose, the process and the product are all ‘in the room’; we see the point of it all and we get a sense of the learning journey the contestants have been on, often by watching them practice and struggle. We also know that they didn’t develop these skills purely for the show, they are useful beyond the competition.

In contrast, ‘University Challenge’ or ‘Mastermind’ seem to be celebrations of pure ‘knowing’. The contestants are tested on their recall of a range of discrete facts in a way which is disconnected from their usefulness. While we can admire their performance in accessing this knowledge, the purpose and process of acquiring it are not ‘in the room’ and are not shared with us. We assume that the contestants can recall the names of composers, artists and writers because they have some interest in their work, but none of that is shown. Contestants may well prepare for general knowledge quizzes, but presumably the quiz is not the main reason they know about subatomic particles or Chinese dynasties. Their general knowledge is the product of a useful broad general education and what we are watching is an entertaining side-effect of that learning rather than its actual purpose.

In their various ways, all these shows are celebrating learning by showing us how it changes people. In Ofsted terms, the skills competition has clear ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ as well as demonstrating the ‘impact’ of learners’ performance. The quiz show is a bit less transparent; the performances may be impressive, but we would need to dig a little deeper to see the connection between ‘impact’, ‘implementation’ and original ‘intent’. Quiz performance, like exam performance, is a limited, though useful, proxy for the change which education seeks to bring about. Incidentally, it’s that ‘digging a little deeper’ into purpose and process which schools and colleges are likely to see more of under the new inspection framework.

Do these shows confirm a clear divide between practical and theoretical learning; the ‘vocational’ and the ‘academic’? I don’t think so. The fluent and skilful performances we see in the skills competitions are underpinned by plenty of prior knowledge which has been laid down by the contestants over time; knowledge about ingredients, tools and genres for instance. And the apparently disconnected knowledge and concepts being displayed in the quiz shows come from a meaningful context and can contribute to useful practical action such as solving problems and making new things.

The distinction between acquiring knowledge and developing skills is deeply embedded in our thinking. The ancient Greeks regarded ‘episteme’ or theoretical knowledge as quite independent from ‘techne’ or craft skill. The 20th century British philosopher Gilbert Ryle brought them a little closer to each other by describing them as two types of knowing which he called ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, or ‘declarative’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge. The procedural will tend to be more specific and involve more senses because it is more ‘hands-on’. It is possible to go further and argue for a completely unified model where all knowledge is defined broadly as a capacity to ‘get things right’. The issue continues to provoke lively debate but however we choose to describe the relationship, it is clear that knowledge and skill are highly interlinked and interdependent in education as in life.

Assumptions about knowledge and skill also shape the way we describe our educational programmes. Terms such as ‘academic’, ‘applied’, ‘general’, ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ suggest a spectrum ranging from the knowledge-rich ‘academic’ to the skills-rich ‘technical’. But as soon as we start to examine the content of each type of course and what students on them actually do, some of these distinctions start to blur. For instance, there’s no doubt that the new T Levels will require a great deal of knowledge acquisition while also having a very substantial work-based component. On the other hand, A Level subjects require students to demonstrate a wide range of subject specific and more general skills, such as essay writing.

 This labelling of qualifications suffers from ‘jingle-jangle’ (no, not the fictional street drug from the American TV series ‘Riverdale’). ‘Jingle’ is the use of one term to describe different things and ‘jangle’ is when different terms are used to describe the same thing. So ‘general qualification’ is a fairly ‘jingly’ term covering a range of very different courses from an Applied General in Business to an A Level in Philosophy. On the other hand, the terms ‘Vocational’ and ‘Technical’ are often used in a ‘jangly’ way. According to the government, Technical qualifications require “the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry”, a definition which could serve equally well for vocational qualifications. Inevitably, the noise of all this jingling and jangling can get in the way of understanding the role of qualifications.

These labels are also used to define the purposes of qualifications and sometimes to place those purposes on a pedestal. For instance, the current review of qualifications at level 3 and below in England talks in terms of qualifications being designed to ‘lead directly to a clearly defined outcome’ and ‘delivering on their purpose’ which is either employment (for T Levels) or further study (for A Levels). At this point, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that qualifications do not ‘deliver’ outcomes. They are taken by students, who then use them for a range of purposes in the real world based on their value and currency. The qualification outcome represents something useful about what the student knows and can do, but in practice, the qualification market, the labour market and individual learner journeys do not provide uniform or linear routes. Plenty of A level students don’t progress to higher education and plenty of vocational and technical students do – this is evidence of the value of those qualifications, not a sign of their failure.

Take a graded piano exam or a driving test; designed to accredit your ability to do something to a particular standard. Passing the test does not carry with it any expectation or requirement to play the piano in public or drive a car regularly, and the qualification is not judged in terms of how many professional pianists or drivers are ‘delivered’. And what of the Performing Arts student who becomes a lawyer or the Mediaeval History graduate who becomes a banker – did their qualifications ‘deliver’ for them?

If the implied polarity between knowledge and skill doesn’t make sense at the course level, it’s even less helpful at the human level. Labelling students as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ based on the type of course they are on feels like categorising them as either a ‘knower’ or a ‘doer’. This does everyone a disservice and only limits our concept of we are capable of.

For education to fully develop our capacities, it needs to do justice to the full range of possibilities and provide all students with the opportunity to both know important and interesting things and do important and interesting things without seeing these as separate spheres.

And yet further education is often described as the ‘skills sector’ tasked with ‘delivering skills’ – as if they could be detached from knowledge and passed on free of that troublesome burden. No educational project involves a transfer of useful knowledge; it can’t be knowledge-free. And we would not be doing our job as educators if we offered a ‘knowledge-poor’ curriculum.

But although calling for a knowledge-rich curriculum for all post-16 students should not be controversial it still feels a bit subversive. And there are risks. In emphasising the importance of knowledge, we need to guard against the fetishization of facts. Acquiring knowledge in disconnected gobbets is of very limited use. What makes knowledge useful is the connecting and reconnecting of the things we know to each other, and the fluency with which we can mobilise those mental schemas of linked knowledge which help us understand, recall and apply.

Having agreed that knowledge is vital, we then need to ask how we select which knowledge we value most and which knowledge is actually most useful. This can require us to challenge historical power structures and received wisdom to make room for different perspectives. But when we ask “whose knowledge, serving whose interests?” we are challenging current curricula, not the importance of knowledge itself.

Planning any educational programme necessarily involves carefully selecting essential or useful knowledge and thinking about how it builds on prior knowledge and paves the way for the acquisition of more knowledge. But arguing that knowing stuff is all there is, is a bit like saying ‘subatomic particles are all there is’. It may be true at one level but even knowing about all the subatomic particles in the universe wouldn’t help to explain the complex interactions and dynamic change which they are involved in at higher levels.

Running alongside this, we should also be advocating an entitlement to a skills-rich curriculum. Doing, applying, creating, putting into practice, developing, practising and refining in all sorts of contexts are key to learning. We should not regard practical, applied or contextual learning as being of a lower order.

In making the case for a more creative, skills-rich curriculum we should guard against claiming that focusing on knowledge necessarily implies irrelevant content, a decontextualized curriculum, rote learning or high-stakes tests. These things don’t automatically flow from a commitment to knowledge and ‘skills-boosting’ doesn’t have to be paired with ‘knowledge-bashing’.

We should also avoid making claims about practical skills which ‘embody’ them or locate them beyond normal learning. For instance, the skill of a brilliant pianist or craftsperson may appear to be located ‘in their hands’. While it may have shaped their physical development and the habits of performance may seem like second nature, this is still a learnt fluency, developed through intelligent practice and informed by knowledge and culture. Claiming these skills are ineffable just mystifies them and gets in the way of trying to understand them or help people acquire them.

Being able to do stuff requires both knowledge and skill. Trying to separate out the acquisition of skill as if it is a completely different type of learning – as in the ‘skills strategy’ or the ‘skills sector’ – is like trying to detach a current from the water which it travels through. They can be described separately but are inseparable in practice. While it may be useful to understand the components of a skill, such atomised competences are not much use in isolation. Becoming skilled can’t be achieved through the simple accumulation of competences, and becoming a skilled engineer, a skilled historian or a caring, responsible citizen is an emergent process which can’t be achieved rapidly or be measured on a simple scale.

So, rather than building barriers between knowing and doing, ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ should go hand in hand, making connections, emphasising the value of ‘learning by doing’, ‘knowing for doing’ and ‘doing as learning’ as ways of building on our previous knowledge and experience.

Whatever their starting point and wherever they are on their lifelong learning journey, our students need both knowledge and skills and their education should cherish and cultivate both. If we want the best possible curriculum, we need to make sure it nurtures our ‘dancer’, ‘baker’ and ‘mastermind’ capacities and possibilities by being rich in both knowledge and skills.

Originally published in the Times Educational Supplement in April 2019 here. You can also hear Eddie discuss knowledge and skill with Sarah Simons in an FE podcast on 25th April here.

See also:

What is powerful knowledge? (Aug 2015)

Skill shortage, training shortage or job shortage? (Feb 2016)

A short reading list:

Pat Ainley, ‘Class and Skill’ (1993)

John Dewey, ‘Experience and Education’ (1938)

Harold Entwistle, ‘Education, Work and Leisure’ (1970)

E.D. Hirsch, ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ (2016)

Paul Hirst, ‘Knowledge and the Curriculum’ (1975)

Richard Johnson, ‘‘Really useful knowledge’: 1790–1850’ (1988) in ‘Culture and Processes of Adult Learning’ (1993).

Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’ (1949)

Leesa Wheelahan, ‘Not just skills: what a focus on knowledge means for vocational education.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies (2015)

Terry Wrigley, ‘‘Knowledge’, Curriculum and Social Justice’, The Curriculum Journal (2018)

Michael Young et al, ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014)

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‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels are always fascinating and rewarding and her latest, Unsheltered (2019) is no exception.

We follow two stories over a hundred years apart and set in the same location; Vineland, New Jersey, a town originally established as a utopian community in the late 19th century by visionary entrepreneur and autocratic control freak Charles Landis.

In today’s world, Willa and her family are threatened by a full set of very modern challenges including unemployment, casualisation, childcare, costly health care, collapsing housing and fragile mental health. She and her close family, ostensibly ‘middle class’, are living on the edge of absolute poverty without the protection of universal welfare support and assumptions of steady progress which she expected as a baby boomer who tried to do everything right. As the decline continues, Willa is also gradually uncovering the story of the pioneering woman naturalist, Mary Treat, who lived in the same street, and possibly the same house, over a century earlier and is a genuine historical character. All of this is overshadowed by a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the current economic system and the rise of a xenophobic demagogue towards the U.S. presidency; a man who boasts the he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.

Back in the 1871 incarnation of Vineland, its founder’s rhetoric of freedom and opportunity is already transparently ‘fake news’ given the reality of the town’s yawning inequality.  We see Vineland through the eyes of the fictional Thatcher Greenwood; new High School science teacher and enthusiastic advocate of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He befriends Mary Treat and is deeply impressed by her intense commitment to observation and rationality and the fact that she is in scientific correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin and writes journal articles on entomology and botany. With the support of Mary, Thatcher feels able to challenge the blinkered and obscurantist opposition to Darwin’s theory coming from Vineland’s leading citizens and eventually finds himself at the centre of a sensational and historic murder trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man in broad daylight.

Before the murder or the trial, Thatcher is drawn into a public debate about natural selection with his employer, the blinkered and dogmatic High School Principal, Professor Cutler. The confrontation, chaired by Charles Landis himself, is framed as ‘Darwin versus Decency’ and designed to expose Thatcher as a dangerous Darwinian who seeks to undermine the accounts of holy scripture. Cutler and Landis are hoping for an excuse not to renew Thatcher’s teaching contract.

Thatcher is encouraged by Mary Treat and his spirited sister in law, Polly, to hone his arguments and present them as succinctly and persuasively as possible and he rises to the occasion:

“I would like to make four statements that will offend no one in this room… First principle. Individuals within a population are variable… Second principle. Traits in their variation are inherited…”

Thatcher admits that the mechanism for this inheritance is not known and suggests an ‘elixir for transmitting character’ in the absence the science of genetics. This draws scorn from Cutler, who says: “I do not like the sound of that. I do not. It makes me think of a witches brew” and booms that characters are only transmitted because God wishes it so.

Thatcher continues:

Next I offer the third principle which is death. Death stalks us all!… Into this world more lives are born than are granted to live…

Here is the last of my four principles: survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits inherited from their progenitors. And with these four declarations of the obvious. I’m finished!”

This brilliant set piece debate is the core of the novel and is mirrored by some less formal, but equally lucid, 21st century debates about values, growth and sustainability between members of Willa’s family with their different perspectives.

Each story sheds light on the other and the parallels are never forced or contrived, In their various ways, the people in both narratives are facing the prospect of losing some of the shelter of their lives; with comforting certainties withdrawn and exposure to new ideas, new conflicts and social fracture of various sorts. They are starting to piece together the new social relations which they will need to confront a new reality.

Mary is instrumental in helping Thatcher see clearly what is necessary:

“…your pupils depend on it, Thatcher…they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”

Thatcher adds:

“To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”

In the twenty first century, Willa reflects on human learning as she watches her grandson start to master the skill of standing up:

“First they would stagger. Then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”

In the late nineteenth century, denying the evidence for the mechanism of evolution might provide short term comfort for some, but this ‘shelter’ would become increasingly difficult to sustain. And today, turning away from the reality of environmental and social breakdown and the drastic action needed may also offer us a little respite, but ignoring the enormity of the crisis is no solution. In order to survive, we need to both understand the world as it is and start thinking about building a better one. Pretending that we can shelter from the truth just puts things off and makes the transition more difficult.

Unsheltered gives us a humane perspective on many of the challenges we face today. As we grow up and learn to stand, stagger and face the crises and confusions of our world, it offers us the consolation of clarity and love.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates (February 2016)

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? (December 2015)

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‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers.

Richard Powers is an extraordinary writer. If you’ve not yet discovered his novels, I strongly recommend them. He tackles big ideas which concern all of us while at the same time telling compelling stories about complex and conflicted characters who have a rich inner life and develop over time. He writes beautifully about science and music among other things and I find myself returning to the themes of his books long after finishing them. Reading a Richard Powers novel is like taking a comprehensive course in both the reason and the emotion of a given set of human challenges.

The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of a meta-life form; specifically old-growth forest, in all its richness and diversity. This is built on several overlapping and interlocking human ‘understories’ told at a human level while also being connected to the bigger scale and longer time-span of tree-life.

This is not a book about trees, neither is it nature writing. It’s an attempt to demonstrate, through a web of human and tree stories, that the Earth’s living things are highly interdependent and that the way we are using our planet’s resources is destructive and unsustainable. The focus on trees and forests and the threat they face is a means to make the case.

We seem to be aware that we are careering towards environmental catastrophe – but what are we to do about it? The principal human characters of The Overstory are all grappling with this question and, for various reasons, they are particularly tuned in to a tree-pace and a forest-level analysis. Among the cast, maverick researcher Patricia Westerford is one of the most persuasive advocates of the case; for instance in her teaching:

It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzamatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic-act. The secret of life: plants eat light, air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things… (p.124)

Apparently loosely based on the Canadian professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, Patricia writes a seminal book The Secret Forest:

All winter she has struggled to describe the joy of her life’s work and the discoveries that have solidified in a few short years: how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networked soil. How they build immune systems as wide as a forest…

Something marvellous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together they form vast trading networks of goods, services and information…

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

…Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees… (p.218)

Environmental activists Nick and Olivia, or Watchman and Maidenhair as they rename themselves, spend several months living high up in a giant redwood called Mimas, in an effort to prevent loggers from felling it. While there, they read Patricia’s book The Secret Forest:

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor…A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways…But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes… (p.268)

Testifying as an expert witness to a hearing which could halt logging on Federal land in Oregon, Patricia

…describes how a rotting log is home to orders of magnitude more living tissue than the living tree… The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.

‘Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests than kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel…

Rot adds value to a forest. The forests here are the richest collections of biomass anywhere. Streams in old growth have five to ten times more fish. People could make more money harvesting mushrooms and fish and other edibles, year after year, than they do by clear-cutting every half dozen decades…’

‘I’ve looked at your book’ the judge says, ‘I never imagined! Trees summon animals and make them do things? They remember? They feed and take care of each other?’

In the dark-paneled courtroom her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety an surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature. (p.285)

Each of the human protagonists of The Overstory finds their own way to speak and act for the trees, the forest, human and non-human life on Earth. They are not always consistent or effective, but their collective story succeeds in shifting our attention from the individual to the system and onwards to planetary survival.

We have no long-term future if we cannot think long-term and act sustainably at the global level or if we believe we can continue to destroy so many of our planet’s ecosystems without consequences. As Richard Powers has said about the natural world: “competition is not separable from separate forms of co-operation”. This book is full of important lessons about trees and forests and also about ourselves; lessons which hold the key to our survival as a species.

See also:

The social origins of human thinking (Mar 2016)

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