Values and hope combine in Earth Charter for teaching

Posted on September 25, 2009


In my getting-so-much-closer book, I examine barriers to integrating Education for Sustainability.   Two of those barriers can be characterised as

“My classroom is value neutral”


“Sustainability is too negative, and without vision”

Jeffrey Newman addresses both of these barriers in Values reflection and the Earth Charter in the new Handbook of Sustainable Literacy.

The classroom is value neutral argument is, of course, an old chestnut.   Here’s Fish: “To follow higher noble goals is to abandon pedagogical contract”.   Newman recognises this contention:

Educators are, however, faced with a double edge sword. If values are explicitly incorporated in the curriculum they could be accused of imposing ideologies on learners. But if all mention of values is expunged from education then this leaves little choice but for learners to draw their values from the unsustainable society around them, or from the values latent in the ‘hidden curriculum’ of their educational institution.

This is in the context of an unsustainable world where it is the very values that are important:

Educators are now teaching learners whose prospects seem to be darkening year on year. Presently jobs are scarce, the economic outlook is poor and the timescale for recovery uncertain. In the background looms the shadow of an environmental crisis that threatens to degrade or even destroy the life-supporting and life-enhancing systems of the Earth. This calls for a response at a deep level of values, a rethinking and reorganization of what is valuable, important, and worth sustaining in an uncertain future.

He says values are already there

Values such as intellectualism, competitiveness, rationalism, technical instrumentalism, reductionism, and scientism may well be hidden within the presuppositions of the curricula of learners’ institutions, their textbooks, formal lectures and assessment strategies

Newman’s approach is to engage the students in recognising and reflecting on values:

Values reflection is one way out of this dilemma. Rather than having values imposed on them, learners reflect on the dominant values of society and their institution in the context of the changes that are occurring in the world around them, and ask themselves whether these values  are now outdated, or even dangerous.

he promotes the use of the Earth Charter as a framework for “additional and alternative values”:

If learners do find fault with the dominant values of the society around them, then they will also need to consider additional and alternative values, ones which might help contribute to a more sustainable future. This is where the Earth Charter (2000) is useful, not as a doctrine to be forced on learners, but as one among many places to seek possible alternative values. The alternatives, of course, will need to be subjected to just as deep and critical a process of reflection as the dominant values.

The Earth Charter provides a set of alternative values that learners may never come across in the day to day business of formal education. These include valuing: cooperation (p4); humility (p1); the spiritual potential of humanity (p2); compassion (p2); love (p2); human dignity (p3); the Earth’s beauty (p1); reverence for the mystery of being (p1); traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom (p3); loving nurture of family members (p3); human solidarity (p4); peace (p4); and the sacred (p1).

this he argues, also addresses the second of the integration barriers (“Sustainability is too negative, and without vision”)

It is easy for learners to find nothing but despair as they discover the situation that the world finds itself in, but the Earth Charter provides a framework that offers hope – a way responding to a time of exceptional challenge and opportunity. The Charter’s opening words spell this out succinctly: ‘We live at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future’ and ‘The future at once holds great peril and great promise’.

Newman’s approach is to engage learners in an analysis of the Charter itself:

One area where the charter calls for a deep change in values relates to consumerism. It describes production and consumption, which were once valued as the foundation of human development and economic well-being, as instead being a root cause of unsustainability when taken to excess: ‘the dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species’ (p1). Rather than consumerist values of ‘having more’, the charter extols the value of ‘being more’: ‘We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more’

Also, the history of the development of the Charter itself may be a useful teaching point.  He gives examples of the two year diplomatic negotiations around the capitalisation of Earth and of inclusion of the word compassion, not as evidence of bureaucracy gone mad, but of the significance of diversity of values.

The Guide for Using the Earth Charter in Education (April 2009) presents themes of the Charter, aligned with teaching programmes:

The interdependence of social, economic and environmental concerns. The Earth Charter principles are organised into four main interdependent sections: “Respect and Care for the Community of Life”; “Ecological Integrity”; “Social and Economic Justice”; and “Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace.” These define the major spheres of responsibility that must be considered together when assessing critical problems and seeking solutions. For example, poverty is both a cause and consequence of environmental degradation and to solve either problem one must address both as well as many other issues.

The guide concludes that education for sustainability, as informed by the Earth Charter, should help learners:

– To understand the challenges and critical choices that humanity faces and appreciate the interconnections between these challenges and choices;

– To comprehend the meaning of a sustainable way of life and of sustainable development and to create personal goals and values conducive to a sustainable way of living; and,

– To critically evaluate a given situation and identify action goals for bringing about positive change.