Questions for the Museum of East Anglian Life

22 12 2009

By Tony Butler, Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life

The musings of Nobel laureates, economists and scientists are coming to the market-town of Stowmarket as the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) plays host to the University of Cambridge’s 100 Questions (produced by its Sustainable Leadership Programme). The installation contains provocations from amongst others Wangari Maathai, Nicholas Stern and Jonathan Porritt. Visitors, it is hoped will be inspired to add their own prescient questions to press policy makers as they grapple with the political challenges of climate change. Two questions grabbed my attention, one from Simon Schama, “How do we mobilize culture –  pop and high – to create the words, images and music – that will make the destruction of the planet and its irreversible loss to our posterity, the cause of the world’s people?” The other question was from Sarah Severn, Director of HorizonsHow might we break through the paradigm of continuous economic growth as the only viable future for humanity?”

To me there is moral and social imperative to enjoying more with less. A range studies have shown that despite GDP tripling in 30 years, people in the West live in poorer environments, suffer from greater levels of mental illness and are generally more unhappy than their counterparts in many developing countries. According to the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet index Costa Rica and Vanuatu are far better places to live than the UK which was 74th out of 200 countries surveyed whilst the US languished in 114th place. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s brilliant The Spirit Level (2008) drew on research from over 100 countries and concluded that more equal societies almost always do better. People who lived in countries where the gap between rich and poor was narrower were invariably happier and had a lower carbon footprint.

At MEAL we’ve been attracted to the idea of interpreting the lives of people in rural East Anglia in terms of their well being. In 2009 we launched an online exhibition  When Were We Happy which tried to compare comparative levels of well-being in the village of Stowupland in 1850, 1901, 1940 and 2009. The museum’s business planning is now based on NEF’s five ways to well-being. All our activities should ensure that people make new friends, are more active, learn something new, look at the world differently and give back to their communities in some way.

Next year we are putting on a small exhibition about Trust. We are trying to articulate why levels of trust appeared to be higher in communities 100 years ago than they are today. There are many everyday objects such as bottles of herbal medicine prepared by the village ‘midwife’ which show the health of a community was based on reciprocity, non-monetary transactions which built strong social networks and relationships  (‘social capital’ in today’s parlance). According to the economist and Labour peer Richard Layard in his book Happiness (2007), those societies which are more trusting have high levels of democratic participation and religious faith and are made up of communities which are homogeneous and whose members have strong family ties and common interests.

However if living a good life which doesn’t cost the earth consists of having less and living in strong, safe but almost static communities, the future seems wholesome but unattractive. The cultural challenge remains trying to steer a course between the devil of hair shirt environmentalism and the deep blue sea of Daily Mail reaction.

Children as our teachers

20 12 2009

Frank Furedi in ‘Turning Children into Orwellian Eco-Spies’ warns that there are resonances of Stalinism in the new orthodoxy by which we use children to teach adults about climate change. I have concerns about the same phenomenon but I’m coming from very different perspectives on both education and the environment. I’ve also had qualms when meeting people who are convinced that the solution to climate change is to educate children. The reasons for my qualms are many: It’s too late to wait until children are running the world; they can’t vote until 18 so if we should focus on educating anyone it’s the late middle-aged and elderly, who make up the majority of voters;  it doesn’t seem fair to put the onus on children. The main reason I baulk is that The Government’s reductive and misguided response to every problem (the root cause of which is usually gross inequality or unchecked capitalism) is to add yet another subject to the curriculum. Firstly these expensive initiatives are based on a misconception, that children will learn by being taught a lesson, by teachers who have been told to deliver compulsory lessons. Secondly, every time a new lesson is added, the less time there is for learning that might help children adapt to a difficult future.

Furedi has written a book called ‘Wasted, Why Education isn’t Educating’ in which he decries the erosion of traditional disciplines by endless additions of trendy topics (for example in the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum). In the article he says that environmentalism is infecting every subject, such as geography and history (as if they’re not utterly relevant to those subjects). I’m not concerned so much about the death of traditional disciplines in schools, but more that those in power are so wedded to the idea of subjects per se, old or new, that they continually add more to the diet. I’m not so concerned that the environment is infecting every subject, than that ecological systems thinking has been and still is so absent from education. Furedi conflates environmental topics with ‘scare-mongering’, but, on the contrary, effective environmental education is not about frightening people. It is about empowering them, helping them develop adaptive coping strategies. The more that is understood about a frightening scenario, the more people are able to resist and cope.

I suspect that if we framed school learning differently, whereby children had more involvement in deciding what enquiries are relevant, they would decide pretty quickly that the environment is pretty relevant. If we made clear to them that learning is about preparing for the future, that to live well in the future they would need to learn how to solve problems, co-operate, access knowledge and design new solutions, they would gravitate towards the biggest problems. Furedi’s position is that our current education philosophies undermine the authority of adults. I believe that adults (in affluent societies) have eroded their own authority by becoming infantilised, yet we form myths around the gravity and arduousness of an adult working life. We underestimate the ability of children and young people to think because we have forgotten how to think ourselves. We have progressed into a state of mature denial, treating problems too abstractly, too much in isolation and too much as issues for agonistic debate.


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