Occupy Education: Two reviews

Below you can read reviews by Mark Garavan and Anne B. Ryan of Tina Evan’s book Occupy Education: Learning and Living Sustainability.

Review by Mark Garavan

We are living in the midst of an ecological and social crisis. This we know. Something therefore has to change. The choice that we seem to have come down to is that we will either change ‘business as usual’ or the climate. Sadly, it appears clear, especially following the recent Rio + 20 summit, that ‘we’ (ie the global elites) are choosing the climate.

This is the context of Tina Evan’s new book Occupy Education. Her interest lies in how we can bring about change in favour of our shared ecological and social world and what that new world might look like. Specifically, she is interested in the role that might be played by education in bringing about that change. In the Introduction to her book she asks:

What is an educator to do in these times in an effort to help students and communities avert disaster – or to help prepare ourselves and others to engage in sustainability-oriented action in the wake of disturbing, if not devastating, changes in our world?

Central to her answer to this question lies in a (re)discovery of place. A grounding in place permits a tangible re-engagement with our social and environmental ecology, a re-inhabiting of the world actually around us. Such a re-connection centres on reciprocating relationships between human beings and between human beings and other life-forms. A broader conception of ‘family’ is cultivated so that the ethic of care extends to all. We must become native to our place once more.

Evans offers two routes by which this relocalised world might be realized. First is in the production of food. Producing and consuming local food is a key builder of sustainability.

In this chapter, I conceptualize sustainable food activism as resistance to enforced dependency. Although the neoclassical economic system sees food as just another commodity, food can be a platform for radical socio-ecological change, in part, because it defines in crucial ways the relationship between people and nature. Food is essential for life, and control over food translates to social power. Changing our food systems, therefore, implies extensive changes in relative social power.

Second, and central to the theme of her book, is the role of a pedagogy of sustainability. Such a pedagogy she designates as critical sustainability theory and is derived from critical theory and strands within deep ecology, ecopyschology, various indigenous worldviews and systems theory. Central themes within such a pedagogy are the study of enforced dependency, de-colonisation and (re)inhabitation.

I propose that college educators should practice a critical pedagogy of sustainability that includes involving students in service learning projects. College courses and programs should combine teaching and learning of a structuralized and critical view of the world-system (see Wallerstein 1974, 1976, 2008) with participation in transformative and transdisciplinary community action. Using this pedagogy, higher education could help move society toward sustainability.

To establish the efficacy of such an approach she cites extensively from her own college courses giving over one chapter to an analysis of her own students’ feedback on courses in peak oil and sustainability. However, she is under no illusion that education alone holds the key to effecting significant social change.

Although courses and programs can help students learn to engage in critically informed praxis, the critical pedagogy of sustainability is really a lifelong orientation and process of learning that can begin inside the walls of the academy but, ultimately, must live outside of classrooms and educational institutions in the lives of individuals and communities. (5)

Tina Evan’s book is an important contribution to the task of transforming our world. She offers interesting ideas on community and pedagogy. She clearly analyses the dysfunctions in our current economic model and investigates the role that cultural hegemony plays in shaping the ideas we have about that model so that, even though it is producing such harm, it remains solidly in place. She reminds us again that change involves not just thinking new ideas but also doing new things, in an informed praxis of sustainability. In this context nothing is as specific and ‘earthy’ as the production and eating of food and nowhere are our ideas so shaped as in our education system. Striking at both these institutional sites, and demonstrating the enforced dependencies current in each, offers us clear and practical avenues towards a new praxis.

All of this is worthy and important and undoubtedly correct in its identification of where we need to go. However, in the Afterword to the book, Richard Kahn strikes a cautionary and salutary note:

No beloved community has yet arisen to stop the occult horrors of militarism, industrial capitalism, and racist colonialism (as well as the various conjoining and non-derivative forms of oppression—such as patriarchy, ableism, and specieism) that clearly constitute through and through the nightmare that presently weighs upon the brains of the living. No vast and inclusive proletarian base has hitherto come to know and trust in itself that it is capable of abolishing the dominator culture of a white supremacist affluent class. A dream of a totally liberated and just “planetary community” is a vanguard phrase spoken by only a relative few intellectuals. The educational Left is more collegial than perhaps ever before, but professional altercations over the parceling of academic real estate (Agger, 1990) remain more common than performances of the kind of resilient grassroots service leadership that this book argues is axiomatic to a thriving community-in-place. When it comes to learning and living sustainability, those of us in higher education are not yet a true collegium. All too often we are simply the estranged labor of colleges, which are themselves competitively operating as biopolitical institutions for a neoliberal academic enterprise that serves at the behest of greater masters still.

We are back to the old conundrum – how do we get from here to there when we have so little time and the urgency to effect radical change is so acute that we do not have the luxury to await the slow processes of natural social evolution? Specifically, how do we do so within a democratic framework where decisions are shaped within the flawed, tardy and contaminated processes of contemporary representative democracy but yet where majority support is properly required for legitimate political transformation on the scale required?

Evans, like many others, argues in response for a bottom-up approach, centred on like-minded communities forging new, sustainable realities. Yet this communitarian model too carries risks. Specifically, how do you ensure the willing participation of all in the community; how do you treat dissenters and defaulters; how do you deal with deviance and minority groups within communities operating under the imperative to be close-knit and mutually supportive and dependent? These are troubling questions and ones not directly addressed by Evans. It is noteworthy that none of her students seem to have fundamentally disagreed with her analysis and to have insisted on the merits of a neo-liberal free market world. Assuming that the students were self-selecting and orientated towards her position anyway it would be interesting to consider how a sustainability educator would address those who do not agree with them. Would such students be regarded as under the influence of a ‘false consciousness’?

Tina Evans works on the assumption that place and community are non-problematic structures of identity. But, as we know, the meaning of place and community are deeply contested concepts. Enforced communitarianism is also oppressive. In our modern world the connection between people and place has long been broken and ‘nativist’ claims to superior rights of possession can strike a somewhat uneasy ring.

The challenge then is undoubtedly to re-inhabit our world but to do so in a pluralistic and tolerant manner. This includes extending tolerance and rights to all other living forms. In constructing such a world we need to start with answers rather than questions and we need students equipped with the ability to reason and imagine in a holistic way. In a sense, these are the very core constituents of our Western enlightenment educational tradition or indeed of our theory of education going back to Plato’s Academy. An education put to the service of any programme – economic or political – ceases to be education in any meaningful way and becomes instead a form of indoctrination rendering its objects fit for a pre-defined world. The great achievement of Evan’s book is to centralize a liberating education as the primary tool by which we might re-imagine new futures and new ways of being human.

Review by Anne B Ryan

This book is part of a growing body of work on sustainability education or education for resilience. It is part of a lineage that seeks to repair the conceptual rift between humans and nature which exists in western society. It draws on a depth and breadth of scholarship in critical theory and economics for sustainability and resilience, deep ecology and ecopsychology, to provide a resource for new conversations. In truth, we don’t yet have a full vocabulary for the conversations we need to have. Tina Evans brings together theory and practice in ways that show how alliances among all the schools of thought and practice concerned with social and ecological justice can help such a vocabulary and related practice to emerge. We are embodied subjects, embedded in nature and the sooner critical theory takes on these insights, the better.

The first two parts of the book are immensely scholarly. They are closely argued, academic, suitable for post-graduate students or academic professionals. The writing follows a clear narrative structure, with good sequencing of ideas, information, critique, evaluation and interpretation of the work of a variety of other scholars and activists. Throughout, Evans makes it clear how the book is combining these ideas in original ways, so as to fill the gaps left in many of them. Though written in a very clear style and well structured, the work is referenced in an academic fashion that may diminish its appeal for the general reader.

At the heart of the book lie the implications for education of bringing together critical theory and insights from sustainability, resilience theories, deep ecology and ecopsychology. The author shows the reader how she ‘tests’ her theories in her practice in higher education at Durango, Colarado, USA. Her End of Oil course is part of a series on offer to all students in the college, regardless of their subject major. It is grounded in the scholarly work, community projects and her own activism, explored in Parts 1 and 2. In Part 3, the writing draws on her practice since 2004, with the delivery of the delivery of the End of Oil course sixteen times. Her classes are big (up to 35 students), and although she does not dwell on this, it must be challenging to deliver the course. Her emphasis on place and on student engagement with local food activism and counter-hegemonic projects is most enlightening.

Her chief focus is on the end-of-course essays of her students and the themes and learning evident in them. Evans is aware of the limitations of essays as a data source, but nevertheless there is much interesting material contained in her analyses of essay material. The students’ words feature largely in two chapters, and there are hardly any quotes from the scholarly literature. For me, this part of the book felt very real, grounded as it is in how students experienced her course. The students’ own words are used to describe their experiences of being offered a critique of the existing system, their engagement with the critique and their efforts at and reflections on agency, or attempts to bring about change, as part of local counter-hegemonic projects. They describe their emotional and practical responses in ways that are very moving at times.

This whole book is a challenge to the normative practice of higher education (and has implications for educational systems as a whole). Modernist education is abstract and has increasingly taught people not to be self-reliant in community, but to be dependent individuals. A genuinely post-modern and ecological education is rooted in the experiences and places of real people striving for agency. It emerges from engagements with communities and their environments. Recognition of this is a huge challenge to conventional modernist education systems. There are difficulties and promises inherent in implementing the pedagogy that Evans practices and she is to be commended for recording them, reflecting on them and offering them to others.

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