Wiel Veugelers: education, sustainability and citizenship

Francesco Pigozzo and Daniela Martinelli asked four key questions to Wiel Veugelers: We publish here a text Wiel Veugelers sent to Francesco Pigozzo and Daniela Martinelli, in reaction to the subject of “education and sustainability”. You can also read here in Italian an interview they originally published on Rinnovabili.it.

I have been engaged in research on citizenship education for over 40 years, Recently sustainability became part of thinking and practice of citizenship education. Both citizenship and sustainability influence each person’s life. And education can influence the development of human beings.

Citizenship education as democratic process

Citizenship education is about living together: in society, in the community, and in the world. The concept of citizenship has been deepened and broadened in the past decades. With the deepening we mean that the concept has been included, beside the political level, the social and cultural level of living together. Citizenship has entered deeply in the personal life of people. It is surprisingly that this deepening is part of contemporary neo-liberal policy in many Western societies. Such neo-liberal policy suggests that policy doesn’t try to influence the development of society and respects the own responsibility of individuals. We see nowadays the contrary: citizenship and citizenship education is a strong element of policy all over the world; in democratic and in autocratic societies.

            It is not possible to speak in general about ‘good’ citizenship; it depends on the articulation of what one think a ‘good’ citizen is. And this articulation – in particular as part of policy – depends on political, ideological and cultural ideas and conditions, and the contradictions that can be part of it. Citizenship is a crucial figuration in society and it is the playground were social, cultural, and political forces are struggling for domination. Gramsci’s struggle for hegemony is still alive. This struggle about the meaning of citizenship and the content of citizenship education is present in all societies, and partly visible and overt in democratic societies.

            In a recent study for the European Parliament on the implementation of citizenship education in the European Union and in its Member States we found that in many EU Member States policy is struggling about what the content should be of citizenship education. This struggle about the meaning of citizenship is at the one hand an indicator of the importance of citizenship education. At the other hand, often the struggle hinders the formulation of common goals, a curriculum and its implementation. Citizenship education gets the risk of being over-political. Instead of focusing on democracy and social and political processes, some people – often more conservative people – want to emphasize their own political ideas. Citizenship education should instead being an example of democracy that respects different ideas, challenge people to reflect and to act, go into dialogue with other people, and try to find a consensus that values other perspectives and adversaries. Democracy should be, as Dewey was saying, a way of life.

The pros and cons of globalisation

The broadening of the concept citizenship means that citizenship is not only linked to the nation state, but extends to regional formations like the European Union, and even to the whole world. The concept of global citizenship refers to the whole world. And like with the concept of citizenship the concept of global citizenship can have many different meanings and articulations. It can refer to the human species that occupies the planet, it can refer to the planet itself, and to the process of globalisation. And again, the concept of globalisation has many different connotations.

            Essencely, globalisation is the linking of different parts of the world. This linking can be directed by different forces: the economic market, political and ideological ideas like human rights and democracy, but also more authoritarian ways of organising society. For a while, globalisation had for many people a positive connotation: of progress, of connections, of a common orientation. Recently many people see also the negative effects of globalisation: exploitation of resources, products, and of people, cultural dominance, marginalisation of other voices, etc. Globalisation has lost its innocence.  

The entrance of sustainability in citizenship education

The global concept of citizenship more than the national concept touches at the planet as a whole, the role of human species at the planet and in the cosmos: on how we can live together on the planet now and in the future. It’s about sustainability of the planet, the human species, and how people can live together in the future. Citizenship included already many different perspectives: political, social, and cultural. Now also natural and biological perspectives are becoming part of citizenship and citizenship education. This linking of the political and the natural makes citizenship and citizenship education even more relevant for educating future people.

            Sustainability can be addressed as a technical and biological issue, separated from society and from social studies. However studying technical and biological issues embedded in their social, cultural and political context enables us to address better how changes can be made and what people as engaged and active citizens can contribute to these changes. It shows at the same time that people influence nature and that people can positive contribute to a more just and sustainable world. I write can, because this is a choice.

A whole school approach of sustainable citizenship education

Relating sustainability to education is quite recently. Of course there was already attention for climate, for the natural world, and the future of the planet. It was called environmental studies. But with the concept of sustainability a strong jump forward can be made. It links the natural with the political. It challenges people to support nature instead of destructing it.

            Sustainable citizenship education should be part of all elements of schools that are considered to be relevant for moral education and citizenship education. It should be part of the curriculum: in a special subject citizenship education and in other subjects like biology, science, geography, economics, social studies, religious studies, arts and literature. Education not only socialize by its school subjects, but also in the interaction in education and in its organisation: the school culture, the example of teachers, the interaction of students and of students with teachers, the formal and informal school organisation, and activities together with the community. All these elements educate people, and can be used to contribute to the development of people engaged in sustainable citizenship.

Sustainability as character of human action

The concept of sustainability should not only be used to address natural and biological topics. Sustainability should be considered as an enduring character of human action: a virtue in the tradition of Aristotle. Sustainability shows the long-term effects of developments. An interesting example of the use of the concept sustainability is the thinking of Andy Hargreaves about sustainable school leadership. Hargreaves mentions several indicators of sustainable leadership. For example, one indicator is not how the own school is functioning, but how other schools in the surrounding are functioning. The reasoning behind it is that school leaders are not only responsible for the own school but collectively for the welfare of all schools in the surrounding. A second indicator of sustainability is how the school is functioning over five years, so not short-term but long-term success is the criterion.   

Positive pedagogical perspective

With environmental studies in Dutch education there was an interesting debate: some biologists and philosophers argued that we should not saddle up children with the troubles we have created. We should not confront them with the mess we made. I think we should not hide problems, but we should show how people can make a better world: natural, more just, equal, caring, sustainable. It is about showing perspectives, critical thinking, and collective action.

            The editors asked me to link my thinking about sustainable education with my personal life, my hobbies. I like rock music, football, travelling, food and drinks. Speaking about the time I was playing football myself, I was always saying that I was better in theory than in practice. It’s the same with rock music. And what about the hobbies that have a stronger link with sustainability: travelling and food and drinks. I am aware of being conscious about sustainability and I sometimes change habits, and writing texts like this stimulate thinking about a more sustainable life: a better balance between personal gain and fun and care for the world.  But again, theory is easier than practice.  However the need for sustainability is more pressing.  Citizenship education should not only focus on democracy, human rights, justice, and equality but also on sustainability: sustainability of democracy, sustainability of the natural world we are living in, and sustainability of the relationship of human beings with the planet.