What learning do we all need to do for the world that is emerging?

I have been working on a blog post on micro-credentialing, personalized learning, and related matters, but am forced by some recent developments to remember the context in which we are educating nowadays. First, I’m going to briefly introduce the news story that is distracting me, and then make my STEM education point, which I think has more general application.

Underneath all the Trumpery that’s filling the front pages, I read a blog post by Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes for Slate.com, with what is called an “attention-grabbing” headline:  “Our hemisphere’s temperature just reached a terrifying milestone.”  Holthaus reflects on the emerging climate data for February, notes that for the Northern Hemisphere, for that month, it looks as though the temperature exceeded the “normal” benchmark by 2°C.  Of course, this is just one month, and of course it’s only half the globe, but it’s

likely the first time since human civilization began thousands of years ago. That mark has long been held (somewhat arbitrarily) as the point above which climate change may begin to become “dangerous” to humanity. It’s now arrived—though very briefly—much more quickly than anticipated.

Looking at the whole globe, the anomaly above normal could turn out (when all the data  sets are verified and analyzed) to be 1.4°C.  At the Paris climate conference in December, nations adopted 1.5° as the most desirable ceiling of warming to strive for, since we’ve already reached 1 degree.  Holthaus writes

Keep in mind that it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October to reach the first 1.0 degree Celsius, and we’ve come as much as an extra 0.4 degrees further in just the last five months.

It has looked in recent months as though the vast quantity of heat that’s been stored in the oceans for the past few years is being released to the atmospheres, and finally affecting surface temperatures. Anomalies will be smaller than this in future months, but maybe also larger, and the trend is upwards.

For many years now, the policy world has used 2°C as the upper limit of acceptable warming, and the argument has been that this is [a] achievable, and [b] likely to have  manageable if unfortunate consequences (not that people are clear what “manage” might mean).   Meanwhile, the world itself has been saying something different:  with just a 1°C anomaly, we’re seeing (not a complete list) significant weather disruptions, intrusive sea-level rise, massive loss of ice on land and sea, evidence of effects on ocean circulation, dramatic changes in seasonal patterns with consequent ecosystem responses, and possibly the beginning of irreversible melting of at least some ice sheets.  All this has come far more quickly than most scientists predicted.  Holthaus again:

So what’s actually happening now is the liberation of nearly two decades’ worth of global warming energy that’s been stored in the oceans since the last major El Niño in 1998…..We could now be right in the heart of a decade or more surge in global warmingthat could kick off a series of tipping points with far-reaching implications on our species and the countless others we share the planet with.

This is a milestone moment for our species. Climate change deserves our greatest possible attention.

Put another way:  You may well not feel it right to make climate change your main focus, because there are other important needs to address, but every one of us has to find a way to take some active role in addressing this challenge.

And this is therefore an educational problem for all of us.  We talk about “life-long learning” and that’s what this will take: continuous learning by every one of us, in an unprecedented situation.  Moreover, it seems to me that (though one could make the claim for any important social need) the kind of learning needed fits best with Dewey’s notion that education is growth, a ” cumulative movement of action toward a later result”  (Democracy and Education, Ch. 4. “Education as growth”), which is a multi-dimensional constructive task which increasingly one can direct purposefully, with the full knowledge that one effect of any thoughtful work is some transformation of one’s self in the transaction between ourselves and our environment:  

Development… means the direction of power into special channels: the formation of habits involving executive skill, definiteness of interest, and specific objects of observation and thought…The adult uses his powers to transform his environment, thereby occasioning new stimuli which redirect his powers and keep them developing.

To respond to the climate challenge, each person needs to figure out what piece they can do, and what demands of time and re-organization this step will make. Some of this involves learning about, but some of it is learning how to, and some is social learning, as more and more we come to accept that everyone is trying to accommodate and experiment — and engage in discourse about our learnings and unlearnings.

What better evidence of our educational commitments can we give, than to accept that we — adults as well as children — have a lot to learn, and to throw ourselves into that learning whole-heartedly (to use another Deweyan term), in a task that will engage every dimension of us as learners — intellectual, moral, esthetic,  physical, and social?  There’s no time like the present — indeed, there is “No time but this present.”

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