The aims of education and economy need to be aligned with the larger aim of sustaining life on this planet. Expanding the scope of education - as an intergenerational relationship that gives children access to a diversity of knowledge, choices, and resources - is a direction worth considering.
I am in a process of considering various interrelated crises evident through the key questions raised by young climate activists as part of a north-south continuum through conversations with my interlocutor Tatek Abebe (see Abebe and Biswas 2021). We have been co-reflecting on connections between education and global intergenerational sustainability to develop a perspective we name 'decolonial childism'.
So far, based on my work with child monks in Ladakh – India (Biswas 2013; 2016) and child citizens of Trondheim – Norway (Biswas 2020), my work on child and youth climate activists (Biswas 2021; Biswas and Mattheis 2021; Biswas and Eriksen forthcoming), as well as my theoretical explorations of the contemporary crises of global education (Clemens and Biswas 2019), I am convinced that responding to the climate crisis as a way to sustain intergenerational relationships over long(er) temporal scales is a meaningful way forward. Education, particularly in the mode of modern Western schooling, is a key site to re-examine, re-think and re-create in this direction.
When I first heard about Greta Thunberg in 2018 (Thunberg 2018) I woke up from a deep slumber in the sense that I had not considered the intergenerational dimension of the climate crisis enough. I had been thinking of ‘environmental sustainability’ since my research in Ladakh (Biswas 2013; 2014; 2016) and reading Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s anthropological work on ‘overheating’ (2016; see also Eriksen 2018; Eriksen and Schober 2018). The themes had found their way into my rather experimental doctoral research project (Biswas 2020).
And they were also part of highly passionate kitchen conversations at home in the Kreuz 15 Collective in Bayreuth, Germany. My flatmates, or rather ‘chosen family’, Johanna and Lukas were master’s students in environmental sciences at the University of Bayreuth, engaged actively in everything from green German politics, public protests, and art projects to mindfulness meditation and sustainable lifestyle experiments. I was in a community where I wasn’t alone with the sense of urgency and the existential predicament (in the philosophical sense) that came along with recognizing the climate crisis.
The intergenerational dimension of the climate crisis had profound personal resonance for me since I chose to live childfree precisely because I love children too much. My initial motivation was a subjective response to the child poverty I saw growing up in India in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it was only in 2018 that my childfree life catalysed my sense of intellectual purpose, and I began pursuing the question of intergenerational sustainability.
The connection between intergenerational sustainability and education (as an intergenerational relationship, see Hoveid and Hoveid 2019) was a given; the most privileged children of the world had initiated regular School Strikes for Climate to influence global politics. Moreover – the global economy. It is specifically the inseparable relationship between contemporary education and the economy where, I believe, both the despair of intergenerational injustice and the hope of intergenerational sustainability are nested.
Contemporary global schooling is one of the key propellers of capitalist agendas geared towards producing ‘employable’ human capital supply for the future job market. The paradox of a narrow, singular global education agenda for generating human capital is that most of those jobs (if at all they will be there) continue serving the very economic system that is threatening the right to life, health, culture (especially for indigenous communities) and the best interests of future generations on this planet (Sacchi et al 2019; see also Clemens and Biswas 2019). While there has always been an interdependent relationship between children’s activities and the adult-led economy, children’s schoolwork is particularly constituent to Western modern society (Qvortrup 2001).
This interdependency can be derived from some of the central questions driving the school strikes and reveals that activists experience a sense of meaningless in labouring in the economy as ‘pupils’: Why study for a future, which may not be there? Why spend a lot of effort to become educated, when our governments are not listening to the educated? (conf. fridaysforfuture.org, N.D).
Along with the same questions shared by young climate activists from the Global South, other interrelated economic realities echo the disappointment, disillusionment, desperation, anger, fear and frustration of younger generations. Comparative insights from so-called ‘developing’ contexts also show how the global schooling sector manipulates the aspirations of younger generations in so far as years are wasted in schools only to lead to wasted futures in jobless markets (Ansell et al. 2020).
It then seems necessary to realign entangled purposes of education and economy with the larger purpose of sustaining life on this planet. Expanding the scope of education (as primarily an intergenerational relationship) that gives children and youth access to a diversity of knowledges, life choices, a wide range of physical and natural resources, and physical as well as cultural flexibility seems to be a convincing, plausible direction of contemplation.
In such wise, the intertwined purpose of education and economy should be: nurturing diversity.
(Image by author: Child climate activists at a protest in Berlin, March 2019)