'On Dreams and Desires'
(as published by https://www.nourishedcollective.com/ 27/8/20)
“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (James K.A. Smith)
“So you work in a private school then?”
This is the standard response I get when I talk about my role, but the answer is always a firm no. I am the outdoor learning leader at an inner-city state school in an area of high deprivation about a mile away from the nearest patch of public green space. My school community includes families from a wide range of backgrounds, including high numbers of children with social and emotional needs and an above average number with SEND. Although not many of our children are eligible for free school meals, this is frequently because they do not qualify due to being new arrivals in the country, having parents working full-time on a minimal wage, not having the necessary paperwork etc. Often these are the same children living in temporary accommodation or overcrowded conditions. Our mobility is over 35% and a steady stream of newcomers arrive throughout the year often with no English, sometimes with no prior school experience at all. And yet people often assume I belong to a fee-paying establishment.
The benefits of outdoor learning for children are many and varied. My main motivation, however, concerns the relationship of my school community with the environment. I cannot put into words the pain I feel when I contemplate the way that we as humans are narrowing the unbelievable diversity of species around us and dulling the unimaginable breadth of colours, creating poverty out of abundance without even pausing to notice what we are doing. My dream is that the children in my school will stem the tide of human destruction by learning to flourish, imagining what it might look like to live well in their small corner of the planet.
I understand why people assume I work in a private school: they think that no state school could afford the luxury of starting a school farm, teaching children to grow fruit and vegetables and care for animals, going camping and building bonfires. However, I would argue that understanding where food comes from is not a luxury. Likewise, a basic level of interaction with the natural world is not a luxury. Giving those who are more likely to be affected first by climate breakdown a seat at the table is not a luxury. My role is not extravagant, it’s about facing a world of multi-layered injustices head on.
Societal change does not only come from communities that can afford the indulgence of self-reflection but from anyone able engage their bodies, hearts and imaginations – with intellectual engagement as secondary to these requirements. The most usual way in which schools engage with the
environmental crisis is as follows:
Inform students about an issue (litter, habitat loss, climate breakdown, deforestation, air and water pollution, endangered species etc.)
Carry out a campaign e.g. switch to books made of recycled paper; carry out a school litter-pick; ban disposable water bottles; write letters to the council.
The basic assumption behind this method is that knowledge (mind) leads to action (body). This reflects our own experience: we have been told statistics in the media, and in return we have done our recycling. And yet somehow our world is in a significantly more catastrophic position now than it was 20 years ago. Maybe this premise isn’t working.
James K.A. Smith argues that, “Education is a holistic endeavour that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in a process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination, and orients us to the world -- all before we ever start thinking about it.” He proposes that rather than starting from knowledge (mind) and expecting that to form our actions (body), humans will almost always be shaped most powerfully by embodied experiences. It is actions (body) which shape our desires, imaginations and ultimately what we most love (heart / emotions). Only then do these combine with knowledge (head) to form our future life choices (body).
This makes sense to me. For example, if a clothing shop tried to sell me more products by sending out fact sheets about the quality of their clothing, it would be wholly ineffective. Instead I am welcomed into beautiful, glass–domed shopping centres in which I can swish my hands through a delicious abundance of fabrics, gaze at the stylish mannequins, smell carefully crafted scents and explore doorways and aisles, bustling to popular beats. This embodied, multi-sensory experience sends me home with an imagination brimming with fantasies of future versions of ‘me’, a desire for more items of clothing and a plan to return – and so the industry is sustained.
“No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”, says David Attenborough. To engage the children at my school in environmental issues, they must first learn to love the nature in their own physical environment, which can only happen through regular, embodied practices: they need to become intimately acquainted with the feeling of earth in their hands, and the smell after the rain; to plant seeds so small that their fingers can barely hold onto them, and wait until bright green shoots appear through the soil in their own time, with their own agenda; to watch tiny seedlings grow, and day by day care for them, love them and treat them tenderly until they can plant them outside, and then every morning on their way into class to observe the minute changes; to learn the yearly rhythms of the seasons; to taste the food they have grown and notice the way their own carrots are infinitely sweeter and juicier than any other carrots they have tasted; to feel in their bodies the truth that “taste can be a measure of moral good – the freshness of the produce, the life and death of the animal, the vitality of the soil” (Tippett).
My role is to provide their senses with opportunities to bring their own imaginations into a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human on the earth: that as they nurture their plants and animals with water and light and food and shelter, they might realise that they – we – are not so different. Rather, “We know ourselves to be made from earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves and we are nature” (Susan Griffin). Bringing about environmental change is thus not first an issue of intellectual understanding but of what we imagine ourselves to be, and how that relates to what we imagine everything else around us to be. Sally McFague explains, “The plants can do very nicely without us, in fact, better, but we would quickly perish without them.” This is a truth which almost all primary-aged children will be able to understand: the wonder of our complex humanity does not make us more powerful; it makes us more vulnerable.
Until the body has re-aligned the imagination away from the false sense of superiority and towards an understanding of the truth of our dependence and interconnectedness with everything that is living, there is little point in making children carry out campaigns to help with the environment. At best, these will burden the learners with guilt, as it is all too plain that a one-off litter-pick in response to learning about oceans full of plastic is woefully inadequate. At worst, they may take on the learned helplessness of one who has realised that their actions make very little difference and stop caring completely.
To engage the intellect without the senses, imagination and emotions is to train children only in tokenism, which will sustain no real, long-term change. Instead, I dream that the children I work with will grow up loving the earth that they are made of. I dream that they will flourish and find health in their bodies and minds as they live in a way that is harmonious with all other species. I dream that despite, and even because of, coming from a background that people label as ‘deprived’, they will be the pioneers this world needs to reverse the trends that see the destruction of colour and beauty and joy. I dream that they will not allow themselves to be seen as victims but that as they grow up their voices will be heard loud and clear in government, in the courts, in schools, in conservation and in agriculture. I dream that their actions will speak louder than words. I dream that the world will be physically richer for their presence on it.
I’m not promising to stay in my job forever. But I do know that spending my days sharing soil and chicken feed with hundreds of small hands and large eyes has implanted this dream into my imagination, which in turn has set me off on a path that to some might seem foolish, except that each time I look for the next place to put my feet, I see a stepping stone waiting for me, right there. I just need to be brave, have a go, and stretch out a little to touch it with my toes.