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Catching them young


Young people are both quick learners and impressionable. Although growing up can be a time of rebellion, children generally absorb and accept what they are taught by adults, so shaping their attitudes and beliefs when they are themselves grown up. According to the Jesuit maxim, “give me the child and I will mould the man”. How important, then, that children are taught to think for themselves rather than simply given facts to remember.

This is not to say that young children should learn only by discovery, as some educationalists suggest. Absorbing a body of knowledge from a motivated and well-prepared teacher may appear to be passive, but does require the active participation of the pupils. At university, lectures are still one of the main ways build the foundations of particular topics, with students then expected to explore them further via projects, essays and, in the case of science and technology, experiments.

Teaching to the test is an unfortunate fact of today’s schooling, given the number of exams pupils are expected to sit. In the exams themselves, answers are marked right or wrong usually on the basis of rather rigid marking schemes devised by the examiners. In theory, marking should then be consistent and objective, with little room for error. In practice, of course, this means a bright pupil who demonstrates a clear understanding of the subject can get a poorer mark than one who simply parrots the right words.

Given this context, what is taught is seen as correct and factual by pupils. Unless they get strong counter arguments from elsewhere (normally parents), lessons at school are absorbed and form the basis for adult world views. Hence the understandable concern about schools teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution. The evidence for Darwinian evolution is very strong, with the fossil record and conservation of genes across species and even kingdoms looking extremely convincing by most objective criteria.

Those who believe in an intelligent designer, on the other hand, do so mainly because they cannot see how the richness and complexity of life on Earth could have arisen by chance. But there is a big difference between being awed by Nature and deciding that some higher intelligence was necessarily responsible. This is something no-one can prove or disprove. It lies in the realm of belief and, as such, should be discussed only in Religious Education lessons.

Which brings us to the thorny issue of climate change. Schoolchildren are regularly exposed to the current orthodoxy and taught to expect a disruptive degree of warming in their lifetimes, driven primarily by the increased level of atmospheric CO2 arising from burning fossil fuels and clearing land. This is hardly surprising, since many of the younger teachers will themselves have been brought up with this understanding and all official advice from the IPCC downwards pushes the same story. There are also a number of publicly-funded organisations which spread the same message, and most of the media tends to recycle the pronouncements without serious questioning.

Given the purely circumstantial evidence on which the current ‘consensus’ is based, this is one area where children should really be taught about the nature of the uncertainties. To bring up a generation believing not only that the prevailing received wisdom on climate change has as sound an evidence base as the theory of evolution, but also that drastic emissions reduction is the only way to minimise the dangers, is deeply misguided.

The current trend for emissions is still rising, driven now by the rapid industrialisation of China and other big emerging economies. Whatever sacrifices are made on our behalf by our governments, this will continue for the foreseeable future. The next generation is being taught that something which is proving impossible to achieve is vital to their future. What sort of lesson in real life is that?

But the situation gets worse, at least in Scotland. Although it has received rather limited attention, the Sunday Telegraph reported last weekend Wind farm company targets children to drum up support for more turbines. It was reported that pupils at two primary schools in North Ayrshire were given letters supporting expansion of a local wind farm to take home for their parents to sign and send to the council’s own planning department. These letters appear to have been handed out with the knowledge and blessing of the council’s education officials; a blatant example of a public body encouraging others to lobby it to take a particular action.

This is unacceptable behaviour, particularly as it exploits young children as messengers. But, in passing, we should note that the European Commission enables environmentalist NGOs such as Friends of the Earth to lobby it by providing substantial financial support. Perhaps this UK local authority is simply following their lead.

Far from being contrite, the council seemed to find no problem with what had happened. Their spokesman is reported as saying “Pupils at the Dalry schools have been involved with projects related closely to the environment and sustainable energy and the distributed information was directly relevant to their school work. Neither of the schools are in any way endorsing the plans and are simply distributing information to the community.”

This is difficult to believe in light of the letter which pupils took home to their parents, which read “I am writing to support the planning application made by Community Windpower Ltd to construct the Millour Hill (wind farm) extension. I believe we should explore all forms of renewable energy in order to avoid the threat climate change poses. The wind farm will generate clean, green electricity, which will contribute to the Government’s renewable energy targets. As a supporter of renewable energy, I fully support the planning application and hope North Ayrshire Council will too.”

The unpalatable conclusion to draw from this is that council officials really do not see anything wrong with distributing the letter in this way because they consider the climate change issue (and what to do about it) to be settled. This suggests that the teaching profession may also, by and large, take the same view. If so, we run the real danger of producing young adults who are scientifically illiterate and  unable to think for themselves.