We have good reason to be proud of our North American education system. Especially in the 70 years since the end of the Second World War, it's helped to create and sustain more prosperity for more people than ever before in history. Higher education, once the privilege of a very few, is now considered essential for most careers.
Among our best-educated are the climate scientists who since the 1980s have tested and re-tested the theory that human activities are changing the climate. Despite the criticism many of them have endured, we trust them precisely because we trust their education.
Right from the start, North American public education was designed to assimilate immigrant and working-class children and prepare them for the workplace. To my generation of teachers who started in the 1960s and '70s, it was the great equalizer -- the way underprivileged kids would gain their share of the postwar golden age. Thanks to us they would get good jobs, vote and make this a better country.
We were just beginning to realize that "the environment" was a real issue. Problems like oil spills and smog and rivers catching fire were not the cost of progress -- they were obstacles to progress. We teachers figured that our educated students would soon get around to cleaning up the planet.
Just as we didn't foresee climate change, we didn't foresee that our students would settle for a good job, two cars and a house in the suburbs, just as we had. A society built around endless growth and development was the subtext in everything we taught. Only with growth could we ensure more high-paying jobs and the promise of upward social mobility.
Consumption and more consumption
The purpose of such jobs and mobility, of course, is consumption and more consumption: a bigger SUV, a bigger house with more appliances, more air travel, more everything. More consumption demands more energy, especially fossil energy. Consuming energy costs money. And that is why business schools are crammed with students while liberal arts schools fight for their lives.
Half a century after Silent Spring, schools pay lip service to environmentalism. We even offer degrees in environmental education, but education has only accelerated the rate of global warming. The more people we educate, and the more we educate them, the more they burn through our fossil fuels.
Still, education has also trained the people who understand the scope of the mess we're making. The Jesuits, master educators, are responsible for Pope Francis I and Laudato Si'. And the Pope's arguments are based on the work of countless climate scientists. Like him, they have survived a rigorous education to study and report on climate change, creating a body of information that can be denied but not refuted.
End of endless growth
Now Dr. James Hansen and his colleagues have published a report arguing that even if we limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, we're in trouble that we ourselves may well live to see, rather than passing it off to our grandchildren.
Those effects include the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, resulting in a rapid rise in sea levels of not just centimetres, but many metres in the near future. That will mean the loss of countless coastal cities like Vancouver and whole nations like Bangladesh, and an endless regime of superstorms and violent weather.
In the face of such a near future, majoring in business management looks to be as futile a career choice as art history. We are sending our kids out to play on the beach even as we see the tsunami coming in. We at least ought to teach them how to body surf.
If educators accept that the climate disaster is indeed coming, then most of what we've been teaching for centuries is beside the point. The whole purpose of education needs redefinition, away from a futile dream of endless prosperity toward a grasp of the problem and providing means of survival and radical innovation.
This will require re-educating parents and taxpayers first, and that will be the first obstacle. If humans are good at anything, it's avoidance and denial of bad news; climate change is very bad news, both personally and socially.
Thanks to the Koch brothers and their allies, we have been avoiding and denying for a quarter-century, and we will face reality only when dragged kicking and screaming into its presence. In the meantime we'll continue to commute from 'burbs to our city jobs, beating our brains out to pay the mortgage and the SUV loan and to buy the kids toys and clothes made in coal-fired Chinese factories.
'Survival' a tough sell
The kids themselves will be a tough sell; most are addicted to gadgets and the whole vision of consumption as happiness (or at least coolness). They won't like the prospect of working for mere survival.
Schools for disaster needn't be as stressful as army basic training, but they should achieve what Northrop Frye said is the purpose of first-year university: to make students question everything they've been taught so far.
That's a problem already, when schools are trying hard to recruit and hold students whose only reason for being there is to learn how to make money. Teaching them that they won't (and shouldn't) make as much money as their parents will be unwelcome news. Nor will politicians be willing to tell unhappy voters to shut up and get real about the meaning of climate change.
Lacking some kind of 9/11 moment to gain public attention and support, educators will have to attack the problem indirectly. We already need more students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. Now we'll really have to push those programs, while also pushing critical thinking in every other program.
Such programs should emphasize their practical applications. Going into English or the arts? Learn mass communication. Going into healthcare? Focus on dealing with climate-driven public health problems. Heart really set on business management? Get into renewable energy.
All hands on deck
And we don't dare flunk the kids who can't adjust. Teachers will have to find ways to turn the problem kids into solutions. We'll need all hands on deck, so dropping out will be worse than defecting to North Korea or the Islamic State.
At enormous personal and social cost, schools for disaster could equip their graduates to survive the coming decades of superstorms, megadroughts, political upheaval and mass migrations. With luck and imagination, our graduates might even find ways to reduce the harm resulting from such events, and to teach their own children how to prepare for even worse.
If we choose instead to deny reality, education itself would be among the first public systems to break down, leaving our children as baffled and unprepared for their future as the millions of displaced African children with no better hope than a leaky boat on a Libyan beach.