Children’s Rights Referendum

October 17, 2012 at 10:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Children Rights referendum is long overdue and badly needed. The proposed amendment recognises and affirms the ‘natural and imprescriptable’ rights of all children. But we need to ask a fundamental and critical question. What rights are we actually talking about here and who is, in fact, the greatest offender of them?

The truth is we should not be misled by a conceptual and ideological mistake. We may assume that a breach of rights primarily involves individuals not acting as they should. But rights are also breached by structural and systemic processes which centre not simply on failures by identifiable individual actors but by the State itself. In short, failures may be due to the economic and political system rather than by an errant parent.

The situation may be clearer if we examine some specific rights. The rights referred to in the amendment are not mentioned. They presumably belong to the unenumerated rights implied by Article 40.3.1 of the Constitution. But let us consider some of them. Might they include the right to food, to shelter, to education, to health? What about the right to be free from exposure to environmental hazards such as toxic dumps, incineration, high pressure gas pipelines, fracking? These are economic and political rights, the vindication of which may challenge current economic and political orthodoxy. Will the State act to vindicate these rights?

Recent reports have shown that 40% of Irish children go to school or to bed hungry. Research commissioned by the Department of Social Protection has found 10% of Irish people now live in food poverty. That’s 450,000 people, a significant proportion of whom are children. So, the question: who is responsible for this child neglect? Who must vindicate the right to food of the child? Is not the answer to both questions the State itself?

Thus, the State is both abuser and protector. We have just had the most recent report on the inhuman conditions operating in St Patrick’s prison in which children’s human rights are being contravened. Another instance of this is the State’s role in the direct provision accommodation system for asylum seekers. In all the fallout and response to the multiple reports of child abuse in Ireland, from the Ryan Report to the Report into Child Deaths, there was a consistent failure to recognise one of the most visible occurrences of current institutional child neglect and abuse in Ireland – our direct provision accommodation system. This system has many echoes of the regime described in the Ryan Report. 1,789 children are confined with their families and other families and adults in over-crowded, inappropriate long-term accommodation with inadequate supports. The mental and physical health consequences are well documented. This is happening in plain sight and yet it barely merits a reference in public debate. The recent Irish Refugee Council Report could not be clearer in its title: State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion. In its Executive Summary the Council Report states: ‘Direct Provision is an example of a government policy which has not only bred discrimination, social exclusion, enforced poverty and neglect, but has placed children at a real risk.’ The Report asks: ‘does the sustained and prolonged restriction of human rights and civil liberties inherent in the Direct Provision system amount to child abuse?’

That is a serious question. If the answer is yes then the State itself, as architect and maintainer of this system, is the cause of an abuse of children. But under the amendment the State pledges to affirm the rights of children. This commitment is hypocritical if the State does not immediately act to end the direct provision system.

The point here is clear. In this amendment the State is itself bound by the requirement to uphold children’s rights. It should tell us how it proposes to do so. Or does it think that only parents are in question?

Review of: Occupy Education: Learning and Living Sustainability by Tina Evans

October 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We are living in the midst of an ecological and social crisis. This we know. Something therefore has to change. The choice that we seem to have come down to is that we will either change ‘business as usual’ or the climate. Sadly, it appears clear, especially following the recent Rio + 20 summit, that ‘we’ (ie the global elites) are choosing the climate.

This is the context of Tina Evan’s new book Occupy Education. Her interest lies in how we can bring about change in favour of our shared ecological and social world and what that new world might look like. Specifically, she is interested in the role that might be played by education in bringing about that change. In the Introduction to her book she asks:

What is an educator to do in these times in an effort to help students and communities avert disaster – or to help prepare ourselves and others to engage in sustainability-oriented action in the wake of disturbing, if not devastating, changes in our world?

Central to her answer to this question lies in a (re)discovery of place. A grounding in place permits a tangible re-engagement with our social and environmental ecology, a re-inhabiting of the world actually around us. Such a re-connection centres on reciprocating relationships between human beings and between human beings and other life-forms. A broader conception of ‘family’ is cultivated so that the ethic of care extends to all. We must become native to our place once more.

Evans offers two routes by which this relocalised world might be realized. First is in the production of food. Producing and consuming local food is a key builder of sustainability.

In this chapter, I conceptualize sustainable food activism as resistance to enforced dependency. Although the neoclassical economic system sees food as just another commodity, food can be a platform for radical socio-ecological change, in part, because it defines in crucial ways the relationship between people and nature. Food is essential for life, and control over food translates to social power. Changing our food systems, therefore, implies extensive changes in relative social power.

Second, and central to the theme of her book, is the role of a pedagogy of sustainability. Such a pedagogy she designates as critical sustainability theory and is derived from critical theory and strands within deep ecology, ecopyschology, various indigenous worldviews and systems theory. Central themes within such a pedagogy are the study of enforced dependency, de-colonisation and (re)inhabitation.

I propose that college educators should practice a critical pedagogy of sustainability that includes involving students in service learning projects. College courses and programs should combine teaching and learning of a structuralized and critical view of the world-system (see Wallerstein 1974, 1976, 2008) with participation in transformative and transdisciplinary community action.  Using this pedagogy, higher education could help move society toward sustainability.

To establish the efficacy of such an approach she cites extensively from her own college courses giving over one chapter to an analysis of her own students’ feedback on courses in peak oil and sustainability. However, she is under no illusion that education alone holds the key to effecting significant social change.

Although courses and programs can help students learn to engage in critically informed praxis, the critical pedagogy of sustainability is really a lifelong orientation and process of learning that can begin inside the walls of the academy but, ultimately, must live outside of classrooms and educational institutions in the lives of individuals and communities. (5)

Tina Evan’s book is an important contribution to the task of transforming our world. She offers interesting ideas on community and pedagogy. She clearly analyses the dysfunctions in our current economic model and investigates the role that cultural hegemony plays in shaping the ideas we have about that model so that, even though it is producing such harm, it remains solidly in place. She reminds us again that change involves not just thinking new ideas but also doing new things, in an informed praxis of sustainability. In this context nothing is as specific and ‘earthy’ as the production and eating of food and nowhere are our ideas so shaped as in our education system. Striking at both these institutional sites, and demonstrating the enforced dependencies current in each, offers us clear and practical avenues towards a new praxis.

All of this is worthy and important and undoubtedly correct in its identification of where we need to go. However, in the Afterword to the book, Richard Kahn strikes a cautionary and salutary note:

No beloved community has yet arisen to stop the occult horrors of militarism, industrial capitalism, and racist colonialism (as well as the various conjoining and non-derivative forms of oppression—such as patriarchy, ableism, and specieism) that clearly constitute through and through the nightmare that presently weighs upon the brains of the living. No vast and inclusive proletarian base has hitherto come to know and trust in itself that it is capable of abolishing the dominator culture of a white supremacist affluent class. A dream of a totally liberated and just “planetary community” is a vanguard phrase spoken by only a relative few intellectuals. The educational Left is more collegial than perhaps ever before, but professional altercations over the parceling of academic real estate (Agger, 1990) remain more common than performances of the kind of resilient grassroots service leadership that this book argues is axiomatic to a thriving community-in-place. When it comes to learning and living sustainability, those of us in higher education are not yet a true collegium. All too often we are simply the estranged labor of colleges, which are themselves competitively operating as biopolitical institutions for a neoliberal academic enterprise that serves at the behest of greater masters still.

We are back to the old conundrum – how do we get from here to there when we have so little time and the urgency to effect radical change is so acute that we do not have the luxury to await the slow processes of natural social evolution? Specifically, how do we do so within a democratic framework where decisions are shaped within the flawed, tardy and contaminated processes of contemporary representative democracy but yet where majority support is properly required for legitimate political transformation on the scale required?

Evans, like many others, argues in response for a bottom-up approach, centred on like-minded communities forging new, sustainable realities. Yet this communitarian model too carries risks. Specifically, how do you ensure the willing participation of all in the community; how do you treat dissenters and defaulters; how do you deal with deviance and minority groups within communities operating under the imperative to be close-knit and mutually supportive and dependent? These are troubling questions and ones not directly addressed by Evans. It is noteworthy that none of her students seem to have fundamentally disagreed with her analysis and to have insisted on the merits of a neo-liberal free market world. Assuming that the students were self-selecting and orientated towards her position anyway it would be interesting to consider how a sustainability educator would address those who do not agree with them. Would such students be regarded as under the influence of a ‘false consciousness’?

Tina Evans works on the assumption that place and community are non-problematic structures of identity. But, as we know, the meaning of place and community are deeply contested concepts. Enforced communitarianism is also oppressive. In our modern world the connection between people and place has long been broken and ‘nativist’ claims to superior rights of possession can strike a somewhat uneasy ring.

The challenge then is undoubtedly to re-inhabit our world but to do so in a pluralistic and tolerant manner. This includes extending tolerance and rights to all other living forms. In constructing such a world we need to start with answers rather than questions and we need students equipped with the ability to reason and imagine in a holistic way. In a sense, these are the very core constituents of our Western enlightenment educational tradition or indeed of our theory of education going back to Plato’s Academy. An education put to the service of any programme – economic or political – ceases to be education in any meaningful way and becomes instead a form of indoctrination rendering its objects fit for a pre-defined world. The great achievement of Evan’s book is to centralize a liberating education as the primary tool by which we might re-imagine new futures and new ways of being human.





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