Education for Sustainable Development: an African-Asian Languages perspective

Author: Michael Hutt


An article by Michael Hutt, SOAS, as part of the Subject Centre's Education for Sustainable Development Project.

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I was initially thrown by the use of the term 'sustainable development'. I have asked several colleagues what it means to them on first hearing and have received various replies, none of which fit the definition we appeared to be working with at the Focus Group, viz. the inculcation of environmentally responsible attitudes and environmental consciousness among students. For many people engaged with the languages, societies and cultures of Africa and Asia , it is a much-used and now slightly redundant phrase that has been used to denote the objectives of international development aid programmes to poorer countries. So my first response is that at least in some contexts you may have a problem with people misunderstanding the term.

Having said that, I think that the kinds of undergraduate teaching programmes available in my faculty (languages and cultures) do give students unparalleled opportunities to step outside and objectivise their own societies. On one level, they do this philosophically/intellectually by acquiring the facility to use and understand a radically foreign modern language, and thus describe and interpret the world in a radically different way. On another more literal level, many of them do actually leave the UK for up to a year as a compulsory part of their degree to pursue a programme of study in the country where the language is spoken (we currently send roughly 100 undergraduates each year to China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Syria, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Turkey). It is very common for such students to remark that the culture shock involved in returning to the UK is much greater than that which they experience in the country to which they have been sent.

One of the 'local' consequences of such programmes of study is that students forge strong human links with people in overseas societies, and often with minority ethnic and linguistic communities in London.

If a global perspective contributes to the development of social and environmental responsibility (and I would argue strongly that it does), then this kind of experience and exposure is surely invaluable.

My suggestion from an African/Asian languages perspective is that the values and attitudes this agenda seeks to promote are deeply embedded in studies that immerse students in other cultures. However, I am not sure that this would be effective if it were attempted at a superficial level as a mere adjunct to other more mainstream studies: it needs to be at least moderately profound, and sustained.