In the lively comments thread following my last post, my long-time friend Mike voiced vigorous opposition to its central premise:
I don’t think that Sustainability or Environmental Science should be a concern of any level when discussing Big-E education (meaning public school). Public education already suffers from big tent rainbow syndrome. The curriculum is ridiculously bloated. I view the insertion of Sustainability and related nature field trips as just one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.
I should mention that I met Mike when we were fellow English Education students 15 years ago. He had a brief but accomplished career in the high school classroom before moving on to the corporate world, and his wife continues to do terrific work as an elementary school teacher, currently within the Atlanta Public Schools system. His voice is not one to be summarily dismissed. I promised him a thoughtful response, so here goes . . .
Over the years, David Orr of Oberlin College has been one of the educators and writers to most profoundly influence my thinking (I particularly recommend his book Earth in Mind), and so I’ll start with a simple quote of his that has become perhaps my philosophical touchstone:
All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum.
It seems patently obvious to me that we have an obligation, in teaching our students about the world they live in, to accurately render their relationship to it. If we neglect the environment in our curriculum, if we teach students that they stand apart from the natural world, then we are lying to them, plain and simple. To give another concrete example, I have written before about this failing in my own discipline and the typical English curriculum in secondary schools:
Literature—with its timeless role of examining the human condition—has always evolved to address the significant issues before each generation. In our curriculum, then, we rightly read and discuss works that deal thoughtfully with weighty and complex themes like race and gender and war. But as contemporary writing rapidly evolves to raise new questions about humanity’s role as a citizen of the ecological community, this new environmental literature has yet to be significantly included in the mainstream educational canon. That omission, I think, does send a message.
And it seems particularly short-sighted to cling to a status quo curriculum that largely and falsely ignores our connection to the natural world at a time when issues of sustainability grow inexorably more important with every given year. Given the current global trajectories of vital environmental indicators—population growth, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and ecosystem function decline—sustainability stands to dominate human affairs in the 21st century. In fact, Orr makes a strong case that our incomplete curriculum not only doesn’t help us understand environmental issues but actively exacerbates them:
Education is not widely regarded as a problem, although the lack of it is. The conventional wisdom holds that all education is good, and the more of it one has, the better . . . . The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth.
I’m not willing to go so far and reduce the value of education to such a stark dichotomy, as there are certainly other lenses than the environment through which we can assess it. But he has a point, doesn’t he? Here’s one context where the saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” seems penetrating and not clichéd. I don’t see environmental education as a mere add-on to an already overburdened curriculum. Instead, education will have to substantially evolve if it is to reflect and address our changing world.
Nonetheless, before I get too carried away with high-minded philosophizing, let me come back to Mike’s chief complaint, that in the imperfect real world of school, teaching sustainability is just “one more distraction from the very real goal of remediation and education.” That’s a valid and noble concern. In some cases I’d agree—all attempts to teach sustainability are not created equal, and I’ve written before about ineffective and effective practices in this regard. Nonetheless, research evaluating cutting-edge approaches (such as the Place-Based Education and Environment as Integrating Context for Learning models) directly refutes Mike’s claim. Done well, environmental education increases student achievement in key core subjects (not just science), reduces discipline and classroom management problems, and promotes student engagement and ownership in learning. These findings square with my own teaching experiences: I routinely see levels of student enthusiasm and ignition in environmental education contexts that I rarely see anywhere else. Simply put, relevance matters when it comes to curriculum and our students’ learning, and, as an integrating context, what could be richer and more relevant and compelling and rewarding than the environment?