Several years back, I was asked to address my assembled colleagues at the start of the school year, to share some thoughts about environmental education (or the lack thereof) at my school. I was not (and still am not) speaking as an expert, only as someone willing to ask questions, and preparing the speech gave me the opportunity to do just that, to read and think on the topic for a whole summer. Among other conclusions, I made this critique of my chosen discipline:
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.
Two nights ago, I found something of the same sentiment in the introduction to Cheryll Glotfelty’s The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology:
If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were hot topics . . . but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all.
That’s a fair description of my own classroom.
Things have started to change at the university level in the decade-plus since Glotfelty’s seminal work was published, but in secondary schools I’m pretty sure we’ve mostly stuck to business as usual. Even though the reaction to my speech four years ago was overwhelmingly positive (people still speak to me about it), the only evolution I’m familiar within my own department is the addition of a two-week nature unit within a semester elective course in creative writing for 11th and 12th graders. As a school, we’ve finally gotten serious about recycling and energy conservation and are even talking about building raised-bed gardens to produce some of our own food, but we remain wedded to convention at the curricular level.
Why? At the risk of making some unfair, sweeping generalizations, I’ll float three possible answers. This is how I see it from where I sit:
- Literature and the Environment is by nature an interdisciplinary pursuit, and schools are far too compartmentalized academically to encourage innovation in this respect. As I said in my speech, “These borderlands between our disciplines may intrigue us intellectually, but because our day-to-day curricular concerns keep us well entrenched in the front-country, the territory remains wild and unpredictable—certainly not the place to lead our students.”
- Environmental issues are politically controversial in our modern hyper-partisan environment. I’ve got a lot more thinking to do on this subject, but it strikes me that much of the literature we read and discuss is hardly revolutionary (any more). Reading To Kill a Mockingbird, none of my students are particularly surprised or challenged by the injustices that Tom Robinson suffers, and there is no disagreement about the basic message—racism, bad! Rather than force the conversation toward thornier issues of race in contemporary society, we safely remain with the conventional bounds of New Criticism analysis, dissecting the text to focus on symbolism and irony and imagery. And because nature writing is largely a nonfiction genre, we who are trained in the art of fiction and poetry don’t even have this safe terrain to retreat to.
- Reflecting the youth of literature-and-environment studies in higher academia, almost none of us at the secondary level have any real training in or even awareness of this field, and there aren’t many resources available, at least not targeted specifically at the teaching of English. A quick search of upcoming sessions at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English convention finds (as far as I can tell) only two sessions—out of hundreds offered—with an environmental theme, both of these having limited scope. There’s certainly nothing equivalent to “We Can Do More: Sustaining and Enhancing Efforts to Integrate LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] Literature Into Secondary English Curricula” on the agenda. Moreover, among the various official NCTE Caucuses and Assemblies, there is nothing resembling an environmental literature advocacy group. The professional organization for those at the cutting edge of scholarship in the field, The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment is perhaps the best resource, but it’s focus seems to be exlusively post-secondary, and it’s frankly intimidating terrain for the uninitiated. Where are the trail guides for those of us ready to wander away from civilization? (One notable exception: Literature and the Land: Reading and Writing for Environmental Literacy 7 – 12, by Emma Rous, the only publication of its kind that I’ve come across . . . it’s excellent).
So I’ve started to plow through Glotfelty’s Ecocriticism Reader. The introduction was great, several passages having made me sit bolt-upright in bed with recognition. I was particularly moved by this one: “Our temperaments and talents have deposited us in literature departments, but as environmental problems compound, work as usual seems unconscionably frivolous. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.” (The essays themselves have proved slower going; I have only so much patience for sentences like “By neglecting the origin of this silence in the breakdown of animism, the humanist critics of deep ecology reiterate a discourse that by its very logocentrism marginalizes nature . . . .”) I’ll explore this terrain as long as I can before the treadmill of my own business-as-usual gets too frantic to allow the luxury.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep . . .
In the meantime, I wonder what I’m missing, whom else I can turn to. I know I’m not the only voice howling in the secondary-English wilderness.
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