Green Spun: What Education is For

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Dr. Rachel Bridgers, 

September 06, 2017

This very day, as Hurricane Irma rages toward Puerto Rico and Florida, victims of Hurricane Harvey are still picking up the pieces of their lives. We are in the age of superstorms and natural disasters. We are in the age of ecological overshoot, a term used to describe all the environmental problems standing at our door. Eight out of ten of our major ecosystems are in decline, and we are in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction of species. All of this is the result of human activities. The environmental crisis we face today threatens all life on earth. 

 How did we get here? One suggestion is that education is the chief architect of social change, and it has not led us toward the ethical treatment of the earth and her inhabitants. David Orr, professor and scholar at Oberlin College, writes that our curriculum is so disjointed and fragmented that students cannot see the whole picture. Instead they specialize in particulars and, as a result, get a fragmented view of the world. 

True learning aims toward wholeness. This holistic approach is an important step in our re-shaping and in the transformation of the education system. Seeing what ecologist Gregory Bateson calls the ‘patterns that connect’ is fundamental to nature but also learning. Everything is connected to everything else, and without this sense of totality we will continue this downward ecological spiral, species extinction, and the untold suffering of global populations. 

Orr suggests that our contemporary culture is based on a few myths.

Myth 1: With enough knowledge and technology we can control the planet. This idea that technology will save us reflects another common misconception-- that all technology is good technology or somehow socially beneficial. This ethic assumes that as technology progresses, we also progress morally, ethically, and socially, which is not the case. 

Myth 2: Human goodness is increasing with knowledge. The systematic destruction of our natural resources – mountain top removal for instance – is the work of some very smart people. Their intelligence does not make them inherently good, or give them an ethical compass. 

Myth 3: The purpose of education is for upward mobility and success. This has not served the planet well. Educators and philosophers since Plato have recognized that the real purpose of learning is that we use knowledge for good in and of the world. The banking crisis is an example of individuals climbing the ladder of success at the expense of many.

How do we educate for the 21st century? Take students outside to learn about the rivers and streams, the trees and the birds. Most children know ten corporate logos and never learn to identify any of the native trees, birds and animals that live in their backyards. What we learn is as important as how we learn. 

Orr also reminds us that all education is environmental education. We are animals of a kind, living in an ecosystem, and every subject and every lesson relates to our place in the nature of things. In the southern highlands, kids are likely to spend their free time running around outside, fishing in the rivers, and hiking the trails. Students at Western Carolina University and the college campuses in the area are often taking advantage of the outdoors and kayaking the rivers and caving with friends. Some students also complain that they stay inside all day, and rarely get outside to learn. Science classes will sometimes go outside to study rivers and streams, fauna and flora, but more often than not, the humanities and arts are kept inside. 

If we are not teaching students how the environment is central to everything we are and do together, we are doing them a great disservice. As Hurricanes reach our shores and displace so many, we are called upon to remember that what we learn has real implications for the communities in which we live and the people we know. Real learning happens when students see the effect their knowledge has on their communities and in the world. This is what education is for.