"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side.' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.'"- Adolf Hitler
David Orr recognizes in Ecological Literacy (if you're going to buy the book though, get it locally) that in order for children, especially American children we must presume, to become ecologically literate, that a great transformation must occur. Where traditional American education has focused on our developing students’ abilities to recognize and generate semantically meaningful language and become fluent with arithmetic and mathematics so that they might learn and master (at least partially) other scholastic disciplines, Orr believes that we must expand those scholastic disciplines and the application of linguistic and mathematical literacy to develop ecological literacy. “By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, society, and so forth.”
Orr believes that children are the foundation on whom we are to build this brave new world. In order for this to happen, they must be instilled with both a sense of wonder and be given integrative thinking skills.
But some things must first be overcome. First, students need to think broadly about topics. American students are taught in an educational system that presents them with discrete topics where things do not overlap; they are boxed. But good thinking draws connections and presents us with the opportunity to “think at right angles.” Second, we are schooled inside. How are we to realize ourselves as mammals that are a part of the nature of things if we are so constantly shielded from much of the environment? Our schooling places blinders on how our culture shapes the biotic world. Third, and in no small part because we are shielded from nature by our cultural machines and machinations, we do not learn to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of nature. How do we appreciate the beauty of the Great Horned Owl in the knot of the Willow tree if we are cloistered indoors or staring at shopping malls and car lots? We will never see the owl. This is like the world in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie of which was Bladerunner. In its world of technological advancement, animals are all but figments. Yet there is still some vestigial appreciation for their beauty and necessity. So they are engineered. Even worse, given the degree to which American homo sapiens sapiens spends on computers (look where I am now), we could end up in The Matrix or the world of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops wherein human beings are fully integrated into machines that come to own them. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you use. These science fiction stories give us dystopic visions of how our attempt to separate ourselves from nature dooms us not even to forget nature outside of our own creations, but to not even know much of its existence at all.
To avoid this world, we must reeducate ourselves and our children by showing them and ourselves that all education is environmental education. From there, we have to integrate the lion’s share of disciplines and departments into the formal understanding of and dissemination of our gathered information on the environment. This education should take place in patient dialogues wherein we develop respect and understanding whose pace is “governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time.” This pacing should lead us to develop experiential means that become, in some ways, the content and initiate a more conversational pedagogy between student and teacher as facilitator. Experiential environmental learning will also develop good thinking which, in turn, develops the learner’s competence with natural systems.
Orr hopes that our new educational culture will create people who realize that they are integrated in the world, part of the great chain of being. Orr, in a marvelous assault, contrasts his philosophy of education with Allan Bloom whose Great Books philosophy was set in stone in his 1987 tract, Closing of the American Mind, a book of such self-congratulatory narcissism that one feels trapped in a hall of mirrors that reflect only Bloom’s face.
However, Bloom does set down a vision of the liberal education, but one that ensconces a philosophy that sets man apart from nature. Bloom writes in his chapter, “Culture” that “[t]his Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher that nature is found in man (emphasis mine).” Bloom believes that the American student has lost his (he is thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal) way by losing his connection to the Enlightenment. In many ways, Bloom is right. Some of our best codifications of rational thought come from the Enlightenment and Locke, Kant, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, D’Holbach, Paine, and their intellectual ancestors like John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Bertrand Russell give us great tools for thought. But they are not the end.
In steps Orr, who hopes to reconstruct the liberal arts education “to develop balanced, whole persons who have connected minds and feelings.” He cites Alfred North Whitehead a fair bit. To go beyond Orr’s citations, we read in the preface of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” To use this in Orr’s terms, we should consider that Bloom’s Great Books ideal and the modern world’s scientism (which could now be renamed technologism) has been temporally provincial and myopic and must now shift to a new Kuhnsian paradigm of ecologically realistic science and humanities that would help learners become whole – integrated into their communities, including their campuses.
The quotation with which I opened this essay serves us as a reminder. I don’t just mean to be an alarmist or suggest that Orr and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. It is pure caution on my part so that we approach the endeavor skeptically and compassionately. Children’s biobehavioral clay is molded by their cultural environments and we, the cultural occupants, shape that culture. We shape it for our own ends and by our own means and we form kinds of learners who become kinds of actors. Anyone who watches Triumph of the Will sees the young German learner believing in the realism of the Reich wherein Aryan science and Aryan humanities were developed. Consider the millions sent to the Gulag because they had violated the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Children are raised to believe in the moral efficacy of misogyny, filicide, patricide, homicide, and genocide by the world’s dominant religions. What we believe and how we believe it profoundly affect our behavior.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that a man with a gun in hand can kill one, five, or even twenty people. But a man armed with an ideology can kill millions. Ideas have consequences. While I agree with Orr that we need, desperately need, to realize ourselves as part of the biosphere, we must always guard ourselves against the tyrant within us who believes s/he knows what is best for others and will dominate others to see it through.
First, do no harm. Second, love others.