Periodic Daydream #14
I always begin each school year by having my environmental science students read Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. This is a challenging text for anyone but it inspires a deep conversation about the human relationship with the land. This year I took it one step further and asked my students to write their own personal “environmental ethic”. I got the expected questions: What should we write? How long does it have to be? In all honesty, I just want them to write about whatever comes to mind when they think of their own connection with nature. In terms of length. It probably will be more than 10 words, but quantity is not quality, so at least 456 words (Hah!). The writing assignment is due tomorrow, so in good form I am attempting to write my own statement at 7:15 pm tonight. I’m not completely procrastinating, just trying to get the full experience as one of my students.
When I think of the human relationship to nature, my viewpoint is very similar to that of education. Both systems are intimately connected to the social world and you can view both with lenses of science, psychology, or even philosophy. There are three similarities that are most striking on which I’ll elaborate.
1.Believing in nature as untouched pristine wilderness is like believing in the student mind as Locke’s tabula rasa. Even the most remote wilderness has been impacted by man in some way due to our impact on the climate. I do not believe there is a single place on this earth that has not been in some way altered by human. Even director James Cameron, has traveled approximately 7 miles down to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench. Similarly, students do not come to us as blank slates, but instead with millions of prior experiences, ideas, and most importantly dreams. If we want to understand nature we have to understand both the natural and social forces shaping it. If we want to understand how students learn we need to understand not just how the brain develops and functions but how the social situation influences the ability to learn. Both of these understandings of nature and student require relationships.
2.Nature and students have their own agendas. One of the most interesting books I have read about nature is called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. In this book, Weisman examines how nature would respond if humans instantaneously disappeared from the earth one day. Each chapter examines a different aspect of nature, from what would happen to our homes, our farms, as well as New York City without Homo sapiens. While some persistent human created chemicals like polymers in plastics and our radioactive waste would survive, nature for the most part would do a pretty good job of eliminating our human footprint. Just as nature without our guidance can blossom, students have their own passions and dreams that they should be allowed to pursue. In education we need to be careful that we are not enforcing our own agendas to a point that we are creating a one-way highway for students to race through life, a race dependent on the model of car their families can afford. Students need to also see the value of meandering like the streams and pausing in the breeze to truly understand their purpose. Just as various tree species require different nutrients and conditions to grow, students also need a diversity of conditions to thrive.
3.Both nature and students respond to challenges and disturbances with resiliency. As a society we are constantly damaging, exploiting, and threatening nature, yet miraculously even after catastrophic nuclear disasters and oil spills, natural habitats persist. Nature comes back. Certain species like the bur oak and many prairie species require a disturbance like fire to persist. Just like nature students bounce back. We need to remember that while they need support they do not need coddling and cushioning. Because students are resilient they need to understand the value of facing a true challenge and learning from mistakes made. (Here are 30 Powerful Quotes on Failure .) They need the skills to face failure and learn from it.
Finally, I believe that nature like our students deserve our respect. Just as we depend on nature and reap benefits from the natural world, we also depend on our future generations. It is our students who will continue to find creative ways to live alongside nature, using ingenuity, scientific advancements, and passion to help guide society to a more sustainable place. While there may not be pristine wilderness, we can at least hope for survival of the wild that exists despite our human shortcomings.