At the moment I’m in a really interdisciplinary place, which leaves me confused much of the time. So I’m going to try to work out my issues via blog post.

Returning to grad school my personal interest was to lift myself out of the poverty that was entregal to my career in environmental and science education. But beyond my personal issues, I was concerned that the environmental and science education wasn’t really reaching many students. When I say that this education wasn’t reaching many students I’m not referring simply to the horrible dearth of this type of education in American schools, but instead to the fact that when I taught lessons related to the environment or science, the lessons simply didn’t seem to touch students in a deep way. Often we found ways to make science fun and exciting but rarely did the topics covered relate deeply and directly to students’ lives. Students simply considered this education another form of entertainment and tolerated it as long as it was easy and fun, but had little investment in it. In particular I was concerned with urban children who often seemed to lack experiences with simple things like pill bugs or sitting on the ground.

Luckily for me I’m not the only person to have noticed this phenomenon, it’s commonly referred to as “the extinction of experience.” This theory is the basis of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, which created a small splash in the media when it was published earlier this year. In Louv’s writings, children’s lives are becoming more and more impoverished because of too much time spent on programmed activities and video games and not enough time spent goofing around outside playing with lizards and swinging on a rope. The picture of childhood shown in this book harkens back to New Urbanism’s romantic images of a time when American towns where filled with good things: women had time to pack their kids’ lunches and it was safe for kids to play outside in the neighborhood (ala Mayberry.)

Unfortunately, this is not the childhood that has been experienced by the vast majority of human children throughout history. Even if that childhood could be provided to all young children would it really be better for them? Would they really be more environmentally sensitive? Would more of them be interested in science? Would they be healthier or happier?

I’m not so convinced. Peter Kahn, an environmental psychologist at U. of Washington, as done some interesting work examining the development of environmental attitudes cross culturally. In studying environmental attitudes across five countries Kahn found very similar issues. Children everywhere understood something about environmental problems, but no matter how degraded and polluted their own environments were children didn’t recognize how environmental problems were affecting their own neighborhoods. Kahn’s ‘environmental generational amnesia‘ means that every generation of children considers the conditions of their own childhood a baseline, undisturbed condition and any changes seen later are viewed as degradation. So change that happens slowly over the period of several generations is never fully perceived or comprehended.

This leaves us with quite a problem. Each generation sees the environment degrading, but has trouble understanding how they are both victims of and perpetrators of this injustice. At some basic level all environmental problems are actually a sort of temporal environmental justice issue in which earlier generations are stealing resources from later ones. In itself, this is not that surprising considering the whole definition of sustainablity and folkloric sayings about considering seven generations and so on. What is surprising is that we don’t realize that it’s happening to us and instead romantize our childhoods as belonging to some sort of prelapsarian past.

Coming soon…Part 2, Romantic Views of Nature and Environmental Education

Advertisements