Decades ago, Aldo Leopold (1949) characterized one the major roadblocks of an environmental way of thinking.
“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land (261)”.
What are Children Missing Out On?
Over a half of a century ago, Leopold recognized a dangerous trajectory in our nation’s educational system. As curriculum in the classroom began to drift from natural sciences, Leopold envisioned a catastrophic future in which children were no longer taught the fundamental concepts of ecology that are essential for understanding stewardship and conservation. Perhaps his sentiments, which are both critical and somber, are best expressed in the following passage: “Perhaps our grandsons, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters” (135). Never missing the chance of setting a canoe in the water implies much more than simply missing out on the recreational pastime of canoeing down a pristine waterway. It implies that children will have no relevant connection with what is wild. And without this critical relevance, a sense of environmental ethic and stewardship is not possible.
The Importance of Environmental Education
The words of Aldo Leopold provide a staggering glimpse of how natural experiences and natural science education is a critical part of a national land ethic. Contemporary studies in educational theory and pedagogy have reinforced this urgent battle cry. We now understand that teaching about the natural environment in the classroom provides a real-world context for learning by linking the classroom to the students' community and natural setting. When students are engaged in hands-on, active learning about nature, their knowledge and awareness about the environment increases. In addition to creating background knowledge and relevance, environmental education also encourages inquiry and investigation fostering the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective decision-making skills. Environmentally literate students become citizens who are able to weigh various sides of an environmental issue and make responsible decisions as individuals and as members of their community.
Quality, standards-based environmental education improves everyday life by protecting human health and encouraging stewardship of natural resources. After all, children grow into tomorrow only as they live and learn today (Dayton, 2003). Unfortunately, natural science based courses are a rarity in public and private education. Richard Louv highlights this gap in science education, citing there to be no courses that cover local flora and fauna within the forty-three school districts within San Diego County. Not only is San Diego County the sixth-largest school district in America, but it is also considered by the United Nations to be one of twenty-five “hot spots” of biodiversity meaning it contains the more endangered and threatened species than any other county in the United States (Louv, 2005, 137). It seems that the presence of an environmental curriculum is critical within such a biological treasure.
Consequences of Decreased Education
The decreasing presence of natural history in schools has resulted in the loss of respect for the environment. Very few students are offered the opportunity of observing nature and accumulating the background in natural history essential to the ecological understanding necessary to ask relevant questions. Political support for conservation depends on public passion, which must be based on real understanding of what is wished to have protection. This value system within our schools must change so that the public not only appreciates natural, but also understands it. This understanding can come from two places: childhood experiences in nature and in school. As the number of children who experience nature on their own declines, the role that curriculum must have in developing this understanding must grow. We cannot protect or restore what we do not understand or what has no relevance to our lives (Dayton, 2003).
- Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballentine BooksLouv, R. (2006). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 335pp.
- Dayton, P.K. (2003). The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist, 162, 1-13.