Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Posted by Kirk
Snow. Big fat flakes are falling out my window. By reading these posts you'd get the impresion there has been a lot of snow this winter. There has been almost none.

I’m stuck behind my desk taking a little break from writing curricula. I’ve been thinking lately about the role of environmental education. A few weeks back we had a focus group at the nature center. We’re having focus groups with kids, community organizations, businesses, volunteers and parents. We’re hoping to get some ideas for our new five year strategic plan. The outcome will hopefully be a better idea for some new directions we can take. I can in one morning and the flip chart sheets were still stuck to the wall as our director typed them into his lap top computer.

One note in particular caught my eye. Question number one was "What do is the role of a nature center in the community?" Written down as an answer was something to the effect of "create activists?" I pointed it out to the director and ask about it. At that moment another naturalist walked by. The director said that he wrote it down but it seemed to be a question in the minds of the participants. He asked the other naturalist what she thought. "Absolutely not." she replied, "We teach science and it is up to the kids to make their own conclusions and decisions." The director agreed.

I didn’t push the issue at the time but it has been bothering me. We enjoy a reputation in the community as an unbiased science based organization that can provide information to the public. That’s fantastic. The problem is that when you understand the science behind the environmental issues facing us today it is impossible to not be biased. Mercury is poison. DDT destroys the raptor population. Overpopulation causes environmental degradation. This is what science teaches us. So, we are faced with issues important to the survival of the planet. We have the backgrounds in science and we understand the connections. I am not going to stand in front of an audience and say, here’s the facts, oh, but it is up to you to decide if this is bad or not.

With what I know it is unconscionable to teach this material as though it is fact with a non-value laden response. Part of environmental education needs to be value based education. We teach the value of a healthy functioning ecosystem.

Is that a bias? Sure, is there anything wrong with that? I submit not. This isn’t the main issue here however. Is it our job to create activists. If it is not our job, then environmental education is a complete waste of time. We teach with the hope that those we teach will take action on what they learn. Taking action upon knowledge is activism. This is where some may disagree.

They think of activism as some radical path. They see activism as a vocation where all you do in the world is be an activist. There are very few people like this out there. In reality the people most often thought of as activists actually make their living as community organizers, authors, etc.

We in the field of environmental education need a profound redefinition of activism. I submit that if our students fail to take action. All too often we do not teach action. We teach facts, figures, relationships, shapes, patterns, trends, in short, everything but action. Do we really live in fear of action?

We teach kids how to turn of faucets while brushing their teeth. We have just taught activism. We teach kids how to write their legislator asking for clean drinking water this is activism too yet we have somehow crossed a line. Heaven forbid we teach kids how to act upon the science we teach to actively make the world a better place. We wouldn’t want to teach our kids how to ask for clean water now would we?