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Working together to reform education

This is an excerpt from Principles of Sustainable Living With Web Resource by Richard Jurin.

Reforming Education

Several aspects must be considered in education reform. One such aspect is whether the education leads to better citizens. It should mean that all people have a better understanding of why nature needs to be considered as a central part of their thinking and education. People must understand and comprehend resource flows such as food, energy, water, materials, and waste at different ecosystem levels from small and local to global. Academic institutions must promote a holistic transdisciplinary view of the world in which people, planet, and profit are interconnected with an expanding view of interrelated tiered systems.

As a student, you have the power to request and expect change. The academic institution is there to serve you, not vice-versa. You can ask your institution to establish a self-evaluative structure for an ongoing study of internal processes and their education as it relates to the rest of society including contributions, responsibilities, and even how academic freedom is exercised. Higher education institutions with research programs should establish a department for the study of the social and global crises from a transdisciplinary perspective. This department would encourage the reordering of research within individual disciplines to create interactive and transdisciplinary research interest groups. It would heighten awareness for how ecological and sociocultural relationships do not really have defined disciplinary boundaries. To counter the hegemony of simple gross domestic product being used in measuring economic progress, it is necessary to include education about using more measures that point to social and ecological indicators as of equal or even greater importance than they are currently given.

This is not to say that current academic systems teach us badly, but that the context and framework about what is taught are misplaced because of the assumptions of an antiquated business-as-usual model. At stake are many things on which your future health and well-being depend—systems such as climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity, to name but a few of the major issues facing the world today. The Holocaust during World War II is said to have been carried out by one of the most educated populations on the planet that had the philosophies of enlightened philosophers like Kant and Goethe to guide them. The problem with the education that allowed such barbarism was that “[their education] emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience” (Wiesel, as quoted in Orr 1994, p.8). Considering that indigenous peoples managed to live for thousands of years without the benefits of modern education, it becomes obvious that the problem is not the content but what has been omitted in order to avoid the specific teaching and discussion of values and interrelated systems. At some point, concepts such as common decency, prudence, mindful thinking, loss of the cultural commons, and ecological wisdom need to be discussed. Education must be evaluated against a different yardstick than simply the amount of knowledge gained and tests passed with a standardized score. It is important to consider not simply education, but education of a certain kind.

The modern human disconnect with nature has been discussed throughout this text. The concepts of the triple bottom line, the quad stack, and the 3P model all emphasize that nature and the natural connection must be a primary concept in people's lives. However, people have developed a society and culture that increasingly sees nature as something apart from humans and something merely to be used as resources to serve human needs. While all people's needs come from nature, people must never lose sight of the many ecological systems that work to give them the life-giving planet they presently take for granted. A major step in reforming education must be to recognize the value of nature in people's lives from multiple levels.

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Children who spend more than 95 percent of their lives indoors are hard pressed to develop empathy and knowledge of natural environments even when those environments are right outside their own doors. They become detached from ecosystems and nature's services, they fail to see connections between abiotic (mineral world) and biotic (organic living world) components, and they are unlikely to develop systemic thinking skills. The term nature-deficit disorder was created to capture this disconnect between children and nature (Louv 2008). It is probable that already at least one but probably two generations of nature-deficient children have now become adults and carry the burdens of the deficit with them. This deficit manifests as many mental, psychological, and even physical problems, such as rising rates of childhood depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and rampant childhood obesity (Louv 2008).

Recognition of this problem in the United States has created enough concern to create a national legislative bill in congress called No Child Left Inside, whichwould create environmental education within classrooms. No Child Left Inside has three components (NCLI 2009):

  1. Fund the training of teachers in environmental education and operate model outdoor classroom programs.
  2. Give funding to each state that submits a complete environmental literacy plan, to ensure high school graduates are environmentally literate.
  3. Award grants at national, state, and local levels to build the capacity to expand environmental literacy.

The benefits for students would be to develop school programs that teach about systemic models of understanding about the world—sustainability edu-
cation. This sustainability education allows society to move from a set of symptomatic solutions of industrialization and globalization to a systemic focus of diversification, biological and sociocultural diversity, and an understanding of localized (community-level) economics. To live well in the future will require that people understand certain fundamentals about the world, such as the laws of thermodynamics; the basic principles of ecology; carrying capacity; energetic, basic, and steady-state economics; how to live well in a place; limits of technology; appropriate scale of development; sustainable agriculture and forestry; and environmental ethics; and much, much more.

It is now being well-established that being outside in nature creates formative experiences for children, and has immense benefits for adults as well. It is important for children to interact with nature for it influences their overall well-being as they grow up. Just a few of the many benefits that research has shown are that children who play outdoors regularly show more advanced motor skills; are fitter; have better coordination, balance, and agility; have better study abilities; are sick less often; and exhibit better social skills (White 2011).

More Excerpts From Principles of Sustainable Living With Web Resource