Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Environmental Literacy, Wild Places, and Play as Elements of a Liberal Education

In preparation for an upcoming campus workshop discussing a "liberal education", I was asked to write a short piece to promote dialog.  Typically, faculty will write a piece from the perspective of their discipline.  As I sat to write this today, my ideas went in a very different direction than I originally planned.  I welcome your thoughts on this.

As I sit down to contemplate a short piece for the 2012 CAT/LinC May Workshop, I first check today’s news and see that Maurice Sendak, author of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, has passed away.  This book was published in 1963, and although I was a child of the appropriate age to have had this read to me, I didn’t know of it until I was reading storybooks to my own children decades later.   Initially, many librarians feared needlessly that “wild things who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth” would disturb children -- an interesting thought today given the popularity of books (or the movies derived from them) like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games.  But what should be disturbing to us as educators at a liberal arts institution are three seemingly disparate issues:  a) how little our students seem to read unless forced to; b) the limited amount of creative free play (especially outdoors) that our students experienced during their childhood; and c) that we now have books being published with titles like Where the Wild Things Were (emphasis added).[1]

Over the past few years, working with environmental science majors and in for preparation of my fall 2011 FYS course, I have been exploring the theme of “what forms of communication are needed to create awareness of environmental issues of the 21st Century?”  Of all of the challenges facing the planet and humanity, many have to do with the environment; global climate change, decreasing availability of clean and safe fresh water, diminishing supplies of natural resources, clean energy alternatives, air quality, and biodiversity and habitat losses are just a few examples.  Since our college mission includes a statement about preparing “men and women for …. leadership and service for the common good”, I firmly believe that the liberal arts education students receive should not only make them aware of these environmental concerns (regardless of their major pursuit), but also immerse them in experiences that (as cliché as it may sound) prepare them to take an active role in developing some of solutions to problems that threaten the common good and perhaps our very existence.

Oftentimes, when we are confronted with great challenges, scholars and leaders look to the past to see what we can learn from history -- lessons that might help us find inspiration and solutions.  When I ask students if they have read Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, or even Carson, most say no.  Perhaps worse yet, many don’t even know who these individuals were or what role they played in the early conservation and environmental movements.  When I assign excerpts of classic environmental literature for students to read, they find them difficult to read and for the most part, see them as boring and irrelevant.  Bill McKibben proposes in his introduction to the anthology “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau”[2] that “environmental writing is America's most distinctive contribution to the world's literature”.  However, he also suggests that important pieces of writing may no longer be sufficient in helping to address environmental issues as they once were, due, in part, to the enormity of the problems confronting us now.  But is there nothing to be learned from earlier visionaries and from earlier battles they helped win (in part through their writing) on the conservation and environmental fronts? 

From my work, I know that the current generation of environmental writers, activists, policy makers, and conservationists are all more than a little familiar with these classic writings and the significant wisdom passed on through the generations by the authors.  Passages are included in contemporary environmental science textbooks.  Edward O. Wilson, a prominent scientist and author, starts his book The Future of Life[3] with a letter to Thoreau (a sad lament, actually) and gives a nod to Leopold with his call for a “global land ethic.”  The new documentary entitled Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time[4] suggests that Leopold’s Land Ethic is more relevant now than ever.  Scientists are pouring through the old tattered journals of Thoreau, Leopold, and others to gather baseline data on the timing of flower blooms, leaf budding, and migration to better understand the impact of a changing climate on our ecosystems.[5]  The author of our common reading for next year has been hailed as the “next Rachel Carson”.[6]  It seems a shame that the new generation of college student finds this classic literature irrelevant.

If you have never read “Thinking like a Mountain”, then the significance of the green fire will be lost.  If you have also grown up sans time in nature, then ponderings about the serenity of life at Walden Pond, the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas, the possible loss of goose music, or a completely silent spring are concepts that will indeed seem foreign to you.  At a time when scholars are learning more about the strong connection between nature and well-being, fewer children are spending time outdoors, and an increasing number of people are disconnected from the sources of their food, water, and other forms of sustenance.  Richard Louv writes extensively about the impact of “Nature Deficit Disorder” on our children.[7]  Increasingly, the peer-reviewed literature in psychology and education are showing the negative ramifications of the loss of recess and unstructured free play on learning, ADHD, and creativity.  I don’t have the space here to review all of this research, but can assure you that both the bibliography and body of evidence are extensive.

Reading, time frolicking outdoors, and free play have all been shown to be important factors in developing imagination, creativity, and social skills as well as leading to improvements in attention span and learning.  If these once hallowed elements of childhood are vanishing, where will innovation of the future come from and how will our youth develop much needed problem solving skills?  As our wild things disappear, unnoticed by everyone who is inside, safe and plugged into the latest technology, who will have a deep enough understanding of and respect for nature so that they will push for conservation and clean air, water, and land?  In 1942, Leopold wrote an essay called “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education”.[8] What we need today is not just an essay, but a practice in which immersion in wild places and environmental literature is an essential element of a liberal education.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not.

– The Once-ler from The Lorax

[1] Stolzenburg, W., Where the Wild Things Were.  Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators. Bloomsbury USA, (New York, 2008).
[2] From, Library of America (2008)
[3] Vintage Books (New York, 2002)
[4] Documentary produced in partnership between the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the US Forest Service (2011).
[5] For example, see Miller-Rushing, A.J. and Primack, R.B. (2008) “Global Warming and Flowering Times in Thoreau’s Concord:  A Community Perspective”, Ecology, 89:332–341 and Primack, R.B. and Miller-Rushing, A.J. (2012) “Uncovering, Collecting, and Analyzing Records to Investigate the Ecological Impacts of Climate Change: A Template from Thoreau's Concord” Bioscience 62: 170-181.
[6] Sandra Steingraber is a Ph.D. biologist, poet, and creative nonfiction author.  Her book Living Downstream (De Capo Press, 1997, 2010) is one of a series of books she has written about the interplay between the environment and human health.
[7] Louv, R. Last Child in the Woods, Algonquin Books (2008).
[8] In Flander, S.L., ed., The River of Mother of God and Other Essays, University of Wisconsin Press (1992).


  1. Glad to see you are back to blogging, Diane. Thanks for the wonderful insight! I think I'll make it highly suggested, if not required reading for our Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE)students and staff!

    1. Thanks Greg. I hope that the GLADE participants are avid readers. I already know that they will spend a lot of time learning and playing in the great outdoors.

  2. Wow, Sendak and the Lorax both mentioned in the same post. My seven year old girl's two favorites. Sendak was truly a great writer and has long been extremely popular amongst parents and kids, and Where the Wild Things are is still a classic.
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  3. Thank you Diane. You are a teacher and a leader. May your writing continue to hit that communicative sweet spot.

  4. Thanks Stephen. It will be interesting at the workshop on Tuesday to see how colleagues respond. I have been asked to kick off the day with comments about this piece and why I wrote it.

  5. Nice post, Diane. I'll definitely be sharing this with my educator friends as we wrap up this school year and start planning for next year. Sadly, very few of the students in the program I manage list reading as a thing they like to do. But, I make sure reading is a BIG part of the program and emphasize how it's an essential complement to the outdoor work we do. Multidisciplinary literacy is where it's all at!

    1. Thanks Stacey. I hear the complaints about reading from college students all the time. I am a huge proponent of multidisciplinary teaching/learning. I like your literacy term here.