Environmental Science as a Mandatory High School Class

“All education should be environmental” says David W. Orr in his collection of essays. In Earth in Mind, Orr focuses on the problems with the education provided and valued by our culture. We are in a state of planetary crisis, and he argues that the cause of this crisis is within the minds that have developed the very technology that is destroying our environment. The environmental crisis is a symptom of an even greater disorder, the inability of individuals to think critically, holistically, and about the long-term effects of human actions due to an educational system misdirected at creating individuals that focus on careers and success rather than on purpose and connectedness. In Part One, The Problem of Education, the author outlines the problem of education from an ecological perspective.

Education is typically seen as a good thing with a lack of education as the problem, whereas David W. Orr charges our current educational system with creating “more effective vandals of the earth” thus asserting education as the root cause of our environmental crisis. The future of our environment is in jeopardy. We are losing species at an alarming rate, our climate is becoming less stable, and people are become less interested and disconnected with the natural world. Why is education at the root of the problem, what should education be providing, and what dangers are associated with the current state of education? These are all questions Orr addresses in discussing the role of education as a causative agent in our environmental crisis while also calling for massive changes in how our culture educates.

What is education for and where has it gone wrong? The basis of modern education appears to be about controlling or managing the earth. Our current education is largely based on further dominating and controlling nature, which can only be accomplished with more knowledge and technology. The author believes that this a battle we will never be able to win and that it makes more sense to learn how to change ourselves rather than trying to reshape the planet to accommodate our endless needs.

Another purpose of modern education is to prepare students for careers and give students the means for success. “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people.” We do not need more successful people in the way that our culture currently defines success. “But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.” The problem with our education is that what is good’ is not valued or nurtured or even supported. Modern education is currently defined as a basic understanding of our earth, and the quest for more information with the objective of gaining further control and management of the earth with a complete disregard for the things that will keep this planet habitable. Orr believes that education should be more focused on creating individuals that are open, loving, and connected to others and their community.

Orr offers many suggestions on how we should rethink education in the face of such crisis. He suggests that all education should be environmental. All subject matter should be presented within the context of how it influences the natural world. A second suggestion is that we should refrain from seeing education as merely mastery of facts, techniques, and information into a student’s mind. The goal of education should be the mastery of the whole person rather than the mastery of subjects. Third, he proposes that individuals should understand that knowledge carries responsibility. Individuals need to see that the knowledge that they are using or creating is used well in the world. Currently knowledge is being used for more risky things with unknown outcomes than for well thought out, responsible use. Similar to his third suggestion, a fourth states that we should not use knowledge until we know its real effects on people, the community and the natural world. Lastly, the author suggests that the way that learning actually occurs may be just as important as the content. Lecture courses may invoke passivity and dominance and may not be the best learning environment, since the learning process may be just as important as the content itself.
Orr admits that our education may not be the sole cause of these problems but education may be the best place to reverse these issues. We need not abandon formal education but we do need to make massive changes with education itself. We need to change the purpose and goals of education, the substance and presentation of knowledge, and the value we place on success while shifting success to mean “people who live well in their places.”

Orr, David W. Earth in Mind. Washington DC: Island Press, 2004.