What is the purpose of education? What exactly are we trying to achieve by sending kids to school for twelve years? Many people talk about reform, but Dr. David Orr, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, says we need to rethink our school systems altogether. Further, he sees a direct connection between how we teach children and the disastrous impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels. A pioneer in the ecological literacy movement, he believes that all education should be ecologically based, from the design of the campus to the curriculum itself.
All education is environmental education,” says Orr. “Students either learn that they are a part of or apart from the natural world.” He points out that some of the worst atrocities in modern memory, including those perpetuated in Nazi Germany, were carried out by highly educated people. “Much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination . . . and unleashes on the world minds ignorant of their own ignorance,” he says. One result is the abuse of the environment, leading to an accelerated rate of climate change.
There’s a whole lot of stuff I think we don’t need to know. The things that we do need to know are going to pertain to basics like growing food, building shelter, creating local economies that work, capturing energy.
The remedy Orr proposes would teach interrelatedness through schools that are fundamentally rooted in a sense of place. As the driving force behind the erection of Oberlin’s Lewis Center, a building described by the New York Times as “the most remarkable” of a new generation of college buildings, Orr put his ideas into action. The building is a model of sustainable design and students and faculty were included in the planning process. He spoke with SC Magazine about an education that empowers students to be creative and make decisions that enable a renewable future.
SC: You’ve said the dependency on oil is a zero sum game which encourages competition. How do you see that impacting education?
DO: I think that our civilization is different than any previous civilization because of its connection with oil and coal. On the positive side that created the civilization we have with all its benefits. It isn’t all bad. It’s what powered the medical miracles and much of what we enjoy in life.
But oil in particular was pernicious because it gave us the illusion of mobility. In our access to highways and so forth, the charm of the countryside, rural lives, rural places, urban neighborhoods, the fabric of life was surrendered in the search for velocity.
If you took fossil fuels out and took the oil out of the human fixture in the twentieth century, we would have educated people radically differently. I don’t think we would have ever made the split between liberal arts and practical arts. We’ve educated people to a very different kind of world. Fossil fuels in funny ways did permeate virtually the entire curriculum and assumptions . . . even now we assume that we’re going to have all the electricity we need to power our computers in this electronic era that we live in.
SC: In Earth in Mind you say that kids and teachers together need to be presented with real problems, not just service projects, but actual real problems and work together to solve them.
DO: We’re starting a project here in Oberlin that will involve rebuilding a pretty substantial part of the downtown. And we’re a little town of 8,500 so it’s not that big, but I think that what we can do is something of a prototype that can happen on a larger scale. As with the making of the Lewis Center, we’re going to involve kids in this, every way we possibly can. The design effort will be a lot better for it and everybody will learn from the engagement in this. The idea of civic engagement is part of urban redevelopment is not common. Typically it’s turned over to professionals who come in and the public just stands by passively and watches.
I think one proposal is to take all of the standards and tests and toss ‘em out the window and allow much greater local control of the schools. I just am not a fan of standards and testing..
SC: It seems that part of the issue is that we need to rethink education and yet the whole crop of teachers that we currently have were all educated according to the status quo. How can we go about retraining the educators themselves?
DO: The kind of people that go into teaching are some of the best people we have. They’re people who care about kids and go into it initially with a lot of idealism and a lot of energy and the system typically grinds them down. It’s pretty clear society puts priorities in building giant stadiums downtown, not in taking care of its schools. So I think we often start with some really good people who are then put in terrible situations and not rewarded nearly as much as they should be.
Having said that, I think one proposal is to take all of the standards and tests and toss ‘em out the window and allow much greater local control of the schools. I just am not a fan of standards and testing. You know there was no test that could have tested students in Plato’s academy. There’s no test that was appropriate to someone like Abraham Lincoln. I am a believer in a lot more spontaneity. I think that humans are natural learners. I don’t think you beat it into them. Kids are going to be creative.
Humans are natural learners at all levels. That’s what we do. It’s highly enjoyable. We like to solve problems. Teaching to the test has killed a lot of creativity in this country.
Taking back the power in some ways is a matter of discovering the power that we have inside ourselves. It’s the power of creativity, it’s the power of discernment, it’s the power of moral character.
I like John Taylor Gatto’s method of education. I like the sense of that – get kids out. I just had a semester in London. I taught a course there on ecological design in which we used the city as a classroom. We went places, we talked to people, we had kids out in the streets talking to people about things that pertained to design and it was a wonderful course, kids loved it. I think they learned more from that than had we been in the classrooms. They were out and about and they used the city in some highly creative ways.
There’s one other thought about this that strikes me. We used to learn a lot as kids growing up on farms or around farms or from the village blacksmith, kids learned about metal working and all sorts of practical skills that had liberal arts kind of connotations. It wasn’t just being on the farm. You learned all kinds of metaphorical thinking and practical things, and ways to relate things that appeared not to be connected. Our kids now don’t learn anything like that, in that way. That now is very rare. And I think the creativity of young people has been tragically lost. They’re instantly smart about electronic devices and almost as dumb as they are smart about practical things.
SC: What are some of the things you believe everyone should know when they graduate?
DO: In facing the realities of more expensive fossil fuels and climate change which are coming at us very quickly, there’s a whole lot of stuff I think we don’t need to know. The things that we do need to know are going to pertain to basics like growing food, building shelter, creating local economies that work, capturing energy and, in our spare time reading Shakespeare and writing poetry and doing those things that make life meaningful beyond a mere requirement to keeping body and soul together. But I think that we’re going to have to learn very quickly. We’re going to need to know or relearn a whole lot of things that we forgot. Our great-grandparents knew but we thought we’d risen beyond that.
We’re going to have to relearn that discipline and how to enjoy work, physical work again. The separation we made between liberal and vocational arts I think was a mistake. And I would hope that education in the future could rejoin those for all kinds of reasons, not just because we’re going to have to learn how to do things, but because that’s how we learn anyway.
I think our capabilities were honed by tens of thousands of years in the savannah and in forests and looking at the night sky. These are places in which we find ourselves.
SC: You mentioned that you believe every school, every college and every university needs to take a stand on terms of the climate crisis in terms of ecological literacy. Have you seen any progress on that?
DO: Yes, I think there is progress. Twenty years ago during the beginning of the green campus movement, we did food audits in places like Hendricks College and Swarthmore and St. Olaf and Carleton College. I wrote an article in Chronicle of Higher Education proposing climate neutrality as a goal for colleges and universities and that was about 1999 or 2000, and there now is an organization that got more than 500 signatures of college presidents pledging their institutions to go carbon neutral.
SC: In terms of taking back our power related to education specifically, what can individuals do?
DO: I think we have to learn what it is we’re trying to do. Are we trying to equip somebody to be a good, dependable member of the economy or to become a person of considerable stature and potential? If our goal is more to educe, or to draw forth, then I think it’s a very different kind of education and empowering. Taking back the power in some ways is a matter of discovering the power that we have inside ourselves. It’s the power of creativity, it’s the power of discernment, it’s the power of moral character. It is the power to be creative and it is the power to seize power, to make decisions.
That’s a much messier process because some people will be given the opportunity and will become destructive in the process. But the best kind of education I can think of is rather more like a combination of Buddhism and Marie Montessori. It has a lot of freedom and it has to begin early because if all of a sudden you say to kids in their sophomore year of college, “now we’re going to give you this freedom,” they won’t know how to handle it.
When it doesn’t start early that means that people like me that teach in the college level basically do a lot of remedial education and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. More often than not I think it really doesn’t work because the habits of independence and creativity and the habits of knowing what to do when you’re empowered just aren’t there.
If you took fossil fuels out and took the oil out of the human fixture in the twentieth century, we would have educated people radically differently. I don’t think we would have ever made the split between liberal arts and practical arts.
SC: ”All education is environmental education.” What does that mean exactly?
It’s the great out of doors that shaped the human mind. I can’t imagine the mind like we have emerging in an indoor setting or something like a shopping mall. And I think our capabilities were honed by tens of thousands of years in the savannah and in forests and looking at the night sky. I think that shaped our religion, our philosophy, our fears, our animosities, the heights and depths of the human character. These are places in which we find ourselves.