Year 2000 Monograph Series
In our main essay, Education, Ecology and Culture: Stories From the
Margins, Gustavo Teran, who is Research Assistant Professor with the John
Dewey Project, and Gustavo Esteva, one of our colleagues in Oaxaca, Mexico,
illuminate some of the profound differences in perspective that arise when
culture becomes part of the ecological conversation. Teran and Esteva narrate
the story of what happens when Vermont students and teachers encounter
indigenous people who hold significantly different perspectives on resource
use, consumption, habitat, community, and by extension, environmental education.
Their paper highlights the importance of intercultural encounters— dialogue
and action between people who hold very different cultural myths—in our
quest to develop a more ecological, sustainable approach to living and
C.A. (Chet) Bowers, one of the foremost environmental theorists of our times, and Dewey Project Advisory Board member, has generously provided a response to our lead article in What We Can Learn from the Margins: Comments on the Insights of Teran and Esteva, a piece that highlights some of the things educators can do if they hope to inspire their students to live more ecologically sustainable lifestyles. Chet has been almost alone the past few years in the education community in trying to bring the cultural dimensions of the environmental crisis to the attention of educators and researchers. In his many books and journal articles, he speaks in a prophetic voice about the urgency of radically changing our educational focus to respond to this crisis. He will be joining us here in Vermont for our fall lecture series (see announcement on page…) to speak on the topic of eco-justice, and I urge everyone to come and hear what he has to say to us.
Martin Kemple, co-founder of Food Works, brings the conversation closer to home with his thoughts about the challenges of developing a “curriculum of place” in the modern, transient culture that Vermont has become. In From Factoids to Fairy Dust: Cultivating the Enlightened Imagination in an Age of High Stakes Accountability, he highlights the epistemological dimension of the task before us as we seek to bring about heightened environmental consciousness. A careful reading of this piece, in conjunction with the lead article, will provide some intriguing suggestions on how teachers might begin to develop curricula that is deeply connected to place, and that stimulates the mythopoetic imagination in ways alluded to by Teran and Esteva. (Martin will be co-facilitating, with Joseph Kiefer, the seminar that will accompany our fall lecture series.)
Finally, environmental educators Ann Bijur and Erica Zimmerman bring us an update on the process of creating statewide “standards” on sustainability that will take their place in the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities. Their piece highlights the important work that can be done when educators, citizens and policymakers collaborate on a vision for a sustainable future and do the hard work that needs to be done to implement change.
We at the Dewey project hope that you will find the articles in this monograph thought provoking and worthy of consideration. We welcome your comments and suggestions, and invite you to visit our website at www.uvm.edu/~dewey for information about our various initiatives and projects.
Kathleen Kesson, Director
John Dewey Project on Progressive Education
“The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.” Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World
The steep, winding path to Pico de Zarzamora at about 9000 feet in the southern range of the Sierra Madre in Oaxaca Mexico kept the group of Vermont school teachers and university students gasping for air. When our young Triqui guides stopped halfway up the mountain to point something out, everyone welcomed the break. Canec, one of the Triqui youth, pointed to a denuded line just below the top of the peak we were climbing. “There”, he said, “you can see the place where the Nauhuals of the neighboring village tried to steal our mountain.” Nahuals are powerful shaman who can transform themselves into animals or into forces of nature. In this case the invading Nahuals transformed themselves into wind and with great force attacked the mountain, trying to carry off the peak. But the Nahuals from San Andres de Chicahuaxtla, the village we were visiting, arrived in time and pushed them back. For our guides, the bare rock was testimony to the determination of this Triqui village to protect and preserve its territory. The surrounding mountains and valleys are imbued with a spiritual significance that calls forth great respect and shapes their relationship with the land. On a separate occasion Marcos Sandoval (1996), a respected leader in the village articulated this relationship:
The original people made a compact with this land in which they settled. We did not see it as private property but as a responsibility. This land is a piece of the world that was given to us to take care of so that it can give us life. We try to take care of it in every thing we do in our daily life. That is why we are pained when outsiders come to tell us that we have to exploit it. (Author’s translations) (P.40)
The entranced world that Berman describes in The Reenchantment of the World, is certainly part of the Triqui experience. For Marcos and his children and grandchildren the forested mountains and valleys that surround them are alive with nature spirits that are also human. As their ancestors before them, the Triqui are participants with nature in the life force of an enchanted world. Other indigenous communities in Oaxaca also maintain a reciprocal relationship with the mountains, rivers, forests, and animals that surround them.
Unlike many of these traditional societies, the dominant mode of thinking in the West, which Berman calls “scientific consciousness”, tends to alienate humans from their environment: “everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated ‘thing’ in a world of other, equally meaningless things”(Berman, 19). Other scholars have noted how the dominant objectivist framework that guides education in the West encourages this separation. Moreover, they raise serious questions about the extent to which this separation produces behavioral patterns that contribute to degradation of the environment and hence prolong the present ecological crisis (Bowers, 1997 ).
For the past six years faculty from the University of Vermont and the Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca have coordinated encounters and facilitated dialogue between Vermont school teachers and university students and community members of various indigenous and campesino villages in the central valleys and mountains of Oaxaca. The Triqui village of San Andres de Chicahuaxtla is one of the sites visited. For students and faculty these experiences have served to stimulate reflection on how different cultural patterns promote or hinder ecologically sustainable living. In this article we explore how these cross-cultural educational experiences may contribute, through intercultural dialogue, to a reassessment of students’ basic assumptions about their relationship to the environment in their own communities.
“Comunalidad”: Convivial Living in a Zapotec Village
The Village of Guelatao, birthplace of Benito Juarez-the only indigenous president of Mexico- is the hub of a regional cultural revival initiative that celebrates Zapotec culture. The initiative, spearheaded by a creative and innovative grassroots organization known as “Comunalidad”, strives to promote and preserve traditional ways. The director, Jaime Luna, explains that “comunalidad” is the essence of community life or convivial living. A singer and composer, Jaime usually greets our students with a song. He prefers to tell stories of his native village through song. One of his favorites–and ours as well-is a song about the Tequio. Tequio is a tradition of community work where everyone in the village-children, adults and elders- come together for a day every month to work on a village project- a road, a school building, or some need determined by the village council. Participation in the Tequio is a reflection of the villagers’ deep sense of community- people coming together, not as individuals, but as knots in a net of mutual relations with each other and with their environment. (Esteva and Prakash, 1997, 1998). Some of our groups- the lucky ones- have had a chance to participate in a tequio. The experience of “comunalidad” is a highlight of shared learning.
On a recent visit to Guelatao, Jaime was consumed by a particular issue. He was campaigning for significant changes in the way children in the village are taught in school. In his usual, hospitable way, treating us as family, Jaime shared his concern:
“Our children live in this beautiful forested mountain, surrounded by streams and rivers and forests inhabited by a great diversity of plant and animal life. These are all part of our community. Our elders know the names of every plant and animal in this forest and they know their medicinal and nutritive properties. They make use of them in their daily lives. But our children are taught about the natural environment through drawings on a black board or pictures from a textbook. Many of the plants and animals in these texts are not even native to this region. So children learn about a natural environment that is often not their own from experts who know nothing about the local environment and history, through abstract and inaccurate representations on a blackboard or textbook.”
Jaime spoke about his dreams for reconnecting education to the life of the village. He spoke of the importance of connecting childrens’ learning to the wisdom of the elders and of the land and to the language and traditions of the Zapotec people.
“The school teaches children about the environment not as a dwelling place but as a resource to be managed and exploited. And what is worse, they totally disregard the knowledge that our elders have of the geography, the traditions and the oral history that makes a place a community. Parents have been made to feel irrelevant and unneeded in the education of their children. They have been urged to transfer all responsibility for education to “knowledge experts” who devalue the traditional knowledge of the elders. We have tolerated this for too long. I am taking advantage of a provision in the new education law that calls for the participation of parents and community members in curricular decisions. We will insist that teachers teach about our local environment, about the history of our community; our geography and plant and animal life. What is more, we will insist that parents accompany teachers and students on field trips. Parents will ask “really, can we do that?’ and I will say, “yes of course, this is our school”.
Jaime’s concerns are echoed in other communities throughout Oaxaca. In the small and remote village of San Andres de Chicahuaxtla, Marcos Sandoval and his brother Fausto have also been working to break down the walls that separate learning from the life of the community.
Triquis: People of the Complete Word
The small village of San Andres de Chicahuaxtla is nestled among cloud covered peaks of the Sierra Madre del Sur. The Triqui people are a relatively small ethnic group- about 15000 total, compared to 380,000 Zapotecs. Chicahuaxtla, however, has no more than 2000 inhabitants. As many other native groups in Oaxaca, the Triqui have a strong sense of identity that is connected to community, place and tradition. In this context it is important to note the crucial significance of the Triqui language to their way of relating to each other and to their surroundings. Linguist Hollenbach (in Alcantara, 1998) notes that the Triqui language is very rich in expressions of facts and situations related to nature, family and internal organization of the group. Furthermore, they have almost no words that denote abstract concepts. All their words are related to concrete and specific situations they encounter in their daily lives. The close connection between language and their ways of relating to each other and to their surroundings is perhaps reflected in what they call themselves, qui ami naj ni in, people of the complete word.
Language is so important in maintaining their culture that many Triqui parents have insisted on the development of Triqui language texts for primary school. Fausto has worked incessantly to create, test and implement the use of such texts in Triqui schools. As with the Zapotec community of Guelatao, the Triqui have demanded that the curriculum incorporate local culture, history and geography. But this has not been an easy process. School administrators and teachers are often resistant to these demands. They don’t see it as part of their responsibility. From a practical standpoint, most teachers are not from the community and don’t know the indigenous language. Opposition, however, also comes from some parents who worry that instruction in Triqui will take time away from learning Spanish, which they feel is important to learn in order to stem the discrimination that they as Indians, have suffered. But schooling or not, the elders of the community continue to teach the young the language, the culture and their place in the world through their daily work and through stories that highlight spiritual dimensions of nature, community and place.
Despite the valiant efforts of leaders like Jaime, Marcos and Fausto, many communities continue to struggle against a liberal establishment that persists in delivering them, against their will, from their traditions and local ways of knowing. The public school here, as in other places, serves as the savior who would deliver children from their backwardness. To effectively carry out this modern missionary duty, schools separate children from the life of the village. They construct in the heart of the village a space closed off and made safe from village life. Many Indian leaders believe that ultimately schools cannot be reformed and that the best solution is to create learning opportunities in local spaces with parents, friends and community interacting in the learning process. In Chiapas, the neighboring state where the Zapatistas have regained control of some of their villages, Mayan communities have closed schools and driven teachers out. In Chicahuaxtla they are not closing schools, but they are going around them, creating learning opportunities outside schools. The Triqui are creating alternatives to education rather than alternative education.
It is unlikely that Mexican schools will be dismantled in the near future. Luckily, children in traditional villages such as Guelatao and Chicahuaxtla are not so far removed from their traditional roots that schooling succeeds in making them feel alienated from community and place. In spite of schools, children continue to learn, with parents and elders, about their natural environment and traditional ways. They practice and learn another way of being and knowing outside of school, in the community.
We have seen that there are people in government and outside who are trying to understand us; but they are few. We also see that they have a hard time understanding and accepting that there are other ways of conceiving the world and of organizing one’s life on this planet. And it seems that what is even more difficult for them is to accept the idea that those cultures which they consider illiterate and ignorant can have ways of relating that are more humane, more just, and more wise; and even that they might learn something from them. That is something that they seldom get. (Author’s translation). Marcos Sandoval, Coloquio sobre derecos indigenas.
While the differences across the cultural groups visited are often quite
striking, students nevertheless, are able to identify several common characteristics
that most indigenous
groups share. Students notice that in almost all the villages visited an incredibly strong sense of community prevails. These strong community ties are maintained through elaborate civil and religious ceremonies that call for the participation of every man, woman and child. The Tequio that Jaime Luna sings about is a good example. Moreover, the sense of community is clearly grounded in a specific place, a commons “that belongs to them and that they belong to” (Esteva, 1998). Daily life revolves around concrete connections not only to each other but also to the land and the natural environment that surrounds them. The sense of conviviality and mutual respect is palpable. Students often comment that it is a feeling of connection that they seldom experience in their own communities. In U.S. culture, they point out, the individual is more important than the community. Indeed, many students don’t feel that they have a community. Generally, teachers or those preparing to be teachers return to Vermont somewhat confused about what to do to connect education in their schools to community. For the most part, connection to community and the environment is not part of their teacher preparation or teaching experience.
Another aspect of village life that students find fascinating is the sense of spirituality that pervades the community. This mythopoetic dimension (Bowers, 1997; Kesson, 1999), manifested in the story of the Nahuals in Chicahuaxtla, provides a context for people’s lives. It is what Kathleen Kesson (1999) calls the “astral realm”:
“To shamans, mystics, artists, poets, dreamers, and so-called ‘primitive people’…the astral realm is a psychic zone of mystery, magic, myth, ancestors, and wandering spirits. ..It is the domain of the unconscious from which we modern Western people have become effectively split. To many modern people, it is a chaotic and dangerous region inhabited by sensation, emotion, image, imagination, dream, fantasy, intuition, desire, passion and the creative spirit- not the stuff of pure reason, logical analysis, or the public school curriculum.” (P. 86).
Students find life in a village like Guelatao or Chicahuaxtla worderous, mysterious and fascinating. But along with this there is also the sensation of danger and chaos that Kesson refers to. Sometimes they even react to situations, like the lack of punctuality or clarity about schedules, with annoyed or condescending expressions. They want to make sense of things on their own terms, to analyze things in the logical, rational way they have been taught. When asked about plans for the day, Marcos Sandoval often responds: “we don’t make plans here in Chicahuaxtla, we merely manage chaos.” What happens next is always dependent on a multiplicity of factors that are not under anyone’s control and that change throughout the day.
Associated with mythopoetic narratives is the importance of elders in the community. Elders are the sources of wisdom and moral authority that connect past to the present. Jaime Luna made reference to the need to reinstate the authority of elders within the school. He also pointed out that while they have been excluded from participation in formal education, the elders continue to play a significant role outside the school, where most learning takes place. An oral tradition, rich in expressions for relationships between people, their natural environment and the spiritual world, gives meaning and coherence to childrens’ lives. As Marcos puts it, “We have not needed to go to the university to learn the rules of life, we learn them from the time we are children and we all know what is right and what is not” (personal conversation).
Our students take many other lessons gleaned from the richness of intercultural encounters. The significance of language in the constructions of “reality”, the importance of scale in living, the spiritual vitality of the earth itself- these and more are gleaned from cross-cultural experiences that engage students in daily lives of people. Whether or not students accept Zapotec or Triqui beliefs and values is not as important as the realization that they too have cultural myths that guide their actions. Until we in the West are aware of our cultural myths and question their relevance for today’s problems we will continue to apply Band-Aid solutions to our most pressing problems.
The gravity of the ecological crisis requires that our educational system confront the question of what it means to educate future citizens for ecological sustainability. The response to environmental degradation has been to create political and institutional bodies that better regulate amounts of industrial wastes or to seek out new technologies that reduce the impact of the ever increasing toxic chemicals spewed into the atmosphere, oceans and land. Yet evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse. This approach fails to attack the problem at its source. Transformational change will come about only when we, as a society, look deep into the cultural basis of our actions; when we reassess the core beliefs and values that guide our actions (Bowers, 1993, Smith and Williams, 1999). It is difficult, however, to see one’s own cultural myths- those taken-for-granted assumptions that guide our thinking and our actions. The best way to help students discover and reflect on their cultural assumptions- their biases- is to engage learners in meaningful dialogue and action with others who have different myths (Panikkar, 1995, Vachon, 1995).
The enchanted world that Berman describes is not a vision of the past.
Our university students have glimpsed a little of the “mythopoetic imagination”
that shapes the stories that Triqui and Zapotec communities tell their
children. The narratives told and lived in many of these communities reveal
a more ecologically sustainable approach to living than the consumerist
culture of the West. Yet, this non-western way of knowing is not given
much status in Western societies and is therefore excluded from the curriculum
in most schools and universities (Bowers, 1997; Kesson, 1999). Societies
not oriented by Western notions of development and progress have been perceived
as poor and backward. In present political and economic terms they are
considered marginal, with little or nothing to contribute to the modern
world. Our experience in Oaxaca has been that many indigenous communities
are more in tune with their natural surroundings than are people in industrialized
countries and therefore more sensitive to the health of the environment
and the possible futures of the world. Our students have discovered that
a view from the margins can broaden our perspectives and open our minds
to possibilities not imagined by the western narratives of progress and
economic prosperity. We can only hope that some of the stories told by
Marcos and Jaime and the elders of Chicahuaxtla and Guelatao will make
their way to the classrooms of Vermont and beyond.
Alcantara,C.H.Durand. (1998). Derecho Nacional, Derechos Indios y Derecho
Consuetudinario Indigena. Los Triquis de Oaxaca, un estdio de caso. Mex.
D.F.: Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana.
Berman, Morris (19 ) The Reenchantment of the World.
Bowers, C.A. (1997). The Culture of denial. Why the environmental movement needs a strategy for reforming universities and public schools. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash (1997). Grassroots postmodernism: Beyond human rights, the individual self, and the global economy. New York: Peter Lang.
Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash (1998). Escaping Education. Living as learning within grassroots cultures. New York: Peter Lang.
Instituto Oaxaqueno de la Cultura (1996). Coloquio Sobre Derechos Indigenas.Oaxaca
Kesson, Kathleen 1999. Toward a curriculum of mythopoetic meaning. In Undersanding Democratic Curriculum Leadership. NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Panikkar, Raimon. 1995. Invisible Harmony. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Smith, Gregory A. and Dilafruz R.Williams (1999). Ecological education in action. On weaving education, culture and the environment. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Vachon, R. 1995. Gusguenta or the intercultural imperative: Towards a reenacted peace accord between the Mohawk nation and the North American nation states. Interculture. XXVIII (2), Spring 1995, Issue 127, 1-73.
|Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist, a journalist and co-author
of Escaping Education. Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures
and Grassroots Post-Modernism.Remaking the soil of Cultures. Esteva
lives in Oaxaca, Mexico where he directs the Center for Intercultural Encounters
and Dialogue (CEDI).
Gustavo A. Teran is Research Assistant Professor with the John Dewey Project and an Associate with CEDI. Teran has taught courses and facilitated educational and cultural exchanges between Vermont and Oaxaca for the past six years.
What We Can Learn from the Margins: Comments on the
Teran and Esteva
C. A. Bowers
The last chapter in my 1993 book, Critical Essays on Education, Modernity,
and the Recovery of the Ecological Imperative, has the sub-title “What
Urban Teachers can Learn from Traditional Cultures.” I deliberately
juxtaposed the perspectives of urban teachers and traditional cultures
because of the widespread belief that the primary goals of education are
to prepare students to become self-directing, economically independent,
and free from traditions that stand in the way of change. Challenging
these goals on the grounds that they contribute to the ecological crisis,
as well as represent a reductionist understanding of tradition, led to
the charge that I was giving comfort to ultra conservatives and that I
had fascist leanings (Birnbaum, 1996; Bowers, 1996). The vitriolic
nature of the response to my suggestion that traditional cultures may have
some of the answers of how to live less ecologically destructive lives
suggests the degree of difficulty that modern thinkers have in recognizing
the problematic assumptions upon which the myths of individualism and progress
A more typical response, which I have encountered over and over, is the
formulaic argument that we cannot go back in time, and that suggesting that we can learn from traditional cultures is the expression of romantic thinking. If I had read the article by Gustavo Teran and Gustavo Esteva before writing the chapter I could have strengthened my argument with richer and more compelling examples of traditional cultures that possess wisdom of fundamental relationships that few of the most highly educated urban teachers have encountered. This wisdom, which has developed and been refined over generations of experience, is that the quality of life, both in its material and spiritual dimensions, is dependent upon communities carrying forward intergenerational knowledge of ceremonies, technologies adapted to the characteristics of the bio-region, networks of mutual aid and solidarity, and the narratives that connect identities to the community of memory. Some urban teachers may have lived their early years in rural settings and within relatively intact communities. But the urban environment reinforces a profoundly different mind-set—one that takes for granted technologically based changes in an already artificial environment, that most relationships are centered on monetized activities, and that individuals have to look after their own interests. While friends and neighbors might form short-lived communities, the relationships lack the depth of moral reciprocity that characterize the Zapotec and Trique communities described by Teran and Esteva. Unless they are members of minority cultures, urban teachers also have a different sense of temporality: that is, how they experience themselves within the continuum of time. Their modern way of experiencing time involves being oriented toward the immediate present and a future that is closed or open in terms of possibilities—depending upon class and ethnic membership. Traditions, even the ones they reenact, take for granted, and thus do not recognize as traditions, are thought of in terms of holidays; otherwise they are what modern people leave behind as they move into the future.
It is interesting to compare how the widespread use of computers in classrooms reinforces the essential characteristics of the modern urban mind-set. Instead of embodied experience in natural settings, computers present data and abstract visual representations. Face-to-face communities are replaced by chat-rooms and other forms of electronic communities where personal histories are largely unknown (and may be fabricated) and where accountability is a matter of subjective judgment. Even the most basic human experiences, thinking and communicating, become commodified, thus requiring that one’s income is sufficient to cover the cost of a continual series of technological upgrades.
Teran and Esteva bring out the basic tensions between education as a modernizing project, and the efforts of indigenous cultures to preserve the traditions essential to their form of community and identity. While their article is primarily focused on the right of self-determination of traditionally oriented cultures, they make several references to an issue that is taking on increasing significance: namely, that the traditions of these cultures represent alternatives to the consumer dependent society and thus have a smaller ecological footprint. The modernizing project of using the classroom to emancipate the younger generation from the traditions of their communities has always been problematic in terms of social justice issues. Now it is problematic for reasons connected with the rapidly deteriorating condition of natural systems. Urban teachers can learn much from the cultures nestled in the mountains of Oaxaca, and the special challenge will be to adapt what they learn to the special multicultural characteristics of urban classrooms.
As pointed out earlier, Teran and Esteva are describing cultures that are attempting to avoid being drawn into consumer lifestyle that requires the modern form of individualism, a money economy, and an industrial system of production that devalues most skills learned in mentoring relationships. Consumerism is kept in check by networks of interdependence that connect generations, as well as the community with the environment. And these cultures view schools as promoting the value of abstract knowledge over local knowledge, and thus as attempting to integrate their children into a modern economy that will leave them further impoverished. This tension between relatively self-sufficient communities and a consumer dependent, environmentally destructive lifestyle suggest the nature of reforms urban teachers need to introduce into their classrooms.
Admittedly, urban teachers face tremendous pressures to prepare students for a lifestyle increasingly being determined by the interests of corporate culture. The tensions resulting from ethnic differences, poverty, and unstable families further add to the challenges that urban teachers face. And while most urban teachers only encounter the abstract, print based accounts of the deepening ecological crisis caused by the massive changes in the chemistry of the Earth’s natural systems, and thus tend to discount its importance, it is becoming the most important challenge of all-and the most difficult to address because modern technologies are able to create the appearance of over abundance of consumer goods. Yet the answer to how to introduce classroom reforms that address all of these challenges, including the ecological crisis, can partly be found in the reasons behind the Zapotec and Trique preferences for community over the modern lifestyle of consumer and technological dependency. But this should not be interpreted as saying that urban teachers should reproduce the traditions of these cultures in their classrooms.
Rather, the challenge for urban teachers is to help students learn about the networks of mutual aid and non-commodified relationships within the communities of the diverse cultures represented in the classrooms. Who are the elders and what can be learned from them? Who are the mentors and how can long-term relationships with them help students discover latent talents and interests? What are the non-commodified activities and relationships within the students’ neighborhoods that will give them a sense of participation in community—thus reinforcing their sense of self-worth and the experience of moral reciprocity? What are the service activities that students can participate in? In what ways are urban students dependent upon the viability of natural systems, and how can students change everyday patterns that reduce their impact on these systems? Part of the teacher¹s responsibility is to help students develop a critical awareness of why face-to-face and intergenerationally connected networks within communities have low-status, as well as to help students clarify the gains and losses connected with the industrial system of production and consumption. But beyond these more classroom centered activities, there is a need for students to observe the many forms of commodified relationships that occur in their neighborhoods and to identify what people do as members of networks of mutual aid, mentors, and storytellers. In a sense, what is being suggested here is that students should learn to be street ethnographers as a first step to learning the range of non-commoditized activities that they can participate in. They also need to learn about the cultural groups most impacted by the locations of toxic chemicals, and how to organize politically in ways that lead to changes. And as they share their findings with other students they will be learning about cultural differences as well as the importance of intergenerational knowledge to maintaining less consumer dependent lifestyles.
The article by Teran and Esteva reminds us that the renewal of community is the primary issue we face. As teachers begin to reorient their curricula in this direction, they will be less complicit in reinforcing the form of consciousness and dependencies that powerful elites are attempting to globalize-and which are not ecologically sustainable.
Birnbaum, Shira. 1995. "The Ideological Roots of C. A. Bowers¹s Environmental Education." The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies. Vol. 17. No. 4. pp. 411-420.
Bowers, C. A. 1996. "The Practice of Friend/Enemy Politics: A Response to
Birnbaum." The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies. Vol. 18. No. 3. pp.
A Vermont Perspective
From Factoids to Fairy Dust: Cultivating the Enlightened Imagination
in an Age of High Stakes Accountability
-by Martin T. Kemple
Co-founder, Food Works
By measure it was word and note
The wind the wind was meant to be
A little through the lips and throat
The aim was song the wind could see.
Nearing the end of another
long, mostly wintry school year here in the Green Mountains, the usual
throngs of children were feeling anxious to set aside their schoolbooks
this early June and head outdoors for their class field trip: that annual
pilgrimage into the local woods and meadows to romp, explore and forage.
The third grade teacher at my daughter's school asked me if I would volunteer to lead a group of students on a walking tour into the nearby city park to help them identify, touch, taste and learn about some of the herbs, flowers and wild grasses that live here. Though I'm no expert on indigenous plants, I know how to tell a good story, and so I enlisted the help of an herbalist friend to take charge of the plant identification part
of the assignment and we set out to the park together to take on the world.
For my day-job, I work at a small educational non-profit firm called Food Works, whose mission is to transform public schools into lifelong community education centers by focusing curriculum on the local natural and cultural heritage. We started out back in 1988 facilitating school gardening projects, on the premise that growing their own food works to put kids back in touch with the natural rhythms of the seasons and to bring the community into schools in recovering the lost wisdom of our ancient history living off of the land. After years of modest success, we've begun to take off recently as we've figured out how to adapt this so-called place-based curriculum to meet state learning standards that have increasingly come to dominate the educational agenda of so many school districts around Vermont, and across the country.
LEARNING A SENSE OF PLACE
Making these highflying ideals actually work out in the field, however, has proven to be no small task. Settling into a tight circle on the crest of a hill overlooking Montpelier in the heart of the city's 150-acre Hubbard Park, our group of garrulous nine year-olds seemed more eager to tease each other and chatter about last night's TV shows than to quietly examine the buds of false lilies of the valley or chew the leaves of plantains to make a poultice for cuts. Simply calming down a gang of kids who hadn't been let outside all year to follow their own curiosity was going to be the first major hurdle of this outing.
The whole group became instantly captivated, though, when I passed around a book about fairies that I had pulled off of a shelf on my way out of the house that morning, including vivid color photographs of these enchanting nature spirits in their native habitats from the Australian outback to the Catskill Mountains. Newly enraptured, the children were filled with questions first about the photographs' authenticity, and then
about the magical lives of these mysterious sprites.
How big are they? Where do they sleep? What do they like to eat? Are they real? How do people know about them? I tried to be as truthful as I knew how without at the same time squashing their sense of awe with my clinician's reasonable deliberateness.
"We learn about fairies from stories," I told their eager eyes. "People find out who they are, what they like, and how they live from the stories that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents have told them down through the ages. It's the legends that keep the fairies--"
"Do any live around here?" Kelli asked.
I anxiously scratched the bottom of my chin.
"Well, yes and no," I said. "First of all, people around here don't tell stories about them anymore so we don't know who the fairies are or where they live or what they like to do. And more, to see them, you have to use your imagination. And these days most people don't really believe that imagination, or dreams, are real, or at least they think that
they're not very important. Certainly not as important as, as--"
"Reality," said Hannah.
"Right. But people around the world who live near these fairies and who tell stories about them believe that our imagination and dreams ARE reality. In fact, they think that imagination is more real than this, than us talking here right now."
We all thought about that for a minute. It seemed to sink in.
I told the group that by learning from the herbs and flowers that are among us here, we could awaken our imaginations again and start to live in the inner world of nature that these fairies live in.
They liked this idea.
"I knew fairies were real!" Chris squealed.
But the first thing we have to do, I said, eyeing each one carefully, is find out more about each other. So for the next several minutes, we went around the circle and took turns introducing ourselves, telling our birthplace, our family situation, our favorite flower, our favorite thing to do, and so on.
By the time these world-savvy children had all gone around, the enormity of the challenge before us had at last become brutally apparent to me. Listening to their long and varied life stories, I realized with discomforting alarm that not one of us-- including myself, including their teacher and including my herbalist friend-- had been born within 100 miles of the hillside we were now sitting on. We were from southern Vermont and
Portland, Maine and Auburn, Massachusetts and Pittsburgh and San Diego and Syracuse. And in sad irony, we or our families had left all those places to find here what had been missing from our lives there: a sense of place, of belonging.
No wonder that this brave new world had seemed so dead to nature's magic and the enchantment of mystical fairies! None of us grew up with the stories and legends of these streams and valleys and ponds and mountains that make them come alive to our imaginations. And undoubtedly these stories aren't being taught in school; or on the Disney Channel.
Poet Gary Snyder has said that the most courageous act that a person can take in this transient modern world is to simply stay in one place. Educator and writer Wes Jackson, reflecting on the primal human impulse to foster common memories by developing a working knowledge of a specific geographic region over time, speaks about the urgent need for us uprooted peoples to learn once more how to "become native to this place,"
these towns and boroughs and cities and neighborhoods that we have chosen to settle in and call home.
But in addition to schools focusing on this crucial sense of place (which so many teachers across Vermont are now so enthusiastically doing), I believe we need to undertake an even more monumental task if we are to awaken ourselves to the true potential of our species on this planet. That task is this: to turn inward and transform our very habits of thinking and perceiving the world that have apparently severed us from our own intuitive sense of enchantment and wonder.
TOWARD AN ENLIGHTENED IMAGINATION
We cannot underestimate the depth of the challenge that we as a society are facing as we train the next generation to keep pace with the ever-changing global information economy at whatever cost to the integrity of our communities, our collective imagination, and our sense of awe for the natural world of which we are an essential part. Having known and worked extensively with administrators, teachers, school board members and
parents on systemic school change across Vermont, I have become convinced that however valiant our efforts to reform public schools through comprehensive curriculum redevelopment or district-wide strategic planning or even the adaptation of new state learning standards on sustainability and sense of place (all accomplishments that we have achieved in Vermont over the past two years alone), our efforts are futile unless and until
there is a fundamental belief in and widespread commitment to what Rudolph Steiner called the "enlightened imagination."
Enlightened imagination: This refers not to mere flights of fancy or idle fantasy, but a higher faculty of thinking that draws from our in-born powers of intuition to allow us reliable and credible insight into the unseen realms that govern our everyday lives. Based on our lived experience looking into ourselves and the natural world, we can use enlightened imagination to gain a deep understanding of the images, symbols
and archetypes shaping the material world that us moderns call reality. This is what philosophers, sages, scholars and scientists from Socrates to Shakespeare and from Goethe to Einstein call authentic learning. It is as deeply rooted in the so-called Western tradition as is empirical science and deductive reasoning. Yet it is a branch of our heritage that has been mostly left to whither and die in favor of a materialist rationalism that assumes that the physical world is the sole source of truth and reality.
Yet what is it that gives our lives a genuine sense of purpose and meaning? How do we methodically explore and cultivate those wellsprings of the spirit so as to enrich our lives, individually and collectively? And shouldn't this be the central question of our educational experiences ("educe"-- to draw out)?
Where do we start in becoming familiar with and conversant in this inspired state of mind called enlightened imagination? By employing our imaginative faculties in a conscious and deliberate fashion, we are in fact diving into the very realms of symbol and language, of truth and beauty, wherein lies meaning itself.
Far beyond mere critical reasoning, we use this special faculty whenever we aim to compose a poem or sing a song or make up a story. We engage it when we dream or wonder or fall in love or marvel at a sunset. We surrender ourselves to it when we happen to pause beside a churning brook or a restless ocean and listen dreamily to the mesmerizing sound of water cascading endlessly through the ebb and flow of gravity's perennial pull. We inhabit this world should we find ourselves alone outdoors just
at twilight and a strong wind suddenly rises through the trees stirring a long-forgotten memory. We summon it when we try to decipher a sonnet or have a sudden revelation about our past or gain an insight into our relationship with a loved one.
There is something whole and complete and healing about the imaginative realm. It does not suffer the usual fragmentation and compartmentalization that rational thinking favors nor can it be measured through graded report cards or quantified through high stakes accountability. It seems to come from the whole, from our innate sense of
the world as being one.
INTO THE NEXT FRONTIER
So how do we go forward from here in a larger cultural environment seemingly obsessed solely with the task of training students to become proficient in an established body of knowledge and technical skills? With teachers, principals and superintendents feeling increasing pressure to yield results through high student scores on standardized tests developed by panels and commissions of national experts, how could we ever hope to squeeze time into our already badly overburdened schedules to take unsupervised flights into the enlightened imagination?
While the programmatic answers to these daunting questions still seem far from the visible horizon right now, nearly everyone would acknowledge that growing numbers of teachers, administrators and teacher educators are consciously turning their attention inward to systematically examine and transform their own habits of thinking and learning. Professionally through in-service workshops and courses as well as in our
own personal practices, more of us are discovering how to cultivate and rely on our intuitive sense of the world, free from any external sanction, as our guide for understanding and navigating the inherent ambiguities of the manifest world. Encouraged not just by New Age books, wellness programs and holistic psychotherapies but by a growing awareness that the next phase of our evolution as a species depends on this kind of non-linear imagination-based thinking, more and more of us are aiming to fully internalize long-established intuitive methods and practices into our
professional work and our everyday lives.
Our deeper challenge as educators, however, is not simply to learn how to develop and use this faculty of thinking in the day-to-day world, but to cultivate an intuitively-driven, imagination-inspired culture of learning in our classrooms, our meeting rooms, our board rooms and our family rooms. This means deliberately building into our communities and school year seasonal rituals and culminating celebrations such as May
Festivals, Harvest Dinners, Potlatches and mid-winter potlucks. It means incorporating thanksgiving ceremonies and silent prayers of gratitude into our spring planting and harvest events. It means hearing and retelling the stories of the land and the seasons that the elders and Native peoples have passed down for generations. And it means collectively acknowledging the sacredness of all life-- here and now-- past, present and yet to come.
Thus we continue apace with our programmatic reforms: receiving Eisenhower Grants to conduct teacher mentorship graduate courses focusing on ongoing assessment of student learning in place-based curriculum; spearheading the 18-school Vermont Rural Partnership to help schools develop a comprehensive curriculum of place that spans the disciplines; facilitating three-credit teacher education courses on how to make schoolyard habitats and community-based service learning the centerpiece of a schoolwide curriculum.
MONTPELIER CENTER FOR SUSTAINABILITY
But we feel even more compelled now to focus our energy here in central Vermont to create our own local sanctuary for cultivating personal practices and professional pedagogies which can nourish our enlightened imagination in synchrony with the natural environment. Earlier this year, Food Works joined forces with a local solar energy firm to begin designing a Montpelier Center for Sustainability, a research and demonstration site developing ecological models in agriculture, land use and energy systems for the surrounding community as well as for educators and visitors from outside our region.
The mission of this center is to develop and demonstrate workable, time-honored methods for harmonizing our habits of thinking, teaching, learning and living with the rhythms of the natural world. With a special emphasis on accommodating pre-service teachers as well as area students and families, we are designing this first-of-its kind facility to foster the intuitive, holistic consciousness that the contemporary public school
system has thus far been reluctant to openly encourage.
It was Plutarch who said centuries ago: "Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire." Our hope is that by offering workable alternatives in imagination-based, ecological education targeted for both local children and new teachers from around the U.S. and the wider world, this ambitious initiative will contribute some of the
cultural and institutional kindling so needed to feed the flames of enlightened imagination that are quietly burning not only in our small community here in central Vermont, but across the country and around the globe.
Yet alas, our most worldly aspirations leave us decidedly ambivalent, wondering aloud if our designs for these gorgeous palaces and magnificent temples, these cloud-capped towers, are mere chimeras, insubstantial pageants fading into air, into thin air. Amid so many fine-tuned projects and well-planned programs undertaken in this too
fleeting sensory world, we remain cognizant all the while that the real source of change, and of meaning, lies within, within us all, together.
The author wishes to thank John Wires and Joseph Kiefer for contributing
to this essay.
Ecological Education in Action distinguishes itself from other books
on environmental education by its commitment to examining environmental
education as a cultural practice. Its overall purpose is to “challenge
taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about our relationship with nature”,
and to encourage teachers “to take action toward crafting an ecologically
sustainable form of living through education” (p.1). An edited
book, it brings together in one place the best thinking of some of our
most notable thinkers in the field of environmental education, including
David Orr, Madhu Suri Prakash, Gregory Cajete, and Peter Corcoran.
Noted contributors Dilafruz Williams, Stephanie Kaza, Gregory Smith, and
Chet Bowers will all be featured speakers in this fall’s lecture series
Education, Culture and the Environment, sponsored by the John Dewey Project
at the University of Vermont.
The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with K-12 settings. This section includes an excellent lead article entitled Stories from our Common Roots, by Vermont’s own Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple, which documents their efforts to reconnect Vermont schools with local traditional knowledge and the natural heritage of their local communities. As in many of the other chapters, the voices and experiences of practitioners figure prominently in this narrative. Other chapters in this section deal with an ecological approach to the teaching of natural science, action/education projects in ecological literacy, community service, and ecological children’s literature.
Section II looks at efforts in colleges, universities and in non-formal educational settings to impart new perspectives on the environment to older students. Stephanie Kaza, of the University of Vermont, writes about her efforts in her interdisciplinary courses to assist undergraduate students in recognizing the scope of the environmental crisis, while leading them from despair to an understanding of the power they have to effect change. Other chapters deal with developing an ecological approach to teacher education, working with place-based memory as a way of reconnecting with the environment, architectural design, and the characteristics of indigenous education. It is an eclectic mix of topics, and every educator concerned with our environmental future is sure to find something in this collection to resonate with.
The authors in this collection do not shy away from the controversial political dimension of environmental education. To answer critics who may charge that environmental education is “too political”, Smith and Williams note that “all education…inevitably takes some moral point of view—whether it is promoting the values of the market and technology or values premised on the maintenance of caring relationships with other people and the earth” (p. 16). The educational efforts outlined in this book all demonstrate, in different ways, what it might mean to develop an educational ethic grounded in a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all life. We can take hope from the notion that educators such as these working in thousands of communities both here and in other countries, will in time create a critical mass of people committed to the notion of sustainability. Reading this book is an invitation into just such a future.
According to CNP, “education for sustainability promotes an understanding of the interconnectedness of the economy, environment, and society, and pursues a balance among them. It promotes a discussion and debate on a vision of sustainability among all members of society… EFS is a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the commitment to engage in responsible individual and cooperative actions. These actions will help ensure an environmentally and economically sound future.”
The partners’ educational programs had long been well received by teachers and students, but the consortium wondered if the Framework, based largely on national standards, represented the skills and knowledge that Vermonters’ most valued. This was a pressing concern given Vermont’s commitment to maintaining its unique natural and cultural heritage while creating a sustainable future.
As Megan Camp, who helped convene CNP, described, “The Framework provides a focus for education. It sets out the challenges and opportunities for educators… We wanted to build on the legacy of the Common Core (the pre-cursor to the Framework) in honoring and respecting the voice of Vermonters’ in setting out the goals and content of education.”
As a result, CNP convened a series of community forums across the state to gather diverse perspectives on the skills and knowledge Vermonters saw as essential to creating a sustainable future. Over 350 people participated in the forums. CNP partners then analyzed the results and compared them to the skills and knowledge identified by the Framework.
Many themes emerged from the focus groups that Vermonters feel are important skills and knowledge that students need to live sustainably in the 21st century, such as communication and problem-solving, knowledge of ecology, and conflict resolution. Most of these themes were already represented in Vermont’s Framework, but several concepts were identified that were not well represented. Of this new information, some ideas were not appropriate for all Vermont students to learn and therefore not suitable for inclusion in the Framework. To incorporate the remaining ideas, a CNP committee worked with its constituencies to draft amendments to the Framework. As a result, one new standard was written, Understanding Place, and the current Environment standard was renamed Sustainability and rewritten with a broader focus.
These amendments were presented to the public at a hearing in September of 1999. Many people voiced support for the standards and provided suggestions for improvement. Final revisions were presented to the State Board of Education at their October meeting. The Board recommended postponing the decision to provide more opportunity for review from the scientific community and the Vermont Superintendents Association. Over the next several months, revisions were made to ensure that the standards are scientifically valid and present unbiased information. These final revisions were accepted by the State Board of Education in March 2000:
3.9 Sustainability: Students make decisions that demonstrate understanding
of natural and human communities, the ecological, economic, political,
or social systems within them, and awareness of how their personal and
collective actions affect the sustainability of these interrelated systems.
4.6 Understanding Place: Students demonstrate understanding of the relationship between their local environment and community heritage and how each shapes their lives.
Vermont should be heralded as the first state to have a standard specifically
addressing sustainability, but it must remind others that this standard
was not designed to be used in isolation. When integrating sustainability
into Vermont’s classrooms, it is necessary to use standards from many different
areas, not just the revised standards, since sustainability is an interdisciplinary
concept. To this end, CNP has started a new project, Making Connections,
providing professional development for teachers in education for sustainability
and standards-based teaching. For more information, please contact Erica
Zimmerman or Anne Bijur at 802-985-8686, ext. 31 or email@example.com.