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individuals with the ability to understand their connection to the world around them is the fundamental characteristic of an effective environmental education. To do this successfully requires two important things: individuals that are inspired by and actively involved in the physical world around them; and institutions of learning that provide curricula delineating the individual's link to these natural systems and societies at large.
The current environmental educational system in America, for the most part, illustrates a mis-educative experience. The system is mis-educative because most learning still takes place inside a classroom. Students are not encouraged to explore their relationship with the outside world either by literally going outside or through their studies. There is little or no formal attempt to encourage students to make the connection between what they learn in mathematics, science, economics or business to other subjects or the outside world. Any learning is thus, compartmented. It is limited to knowledge of the natural world gained through study in science classes; an understanding of societies gained through sociology or history classes; and exposure to business operations, functions and principles in economics classes. American schools do not currently provide the cross-curriculum focus necessary to link all of this information together into what would be characteristic of an effective environmental education.
Although the focus on integrated studies is critical to developing ecologically literate citizens, another essential characteristic of an effective environmental education is an active and inspired student. Individuals must begin seeking knowledge more in the tradition of a Renaissance scholar than of an apprentice learning a specialized skill. In Dr. Orr states "the failure to develop ecological literacy is a sin of omission and of commission" ("Ecological Literacy" 85). Therefore, it is not just the institutions failing to provide learning models that support an ecologically literate population; it is also the weakness of the linearly thinking individual.
Dr. Orr points out that in our society, environmental decisions are made with a top down approach. In other words, it is the governments that make regulations, policies and decisions regarding what to do with various environmentally related crises. And in a democracy, the government is supposed to do the will of the people. But, he argues, the government will not change its ways without the urging of an informed citizenry. In his new book, The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics and the Environment in an Age of Terror, Dr. Orr asserts that the third of four major challenges to sustainability is informing "the public's discretion through greatly improved education" (86). Thus, the success of sustainability is linked directly to the actions of the individual. Each individual must take personal responsibility for learning more about the world around them and consequently demand support for such learning from schools.
Once individuals begin to educate themselves and take informed actions in support of ecological literacy, a successful environmental education will shift from being the sole burden of the individual to a joint effort between individuals and educational institutions. That shift will represent the first steps in developing a society that understands its link to, place and responsibility in the natural systems of the world. And ultimately it is the relationship between the individual that demands to know more about the natural systems of the world and the educational institution that provides the means for this understanding, which represents the quintessential characteristic of an effective environmental education.
Although I agree that the educational system needs improvement, I do not think it is the responsibility of institutions of higher education to compensate for the shortcomings in the development of ecological literacy their students may have suffered during their previous education. To put the burden on colleges and universities to overcome the wide gap between what students should and do know about the world around them would undermine the effectiveness of environmental education in two important ways.
First and foremost, what about people who do not go to or have never been to college? That is a significant portion of the population that will not be exposed to any education for sustainability, unless it happens during the K-12 years. How can we expect sustainability to succeed if it is only taught to college students?
Second, colleges and universities are for the most part money making businesses. As such, their successes and failures are incumbent upon the type and quality of…[continue]
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