July 31, 2011 by sgoobie
Think of your own schooling experience.
At school, what did you learn about Nature? How did you learn it? How was your learning accessed? What did you implicitly absorb about the world from the day-to-day routines of schooling outside of the prescribed curriculum – from the tables and chairs in rows, from the concrete walls, the rows of lockers, the stern glance of teachers? Most importantly, why do you think your schooling experience was designed in this way?
“School” is a generic term, denoting an incredible diversity of existing configurations. Primary, junior high, secondary, public, private, independent, charter, boarding, outdoor, alternative, parochial, traditional, urban, rural, international: an exhaustive list would prove challenging to compile. Schools in Canada are not the same as schools in Kenya, nor is any one schooling system the same as the next system within a country. Any attempt then to construct a statement like Schools are X risks overgeneralization. In all discussions caution needs to be exercised not to overlook the existing diversity of approaches to schooling.
Nevertheless, various authors and thinkers look for trends in the historical origins of the “present educational paradigm” 1 and in the dominant ways of thinking found operating in many Western-model schools.
For many, schools have remained “intractably modernist” even as society continues to change and as modernist assumptions fall into question, especially among scholarly critics 2. Schools are described as “thoroughly modernist institutions”; similarly, schools have been labelled “quintessentially ‘industrial era’ organizations” 3. They are described as “technocratic, Enlightenment, and anthropocentric” institutions 4, 5. Having evolved from the nineteenth century as institutions for mass education, schools operate in order to transmit basic knowledge and skills and “maintain existing social conditions and relations.” “Put simply,” writes educational researcher Stevenson, “their intended function was not to promote social change or reconstruction.” Instead schools have an intended function to uphold the culture of modernity that co-evolved with the Industrial Revolution 6. The UN International Conference on Environmental Education in Ahmedabad in 2007 found that schooling “the world-over” can be traced back to the Enlightenment era in the modern age. From the perspective of these authors, the “present educational paradigm” appears to have its deepest roots firmly in the heavily tilled soils of modernity.
If these claims are accurate, what exactly makes schools predominantly modernist? According to some, schools are seen as primarily concerned with matters of reason and rationality as hallmarks of understanding, with the empirical world, economism, and “knowing” the world in the sense of collecting scientific information. Additionally, writes researcher Giroux, public schools have long relied upon moral, political, and social technologies that legitimate an abiding faith in the Cartesian tradition of rationality, progress, and history. “The consequences are well known… The effects reach deep into the structure of public schooling” 8. The authors cited seem to agree that it is this emphasis on rationality stemming from the Scientific Revolution which plays the largest role in sustaining schools as deeply modernist institutions.
It seems crucial to examine this particular idea in more detail—that science may hold fort at the modernist heart of schools—as it may be highly relevant to understand how the practice of schools around ecological issues reflects their foundations in modernity.
Although schools are never fixed in terms of content or delivery, and although there are many diverse initiatives sweeping through the educational landscape, we can be confident that schooling in the current configuration is largely reproductive of the modern ecological thoughtprint. Our task now is to help teachers and students understand the nuances of this thoughtprint – and its ecological consequences. Lastly, we must go about the business of exploring ways to open up the minds of students and teachers to alternative ecological thoughtprints.
Most importantly, we must remember that we created modern schools. Current practices are not set in stone. This is a crucial point, because it means that we can also change schools to meet the needs of a de-stabilizing planet and an unfulfilled citizenry. No longer can the Earth support citizens raised solely to dominant, dissect, measure, and exploit Nature. Today’s schools need to take a quantum leap toward true sustainability.
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Adapted from: S. Goobie, Yes We Can: Sustaining a Language for the Land in Education (Master’s capstone paper), 2009.
1 UNESCO-UNEP. (2007). 4th International Conference on Environmental Education,
Ahmedabad: Moving forward from Ahmedabad… Environmental Education in the 21st Century.
Retrieved Dec. 24, 2008 from Tbilisi plus 30 Recommendations
2 Furman, G.C. (1998). Postmodernism and community in schools: Unraveling the paradox. Educational Administration Quarterly, 34 (3), 298-328.
3 Slaughter, R. (2002). From rhetoric to reality: the emergence of futures into the educational mainstream. In: J. Gidley, J., & Inayatullah, S. [Eds], Youth Futures: Comparative Research and Transformative Visions (175–186). Westport: Praeger.
4 Stevenson, R.B. (1987). Schooling and environmental education: contradictions in purpose and practice. In Robottom, I. (Eds.), Environmental Education: Practice and Possibility (139-153). Victoria: Deakin University Press.
5 Weston, A. (1996). Deschooling Environmental Education. Canadian Journal of Environmental
Education, 1, 35-46.
6 Bowers, C. (2001). How language limits our understanding of environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 7 (2), 141-151.
7 See: Levin, B. (1998). The educational requirement for democracy. Curriculum Inquiry, 28 (1), 57-79.
Shallcross, T., & Robinson, J. (2006). Is there a common language of environmental justice and global citizenship? In Shallcross, T., & Robinson, J. [Eds.], Global citizenship and environmental
justice: At the interface/probing the boundaries. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
8 Giroux, cited in Furman, G.C. (1998). Postmodernism and community in schools: Unraveling the paradox. Educational Administration Quarterly, 34 (3), 298-328.