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Ecological Literacy and the Search for Value

We have arrived at the end of another academic term.  The university hallways are nearly empty, the streets are quiet by night, and for the first time since the end of summer, my email is under control.  Many of those students will be back next term, anxious to continue their pursuit of "success".  Others, however, will be moving on.  They are now the proud holders of extremely expensive pieces of paper credentialing them as ready for success. Succeed they may, but succeed at what?

Environmental educator and professor, David Orr, proclaimed, "If one listens carefully, it may even be possible to hear the Creation groan every year in late May when another batch of smart, degree-holding, but ecologically illiterate, Homo sapiens who are eager to succeed are launched into the biosphere."  Orr and many others have pointed out that the destruction that is so plainly apparent in the world we live in is not the handiwork of uneducated people.  Our degree-holding credentialed students are largely to blame for the problems we see in the world today, whether they be environmental or social.  In fact, it is by virtue of their tremendous success that we have problems to talk about at all.

As an environmental studies professor I presumably have some responsibility for fostering some form of ecological literacy in the students that sit in my classes.  I do not know whether I am at all successful.  The reality is that I spend such a small amount of time with my students that lasting value change is probably quite rare.  The rarities are plain to us.  They are our favorite students.  They are those who stay after class, ask questions, sign up for independent research projects, and respond out of the classroom to what is taught in the classroom.  The majority of my students, however, have likely only learned what is on the test...and maybe not even that.

Of course, I am speaking only of students already enrolled in an environmental studies course.  What about everyone else?  What will be the cost of success associated with all those graduates of the arts and sciences?  Will the world be a better place for their accomplishments or might we have ably tutored our best and brightest to be swifter at destruction?

I see the ideas of "success" and "education" as similar to those of "diversity" and "moderation".  All four of these terms are typically viewed in a positive light, but not one of these four are inherently a virtue in themselves.  That old saying, "moderation in all things," is essentially outrageous.  What we really mean by the saying is that we want to moderate those things we essentially deem worthy of considering in moderation.  Most of us would agree that a moderate amount of heroin, or sexual abuse, or hatred is not what was intended by the virtue placed in moderation.  The same is true of an idea like "diversity".  Diversity has become a political and moral virtue in nearly every sphere, and yet again, diversity is itself only of value when the elements deemed a part of diversity are valuable.  I don't ever look out on a class of students and say, wow, they are all so honest, I wish I had a few more cheaters in the class.  I further, never put my kids to sleep at night and think, all three of my kids are so healthy, I wish we had a bit more sickness to diversify the mix.

Success and education are just as problematic as potential virtues.  They are worthy of the podium only if the sort of education and the sort of success we foster are what we would deem virtuous.  Education and success are not in themselves valuable goals either individually or as a society.  Our obsession with quantitative over qualitative is likely the product of simplification.  The college counts the number of graduates, calculates the percent of students employed in a chosen profession on first year, and may even attempt to calculate median salary of first year graduates.  We rarely attempt to assess how much "good" our students have done in the world.  First, it would be impossible to measure, and second, it wouldn't sell.

I fear as a society we are so confused about rights and wrongs that the need to qualify success, education, diversity, or moderation goes overlooked.  I fear we see such things as contributing to our already abandoned sense of goodness.  We simply find it good enough to have an education or not, to be successful or not.  We are simple minded.  I don't know what we need to remove from our lives to have the time to think through the qualifications needed in our lives...but I think it is worth some consideration.

What are we doing as educators?  What are we doing as humans?  Are we really sure the goal in sight is of value or is it one of those value-neutral measures I have outlined here serving more as a distraction than virtue?  Are we sure we will find our lives and the lives of those around us better for having reached or even having worked for our goal?  I hope so.

Vincent M. Smith - PhD

Vincent_Smith Vincent Smith, chief author of The Organic Times Blog earned a bachelors degree in biology from his home state of Missouri, his Masters in Environmental Science from Oregon State University, and his Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He now teaches at Southern Oregon University and conducts research on coupled human-natural systems. Vincent is responsible for many of the business aspects of Silent Springs as well as responsible for the research and resources offered on the site. When not teaching or running a business, Vincent enjoys spending time with family, gardening, and just being outdoors.

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