by Charles Rubin
Duquesne University

I want to start with a central problem that I see facing environmental education efforts, that can be seen from two fact sheets provided by the EPA environmental education website.

The two fact sheets are “Environmental Education Advances Quality Education;” and “Environmental Education Improves Our Everyday Lives.” Now, the salient part of the first document is the following definition of environmental education:

Environmental education is a learning process that increases knowledge and awareness about the environment and develops skills that enable responsible decisions and actions that impact the environment. Environmental education encourages inquiry and investigation and it enables the learner to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and effective decision-making skills. Environmental education enables individuals to weigh various sides of an environmental issue. It does not advocate a particular viewpoint or course of action.

This definition may be problematic for a number of reasons, but my interest is in its unacknowledged tension with the second fact sheet which lays out the way in which environmental education improves our everyday lives, by protecting human health, advancing quality education, creating jobs in the environmental field — I like that one particularly myself — promoting environmental protection along with economic development and encouraging stewardship of natural resources.

If we exercise our critical thinking skills for a moment, do we not find that this second set of characteristics is precisely the sort of advocacy of a particular viewpoint or course of action that environmental education, according to the first fact sheet is supposed to avoid, particularly with respect to its assertions about environmental threats to human health, to the importance of sustainable development, to the significance of biodiversity? The EPA defense of environmental education is replete with assumptions that are definitive of one point of view without even a hint that there might be various sides of an environmental issue.

Now, what’s the origin of this unacknowledged tension? Perhaps it stems in part from the scope of the task at hand. You’ve heard a good deal about this already. As defined by the EPA, environmental education is not a small project, involving as it does knowledge, sentiment, and action. But about what? The EPA is content to speak about the environment as if it is perfectly clear what that means. For further elucidation of what environmental education entails, we can turn to the National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training’s description of what kind of knowledge environmental education is. Let me just read part of this list to you:

Environmental solutions are not only scientific, they include historical, political, economic and cultural perspectives. This also implies that the environment includes buildings, highways, and ocean tankers as well as pine trees and coyotes. Environmental education rests on a foundation of knowledge about social and ecological systems; knowledge lays the groundwork for analyzing environmental problems, resolving conflicts and preventing new problems from arising. Environmental education includes the affective domain, the attitudes, values, and commitments necessary to build a sustainable society. The role for educators in addressing the affective domain is not always easy, to say the least. Educators should make it clear that differing personal values exist, that these values can color the facts, and that controversy is often motivated by different value systems.

And then it goes on to list specific kinds of skills that environmental education may be taken to encourage.

From the NCEET point of view, environmental education requires us to know natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. To that extent, it seems as if they’re not describing a unit within a curriculum, even a course, but a comprehensive, long-term educational plan.

Now, I’m familiar with such things mostly at the university level and here you find it is not so unusual for a given program to make broad, even sometimes imperialistic claims in their rhetoric for why this is an important thing to study. At the modern university, environmental studies has to compete with things like gender studies and cultural studies programs which similarly offer broad, unifying themes for knowledge. Everybody wants as large a piece of the pie as possible. And that’s not so unreasonable. Conventional disciplinary distinctions are, after all, more or less arbitrary, even if they are professionally and intellectually useful.

So, to some degree, these unifying rubrics point to something true about the character of knowledge. Still, it is reasonable to distinguish the kinds of claims environmental education puts forward from other large scale claims. Because there’s a special reason that environmental education requires us, in effect, to know everything. It is responding to the comprehensiveness implied by the term, “the environment,” in the first place. What is the term meant to exclude? What isn’t part of the environment? Many years ago, comedian Peter Cook hit the nail pretty much on the head when he defined the environment as “the universe and all that surrounds it.”

If environment is seen as a whole, constituted by complexly interrelated parts, then clearly, environmental education will have to mirror that reality. But let’s face it. Any educational plan that takes everything as its goal is likely to fail, probably by being superficial or by partisan over-simplifications of the sort we’ve seen in the EPA statement. The very effort to provide unity for such a large body of knowledge by the use of a relevant issue may produce the same result. In the face of such a problem we may return to the shelter of our more or less arbitrary disciplinary divisions, and satisfy ourselves not with environmental education per se, but with teaching environmental science, environmental economics, environmental law, environmental writing, environmental philosophy, and so forth. Now, while this last outcome, is not to my mind the worst of all possible worlds, it is not so compelling as a means to solve problem posed by the scope of environmental education that the problem doesn’t deserve further attention still.

Let’s go back and look again at our goal. We need to respond appropriately to the comprehensiveness of the environment without falling into oversimplification or partisan superficiality. To use terms different from those I have used so far, we want to understand nature on its own terms and with respect to the world that we create within it, whether that world be social, political, economic, or technical. The human world needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny. We want our understanding to have a solid empirical foundation. But we also don’t want to ignore the normative elements that are as constitutive of our visions both of how things are and of how they should be. To accomplish these goals, we need students who can think, who can read, who can write, who can calculate.

Now let’s not reinvent the wheel to accomplish this task. For the effort I just described is really definitive of what is called liberal education. What I’m suggesting, is that taken with the utmost seriousness, environmental education would be liberal education. A liberal education in the arts and sciences provides students with just the background on human and the natural worlds and the relationship between them, on facts and values and their relationship — just the things we were looking for — along with skills of research, writing, speaking, and thinking that go along necessarily with the acquisition of such knowledge.

I make this suggestion knowing it raises two immediate problems, and let me use those problems to illustrate what I see to be the link between liberal education and environmental education. The first problem is that lovers of liberal learning also love to argue about just what it means. This is one thing that’s exciting about teaching or being a student in a liberal arts college — people are always talking about the mission, what it is you’re supposed to be doing, how it is you’re supposed to do it. In fact, this apparent defect gives us an insight into the nature of education in the liberal arts at its best. For liberal education is not so much defined by a particular purpose or knowledge, as it is by intent to “teach the questions,” as the phrase has come to be used. Environmental writers as diverse as Aldo Leopold, Garrett Hardin, or Dan Botkin give clear evidence of the fact that, at its root, environmentalism is about core questions like “Are human beings part of nature” or “Do we live in a cosmos or chaos?” or “How important are material things in defining a good life?” Liberal education is about examining these questions without dogmatically assuming the answers to them, perhaps without dogmatically assuming that they have definitive answers.

The effort to avoid dogmatism is, of course, why there can come to be liberal arts and sciences, why these two things come together so fruitfully, for the self-critical stance that is at the core of what comes to be called the humanistic side of that education is really a perfect fit with the needs of natural science as well.

To see liberal education as “teaching the questions” in the way I just suggested may go part of the way to addressing the second objection to liberal education as genuine environmental education. This objection will come from those who see liberal education as the presentation of a canon that is at best arbitrarily defined. Worse, this proposed canon is the very basis of the western anthropocentric, patriarchal, logocentric, dead white European male way of looking at the world that has the deepest responsibility for the postulated present day environmental crisis. This argument, of course, comes from universities. A somewhat watered-down version of it is popularized in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance.

Such claims about geographically-impaired knowledge or gendered knowledge are, of course, more grist for the mill of liberal education’s effort to seek the truth about our place in the world, however anti-liberal their intention might be. In other words, as soon as we refuse to accept these assertions dogmatically, we’re back pretty much to where I think we belong with respect to environmental education. To think and write about these claims about the ultimate source of our environmental ills, to describe them fairly, and to analyze them, may not be the best entry point into the perennial questions that liberal education takes up, but neither need it be an absolute road block. In other words, liberal education does not have to begin from a canon, although it seems to me likely to produce people who have a sense of the high and the low, and everything in between, with respect to human works.

This, too, is perfectly consistent with what many environmental authors want us to do since we are criticized for an inability to discriminate about what is genuinely important in the world around us. Still, this defense of liberal learning may miss the substance of the real charge being made against it, which quite simply is that in a world threatened by global environmental disaster, we no longer have the luxury for this kind of contemplative education. I think it is certainly untrue, empirically, that liberally educated people are unsuited to action.

But again, there’s a deeper difficulty at work here. It was suggested to me by college students in a recent course. We were looking at Earth in the Balance. Students were criticizing the book for its sloppy argumentation and scientific errors. Finally, one student had enough. He raised his hand and he said, “Look, you missed the point, all of you. Al Gore’s no scientist. We shouldn’t expect from him, therefore, rigorous scientific argumentation. He’s a politician. That’s not his job. The book is valuable because it raises awareness of the terrible problems that are facing us and the need to act quickly to resolve them.”

What is this awareness that is so crucial to my students and so often central to environmental education efforts? When I’m aware of something, I know it exists. I don’t have to know why or when or how. Awareness is not knowledge, but a kind of familiarity that more closely approaches a sentiment or opinion. Environmental education, to return to where I started this talk, is too often an effort to create the proper sentiments, the right opinions. Right opinion is defined by some authority. That is, of course, the meaning of orthodoxy. This orthodoxy too often provides the normative content for the knowledge that environmental education programs want to teach and the actions they want to promote. To make awareness the center of environmental education is to enslave students to an orthodoxy. This is the very opposite of liberal education’s effort to free people. That is why it is called liberal education, the education of a free human being.

The last question, though, is, “Is the world so full?” to use Herman Daley’s language, or “Are the strategic threats to immediate and so severe?” to use Al Gore’s language, that human beings can’t afford that kind of freedom anymore? Neither of these authors would be happy if we were to state that as a conclusion in such bald terms. But like many environmental writers, they are struggling with that question all the time. Of course, it can only be struggled with in the extent that it is not a taken-for-granted orthodoxy. For this reason, too, then, liberal education is the best environmental education because it teaches us how to question authority. Thank you.