Part two of an on-going discussion

The following is part 2 of an on-going discussion on place-based education topics between Gregory Smith of Lewis and Clark College and David Greenwood of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario (formerly of Washington State University). You are invited to participate in this discussion and can add your comments through the reply box at the bottom of the post. Read part 1 here.

Dear David,

When you wrote your 2003 article about a critical place-based education, you rightly criticized those of us who had been writing about this approach for being under-theorized.  Jan Nespor and others have continued that criticism.  I’m becoming increasingly aware of the consequences of not anchoring place-based education in a more explicit critique of industrial civilization.  In some respects, place-based education can mean almost anything people want it to—much like the term sustainability.  Once ideas gain some currency, they take on a life of their own.

I’m seeing this happen with the way school gardens are becoming synonymous with place-based education.  There is nothing wrong with the creation of school gardens—in fact, helping young people learn how to grow their own food and develop more of an affinity with agricultural practices seems essential.  Wendell Berry would applaud such efforts.  But school gardens, unless they are coupled with investigations of industrial agricultural systems and the inequitable ways that food is distributed to the majority of people on the planet, do little to help students grapple with the deeper forms of cultural change that motivate my commitment to place- and community-based education.  Similarly, as much as teaching students to participate in restoration projects, environmental monitoring activities, or the collection and publishing of oral histories may contribute to the development of a sense of care for place and community, there is no reason that students who have shared these experiences will necessarily become participants in efforts to create a more just and environmentally prudent society.

It’s not surprising that the “critical” aspect of place- and community-based education is not much in evidence; engaging in critique and challenge could well spark the forms of controversy educators generally seek to avoid.  Yet critique and challenge seem increasingly necessary.  I recall Madhu Prakash’s project in Mexico where she and Gustavo Esteva raised questions about the appropriateness of modern sanitation systems in a place where sewage is simply deposited in rivers without much thought of what this will mean for people who live downstream.  They then had their students investigate and begin creating alternatives, in this instance dry latrines—an innovation that is now becoming more widespread in the developing world.  Or Elaine Senechal’s environmental justice class in Boston where students helped environmental non-profits address air quality issues by participating in an anti-idling campaign that in time resulted in changes in law enforcement and the fuel used by city buses.  These examples embody the kind of place- and community-based education that might nurture the dispositions and values needed to create more sustainable cultures.

My question for you is about what might be done to encourage more educators who align themselves with place- and community-based education to use the incorporation of the local into their work with students as a means for engaging in deeper forms of questioning and analysis I associate with critical pedagogy.  That “critical pedagogy of place” is what seems necessary.  I’m gratified that I run into more and more examples of place becoming a part of children’s education, but I’d like to see people go significantly further.

I’m reminded of something an educator from Hood River said about the way he has been growing his program.  Much of his work focuses on gardens and restoration, but his intent with regard to cultural change is not dissimilar from mine.  He observes the permaculture principle that says you don’t grow any faster than what your harvests will support.  In five years, he has moved from planting vegetables in buckets covered with plastic bags to a school board-approved building project that includes a sizeable greenhouse.  I need to remember the value of this kind of patience.  At the same time, without a sense of where I believe we need to be going with place-based education, advocates for this approach could stop too soon.  I want to figure out how to articulate in an inclusive and inviting way the importance of linking place-based education to the deep and far-reaching transformations in modern societies that seem necessary.  Finding ways to do this without scaring people off is the challenge.   Being clearer and perhaps more controversial about the reason for place-based education may be one way to do this.


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davidgreenwoodSeptember 29, 2010

Good to hear from you, Greg.

I very much share your concern about the lack of a larger, critical, cultural analysis in much place-based education, which is identical to my concern about schooling. Schools are, of course, a product of the industrial civilization that I agree needs to be critiqued and radically transformed. Critical educators have always recognized that because schools are a reflection of society, they will be insufficient in themselves to alter the major assumptions and practices of society. However, if one allows that schools can, despite government pressure to maintain the status quo, provide space for democracy, innovation, and change, then they can become sites of resistance and, potentially, social transformation. Place-based education can either perpetuate many of the assumptions of schooling and industrial culture, or work toward transforming these. Both are happening.

I am convinced that the wider culture and the schools that serve that culture are in dire need of a new guiding narrative or story. I was just reading David Orr’s chapter, “What Is Higher Education for Now,” in the 2010 edition of The State of the World. Lots of universities and schools are doing amazing work to green the curriculum–formal and informal. Hundreds of university presidents have signed the Climate Commitment, which is a pledge to work toward “carbon neutrality.” According to Orr, however, even if all US institutions of higher learning were to eliminate their carbon dioxide emissions entirely, building four medium sized coal plants anywhere in the world would totally cancel out the gains made. The point here is that industrial civilization is headed for a major train wreck and that even if every college and university totally greened their local and regional operations, the train wreck is still coming. And if changing the place-based operations of every university isn’t enough to stop the moving train, planting a row of lettuce between rounds of standardized testing in elementary and middle school is also unlikely to lead us toward the major shifts that are needed.

I still want to plant gardens and invite young people and community members into the work of local reinhabitation for the collective well being of everyone–human and other-than-human. This work is important in itself for so many reasons, including experience making change happen. But I am also uncomfortable when the work of place-based education lacks a larger analysis of the state of the world and the issues that link the local to larger regional, national, and global issues.

I remain a proponent of place-based education mainly because people of all political persuasions care about their places–this sense of shared care and investment can lead to conversations about social and ecological contexts that otherwise might be tricky to get started. It doesn’t really bother me that people call what they do “place-based education” even when they don’t fully confront all of the issues that inhere in places, and even when a full-blown program never emerges. It also doesn’t bother me when people are confronting these issues but not calling what they do place-based education. Though I believe that more fully theorizing PBE is a worthwhile task, I think what is needed is an intersectional approach so as to make roam for coalition and alliance building between groups doing similar work and calling it by other names. This was my intention in calling for a conscious blending of critical pedagogy and place-based approaches in the 2003 article you mention.

I currently am very interested in connecting place-based and critical education explicitly with the discourse of sustainability–a vision of a sustainable society and planet can guide the place-based work. You are right that sustainability (and place) are used so often they become meaningless. But my hope is that the terms are used to begin conversations and collective work, not to circumscribe the work around one definition or insular movement. For example, what do the concentric circles of social, ecological, and economic sustainability mean for us in this place, and for others in other places with whom we are connected in the global economy?

The sustainability education discourse and practice is probably more deeply theorized, critiqued, and widely used around the world than the place-based education discourse and practice. Place-based educators can deepen their work by examining it in the larger, critical context of what sustainability means to people worldwide.

I think that having the courage to continually raise these critical questions within institutional contexts is at the heart of the work. I don’t always do this, but I always admire those who do.

All my best,