The following is part of an on-line discussion between Greg Smith, Associate Professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, and David Greenwood, Associate Professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada.


Dear David,
I’ve been puzzling over an issue to raise with you for another blog entry, and I’ve found myself coming back to the impact that hierarchies of knowledge and skill have on the use of learning opportunities encountered in local communities and places.  I recall this issue coming up with a friend in Madison, Wisconsin, more than a decade ago when his daughter was junior at the city’s most academically competitive high school—probably the same one you went to.  She was interested in enrolling in a “chemistry in the community” course that would have allowed her to experience a more hands-on and problem-solving approach to science education.  Her counselor discouraged her from doing so on the grounds that the kinds of colleges she was interested in attending would see this as a deficit.  Jim, a biology professor committed to learning in the field, disagreed and wrote to academics at around a dozen colleges similar to those his daughter hoped to apply to and asked whether they agreed with the counselor.  None did.  His daughter enrolled in the course and ended up going to Earlham.  Most students and parents, however, seem unlikely to challenge the counselor’s advice because of the way it represents common understandings about prestigious (theoretical and text-based) knowledge and less prestigious (applied and practical) knowledge.  This seems like a fundamental issue we’ve got to address if we hope more educators begin to incorporate lived experience into the forms of instruction they share with students.

I remember reading a chapter from a book by G.H. Bantock (Education in Industrial Society) when I was in grad school that looks at the way early schools distinguished between the knowledge of the working-class and the knowledge of elites, and actively presented the latter as superior—even though this knowledge was the knowledge of people who didn’t have to work to support themselves.  The preceding story demonstrates the way this process is still playing out in contemporary schools.  And yet the knowledge that is often most meaningful to people of whatever age is knowledge that has direct applications to their own lives and experiences, knowledge that requires them to use both their hands and their heads.

Some of the best place-based education I know of is happening at a school for seriously credit deficient students at a small school in Cottage Grove, Oregon.  There, students are creating school and community gardens to help supplement the diets of low-income families, they are writing a 100-year forestry plan for a local property owner to restore an oak savannah, they are mapping the location of invasive species in nearby forests and helping with their removal, they are conducting water quality studies on local streams and rivers, and they are making movies about topics like the Haiti earthquake in an effort to encourage their peers, families, and neighbors to make contributions to groups like Partners in Health.  I suspect that this kind of program is acceptable because of the school’s student clientele.  No one is worrying about which college they get into, just whether they graduate from high school.  Ironically, the program has become so dynamic that a growing number of students at the town’s conventional high school are seeking to transfer there.  The principal and faculty have decided that their primary purpose is to serve students who need an alternative, so they are capping their enrollment to make sure this continues to happen.  Fortunately, some teachers at the town’s regular high school are picking up on their educational practices.

I heard a presentation in December by a man from a sustainability education center also in Cottage Grove.  He and his organization have worked extensively with the school for credit-deficient students, but they have also begun to collaborate with teachers at the conventional high school in the development of learning experiences that marry application to theory.  He described a physics course that is open only to young women.  Building on his organization’s interest in alternative building methods, he worked with students and the teacher in this class to design experiments to test the flammability, structural strength, and resistance to moisture of different forms of insulation and plaster.  Students carefully documented their findings and then presented them to county agencies responsible for amending statutes that permit or prevent the use of innovative construction methods.  This kind of information is critical if more ecologically friendly and locally-based building practices are to become widely used.  This “physics in the community” course embodies what to my mind is an excellent example of place- and community-based education.  But this kind of teaching and learning is glaringly unusual, and when it does occur, tends to be in classes for students who are viewed as marginal (as women often are in advanced science and math classes) and less likely to be deserving of or make good use of elite knowledge (like the seriously credit-deficient students).  I’d like to figure out how to make it more common—both in K-12 and college settings.  Conversations with AP science teachers, however, confirm that the time required to do something like this is virtually non-existent because of the amount of material—focused on concepts, definitions, and theory–that must be covered if students are to be adequately prepared to pass AP exams toward which all instruction is geared.

So this preoccupation with elite knowledge places real constraints on the extent to which the kinds of teaching and learning we value can become widespread.  Any thoughts on how to address this dilemma?

Best wishes,


David Greenwood, Lakehead University

February 24, 2011

Hi Greg,

What you describe is a familiar challenge of legitimizing place-based approaches in a high school where college prep courses continues to privilege high status, abstract, and text-based knowledge. Kids being counseled out of a community-based chemistry course because it was seen as low status—the same thing is currently happening here in Thunder Bay in 2011. I’ve just learned of an excellent new Environmental Science course for grade 11 students, but few kids heading to university are taking this course, because it is viewed by the very science department that offers it as less rigorous and less of a preparation for university. This reminds me of Dewey’s warning that education is not preparation for life, it is life. High schools seldom embody this view, especially in “elite” science courses.

What is most interesting to me in the story you tell is how your friend Jim, a biology professor, took this issue of rigor on by doing some very important independent research. NONE OF THE TWELVE UNIVERSITIES AGREED WITH THE COUNSELOR’S ADVICE! NONE OF THE TWELVE UNIVERSITIES SHARED THE COUNSELOR’S ASSUMPTIONS! This, it seems to me, represents a strategic pathway for legitimizing more place pedagogies within high school. If high school faculty are devaluing and marginalizing place-based curricula because they assume such curricula will be seen as a deficit by universities, and if this assumption is false, then high school faculty need to hear this message from university faculty and admissions people. As I’ve mentioned to you, I am increasingly interested in place-based and sustainability education in higher education, and what I am observing corroborates Jim’s research. Many people in university faculties and within administration are extremely interested in making connections between the learning of disciplinary content and making such learning meaningful in the context of local communities. I am not saying that all professors are interested in this work, but a significant number of them (us) are.  How can we use this fact to support place-based approaches for the “college bound’ in high school? Or is the whole idea of “college bound” in need of redefinition?

The problem, it seems to me, isn’t just about advocating for place-based education, but advocating against a school system that segregates students and tracks many away from opportunities in higher education, while denying “elites” depth experience with diverse communities. It’s interesting that Cottage Grove decided against a more heterogeneous enrollment in the exemplary place-based education course. I can think of some good reasons for this, such as deepening the community spirit of an otherwise marginalized group, but it is interesting that the outcome is more segregation and less integration between elites and credit-deficient students (and their teachers and families).

We’re talking here, I think, about the link between “high status knowledge” and social stratification, and the expectation that success in school will lead to an economically secure and high status life. And the recipe for this high status life, as far as I can tell, continues to be that if you take the high status courses in high school, you will have a competitive edge getting into a good college, and a competitive edge landing a desirable well-paying job afterwards. This recipe has been around for a long while and it has worked for many people. Because it has “worked” and continues to work, for some, it becomes self reinforcing. This is the political assumption of No Child Left Behind and the whole accountability movement—do well in school, take the right classes, have a good life. The counselor has internalized the message and many elite students here it loud and clear. The meritocracy is reinforced, and the socially-reproductive function of school is reinforced along with a philosophy of education that makes place and community an afterthought, not to mention any larger discussion about life’s goals and purposes.

It is possible, though, that the energy around place-based education is part of something new—a new social and educational movement—and that the old way is just going to be around with us for quite some time. For example, people are now talking seriously about peak oil and a post-carbon economic system—but still, most of us are still burning a lot of gas and coal just getting through the day! I think place-based education and community-based knowledge is to high status knowledge what renewable energy is to oil and coal. People know it works and that it is important, but we are just not able to let go of what we have depended on for so long. Our entire infrastructure—both institutionally and I believe epistemologically—is just too wrapped up in high status knowledge to allow for any quick changes to new ways of knowing and doing.  As Nathan Hensley says in the forthcoming book, Curriculum Studies Gone Wild, we need to de-carbonize the curriculum as well as our energy use. It is just going to take a lot of time, a lot of unlearning as we learn new ways. So I think that place-based education might be as much about unlearning or challenging old assumptions as it is about learning. Wherever place-based education is working, it needs to be supported so the movement can deepen and spread—much like the movement for renewable energy in the context of continued record profits for the oil industry! In fact, it might be best to keep the elites away from successes so that such successes are not co-opted and killed like the electric car was some years ago by the oil and auto industry!