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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 305-309
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Living and Teaching in the Round
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we hear about one environmental disaster after another, many of them caused by our increasing desire to live lives of material comfort historically unknown, unique on the planet, and ultimately unsustainable. At the National Natural Areas Conference in St. Louis in October 2000, world-renowned botanist Peter Raven outlined the danger we are in. The Western world constitutes 4.5 percent of the world's population but uses 25 percent of its resources. If every human on earth were to enjoy the same standard of living we know in the West, we would need three more planet Earths.
Most Americans are oblivious to the danger. The prevailing attitude is that the earth is an unending commodity. We're thoughtful, deliberate, and powerful. Nature is mindless, chaotic, and tamable. This assumption of human superiority and independence is a dangerous illusion.
Our relationships to the natural world are concealed by technology (Fromm 1996: 32). We don't know where our food comes from or how it is processed. An alarm clock wakes us up after sunrise; we work or play after sunset. "Bombarded by stimuli" and faced with many choices, we experience either "anomie," or alternatively, feel "alienated" and bound by regulations in an urban world that has become increasingly complex (Roberts 1996: 69). After the attack on the World Trade Center, we may feel particularly powerless. We have not only an ecological crisis but a psychological one as well. We must repair the relationship of human beings to the natural world, but that is not an easy task.
Even in higher education, we separate and divide. In the sciences and the humanities, faculty focus on the mind to the exclusion of the psychomotor or affective domains. We know we are to be physically fit, but that's for the department of physical education to address. If we feel lost or depressed, psychology might have the answer. We are not only separated from nature; our psyches are divided: Now we think. Now we feel. Now we get to move.
The professionalization of knowledge only exacerbates the ecological and psychological crises. If we treat nature as so many abstract pieces of the environment, we disconnect people from the world. If we treat human life as only a discursive formation, we deny nature as the literal ground of our being (Buell 1995: 111). Scientific claims to objectivity deny the perceptual and cognitive [End Page 305] efforts of human beings involved in the description of the world, while literary pride in the power of imagination, intertextuality, and culture denies the facticity of the world beyond our socially constructed representations. On the one hand, we have matter over mind. On the other, mind over matter. How do we break out of the Newtonian/Cartesian ideology that splits our world apart?
One departure from business as usual has been the Outdoor Semester, an interdisciplinary, faculty/student learning community that culminates in a fourteen-day field trip on the Great Plains of the United States. The theme of the first three outdoor semesters has been "Interpreting Our Heritage through Native American Values." The curriculum shares a philosophy (holistic/experiential education), several texts (Ceremony, Sand County Almanac, The Plains Indian, etc.), and the goal of personal transformation. It seeks to reconnect the body, mind, and spirit of students and faculty alike in order to reestablish our connection to that "unbelievably vast, old, rich, diverse and surprising cosmos" of which we are "infinitesimal but conscious parts" (Roberts 1996: 72).
In Outdoor Semester 1998 and 1999, students became aware of diverse natural, social, and cultural resources in Travel and Tourism. In Outdoor Education, students learned how to see the outdoors as a practical laboratory for living and developed survival skills that were tested in the field. In Native American Literature, they reviewed the history of America's indigenous population and reflected on the values of a tribal culture different from their own. In Composition, they learned that truth is a dynamic system...