As it is the United Nations’ Year of Biodiversity, it seems an appropriate time to stand back and take stock of the way we teach environmental education in Krishnamurti Schools. Over the past two decades many students and staff in our schools have become aware of global environmental issues. Governments and the media too are raising the profile of these issues as are educational institutions the world over. Despite this awareness and increased knowledge the environmental crisis is worsening. Climate change, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution and other dire warnings of impending doom are often portrayed by environmentalists and the media as being caused by our hubris. This sends a depressing message especially to the young and can often turn people off. It can instil a fatalistic and apathetic view of the future of the planet. Except in the case of the committed environmental activist, negative messages rarely inspire action in the public at large. Rather, we feel helpless for the sorry state of the world. Is it not, therefore, one of the main goals of environmental education to address this contradiction and enquire more deeply into the complex relationship we humans have with nature and in so doing actually change it?
The Present Utilitarian Outlook
In this human-centred and increasingly narcissistic world, our relationship with nature is largely utilitarian. That is, we view it in terms of what benefit it will give us materially or in terms of fun or adventure. Some environmentalists are therefore arguing that to save nature we should start putting a price tag on it. They suggest that the ecological services nature provides should be appropriately valued and legislation be brought in by governments to enforce this valuation. For example, forests and wetlands create clean air and water, store carbon and recycle nutrients, and the value of this should be factored into any use we wish to make of these natural resources. Imagine the legal minefield that would create. Needless to say, lawyers and not necessarily nature would be the beneficiaries. Even getting governments to agree on a minimum levy for a carbon tax is proving well nigh impossible. Unless we address our environmental crisis at a deeper level we shall always be tinkering at the edges. So what can be done in our schools to address the human to nature relationship?
‘Place-Based’ Education About Nature
There is an area of environmental education that, I feel, should be given more importance and that is ‘place-based’ education. This is simply a study of the relationships between people, other non-human species, and the places where they live. I would like to focus in this essay on the virtues of two aspects of a ‘place-based’ education: exploring the wild nature around our schools and the practice of gardening.
It is well documented that in our increasingly urbanized and computerized world many children have what is now termed as a ‘nature deficit’. Virtual experience of nature cannot be substituted for authentic experience, even if it is a David Attenborough documentary, fascinating though it may be. For our students to learn to appreciate and care for the natural world they have to have direct contact with it, and ideally this should begin as early as possible. A ‘place-based’ education brings awareness to what is around us—‘nearby nature’—and takes us into the rich experience of our sensory world and its interconnectedness. Invariably those who are the defenders and protectors of the natural world are people who have had such direct experience of nature in their childhood. They had special places where they, often without adult supervision, played games, built huts or tree houses, made gardens. Or else they were taken to wild places of great beauty and given the freedom to wander and wonder about the otherness there.
Most teachers and parents would, I am sure, love to see more contact with nature happen in our schools; but there are health and safety issues, time pressures and curriculum commitments. Rather than trying to fit contact with nature into an already tight timetable, can teachers creatively bring it into the existing curriculum? I think we educate as much by what we leave out of the curriculum as what we include in it. Such teaching that can relate the global to the local, with close to home examples, is usually the most convincing and rewarding for students.
Environmental education, therefore, not only needs to inform students of the rationality of living within our means on this planet but also to encourage an emotional connection with places and their inhabitants closer to home. For we act as much from our emotions as we do from reason. So what will activate our emotions, make us more sensitized to our surroundings and connect us to that deep biophilic side of our nature? Exposure to nature, especially wild nature, as early as possible, will plant the seed. Feeling at home in the outdoors, with plants, insects, animals and wild and beautiful places ought to become a normal part of our daily experience and affections.
Krishnamurti made a point of establishing his schools in naturally beautiful places and stressed that that beauty be looked after by those who lived there. He knew the power of beauty and its place in education. Such places inspire us by their natural splendour and bounty and elicit feelings of love, awe, wonder and a healthy concern and attachment to place. If such a seed is planted in the young during their time in school, then I am convinced it will germinate into a continuing and constructive relationship with nature in their later lives, not because they have to but because they want to.
The Interconnectedness Of Humans With Nature
What would a constructive relationship with nature mean practically? Firstly the notion that everything is connected (especially ecology and economy!) must inform the educator’s approach. They must themselves be informed and enthusiastic about the nature and locality around them so that they can bring living, hands-on examples and interesting stories into the classroom. Even the more abstract subjects for the older students such as philosophy or mathematics can use questions relating to environmental ethics, for example, or studying the Fibonacci series in the arrangement of stamens in daisy type flowers. Another approach at teaching connectedness is using theme-based studies. For example, could a whole school experiment for a week trying to eat food grown within a 100 km or a 50 km radius?
It is important when using such experiments that deeper issues related to food are brought in, at whatever level is appropriate for the age group. Such projects could fall flat because not enough time is given to examining the implications and connections inherent in the issue. Such a drip-feed of interest, enthusiasm and fascination with the locality around them by the educators will non-verbally infect the students as well as help them see real life connections in normally abstract, academic human-centred disciplines.
The Place Of Gardening In Nature Education
As well as providing opportunities for free play outdoors for younger students and integrating nature-based examples into the existing curriculum, there are other activities, I would imagine, that most of our schools already provide. Local camping trips, nature walks, conservation work and bird-watching will always capture the hearts of a devoted minority. But I would like to concentrate on one outdoor activity that should be introduced more widely and for all age groups, for it seamlessly integrates so many aspects of environmental education. And that is gardening.
Usually students connect to a place through plants and these person-plant-place relationships are often forged either in childhood or through long association. It is by engaging with plants first hand—planting seeds, nurturing growth and learning about the plant’s needs that students learn to care for and have affection for a place. And it is particularly spaces that can be adapted or created by a young person that fire their imaginations. Gardens are such places.
Gardening improves both the land and the student. The land is improved by good husbandry of the soil, by the daily care of plants and by creating a habitat for other creatures. But more importantly it can be a moral force for strengthening character in the student. It teaches patience— it takes time between planting and reaping the fruits of that planting; it requires humility—all successful gardening is a collaboration with nature and a check on our hubris; it demands a respect for reality—we must face the garden as it is, not as we imagine it, and as such it is an ‘unselfing’ activity; it encourages care and openheartedness for other species, a sort of making space for the other to thrive; it integrates the brain, the heart and skill with one’s hands and tools; it has the potential to stimulate all the senses in ways that few other activities can. Although such human virtues can be learned from contact with nature in general, they are brought together in a unique way between garden and gardener. Gardens are our most immediate contact with nature and it is where our relationship with the natural world can begin and be fostered.
Moving Beyond Knowledge-Based Education About Nature
At this point in our ecological history our species is at a crossroads. Conventional environmental education has made us aware of the necessity of learning to live in a sustainable manner in a world of finite resources, but it is usually a tag-on or niche subject in the curriculum. However, the issue is too big and important for that. The challenge of sustainability facing the coming generations is on a par with revolutions in agriculture, industrialisation and democracy. Current modes of environmental education are not equipped to transform human culture in its present form. It is still too knowledge-based and negative in its message. It has not engaged the heart to love nature and thus inspire the young to action. Contact with wild nature and gardening are two ways to develop this relationship and both can inform the other. The seed, if you will pardon the repeated use of this gardening metaphor, is ideally planted at an early age, whether at school or at home. In our schools we have the perfect soil for such a seed to germinate. We have the places, the schools’ landscapes and their beauty, and we have the ethos. Krishnamurti insisted on right relationship not only with humans but also with nature. In this Year of Biodiversity let us reassess our approach to environmental education and make it more responsive to the challenge we all must face.