The world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts. John Muir
It was the centenary of John Muir’s death on 21 December 2014, an event largely unreported in the UK even though Muir was born here. It gave me pause to reflect on his life, his writings and his message. He was a remarkable man and instrumental in the formation of the Yosemite National Park in America. He convinced a gun-toting, pro-business Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, to set aside from the pressures of economic development, large unspoiled tracts of land so that their beauty and wildlife could be enjoyed by future generations. How did Muir do it? He took the president camping in Yosemite —for four days. Muir knew that nature was the best teacher. For Roosevelt to understand the need to preserve these places, he needed to have a direct and sustained contact with nature with, of course, a little bit of guidance from Muir.
What has this got to do with education? I would like to make a case for there to be a stronger role for contact with nature in our schools, not only for scientific and aesthetic reasons, but because I believe it is an effective medium for teaching values. By the term ‘values’, I mean our inbuilt or acquired assumptions, some of which we may not be very aware of. Muir has pointed out one such in the quote above and I would like to relate it to education.
Some educators question whether we should at all teach values at school; after all they are implicit in all our syllabi and curriculum. Our values reflect our motives. Naturally, we humans need food, shelter, fuel, water and whatever else nature provides, as do other creatures. As educators and parents we want our students to be prepared for higher education so that they can compete effectively in an increasingly competitive job market. Our curriculum demands that we teach knowledge, facts and skills. Reading, writing, math, sciences, languages, art and so on are taught in preparation for standardized exams. Further, students may learn study and research skills, how to discipline themselves, and how to respect other cultures and faiths. If the students are lucky they may discover a talent or gift which will help them to find a way of earning a livelihood that they have a liking for. Many educators would argue that that is enough. John Muir disagreed. That isn’t enough. He suggested that we are not telling them ‘all the facts’. We are leaving out our relationship with the rest of the non-human world.
Nature is, after all, the basis for our existence. We exist in a living, interconnected world, a fact Muir experienced intuitively long before the science of ecology proved him right. And yet, understanding our relationship with, and our effect on, nature still plays, I suspect, as minor a role in our education today as it did a century ago. One manifestation of this is the almost complete lack of awareness that according to most conservation biologists we are experiencing the sixth mega extinction of species and the first to be brought about by humans. They are calling this period in Earth’s history the Anthropocene—an epoch where the geophysical and biological forces on earth are being influenced more by humans than by other forces in nature. This loss of biodiversity is the result of global economic development, dramatic population increase, urbanization, increasing natural resource use, the spread of non-native invasive species and increasingly, the effects of climate change. Habitats are declining or fragmenting and consequently species dependent on these habitats disappear —many without us even knowing of their existence. Estimates vary, but it is thought that between 4,000 and 25,000 species are lost per year—forever. These extinction rates far exceed speciation rates. With the previous mega extinctions there was time between them for species recovery—millions or hundreds of millions of years. But at this rate of loss we don’t have the luxury of time.
Losing biodiversity is an ecological and a spiritual crisis. What does it feel like to lose a species forever? I believe it is also an educational crisis. Something critical is lacking in the human psyche, in human culture, in human values and consequently in education. It has to do with a lack of sensitivity to the creatures of this living world and the reality of our interdependence with them. I think Muir put his finger on it when he said that,“the world, we are told, was made especially for man”. In other words, our curriculum is essentially anthropocentric, celebrating the remarkable achievements of human culture and civilization, but neglecting the necessary ecological knowledge and understanding for coexisting in a living world. All living creatures are absolutely dependent on the air, water, soil, other plants and animals, and the recycling of nutrients that is provided by nature. We are parts of a greater interconnected whole. And increasingly other species are becoming dependent on us for their survival. Do our curricula and educational experiences sufficiently reflect this?
Richard Louv has coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ in which he speaks about the extreme reduction in the time that humans, especially children, spend outdoors or in contact with nature. According to him this has led to a host of behavioural and psychological problems in our contemporary cultures. To correct this imbalance we certainly need to teach more natural history and ecology to our students, to base it as close to the school as possible and to teach it in a way which brings it alive for them. But to address the ethical deficiency there is much that can be learned from a sustained, direct contact with nature. We teach children how to weigh, measure and divide, but do we encourage them to revere and sense the sublime? As Keith Critchlow, architect of the Study Centre at Brockwood said, “The human mind takes apart with its analytical habits of reasoning but the human heart puts things together because it loves them.” Our experience of nature is personal and often ineffable —so can reverence and wonder be taught? Probably not, but we can create opportunities where the likelihood of experiencing them is greater.
This can be illustrated with a simple example. I sometimes take students out to a wooded area and ask them to take a vow of silence for half an hour, or better still an hour, if the weather is suitable. I suggest they remove their shoes and socks and then go off on their own out of sight of each other, but within earshot, to sit in a place that for some reason interests them. They are to get to know that place and for the place to get to know them. I also ask them to bring back an object or sketch, something that symbolizes or summarizes what, or part of what, they felt while they were there. When the time comes we pair up to discuss our experience with a partner. The ensuing conversation is always lively and engaging. The increased sensitivity they bring to their surroundings flows into the social encounter afterward. The sense of connection to nature and each other by this phenomenological experience is surprising. Why? I think it is affection. Our affection emerges in unexpected ways in nature. It is born out of a sustained observation and sensitivity to our surroundings, human and non-human. We enjoy being surprised by it and sharing that surprise with another.
So along with inquiry into the construct of the human psyche that Krishnamurti schools are intended to be grounded in, it is, I feel, equally important to have a direct and sustained contact with nature. As Krishnaji said to some friends in Brockwood in 1985, only months before he died,“Keep the teachings clean and take care of the land”. Like Muir, Krishnaji knew that the land in our care was an important educational medium to introduce and reinforce the values of affection and responsibility more generally. As with our psyches, we don’t need to look or go very far.
1. Muir, John (1916). A Thousand Mile
Walk to the Gulf, Houghton Mifflin.
2. Louv, Richard (2011). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, Algonquin.
3. Berry, Wendell (2012). It All Turns on Affection, Counterpoint.
4. Zimbalist, Mary (2013). The Memoirs of Mary Zimbalist, ed. Scott Forbes, no. 88.
5. Thomashow, Mitchell (2002). Bringing the Biosphere Home, MIT Press.
6. Critchlow, Keith (2011). The Hidden Geometry of Flowers, Floris Books.