Education, Eco-Progressivism, and the Nature of School Reform
Author: Jay W. Roberts, Earlham College, Richmond, IN
Education, Eco-Progressivism and The Nature of School Reform
“In our attempt to make conservation easy to understand we have made it trivial.” ~Aldo Leopold
This paper is an attempt to critique some of the limitations of dominant school reform discourses in education, drawing upon the work of Michel Foucault, Michael Apple, Maxine Greene, and Dennis Carlson in addition to writers in the emerging field of what might be called “eco-progressivism.” The intersections between ecology and education can help construct a distinct counter-narrative of progressive educational reform that is informed by ecological discourses, movements, and zeitgeists. Through the field of conservation biology, I hope to connect both ecology and education as “crisis disciplines” and suggest that the “reform” discourse in the field of biology utilizes a much different framework than that of current school reform orthodoxy. These differences have powerful and real consequences for the ways in which children and teachers experience school. Utilizing the well documented case of the failure of the Biosphere 2 research project as a grounding metaphor and cautionary tale, I plan to show not only the severe limitations of the current school reform orthodoxy but the ways in which the normalization of what I will call the “Biospheric Number” functions as a technology of power. Finally, I hope to position the emerging worldview of eco-progressivism as a useful framework for reconsidering school reform specifically and the progressive education movement more broadly.
By all accounts, we are experiencing a distinctive period in the educational discourse on public school reform. The passage and implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was only the culmination of changes that began with Sputnik and the Red Scare and were further amplified through the Nation at Risk Report of 1983. The language of this educational zeitgeist evokes an orthodoxy of corporate and scientific discourses- of accountability, standards, assessment, measurable results, and achievement-similar to what Michael Apple described as the new “managerialism” (Apple 2001) that is radically restructuring schools. To Apple, this restructuring involves the encroachment of the private on the public and the simultaneous importing of business models and discourse to public domains and institutions such as education. “It is an ideal project, merging the language of empowerment, rational choice, efficient organization, and new roles for managers all at the same time… One can modernize the machinery of schools…be an efficient and business like manager, and help people by ensuring ‘quality’ at the same time”(Apple 2001, 30). Added to the corporate managerialism is an emerging scientific fetishism. Indeed, written into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act itself is a requirement that school reform initiatives be driven by “scientifically valid” research. Such research is tightly and narrowly defined, marginalizing ways of knowing that do not come from its positive and post-positive research paradigms. As such, the dominant reform discourse is normalizing in the Foucauldian sense, it establishes discourses and technological norms for the production of educational truths, it defines some discourses of truth production as “abnormal,” and it regulates what gets considered legitimate speech within education research and scholarship, along with who is authorized to speak and who gets silenced. Taken together, these discursive shifts (managerialism and scientific fetishism) combine to form a corporate-scientific zeitgeist which atomizes educational activity and take us away from organic, even ecological concepts of the schooling enterprise and the role of the teacher as a transformative intellectual. In this sense, it goes beyond the Apple’s “neo-liberal” framework and its resultant connection to economic models to a construction that combines neo-liberalism to the ways science is being utilized and politicized for specific ends.
Given this emerging and strengthening educational landscape, this paper is an attempt to offer a distinctive counter-narrative. Such narratives necessarily draw us away from well-worn paths in search of new theories, new organizing metaphors, and new intellectual ancestors to imagine, as Maxine Greene writes, of how things might be otherwise. I hope to critique some of the limitations of the dominant reform orthodoxy in education, drawing upon the work of Michael Apple, Michel Foucault, Maxine Greene, and Dennis Carlson in addition to a variety of environmental and ecological writers (Wendell Berry, Michael Soule, C.A. Bowers, and David Orr, among others) to move toward the formulation of a counter-narrative of progressive educational reform that is informed by ecological discourses, movements, and zeitgeists. Through the field of conservation biology, I hope to connect both ecology and education as “crisis disciplines” and suggest that the “reform” discourse in the field of biology utilizes a much different framework than that of current school reform discourse. These differences have powerful and real consequences for the ways in which children and teachers experience school. Utilizing the well documented case of the Biosphere 2 as a grounding metaphor and cautionary tale, I plan to show not only the severe limitations of corporate-scientific discourses in school reform but the ways in which the normalization of what I will call the “Biospheric Number” functions as a technology of power. Finally, I hope to position the emerging worldview of what Carlson termed “eco-progressivism” as a better framework for thinking about school reform, its challenges, and potential solutions.
On Education and Ecology
Derived from the Greek “Oikos,” meaning house or home, ecology and ecological metaphors have been attractive to other fields and disciplines over the last four decades. In the sixties and seventies, anthropologists were captivated by the possibilities of using an ecosystem lens on human organization and behavior (Moran 1979). More recently, the management and leadership fields have explored ecological frameworks to better understand corporate organizational dynamics (Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers 1996). Finally, eco-psychology has emerged as a field exploring the “inner realm” of ecology (Kahn & Keller 2002; Schauffler 2003). Within the field of education, the dominant way in which education and ecology talk with one another is typically through the theory and practice of environmental education. While this relatively new field has provided a useful framework from which to examine issues of schooling in relation to the environment, it has historically also come with some limitations. Too frequently, the way we think of environmental education is through projects and texts that emphasize lesson-planning, adopt-a-species programs, recycling initiatives, and other narrowly defined activities and curricula. If this is all that is done in the name of environmental education we have, in the words of Maxine Greene, “mystified” environmentalism: “…and over it all, like a veneer, [are] the visible surfaces of gentility, piety, high moral commitment, all masking what stirs below”(1978). In other words, by employing environmental education theory and practice within the “education-about-the-environment” lens, ecology is evoked within educational spheres (and visa versa) to help make us better stewards of the land rather than to question the organizational frameworks of schooling itself. While these specific and technical forms of environmental education may work well for meeting state content standards in the earth sciences, they ignore the more difficult and complex questions about the purposes of schooling, the ways in which various types of knowledge are defined and normalized, and the relationships between our cultural beliefs and values and our schooling practices.
Despite these limitations, there is an emerging body of work from theorists who are moving beyond the education-about-the-environment lens to examine the overlapping spaces between ecology and schooling in the form of cultural critique . Most notable of these attempts is the work of David Orr, Fritjof Capra, and C.A. Bowers2. Orr, Capra, and Bowers each write about the need for reform at both the public school and higher education levels and lay out in depth critiques of the institutions of schooling and the underlying assumptions of our modern, industrialized cultures (while often employing very different theoretical positions). Building off of this body of work, I aim here to shift the discursive framework of environmental education by using ecological discourses to talk about schooling rather than using educational discourses to talk about environmentalism. In this sense, the following analysis draws from the previous work of theorists such as Bowers, Orr, and Capra while also deliberately parting from the education-about-the environment lens. In the end, I hope to, in the words of Gary Nabhan, “re-story” school reform in the open spaces revealed through the intersections of ecology and education.
The Crisis Disciplines
Some of the closest parallels in education and ecology come from the rise of conservation biology as a distinctive discipline in the fields of ecology and biology. A recent and still developing field, conservation biology has its modern beginnings in the work of Michael Soule and Bruce Wilcox with the publication of Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective in 1980 (Carroll and Meffe 1996). Soule labeled conservation biology a “crisis discipline” and argued that because of its unique praxis focus, conservation biology has characteristics that separate it from the larger fields of biology and ecology. In essence, problems are presented in the natural world that require immediate action, sometimes without the time or capability to know all the necessary variables. Conservation biologists must, therefore, learn to live with a fair amount of uncertainty, ambiguity, and, by association, conflict. “Some of the uniqueness of conservation biology also stems from basic conflicts between the complexity, dynamics, and interrelationships of natural systems, and humankind’s propensity to try to control, simplify, and conquer those systems.” (Carroll and Meffe, 14). This “value-laden” aspect of conservation biology rejects (or at the very least is deeply suspicious of) positivistic science. Rather, the “science” of conservation is one that is infused with values, missions, and the understanding of the effects of positionality (stakeholders) in relation to the analysis of a problem. For anyone involved in education at the moment, this disciplinary self-awareness stands in stark contrast to the current directions of approved “research” in the school reform discourse where the acknowledgement of values, bias, complexity, and interrelationships is, like the apple in the garden, forbidden lest we fall from the “grace” of objectivity, expert truth, and scientific rigor (but more on that later).
In 1985, Soule published a manifesto, “What is Conservation Biology?” in BioScience which attempted to lay down the foundations of the emerging discipline (Sarkar 2001). In it, Soule develops several key postulates and principles for the nascent field of conservation biology that overlap in interesting and provocative ways with current reform frameworks in education. The first is that diversity of organisms is good. Drawing from the biophilia principle of E.O Wilson (1992) Soule argues that human beings seem to enjoy a diversity of life forms and see diversity in natural systems as good for nature and good for humankind. Second, Soule argues that ecological complexity is good. Humans seem to prefer “nature over artifice…wilderness over gardens” (Soule, 19). As a corollary, simplification of natural systems by humans is bad. For example, logging companies often claim that they replace just as many trees (or more) than the ones they log in a given area. What they fail to mention is that the complex and diverse ecosystem they destroyed has been “replaced” by what is essentially a mono-crop field of, say, lodge pole pines. To Soule, and to many of us, a homogenous tract of lodge pole pine does not sum up to the whole that was a complex, primary forest. Third, ecological systems are dynamic and non-equilibrial (Carroll and Meffe, 16). That is, the old paradigm of the “balance of nature” with systems tending toward a state of equilibrium is no longer valid- “change must be a part of conservation” (Carroll and Meffe, 29). Finally, Carroll and Meffe characterize conservation biology as a “multidisciplinary” and “inexact science.” Ecological systems are complex, and situations are often unique. What makes sense in one system or circumstance will be inapplicable in another. Idiosyncracies abound, as do conflicting demands. Conservation scenarios need to be defined and pursued individually, and not be part of an automatic, ‘cookbook’ approach (Carroll and Meffe, 23).
Conservation biology is not, however, without its critics. Sarkar has criticized the Eurocentric nature of the field and as such, finds it ignorant of alternate models of human-nature relationships (2001). While a legitimate critique, I believe such analyses underestimate the reflexivity inherent in the field since its inception. Indeed, it is because of conservation biology’s attempts to move beyond empirical analysis to other ways of knowing (aesthetic, cultural, and ethical) that I believe it offers an intriguing discursive framework for school reform.
The narrative intersections between the disciplines of conservation biology and educational reform are striking. Both function as crisis disciplines- with a call to act in dynamic and changing environment where all variables influencing decisions cannot easily be known. Both deal with complex, interrelated organizational frameworks that are difficult to analyze as closed systems. Both must acknowledge the value-laden aspects of problem analysis and its impact on potential solutions. And finally, both have “applied” (to use an ecological term) or praxis (to use an educational term) missions- the purpose of the work is to engage in the inevitable messiness of problem solving at the local level. Yet interestingly, the dominant corporate-scientific educational reform discourse sets a very different framework than the ecological construction outlined above. I will now turn to a particular, “tragicomic” (Gates and West 1996) tale to further illustrate the contradictions inherent in the discursive framework of current corporate-scientific school reform initiatives. As West uses it, “tragicomic” becomes something more than merely tragic when we “confront the sheer absurdity of the human condition” and choose to learn from it (West and Gates, 57-58). In examining the tragicomedy of the Biosphere 2 Project, lessons can be learned about the absurdity of trying to measure (and control) widely varying and disparate phenomena and the ways in which we fall under the spell of a sort of fanatical positivism when trying to reform public schooling.
III. The Tragicomedy of the Biosphere 2 Project
In September of 1991, the Biosphere 2 project began in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. Highly publicized at the time, Biosphere 2 was an attempt by Space Biospheric Ventures (SBV) to construct a closed, ecological system that included five separate biomes (rainforest, ocean, desert, marsh, and grasslands) and eight humans beings for a total of two years with no outside support. SBV hoped to answer “whether man can design and live in a self-supporting biosphere in which the environment provides everything for life” (Dewdney 1997, 125). The profit motive for SBV involved development of “technologies” for creating sustainable, closed ecological systems. Such technologies would allow SBV to be on the forefront of the futuristic ventures of space travel and colonization. In attempting to construct five separate biomes and all the life-support technologies for both the human and other plant and animal life, the project was the largest attempt of its kind to replicate and attempt to control complex ecological phenomena. All under what was, in essence, a three-acre greenhouse. In its own official narrative of the mission, Life Under Glass, two of the Biopsherians detailed the far-reaching hopes of the project. This two-year experiment would be the maiden voyage, the massive shakedown cruise for the most complex ecological experimental apparatus ever devised. If the system worked, Biopshere 2 would provide a powerful new experimental tool for the multi-disciplinary science of biospherics, a controlled microcosm in which to study global ecological processes in detail and as a whole. The unmeasurable would become measurable (Alling 1993, 14, my emphasis).
The attempt, as most people now know, was a monstrous failure. Newsweek magazine rated Biopshere 2 as one of the worst 100 ideas of the 20th century. Almost immediately, the “closed” system was breached to offer first aid to a biospherian, then to add oxygen to the facility as air quality levels sank to dangerous levels. Cockroaches overran all five biomes, many of the animal species went “locally extinct” while data was allegedly doctored and manipulated by SBV to prove that the experiment was working. After two years, the Biospherians completed their voyage, but, by then, the scientific community declared the whole affair more of a “stunt” than an actual ecological experiment (Dewdney 1997). Biosphere 2 was later acquired by Columbia University and the entire venture to include humans in a closed ecological system was scrapped. Now the center is primarily a site for undergraduate and graduate research programs. And perhaps to underscore the whole story, it has grown to become a major tourist attraction for the Tucson area.
Tony Burgess one of the central designers of the facility and a knowledgeable desert ecologist in his own right, reinforced the story of the errors in the design and implementation of the project but added a different spin. To Mr. Burgess, the failures in Biosphere 2 had as much to do with the objectives and mental models of what the project was supposed to accomplish as it did with the actual implementation. Recall the earlier comment from the Biopsherians, “the unmeasurable would become measurable” (Alling, 14). According to Mr. Burgess, one of the chief goals for the project designers was to quantify natural processes to such an extent that the entire “health” or sustainability of the system- all five biomes (desert, rain forest, ocean, and savannah), could be reduced to a single “Biospheric Number.” Theoretically, Mr. Burgess, or any other manager, could walk into the control room, look up at the board, and tell how the entire ecological system was doing and rationalize any number of interventions and remediations through this one number. If complex ecological phenomena and interrelationships could be so quantified, it could allow for easier control and management of natural systems and could even become a transferable technology- something SBV and its investors were surely interested in. This, of course, did not happen. Natural systems, as conservation biologists (and some social scientists) are learning, are vastly more complex, interconnected, and unpredictable than we can easily quantify, let alone reduce to a single measure. As Mr. Burgess prophetically stated when summing up the Biosphere 2 tragicomedy, “beware the Biospheric Number” (Burgess 2003). This statement has unsettled me ever since. While Biosphere 2 did not achieve its mission, the lasting legacy is the resonation of its metaphor- the Biospheric Number. As corporate-scientific frameworks collide with the discourse on school reform, I fear we have replicated the mistakes of the Biosphere 2 project. The school (perhaps the district) replaces the three-acre glass dome and everywhere, complex, interrelated, and often times chaotic educational/ecological phenomena are being reduced to single numbers. All in the hopes of being able to easily assess the health of the child/school/system. The irony here is that the very goal of accountability and assessment rejected by mainstream biologists and ecologists in the case of the Biosphere 2 tragicomedy is the same technology now being implemented in our public schools. It is theses differences that I turn to now.
IV. From Landscapes to Biospheric Numbers
Conservation biology, over the last 20 years, has increased the size and complexity of their analysis, moving from attempting to conserve a species, to a habitat, to an ecosystem, and finally to a larger landscape scale. “While direct species interaction is most apparent, indirect interactions, in which species A and species B influence species C, can also be important” (Carroll and Meffe, 354). What they realized was that natural systems are too interconnected to attempt to isolate and “solve” only one piece of the puzzle. For example, a conservation biologist attempting to save the endangered Southwest Willow Flycatcher cannot simply study the behavior of that particular bird population. The health of the population is connected to the health of the river and riparian zone that the flycatcher utilizes as habitat. But the health of the river is connected to its ability to provide a “perrenial” flow- a steady stream of water throughout the year. The river flow is directly related to local agriculture and ranching use. So, the way to save a bird may very well be to study a cow. Ecological systems defy simplistic measurement and assessment. Perhaps more boldly, all natural life forms and systems defy atomistic accounting. This does not mean they cannot or should not be measured and assessed and studied. It only means that factors such as context, locality, interrelationships, and change must be considered in the assessment. Ecosystems are open systems with fluxes of species, materials, and energy, and must be understood in the context of their surroundings. A further implication is that conservation reserves cannot be treated in isolation but must be a part of larger conservation plans whose design recognizes and accounts for spatial and temporal change (Carroll and Meffe, 18).
Yet, as ecology has moved its level of analysis to the most wide and encompassing (landscape scale), the discourse of educational reform has moved the opposite way. Rather than view school performance within the context of the larger landscapes, the corporate-scientific technology reduces the locus of reform to the isolated pieces of the child, the teacher, and the subject matter. Considerations of any factors outside the three-acre greenhouse of the teacher-student instructional moment are labeled as excuses- failed social theories that have left too many children behind. Standardized tests are to be administered to each and every child. Scores from those tests are to be aggregated (and disaggregated) to create “report cards” for each teacher, school, and district. These numbers are then used (ideally) to assess what additional assistance each child, school, and district may need. The numbers, like the readings of a thermometer, allow us to assess who is considered “sick” and who is considered “healthy.”
Yet, beware the Biopsheric Number. What are the implications in the use of such measurement? Evidence is already emerging showing a correlation between real estate prices and publicized standardized test reports (Spring 2003). There are rumors and verified cases of test result tampering and other attempts by schools to “doctor” their scores. The illusion of progress (my local school district recently championed their “6% improvement in reading scores from last year!”), chokes off real assessment and dialogue about educational achievement and school performance. These are real concerns, but there are deeper issues with the corporate-scientific reform discourse. “[It] represents a subtle, but crucial shift in emphasis- one that is not openly discussed as often as it should be- from student needs to student performance and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school” (Apple 2004, 71).
To summarize, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “in our attempt to make conservation easy to understand, we have made it trivial” (1987, 210). We have done the same with school reform. The management wishes of the Biosphere 2 are realized in the corporate-scientific discourse of modern educational reform. We can now assess and understand the health of a school and/or district by a single number. Rather than walking into the Biosphere 2 control room, you can read it in the newspaper. Like stock market quotes we all follow our schools progress. “Garfield Elementary went up 8 percent in reading last year. Jameson School drops five points in math.” The space for organic curriculum response diminishes under the power of the Biospheric Number. The act of counting becomes an act of power. One counts what one owns. A teacher-colleague of mine relayed that her school’s motto is “every second counts!” What better indication of the power of the metaphor? Every act, every body, every interaction, counted and accounted for. Organic, living, interconnected lives and relationships become points to tally, rate, and score. Bowers refers to this as a form of technological consciousness which “… in addition to creating a hierarchy of experts who possess increasingly specialized knowledge, the technological form of consciousness now being promoted as the highest achievement of modernity involves making sense of the world in a very special way”(111). The cultural assumptions embedded within this consciousness, to Bowers, include the reification of data and information, the valorization of the autonomous individual, and the assumption that such dizzying forms of measurement and experimentation are signs of progress. Josef Stalin once said that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Is this the quality of education needed in our schools?
Yet, even with the controlling gaze of the Biospheric Number and the trivialization of educational reform there remains room for counter-responses and resistance. Human and natural systems and the individual bodies within them can defy atomistic accounting. Just as the Biosphere 2 project could not “discipline” the cockroach from crossing into biomes it was not designed to inhabit, organic curriculum response is not completely stifled by the gaze. Progressives must discover new discursive interventions to the corporate-scientific reform technologies by forming new (perhaps unlikely) alliances, reconstructing novel intellectual ancestors, and strengthening our organic, intellectual practice. In the words of Michael Apple, “to build counterhegemonic alliances, we may have to think more creatively than before…” (2001, 210). A recent article on the problems with modern environmentalism cited the following provocative statistic: if left-leaning environmentalists (the “tree-huggers”) were to join forces with the more right-leaning environmentalists (hunters, fisherman, etc.) the resultant coalition would represent over 60 percent of the voting public in the United States (Williams 2005). Given how much these groups have in common in terms of their environmental objectives, this does not seem as far-fetched as it might sound3. It is my contention that organizing resistance under the framework of eco-progressivism may provide a distinctive counter-narrative. Ecological discourses can be useful to educational progressives. They can reveal the contradictory nature of the current assessment and reform discourse by highlighting its atomized and universal approach. This is sharply contrasted with the integrative, contextual, and complex level of analysis currently practiced in the ecological sciences. As I have shown here, conservation biology, while clearly utilizing scientific frameworks in both theory and application, presents a far different approach to problem solving than the current corporate-scientific approach in education. A fanatical form of positivism, and the subsequent claim that the only things of worth are things that can be measured, has in effect colonized the discourse on school reform. This positivist scientific worldview has become so pervasive that it becomes difficult to imagine new forms of curriculum and assessment, or school organization, that are not organized around the vision of the Biospheric Number. Robert Fried, in his book The Passionate Teacher, recounts a conversation with teachers where he suggests the idea of testing students a full year after they have been exposed to the material. The teachers (after laughing it off as an absurdity) all agreed that such an approach would radically change the entire way they would teach and organize the curriculum (Fried 1995). It is clear that forms of assessment are not neutral. They can and do, in fact, discipline the pedagogy. John Dewey once said, “no conclusion of scientific research can be converted into an immediate rule of educational art” (Biesta and Burbules, 2003). Yet a local charter school in my city touts their “real time” assessment through a proprietary computerized testing program. The chief educational officer explains that he knows exactly how each child is doing in each subject area on any given day and this allows his staff to make adjustments to better meet student needs. Is this real data or are we trivializing (and mystifying) learning? Held accountable to “results” by the No Child Left Behind legislation and the dominant reform discourse, it is difficult to imagine alternative responses of organizing school. Thus, “innovation” for this particular charter school involves real-time computerized assessment for every child, in every classroom, every day. While I have no doubt the school has nothing but the best of intentions, it evokes the vision of the Biospheric Number and our absurd quest to turn all teaching, learning, and curriculum into a science (and a peculiar form of science at that).
VI. The Rise of Eco-Progressivism?
I have sought here to suggest how progressives might begin moving beyond dominant corporate-scientific narratives of educational reform by drawing upon ecological counter-narratives and counter-discourses. I have used the field of conservation biology as a particular example of such a counter-discourse as well as the tragicomedy of the Biosphere 2. In addition, I have argued that progressives need to begin moving beyond some of the well-trodden intersections of ecology and education in both theory and practice (characterized by the education-about-the-environment lens) to a larger organizing framework that holds the potential power to build larger coalitions and a more wide-reaching counter-narrative. I now want to explore some of the defining characteristics of what might be called, tentatively, “eco-progressivism” and explore its potential as an emerging progressive movement.
As I have alluded to several times in this paper, one defining characteristic of eco-progressivism is the move beyond education-about-the-environment to a more dialogic construct of the human:nature relationship. In relation to schooling, this shift forces us to move beyond environmental education as it is traditionally defined to question the very ways we go about organizing the curriculum and to the purposes of schooling. Bowers achieves this in his elucidation of what he calls a “cultural-ecological form of intelligence” which, to him, ought to be the focus of curricular activity. “The word ecology generally is used to refer to the physical environment, but when used in discussions of education it helps reframe how we think- from a one/many (i.e., the individual is separate from the world being observed and acted upon) to a part/whole way of understanding”(182). Some may pause to see C.A Bowers evoked in any discursive framework that employs the term “progressive.” Indeed, he seems most noted for his rejection of modernism and progressivism as guiding intellectual traditions within ecological and environmental discourses. Certainly there is some historic validity to this critique. While it is beyond the scope of this analysis to engage in that debate I would add that progressivism, historically, has worn many hats- some of them not entirely compatible (I am thinking particularly of the social efficiency strain of progressivism prevalent in the early parts of the twentieth century). There is, for better or worse, no single defining characteristic of the movement. And, despite Bowers’ claims to the contrary, I believe a Deweyian sense of progressivism provides a sympathetic framework for ecological and environmental thinking. Dewey asserts:
Experience, in other words, is a matter of simultaneous doings and sufferings. Our undergoings are experiments in varying the course of events; our active trying are trials and tests of ourselves… Nothing can eliminate all risk, all adventure. The obstacles which confront us are stimuli to variation, to novel response, and hence are occasions for progress” (Dewey, quoted in West 1989, 88).
Progress, for Dewey, was not an inexorable and unreflective linear movement in space and time. Rather, it was transactional and based upon a subjective relationship of “human organisms with nature and each other” (West, 89). This sort of pragmatic “action-research” would clearly be one conservationists would recognize and value. Ecologists rarely assert that they have forever “fixed” one problem or another. They understand that progress is relative and contextual. While one can rightly criticize Dewey for his views (or lack there of) on environmental issues from a historical standpoint, I would assert that his philosophical work remains compatible with ecological and environmental ways of thinking. Furthermore, one wonders (as Bowers asserts) how we are to reject our grounding in late modernity while simultaneously engaging in environmental problem-solving. Bowers himself appears to imply an element of “progressive-ness” in his assumption that there is, in the end, a “better way.” In the end, progressivism does not have to imply notions of perfectibility, utopianism, or objectified management towards prescribed goals. The question is not progress per se but progress of a certain kind.
David Orr may be of some assistance here in distinguishing types of progress that are ecologically sound from those that are not. In the passage below, from The Nature of Design, he makes a crucial (and useful) distinction between what he calls “fast” and “slow” knowledge.
The differences between fast knowledge and slow knowledge could not be more striking. Fast knowledge is focused on solving problems, usually by one technological fix or another; slow knowledge has to do with avoiding problems in the first place. Fast knowledge deals with discrete problems, whereas slow knowledge deals with context, patterns, and connections… Fast knowledge is about know-how; slow knowledge is about know-how and know-why… Fast knowledge is mostly linear; slow knowledge is complex and ecological (2002, 40).
Such distinctions can be a useful framework for critiquing current school reform approaches. Eco-progressive approaches view knowledge as integrated, contextual, and experiential. This translates into curriculum constructions that are likewise. Curriculum integration and focusing on the educational value of local problems are certainly not new ideas. But building coalitions between environmental and social justice concerns is a relatively recent concern. The failure of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is not so much a failure of crisis response (fast knowledge) as it is an inability to understand the intersections of ecological and social conditions (slow knowledge). Despite warnings regarding the vulnerability of a city built below sea level, little was done. It is the poor who suffer the most for such ecological ignorance. History is filled with examples of how the marginalized and the downtrodden bare the brunt of environmental calamities. How is it that we do not learn these things? Nel Noddings asserts that “attention to place can serve an integrating function in school studies” (2005, 67). The intersections between social justice and environmental issues are legion and can be utilized to build larger coalitions. These coalitions have the potential to actively resist the objectifying, dehumanizing logic of the Biospheric Number and the fast knowledge exemplified in the modern school reform orthodoxy.
A second characteristic of the emerging eco-progressive stance is the re-positioning of progressivism within a post-humanist, post-modern zeitgeist. Carlson, in his essay “A Cyborg’s Education: Heidegger and Eco-Progressivism” explores this distinction.
Eco-progressive forms of education…question the taken-for-granted character of technology and the way the dominant technology frames the way we dwell upon the earth and relate to others. Eco-progressivism also needs to be about introducing young people to counter-narratives and counter-technologies, ones that can be used to help stitch together a new techne, a saving techne…[t]he currently dominant form of techne, with its objectifying, commodifying, and ordering logic, has a destiny of its own making, its own projection (2002, 174).
To Carlson, the work of the eco-progressive is to uncover and champion Heidegger’s “saving techne’s”- narratives, discourses, and constructions that do not necessarily reject the ordering logic of modern culture but reveal openings and spaces within it. Carlson’s eco-progressivism begins to expand the possibility of ecological discourses in education while, importantly, being mindful to question romanticized and/or co-opted uses of a universal “Nature” and systems-theory.
Andrew Stables and William Scott have argued for what they term a “post-humanist liberal pragmatism” that draws from a Rortyan pragmatism. “…[W]e must have our regulative ideals (truth, beauty, nature, sustainability), but we are often most effective in acting on them when we abandon attempts at absolute and enduring understanding and do what we can to act on them contingently”(274). And this brings us back to the question of a post-humanist, post-modern progressivism. How might one, for example, wrestle with issues of technology within this worldview? Rather than dismissing the incorporation of technology and technological advancement in our schools, an eco-progressive worldview would ask us to consider what function technology plays and towards what purposes. Any educator will tell you that assessment, in and of itself, is not bad. Indeed, it is at the very heart of the educative process. Rather, it is what kind of assessment and for what purposes that ought to be our organizing queries. When the educative value of assessment becomes colonized by a technology of power (in the ways I think it has through No Child Left Behind and the resultant “Biospheric Number-ification”), curriculum and pedagogy become disciplined and objects of surveillance. This is far from the saving techne of Heidegger and Carlson. In a recent article entitled, “Renewing Husbandry,” Wendell Berry argues for a return to farming as a type of husbandry rather than just a mechanized science. While he is speaking of farming and agricultural science in the passage that follows, he could just as easily be speaking of teaching and school reform.
“We are not farming in a specialist capsule or a professionalist department; we are farming in the world, in a webwork of dependencies and influences probably more intricate than we will ever understand… We were wrong to assume that agriculture could be adequately defined by reductionist science and deterministic economics (2005, 42).
Eco-progressive approaches do not claim to replace science and technology, or fear it. Rather, both are seen and used as tools only in as much as they bring us in closer connection with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Thus, technology reveals open spaces and becomes part of a saving “techne” only if we use it reflectively. As Rachel Carson wrote, “if we know how to do something, we do it without pausing to inquire whether we should” (Carson, quoted in Schauffler 2003, 110).
A third characteristic of eco-progressivism is the intentional collapse of the real world:school world false dichotomy. Clearly, this vein draws heavily from Deweyian constructions of the purpose of schooling. Yet it also intersects with other curricular traditions including critical and feminist pedagogy, experiential and outdoor education, and even the nascent brain-based learning field. Eco-progressive approaches ask how we might bring relevance, connectedness, and social justice back into the curriculum. Beginning from the standpoint that knowledge has moral consequences, learning in school must be linked to problems, challenges, and potential solutions perceived at both the local and the global level. James Beane puts it this way:
For most young people, including those who are privileged, the separate-subject approach offers little more than a disconnected and incoherent assortment of facts and skills. There is no unity, no real sense to it all. It is as if in real life, when faced with problems or puzzling situations, we stop to ask which part is science, which part mathematics, which part art, and so on” (1997, 42).
If the best way to save the endangered Southwest Willow Flycatcher is to study a cow as I stated earlier, then students must also be taught this sort of “landscape” approach to problem solving. And again, this is not just true of only “environmental” problems and puzzles but of all types of inquiry. Ecological ways of knowing emphasize the transactional relationship between learner and that which is to be learned. We learn to see the impacts of our actions on others and the interdependence of all living things. Nel Noddings connects this to ideas of global citizenship through her notion of an “ecological view of caring” (2005, 8). It is not enough that we care for and about our local communities. An ecological view of caring extends beyond the local to the global. “The basic idea of ecology is interdependence, and that is a basic concept in global citizenship… Applied on a global level, ecological thinking brings us to consider the effects of life in one locality on the lives and well-being of distant others.” (Noddings, 11). While some critics have suggested that place-based education and related eco-progressive movements are overly parochial, privileged, and romantic, ecological ways of knowing can just as easily be viewed as an invitation toward connectedness and social justice. Indeed, it seems that standardized curricular approaches disconnected from local and global social engagement would be more likely to promote overly romantic notions of privilege and parochialism than the models proposed by eco-progressives.
While there are many varieties and types of what might tentatively be termed eco-progressive approaches to schooling, I have attempted to lay out three central and defining characteristics: an expansion of the discourse beyond traditional constructs of environmental education to how ecological ways of knowing might inform curriculum organization and the purposes of schooling; a re-articulation of progressivism within a post-humanist, post-modern framework; and, a deconstruction of the real world: school world false dichotomy and an emphasis on social justice issues related to local and global interdependence. I would like to conclude by returning to the tragicomedy of Biosphere and the metaphor of the Biospheric Number.
Maxine Greene and Morwenna Griffiths in their essay, “Feminism, Philosophy, and Education: Imagining Public Spaces,” discuss the power of metaphorical thinking:
“We need to rethink, to think differently: to use our imaginations again… metaphorical language [is] a way of rethinking and questioning orthodox thinking. A metaphor is what it does. A metaphor, because of the way it brings together things that are unlike, reorients consciousness…” (2003, 85).
The tragicomedy of the Biosphere presents us with a lasting metaphor and brings together things that are seemingly unlike: conservation biology and education; a giant three-acre greenhouse and a school; learning and a Biospheric Number. How does this push us to rethink and use our imaginations again as Greene and Griffiths suggest? The potential power of eco-progressivism lies in its ability to function as a counter-narrative to the orthodox thinking about school reform today. At one level, it uses the discourses of science against itself, highlighting how “scientifically validated research” is constructed from a narrow positive and post-positive paradigm. As I have shown, the “science” going on within the ecological fields is much more inclusive of a variety of research paradigms than the current orthodoxy within education. The metaphor also presents us with a different view of “reform.” Current school reform initiatives emphasize the three “A’s” of the corporate-scientific zeitgeist- accountability, assessment and achievement. At last, proponents say, we will have objective data that will clearly tell us who is succeeding and who is failing. While standardization does allow for comparison, it also stifles variation and context. To a conservation biologist, a land management solution in one place cannot be replicated universally in all places. While universal replication may be possible in some controlled lab environments, the “messiness” of natural and social phenomena in the “real world” require local and contextual solutions. The message from ecological discourses is to celebrate the interdependence, the diversity, and the local variations. Finally, the tragicomedy of the Biospheric Number reminds us of the hubris of human endeavors. While scientific advancement allows for an increasing specificity and preciseness of measurement, this is not the same as accuracy. Too often, we succumb to the enchantment and mystification of numbers and by all the meaning they can potentially encapsulate in a single representation (just ask any college president how much she worries about the U.S. News & World Report rankings). If we are to use our imaginations again, we must be able to articulate the differences between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Eco-progressivism does not dismiss the value of empirical data and positivist research paradigms. It simply does not view data as an end in and of itself. Data will never be wisdom and knowledge is never so easily replicated or attained.
The project, then, is a difficult one for progressives of all shapes at the current moment. Dispersed, divided, and seemingly unable to respond in a forceful, coherent way to the corporate-scientific and neo-liberal zeitgeist that dominates American culture, progressive movements are still searching for some form of traction. Yet, unlikely alliances and disparate strands of progressivism may yet come together, tangled webs of symbols, images, discourses, and meanings providing counter-narratives and revealing contradictions and open spaces. For those that care about the future of progressivism on the educational landscape, it is the construction, or re-construction, of this web that ought to be our work. Conservation biology has been described as the science of eternal vigilance (Carroll and Mefffe, 22). Progressivism must, also, be eternally vigilant. As Carlson notes, there are alternate ways to imagine an educational future.
If that hope is to be realized, a new eco-progressivism will need to develop out of late modern culture, attuned to postmodern ways of knowing, global in its awareness and concerns, finding its strength in difference and localism, but also able to come together with other strands of progressivism in the mobilization of political power (2002, 174).
A recent article entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism” (Shellenberger and Norhaus, 2005) has received a great deal of attention both within environmental circles as well as in the popular press. In it, the authors claim that the current tactics, emphases, and motives of the environmental movement are outdated, misplaced, and doomed to failure. Rather than a cause for hand-wringing, such pronouncements should be celebrated. It means an open space has been revealed. If environmentalism is dead, opportunities exist for the emergence of new organizational frameworks and counter-hegemonic alliances. Eco-progressivism, with its ability to connect across discourses through the organizing emphases of social justice, local and global equity issues, and opposition to neo-liberal ideology, can emerge as a powerful new progressive stance. Indeed, it is eco-progressivism’s lack of description and definition that may be its greatest asset. Wendell Berry, in his poem “The Real Work” aptly describes the benefits of making the trail as you walk it. “It may be that when we no longer know what to do/We have come to our real work/And that when we no longer know which way to go/We have come to our real journey. / The mind that is not baffled is not employed. /The impeded stream is the one that sings” (Berry 2006). The mythical clarity of the current school reform zeitgeist belies the tragicomic nature of the endeavor. We are trying to measure the immeasurable. And yet, our children are not numbers. Our schools are not isolated biospheres. Eco-progressivism reminds us that we no longer know which way to go. And, that we have real work to do.
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