Contemporary Art, Science, Ecology, and a Critical Pedagogy of Place

By Graham, Mark A. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Art, Science, Ecology, and a Critical Pedagogy of Place


Graham, Mark A., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Two difficult conditions, with their attendant consequences, define the context of education that would be responsive to ecological concerns. First, human progress emphasizing the domination of nature has devastated many parts of the earth. (1) Modern civilization has created environmental conditions characterized by pollution, depletion of natural resources, climate change, threatened biodiversity, and diminishing wilderness. In the process, modern man has lost a sense of reverence toward the earth. Second, mainstream American education reform has embraced a standards and testing culture that tends to ignore the peculiarities of place, culture, and community in order to standardize the experiences of students. Consequently, local human and natural communities are not usually important parts of the school curriculum. (2) Education that ignores issues of ecology and community becomes complicit in their erosion.

In American schools, curriculum is decontextualized and testing over-determines the content and methods of schooling. (3) Scientific management tools have produced schools designed for efficiency, social engineering, sorting of students and creation of uniform, easily measured outcomes. Learning often seems like a component of large-scale industrialization where efficiency and standardization are more important than imaginative and divergent thinking. High stakes testing creates pressure for schools to eliminate or diminish subjects that are not tested, including the arts. In the process, the scope and purposes of education have been narrowed so that issues of ecological or social responsibility are rarely considered (4) and the humanistic aims of developing compassion, social awareness and creative expression are neglected.

This article examines critical place-based pedagogy as a response to educational practices that neglect important ecological social issues. A critical pedagogy of place creates a rigorous theoretical framework that combines the ecological focus of place-based education with the social focus of critical theory. (5) It disturbs standardized curriculum models and re-envisions educational purposes by valuing the peculiarities of the local.

Many contemporary artists create work that is responsive to the ecology of local places and culture. These artists suggest ways that the educator might resist the isolation of the classroom from vital issues of community and ecology by focusing on the peculiarities of the local environment and culture. They assume a critical stance toward taken for granted assumptions about power, privilege, progress and our relationships with nature. Their work also resists the separation of art from science through its use of technology and scientific collaboration. As teaching becomes responsive to ecology and local culture, learning can be socially aware, multi-disciplinary, reflective, and transformational. The intersection of critical theory, place-based learning, science, technology, and contemporary art provides a robust framework for the practice of education that is concerned with ecological issues.

Wilderness

"In Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plough and sail for it. From the forest and wildness come the tonics and barks that brace mankind." (6)

One of my earliest memories is camping in the Uintah Mountains with my father. I remember crouching behind him in the cold before the dawn while he attempted to capture on camera the behavior of nocturnal beavers. As I grew older, we took many long hikes into these mountains and traveled to distant lakes. My father was a biologist and taught me at an early age to value the beautiful and complex relationships of the natural world. I learned to prize the mountain wilderness, the quiet of the deep forest, and the adventure of the narrow path. The natural world became a sacred place for me.

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