The Appalachian Trail: An Environmental Classroom

Article excerpt

Abstract

Given recent observations about the detrimental effects of alienating children from nature, there should be a similar concern for addressing such effects in college students. "The Literature and Cultures of the Appalachian Trail" is a course that blends work inside in the classroom and outside on the trail as an answer to the effects of what Richard Louv has labeled "nature deficit."

"We do not learn by inference and deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy."

Henry David Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts"

Introduction

With all of the recent attention on the possible social effects of the alienation of children from nature, one wonders about the ways in which such alienation may affect university students. More than half a century ago, Aldo Leopold, in proposing his Land Ethic, suggested that perhaps the most serious impediment to the evolution of such an ethic is that "our educational and economic system is headed away from rather than toward, an intense consciousness of the land" (223-224). Recently, Lowell Monke, a former teacher of computer skills to elementary school children, critiqued the computer for inhibiting our ability as humans to learn from the nonhuman world. Monke writes that

   Western pedagogy has always favored abstract
   knowledge over experiential learning. Even relying on
   books too much too early inhibits the ability of children
   to develop direct relationships with the subjects they are
   studying. But because of their power, computers drastically
   exacerbate this tendency, leading us to believe that
   vivid images, massive amounts of information, and even
   online conversations with experts provide an adequate
   substitute for conversing with the things themselves.
   (28)

Maybe the most noticed of recent work highlighting the potential deleterious effects of sequestering our children in front of computers or televisions is Richard Louv's. He writes that in a society that imposes on its children "an artificial environment for which they have not evolved," eventually "children and adults alike would suffer from what might be called nature-deficit disorder, not in a clinical sense, but as a condition caused by the cumulative human costs of alienation from nature, including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses" (71).

Louv suggests the possibility that not only children but adults as well may suffer in significant ways from the changes our electronic technology has occasioned in the way we learn. His observations seem important to me because universities by and large don't require that graduating students be ecologically literate. We don't require our graduates to know anything about the environment where they live and attend classes, nor do we ask them to be familiar with environmental laws that protect the air and water we all depend on for life.

In my own classes I have asked my young-adult students not to use CD players and cell phones on various outings associated with their coursework, since being out in the woods, even for only part of a day, gives them the chance to listen to natural sounds rather than the buzz and hum and roar that surrounds them the rest of the time. I was amazed to discover the predominance of the I-Pod on a weeklong kayaking trip with students last spring, and I am concerned about all of the students--a vast majority of those in my classes--who are hooked into recorded music or cell phones more than they are to their own thoughts. How can students care about a world that they walk through tied to technologies that distract them from that world? And how should such a concern influence the ways we approach the task of teaching our students, even in disciplines that seem more focused on culture than nature?

The Plan of the Course

I grew up in Washington County, Maryland, where the Appalachian Trail follows the county's eastern boundary as it snakes along a ridge known as South Mountain, so the Trail has occupied a small corner of my consciousness for most of my life. …