An Assessment of Environmental Knowledge and Concern of Incoming Freshmen at a Liberal Arts Institution

By Jennings, M.; Smith, Rebecca A. et al. | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

An Assessment of Environmental Knowledge and Concern of Incoming Freshmen at a Liberal Arts Institution


Jennings, M., Smith, Rebecca A., Ghosh, Soma, Sociological Viewpoints


Literacy is popularly defined as a person 's ability to read and write. This definition of literacy is a narrow conceptualization and fails to include the knowledge aspect of cognitive ability. When literacy is instead defined as cognitive ability, a broader and plural conceptualization emerges with a vast array of elements, as thinking and understanding involves not only the use of language, but also cultural, computational, and visual cues in one's world. Since human beings do not exist in a vacuum, they are subject to the natural laws within a finite system that is experiencing human-induced climate change, species extinction, and a host of other socio-environmental problems, with environmental literacy becoming ever more important. While knowledge is obviously an important element of environmental literacy, its conceptualization is much broader. According to the 1975 Belgrade Charter, an environmentally literate citizenry is one that possesses environmental awareness, knowledge, attitude, skills, and evaluation ability, as well as a sense of responsibility to participate in the resolution of environmental problems. Similarly, Disinger and Roth (1992) define environmental literacy as including the ability to perceive and interpret the physical condition of environmental systems and take the appropriate action based on those physical conditions. Furthermore, Roth (1992) stresses observable behaviors as key to environmental literacy in that individuals should have the ability to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and concern. Additionally, Iozzi (1989) suggests a directional relationship exists among these elements of environmental literacy in which societal environmental behavior stems from the development of the appropriate knowledge and skills. These definitions ultimately imply that environmental concern is developed through the acquisition of knowledge related to the environment.

Recently, a 2001 National Wildlife Foundation report found that universities and colleges are not doing an adequate job of producing students who are environmentally literate. Students need to have an understanding of not only biophysical processes but also the complexity involved with the interaction between ecosystems and social systems (Eagan and Orr 1992). As the definition of environmental literacy implies, this sort of understanding requires obtaining knowledge about environmental issues, problems and solutions. Such knowledge should thereby foster concern in students for the environment or what Orr (1992) calls the affective component of environmental literacy. To date, there is a gap in the literature on the level of knowledge and concern among incoming college students who have completed high school but have yet to start their college education. The present research seeks to address that gap by examining the environmental knowledge and concern of incoming freshmen at a residential liberal arts college. In addition to examining overall environmental knowledge and concern, this research aims to determine if knowledge is a key factor affecting a person's environmental concern. Finally, the results also serve to establish a baseline from which to assess the effect a liberal arts education has on environmental literacy of young adults.

Literature Review

Social movements focusing on environmental concerns in the United States are nearly as old as the country itself. The difference between the environmental movement and other social movements, though, is the wide range of possible concerns within this single movement. The conservation and preservation movements, for instance, have been strong since the turn of the twentieth century, but have very different perspectives and concerns. It was not until a few definitive moments in the 1960s (the publishing of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the first photo of Earth from space) that a more unified environmental movement formed. It was at this time that the general populace began to be exposed to the interconnections between social and environmental systems. …

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