I am lucky, and also challenged, to work largely with students who are perhaps more identified with non-human life than average. These students are attracted to Huxley for their own reasons, but at the risk of over generalizing, once among like-minded students they discover shared motivations and identity. Much of my teaching is with undergraduate or graduate students in environmental education. These are students who care about and want to understand nature, and who also care about and like working with people. They are already ethically attuned to both. They may face (or are vulnerable to facing) motivational pitfalls: conflicted emotions, low sense of efficacy, and estrangement from mainstream values, grief, and crises of hope. They do need an education that stresses facts, concepts, critical thinking and traditional civic engagement, but it likely would not address all their needs, nor would it address their potential to serve humanity’s wider needs. Before I delve into my pedagogical approaches, several underpinnings of my philosophy for teaching need to be addressed. (Read more about my journey to civic engagement.)
My understanding of civic engagement is a rigorous one. I hold my views for reasons that cross traditional divisions of academia.
I cannot claim to be an expert in any but a small part of this span, but all are encompassed in my coursework and teaching and together they address our whole situation and our wholeness as persons. Although I participate in and deeply respect traditional disciplinary inquiry, I also believe that intellectual inquiry and practical action must start from a sampling that re-unites the usual divisions of life as re-presented by the university. To do less would be to avoid the responsibility placed upon the one institution of society dedicated to seeking the truth.
Teaching civic engagement at the college level is a sort of last-ditch opportunity. Few students come well-versed in it, yet its demands are great and urgent. To be frank, the education system of any democracy deserving of that name would never occur primarily in isolated classrooms. From the earliest ages, learning would take place in and through engagement, and schools would internally model to the utmost possible extent civic involvement: students being coached and empowered to make decisions about their schools, their education, and their world. Mind you, I have the highest respect for the teachers that work within our schools, and believe that important steps in the right direction for teacher education have been made in recent years. The system we have is highly constrained by political, financial and social expectations. The world is, hopefully for the better, committed to democracy at this historical period, so we must learn to do it as well as possible.
Nonetheless, our school system is the result of a mass-production mentality that co-evolved with industrialism, population increases, and the fragmentation and bureaucratization of many components of social and moral life. I hasten to add that I don’t necessarily think things were better at any period in the past; the problems were different, and perhaps even less hopeful depending on the vision of human life that may have prevailed. Today’s dominant vision of human life, although it very understandably evolved from the (partly) good intentions of people in the past, is embodied in institutions and habits of the mind and heart that are now no longer either nourishing nor sustainable with regards to the biosphere nor authentic human flourishing.
Unfortunately, most of our university students’ prior socialization and life experience have not challenged but rather reinforced dreams of satisfaction and fulfillment through participation in a civically passive consumption and disposal economy. Today our North American way of life proceeds with the implicit expectation that there is no reason to withhold meeting our every material desire through consumption that diminishes the welfare of people in other places, and future generations. Some students are inclined to defend this taken-for-granted social reality, but many are also aware that there are problems, not only including the relationship to our sustaining biosphere but also tensions with other important social goals such as economic welfare and social justice. Their awareness reflects the fact that our society is part way into a transition that, if it is not too conflictual and hesitating, may yet provide adequately for future generations.
This all may be read as “gloomy” social/ environmental critique, a reading mirroring socially constructed defenses against the threat it seems to imply for our individual and collective identities. But it is necessary to move through this to find the place where ‘civic engagement’ may be re-defined in adequate ways. Before I move there, however, to counter the easy dismissal of the perspective, I will provide a brief summary of studies that suggest just some of the problems we face.
These are only four of the 9 “safe planetary operating boundaries” (Rockström et al., 2009) we need to observe. Unfortunately, the notion that we can fix problems of these sorts and magnitudes entirely via technology are probably misplaced. Even cheap and clean solar energy may have unintended consequences such as enabling massive increases in energy use, material consumption and ecosystem conversion. No doubt such actions will help, but at the rates of current technology innovation and replacement, and at the rates of increased consumption evident in large countries such as India and China, we should not depend on them.
The above trends are driven by our institutions and behaviors that seem to assume our every material desire can be met, and that future generations have no claim against such present consumption. But meeting every material desire is not even healthy for us. A growing body of psychological research reveals that the consumer society not only does poorly at meeting basic human needs (indeed, it stimulates unnecessary consumption by tying it to these basic needs), but worse, it actually works against human fulfillment. A focus on wealth, status, and image lowers self-esteem, self-actualization, and life satisfaction. It maintains feelings of insecurity and a need for praise, and leads people to overestimate the value of material possessions and the qualities of wealthy people. Even if wealth is highly attained, it predicts lower subjective well-being and long-term happiness. Materialistic values divert attention from directly meeting esteem and competence needs, interfere with quality relationships, and negatively correlate with authenticity, curiosity, independent thought, choice of one’s own goals, and creativity. Negative relations are also found to benevolence and universalistic values (Kasser, 2002). As a system of social goals, material consumption ratchets upwards, increasing the baseline expectations for monetary income and “happiness.” We humans are averse to what we see as “losses” so it becomes harder to de-escalate consumerism once it is predominant. This only indicates how our present life style may work against enlightened self-interest, without visiting the social justice dimensions which are equally problematic. See Raworth’s (2012) response to Rockström et al: a “safe and just operating space for humanity.”
So this sets the stage for a very demanding reconceptualization of what ‘civic engagement’ should mean. So demanding, in fact, that no one is likely to live up to it entirely--the same as the societal challenges we face. Some might argue that because it may be unattainable, or because we may not see the results we want, the attempt lacks validity. But this gets the question wrong, I would respond. It is not a question of results but of doing the right thing, and of being the kind of person we wish to be, and of enacting or furthering the kind of education and world we can be proud of whether we succeed or not. In short, we need high ideals to stay on course with these challenges—educational and other. While embracing an ideal, we must also be psychologically realistic.
The psychologically real—what people are like, how they “work”—is not only what we observe now about people, but what humans are capable of, given nourishing developmental and educational conditions. Thus my title, “the care and feeding…” refers to the fact that our students are not blank slates; they have their natural “grain” and requirements. But neither can we treat them uniformly like a monocrop and expect a “high yield.” If we stick with a botanical metaphor, our learners may be a little like different species, some requiring exacting conditions–specific challenges and supports. Plants also make their own environments, and this is true of our students: they are active learners.
And finally, there is a difference between mere survival and thriving. Our students do best when their learning is built on:
These qualities (without their own complexities) provide an important larger lesson—these are the very human capacities that define flourishing in a robust sense, beyond narrow dreams of wealth, power, and self aggrandizement. If students learn these lessons experientially, and learn that they matter, and how to facilitate them, we have an attractive vision of flourishing that might fit joyously within our earthly home. Maybe it’s a long shot on both counts, but it is one that will be fulfilling regardless of the outcome, and thus worthy of our best efforts.
Starting with the learner, individuals construct their understandings of the world by interacting with it and with others. The others are essential for the traditional notion of civic engagement. My understanding of social psychology suggests others are essential to the very constitution of not only identity, but more deeply, of the self. But beyond that even, my research shows that the formation of the human self occurs through interaction with other living things. We form our ethical attitudes in reference to others through realization of shared and valued qualities. Shared qualities lead to a sense of group belonging—a belonging that may be as narrow as a small group of like-minded people or as broad as all living things. But partly because of that potential narrowness and because of our tendency to favor the emotionally comfortable, and cognitively familiar or “known,” our sense of self usually cannot grow without confrontation with ways of life and ideas that are new, counter-intuitive, alien, or even opposed to us. It is through both kinds of influences, shared and “other,” as well as self-reflection, that the ethical develops.
Thus I broaden the notion of citizen to that of “denizen” (there is not a good equivalent form to “civic” here). A denizen is autochthonous (=“formed or originating in the place where found”) to both local place and earthly planet. So the first tasks of education are to affirm, draw out, and nurture, and expand the person’ s existing connections to both human and more-than-human nature. Education thus assumes pre-existing pervasive connectedness, and our potential to realize ourselves more completely by engagement with it. Environmental education expands this insight to the ethical, creating an ethic inclusive of the non-human. Referring to how one’s ethic coordinates the person’s actions with his or her community, Aldo Leopold wrote:
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
Just like me and other professionals, my students are part of the social pattern of “time poverty” that achievement and materialism involves. This is expressed not only in perpetual “busyness” but also in lack of acknowledgement and attention to the inner life. Outward direction of energies keeps us from “having time to think” and reduces awareness of the personal costs of both too much work, and of over-concern for “the fate of the world.” In a sense “the world” is exactly our personal experience of it. So, one teaching practice is to explicitly make time for students to be silent, solitary, in-the-present time and place, and attend to their bodies, feelings, and minds. Naturally, we all find the mind wanders, and it is a good step to simply notice that it does, and bring the self back to the present. Like the great American psychologist William James, I conceive of the present not as a momentary thin slice but as broad, with a continuous psychological connection ahead and behind in time. Mindfulness means openness to novelty within the scope of the present, which may be spatially expansive or microscopic, both these extremes being beneficial to attend to. (Indeed there are fascinating recent psychological studies of meditation.)
One useful “tool” is the arts—presenting students with art, poetry, or music—to provide a centering focus. In one recent class, I followed the example of an educator described in Palmer and Zajonc’s book, The Heart of Higher Education, and started each day by playing a 3-5 minute music piece (reproduced; I’m not a musician). Although this might suggest sentimentality, I have little patience for that. Rather I see this as serious business.
In our Spring Block program, students maintain a journal that doubles for natural history and reflection. A prompt may be provided for reflective journaling or for creating a poem. We provide these students multiple chances for solo time in nature, and encourage both outer and inner observation. The solos culminate in a 72-hour solo (stationary and monitored) during the 10-day wilderness portion of the Block. A lot of integrative reflection happens during this time as students are alone, often for the first time for that length of time. I used to teach preschool and have studied early childhood. It has more than once occurred to me that like early education, college is a time when the education system allows what should always occur: that the student be approached and treated as a whole person, with all their dimensions respected, and this is one way to do so. Ultimately, contemplative practice is central to ethical practice and may offer anyone a route to discovering values that transcend and far exceed the satisfactions of materialism. I am lucky to be part of the community of higher-education teachers in Washington and across the country who are integrating contemplative practice into their work. See for example:
"The Guest House"
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273; transl from Persian)
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
George Herbert Mead, the great social psychologist, felt that ethical choice and action were possible when the person could represent internally every perspective in the situation. Today that means not only human others but nature’s “perspectives” too. If students are to appreciate and tap our nature as denizens, it will take some conscious attention. Much of my research and writing in Conservation Psychology has concerned demonstrating that non-human nature is more fundamentally important to human development and experience than our culture typically tells us. Thus, students benefit intellectually by learning the sources of interest in and concern for nature in Western history (as well as learning how we got to our present dilemmas; the past continues to condition the present in the form of institutions and habits).
For environmentally concerned students, understanding the origins and continuity of their ethical sentiments both affirms them and provides critical distance, making it possible to stand back and appreciate how others (and other cultures or sub-cultures) frame nature differently. Similarly, students benefit by even-handed examination of both anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric systems of ethics. I find there is a lot of room for productive disagreement among our students on this score. Some ways of being “biocentric” can prove highly alienating, as I illustrate by reference to the Lorax’s failed attempts to persuade the Oncler in the famous Dr. Suess book (which is nonetheless often accepted as near-scripture by some students).
We also put our students in direct and sympathetic contact with nature through the study and sharing of natural history—both discrete topics, more synoptic “reading the landscape,” and creative expressions via drawing and writing. I dislocate their usual attitudes with variation on a classic environmental education activity that I call “earth potatoes” (a friend ‘buries’ them with a little fallen vegetation then leaves them to experience the couch-potato-like--but here fruitful--passivity and dependence of their relation to the earth). For environmental education students, we coach them on “using the place to teach” their own learners. These activities are supported by relating their own autobiographies to research on the development of environmental concern, and the history of connecting children to nature, a recurrent cultural theme since the writings of Rousseau (with peaks in the Progressive era and in the last decade).
Nature is arguably the original setting of learning since early human emergence.
While my students’ connection to nature needs affirmation, again keeping in mind G.H. Mead’s idea, their connection to other people across differences in philosophy and worldview is equally essential to their intellectual and ethical development, and often more challenging for them. A dozen years ago in one course I developed about nine different alter egos, or dramatis personæ as it were, most of them historical figures, to engage my students with different perspectives. Sometimes students are too courteous with guest speakers and can engage in playful argument with me more easily. But I gave that up, finding that real live speakers had far more impact.
One of the best things I can do for students is serve as a doorway to the real world which for so long has lay beyond their classrooms. Without this, learning can easily remain sterile and students can remain puzzled about the importance of what I want them to study. So I use place- and issue-based instruction:
Three rich local examples include Blanchard Mountain Forest Management, Bellingham Bay clean-up, and Lake Whatcom Reservoir management, each with multiple current issues and stakeholders involved. This past winter, for example, my Environmental History and Ethics course studied the issues concerning Lake Whatcom, focusing on the proposal to transfer over 8,000 acres of State watershed lands to the County, changing them from logging to recreational uses. The timing was perfect as the County Council was near the end of a protracted series of deliberations. Early in the term, I invited a local forester to speak. Beyond hearing a different point of view, my goal was for the students to step sympathetically into his shoes, as I asked him to reflect at length about not only his position but his formative life experiences and his connections to nature. He did so, and articulately explained why a working forest was desirable over park designation. Later I asked the students to respond briefly to two prompts about how his talk affected:
With fortuitous timing, the Council decided the matter the last week of the term, and our former guest speaker’s intent to sue over the choice was included in the coverage, leading to more reflection on public process. Although this 45-student class was too large for field trips, students got credit for researching, conducting and reporting on their own watershed or town tours, and talking to locals on the way.
One of the greatest needs of our students is not only to understand the different values in the community context, but to be able to organize themselves and get things done in such complex real world settings. Service learning is a familiar label for this kind of pedagogy and I use it extensively. In the program evaluation course I teach for our environmental education graduate students (most of whom have completed a year-long residency at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake), groups of students are paired with community organizations or agencies. Each team’s job is to work with the partner to identify information needs of a program (at whatever in the program life-cycle it may be), identify actual users and uses of that information, and then design a feasible and fully developed plan for generating the information. Four of the six projects this year were:
The latter project is only the most recent one in a multi-year school grounds enhancement effort at that school, where I have often involved my students, since 2005. One of the key tenets and practices on which I coach these students is, not surprisingly, respecting and highlighting the elementary school students’ voices and position as primary stakeholders of the school grounds.
One of the most moving examples of service I have facilitated was really a cultural exchange. A former student, Mark Manuel, worked for several years as youth program leader for Seattle Housing Authority locations (High Point and New Holly). From 1999 to 2006 (when he was employed by Overlake School as Director of Diversity), at least once a year I would take my students to south Seattle, and he would bring his youth group—composed of highly diverse immigrant kids and former gang members—to WWU. For both groups, it was transport to a different world. Service was always involved, but the real learning was simply in working together, eating together, talking, and exploring new views on the world and life skills. See Bellingham School District “Promise Award” for Volunteers of the Year.
Carrying service a step further, putting students in charge of designing and carrying out projects within our communities can powerfully affirm their sense of agency or self-efficacy. When this takes place within a setting that they feel “ownership” of, and students learn how that setting really works, contextual understanding, empowerment, meaning, and identity are all promoted.
One example is the Campus Sustainable Design Studio which I began in 1999 to provide informed student input to WWU’s Institutional Master Plan. Thanks to these students’ work, the final plan incorporated and unpacked a term, “sustainability,” which had not been in the advisory committee’s vocabulary at the outset. Subsequent offerings of this course have played key roles in things like instituting the universal student WTA bus pass, and helping Dining Services define concrete steps toward providing and advertising more locally produced foods—two examples that resulted in peer reviewed papers with Western colleagues and student co-authors. The instructor’s role is that of advanced practitioner to student apprentices. This course has been taught by Prof. Zaferatos too, but is now offered every term to any Western student by one of my former undergrad and grad students, Seth Vidaña, WWU’s Campus Sustainability Manager. The impact of this course on student sense of empowerment, meaning and identity was reported in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, in a paper co-authored with a Canadian colleague who also uses such pedagogies. This paper provides a condensation of some of my efforts toward the “scholarship of teaching,” an ideal I hold highly. See articles:
We are social creatures; “belongingness” has long been recognized as a basic human need. Most certainly many positive emotions spring from relationships with other people, and belongingness does not stop there. I think it is partly our social nature that helps us find our place as denizens in a wider ecology of subjects, too. Keeping in mind that community identity can suffer the pitfall of exclusivity, when we nurture a strong community for students they are most likely to grow and thrive as learners.
Huxley’s spring environmental education field practicum, the “Spring Block” (SB) exemplifies community. Started by founding (and current) Huxley faculty member John Miles, SB is a set of four linked courses (17 credits) with the same instructors and students so we have complete leeway with scheduling. Based on a thoroughly experiential vision of education, SB is in its 34th consecutive annual offering this spring (2013). Many of those years owe their success to Miles and my colleague Wendy Walker, who plays a major role in SB and from whom I have learned a tremendous amount about student learning. With 20 students (not all of them Environmental Education majors), two faculty, and usually four undergraduate interns who “know the ropes,” we are able to venture far from campus and typically spend over 25 days in the field. We begin developing community in a preparatory seminar in winter quarter – and continue to build it all spring as we recombine the students in different project groups. Having this sense of community builds positive relationships and emotions, provides support for the challenges of designing and delivering outdoor education experiences for younger learners, and givesgives an experiential basis for examining teaching and learning, group dynamics and communication. In line with Leopold’s insights about expanding the boundary of the community, our Spring Block stresses connection to, and respect for, the land. In the environmental education context this means using the place to do the teaching. Practices such as contemplative solo time in nature, natural history observation and creative writing help the students deepen this connection. See “Spring Block” for a fuller portrait, as well as Veronica's Self-Assessment and Heather's Self-Assessment.
After the intense activity of presenting two different outdoor programs with different age learners in 7 or so weeks, the students are ripe for reflection and a “reward” (which generally proves to have its own surprising challenges). We head to the biggest and highest wilderness we can feasibly and safely get the group to in late-May/early June (some years this is actually quite low in elevation!). In yet a third 50-50 division of the group, the students prepare complete expedition plans for half their time. These groups are shadowed by pairs of interns who check in with them as needed. The other half undergo 72-hour stationary solos with enough distance to experience solitude and isolation but again with extra safety systems built in. The purpose of this segment of the class is to complete our exploration of “environmental education from the backyard to the backcountry” by modeling institutional wilderness travel, and examining what educational purposes can be fulfilled solely in wild nature.
In our urbanized and electronic society, being cut-off this long is an unusual experience, and uniquely allows a slowing down and contemplative or active centering. Perhaps primary among these opportunities is a chance to realize that beyond fears, preoccupations and distractions is an immediate and ever-present connection to our origins. And that is the ground of the kind of denizen-oriented and rigorous civic engagement I believe we need. Only by “taking our students there” can we prepare them to figure out how to do the same for the generations following them.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperCollins
Frederickson, B. & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden thought-action repertoires: Evidence for the broaden-and-build model. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Langer, E. (2009). Mindfulness versus positive evaluation. In In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 279-293). New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Palmer, P. and Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call for renewal. San Francisco: Josse-Bass.
Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity. Oxfam Discussion Paper, available at: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/dp-a-safe-and-just-space-for-humanity-130212-en.pdf
Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461 (24 Sept), 472-475.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.
Steger, M. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 679-687). New York: Oxford Univ. Press.