An Ecology Based Education

Interview with David W. Orr

What is the purpose of education? What exactly are we trying to achieve by sending kids to school for twelve years? Dr. David Orr, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, sees a direct connection between how we teach children and the disastrous impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels. A pioneer in the ecological literacy movement, he believes that all education should be ecologically based, from the design of the campus to the curriculum itself.

“All education is environmental education,” says Orr. “Students either learn that they are a part of or apart from the natural world.” He points out that some of the worst atrocities in modern memory, including those perpetuated in Nazi Germany, were carried out by highly educated people. “Much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination . . . and unleashes on the world minds ignorant of their own ignorance,” he says. One result is the abuse of the environment, leading to an accelerated rate of climate change.

There’s a whole lot of stuff I think we don’t need to know. The things that we do need to know are going to pertain to basics like growing food, building shelter, creating local economies that work, and capturing energy.

The remedy Orr proposes would teach interrelatedness through schools that are fundamentally rooted in a sense of place. He spoke with Super Consciousness Magazine (SC) about an education that empowers students to be creative and make decisions that enable a renewable future.

SC: You’ve said the dependency on oil is a zero sum game which encourages competition. How do you see that impacting education?

DO: I think that our civilization is different than any previous civilization because of its connection with oil and coal. On the positive side, that created the civilization we have with all its benefits.

Oil gave us the illusion of mobility. In our access to highways and so forth, the charm of the countryside, rural lives, rural places, urban neighborhoods, the fabric of life was surrendered in the search for velocity.

If you took fossil fuels out of the human fixture in the twentieth century, we would have educated people radically differently. I don’t think we would have ever made the split between liberal arts and practical arts.

SC: It seems that part of the issue is that we need to rethink education and yet the whole crop of teachers that we currently have were all educated according to the status quo. How can we go about retraining the educators themselves?

DO: The kind of people that go into teaching care about kids, and go into it initially with a lot of idealism and a lot of energy and the system typically grinds them down. It’s pretty clear society puts priorities in building giant stadiums downtown, not in taking care of its schools.

Having said that, I think one proposal is to take all of the standards and tests and toss ‘em out the window and allow much greater local control of the schools. You know there was no test that could have tested students in Plato’s academy. There’s no test that was appropriate to someone like Abraham Lincoln. I am a believer in a lot more spontaneity.

I think that humans are natural learners at all levels. We like to solve problems. I don’t think you beat it into them. Kids are going to be creative. Teaching to the test has killed a lot of creativity in this country.

We used to learn a lot as kids growing up on farms, or around farms, or from the village blacksmith, kids learned about metal working and all sorts of practical skills that had liberal arts kind of connotations. It wasn’t just being on the farm. You learned all kinds of metaphorical thinking and practical things, and ways to relate things that appeared not to be connected. Our kids now don’t learn anything like that, in that way, and I think the creativity of young people has been tragically lost. They’re instantly smart about electronic devices and almost as dumb as they are smart about practical things.

SC: What are some of the things you believe everyone should know when they graduate?

DO: In facing the realities of more expensive fossil fuels and climate change which are coming at us very quickly, the things we need to know are going to pertain to basics like growing food, building shelter, creating local economies that work, capturing energy, and, in our spare time, reading Shakespeare, writing poetry and doing those things that make life meaningful. But I think that we’re going to have to learn very quickly. We’re going to need to know or relearn a whole lot of things that we forgot. Things our great-grandparents knew but we thought we’d risen beyond.

We’re going to have to relearn how to enjoy physical work again.

SC: You mentioned that you believe every school, every college and every university needs to take a stand on terms of the climate crisis in terms of ecological literacy. Have you seen any progress on that?

DO: Yes, I think there is progress. I wrote an article in Chronicle of Higher Education proposing climate neutrality as a goal for colleges and universities and that was about 1999 or 2000, and there now is an organization that got more than 500 signatures of college presidents pledging their institutions to go carbon neutral.

SC: In terms of taking back our power related to education specifically, what can individuals do?

DO: I think we have to learn what it is we’re trying to do. Are we trying to equip somebody to be a good, dependable member of the economy or to become a person of considerable stature and potential? If our goal is more to educe, or to draw forth, then I think it’s a very different kind of education and empowering. Taking back the power in some ways is a matter of discovering the power that we have inside ourselves. It’s the power of creativity, it’s the power of discernment, it’s the power of moral character. It is the power to be creative, and it is the power to seize power, to make decisions.

That’s a much messier process because some people will be given the opportunity and will become destructive in the process. But the best kind of education I can think of is rather more like a combination of Buddhism and Marie Montessori. It has a lot of freedom and it has to begin early because if all of a sudden you say to kids in their sophomore year of college, “now we’re going to give you this freedom,” they won’t know how to handle it.

When it doesn’t start early that means that people like me that teach in the college level basically do a lot of remedial education and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. More often than not I think it really doesn’t work because the habits of independence and creativity and the habits of knowing what to do when you’re empowered just aren’t there.

SC: ”All education is environmental education.” What does that mean exactly?

DO: It’s the great out-of-doors that shaped the human mind. I can’t imagine the mind like we have emerging in an indoor setting or something like a shopping mall. And I think our capabilities were honed by tens of thousands of years in the savannah and in forests and looking at the night sky. I think that shaped our religion, our philosophy, our fears, our animosities, the heights and depths of the human character. These are places in which we find ourselves.

This article appeared originally on and is used by permission. It has been edited for length. Super Consciousness is “The Voice for Human Potential”.


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