Listening to an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently, I heard him quote the writer/scientist Donella Meadows who titled an article, "Is Our Future Our Choice or Our Fate?" While on the surface the response to this question may be obvious, how we answer it actually tells a great deal about who we are and where we are headed. In addition, as educators the way in which we address this query has profound implications for the lessons we teach our children.
When Meadows wrote this essay in 1972, the "green" movement was in its early phases. Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring was a decade old, Earth Day had been celebrated for the first time two years previously, and Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog was only four years old. We're in a different century now, and an entirely new generation of environmental activists has joined the struggle, but the motivation for those fighting to save the planet from destruction is just as strong as it was in the early 70's. Bill Mckibben, who wrote The End of Nature in 1989, said recently in an article, "We used to think that climate change was going to take a while. Twenty years ago...we thought it would be mid-century before we saw really big shifts. We underestimated how finely balanced the planet is, an illusion that finally had to crumble in the summer of 2007 when Arctic ice suddenly melted, decades ahead of schedule. Since then, we've seen the rapid spread of drought across Australia and the Southwest, the sudden destruction of western Canada's pine forests, the acidification of the oceans and worse. We've learned that climate change is not a future problem, not something for our kids to solve. It's a current crisis, one that our parents should have foreseen." The threats facing us are no longer hypothetical nor are they something so ethereal that we cannot imagine how they will affect us.
As adults and as educators, we have a responsibility to teach our children about the issues facing our world, and theirs, from ethnic warfare in Africa to the threats facing our environment. There are a variety of methods we can use to educate young men and young women, and there are many valuable educational programs ranging from Facing History and Ourselves to The Alliance for Corporate Sustainability at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. For students to understand the true nature of these problems, they must learn that the causes are varied, complex, and seemingly intractable. Students need to see that the world is a system and that what is happening in one area that may appear isolated is in fact integral to what is occurring somewhere else: the flapping of a butterfly's wing may in fact play a role in events across the globe. To teach adolescents otherwise is to insult their intelligence and stunt their intellectual development.
However, if all we do is show them that these problems and conflicts are inter-related and apparently insoluble, we consign them to a lifetime of being passive spectators rather than active participants. We have a responsibility to teach them the depth of the causes underlying the issues; just as importantly, though, we have a duty to help them see that there are ways to resolve the problems. At Crossroads College Prep, students learn about the variety of issues facing our world in many classes ranging from the interdisciplinary World Cultures/Earth and Environmental Science Curriculum in 7th grade to designing a sustainability project in 8th grade to Advanced Placement Environmental Science (APES) in their junior year; they also learn, though, that they can work on these issues now and maybe they can help solve them one day. For example, when the students in 7th grade learn about geology, they study mining and the problems associated with it, but they also create solutions to address run-off or pollution; the 11th graders in APES not only study the facets of water pollution but they are also part of the Missouri Stream Team program where they analyze and reclaim two streams, one in Wellston and one in a rural part of the state. The students learn about the problem, but they also realize that they can be agents of change. Teaching this way offers our students and ourselves a sense of hope, restores their faith that life can be better, and helps them comprehend that their futures are a matter of choice rather than a fate determined by someone else.