4. Thoughts on Classrooms, Capitalism, and Wilderness Illusions

Katie Hargus, Climate Action Youth Ambassador. July 12, 2019. Victoria BC.

Last week I spoke of several ways in which traditional education systems require reformation in order to provide children with more empowering, connective, and relevant ways of learning. Specifically, children require education that enables them to explore their passions, to connect with themselves and their environments, and to find and develop a sense of wonder for their surroundings. These areas of reformation can take place when education systems, curricula, and teachers actively strive to cultivate and nurture learning environments for exploration, curiosity, empathy, mistake-making, creativity, problem-solving, mindfulness, complexity, sensory-based learning, and student-guided discovery.

Exploration can occur in all places - including on the top of this roadside BC Hydro electrical box, where water gathers when it rains.

Exploration can occur in all places - including on the top of this roadside BC Hydro electrical box, where water gathers when it rains.

Examining fir needles and ants on the gravel sidewalk!

Examining fir needles and ants on the gravel sidewalk!

How much water can we collect in this umbrella?

How much water can we collect in this umbrella?

There are, of course, an abundance of opportunities for these values to flourish in a variety of educational settings. Even classrooms, conjured for many as the cursed backdrop for the wrongdoings of traditional educational systems, have opportunities to provide children with space and time for play, exploration, curiosity, connection, discovery, and creativity. Cultivating classroom environments and curricula capable of providing these opportunities, indeed, may be some of the most crucial tasks educators undertake in the coming years and decades. This is particularly true considering that the vast majority of children’s ‘formal’ learning occurs in these settings. 

This said… although I certainly do not wish to undermine the importance of cultivating reformed environments in classrooms, doing so also places continued emphasis on indoor learning. Fundamentally, I reject this ‘fall-back’. There are SO many thousands of places and ways in which children can learn that do not involve isolation within walls. For our educational frameworks to continue operating primarily within these metaphorical and architectural boxes does a disservice to the children that crave to connect with the wildly perplexing animals, dirt, plants, people, systems, structures, mechanisms, and phenomena that can be experienced every single second spent outside.

Now, I recognize that this is perhaps a privileged and problematic view of things. Classrooms can’t just be rejected; for millions of children across Canada they are the only infrastructure provided in which the facilitation of ‘formal’ learning can occur. It would be foolish and indeed quite blatantly ignorant of the state of things to assume that every child has the ability to access a schoolyard garden, neighbourhood pond, patch of forest, freshwater creek, or native flower field in which to explore. Indeed, children are increasingly isolated from their local green spaces, as urbanization, development, and deforestation continue to create veritable ‘zones of inhibition’ (or ‘zones of greenhibition’, as they might more aptly be called) around population centers. While it is apparent in a typical classroom environment, the separation felt by children between their dwindling natural environments on one hand, and their learning environments on the other hand, is merely a small reflection of much wider systemic and ideological issues plaguing Canadian society, economics, ecologies, and politics.

Wilderness Illusions and the Separation of Nature and Society

Perhaps the most relevant of these issues (at least for the content of this blog) is the pervasion of a national identity fueled by the global devices of consumerism and capitalism, expending endlessly and ‘without consequence’ while growing further from the natural systems and spaces on which these (and all) devices depend. It is vital to understand that the slashing of billions of acres of forests and the poisoning of just as many waterways - not to mention the enslavement of millions of peoples across the globe - all persist and are permitted by these devices. Proponents of these systems blindly proclaim that exploitative economic growth can continue infinitely, despite the fundamentally finite ‘resources’ they thrive off of.

In the midst of these devices, which we’ve affectionately called “progress” since they first began ruling global economies and decimating global ecologies over 300 years ago, our society also maintains a rather ironic nostalgia for the concept of ‘pristine nature’. Indeed, Canadians seem to have a tendency (whether conscious or subconscious) to think that the only natural spaces worth having are those glorious figments of colonial nationhood we fondly refer to as ‘the wilderness’, where towering trees, ferocious bears, and glassy lakes abound. In these wilderness illusions – for illusions is what they are – nature is an idealistic, unspoiled, and uninhabited haven in which we may find grandeur and escape from the pressures of daily life. But this faulty idolization of nature as a place of escape from society only serves to perpetuate the idea that the only natural spaces of value are those which are devoid of human impacts.

As any sensible person will tell you, Precambrian forests are not an attainable destination for modern conservation or restoration efforts. The plain fact is that even the wilderness we fantasized was unaffected by humans has been not only inhabited, but cultivated, modified, and managed for at least 15,000 years by numerous and abundant First Nations communities across what we now call Canada. And yet, it makes a nice thought, doesn’t it? “If only we hadn’t gone so far down the horrid trajectory of progress, there might have been hope for the preservation of forests, and for humanity itself…” Obviously, this dreaming doesn’t help anything or anyone -- especially not our children, who grow further from interacting with natural spaces the more we subscribe to the thought that nature is separate from us. So, how is our propensity for wilderness illusions shaping the ways in which our children learn?

Primarily, it’s creating a dichotomy between classroom and nature that reflects the same dichotomy purported to exist between society and nature. That is to say, nature maintains an elevated status - one that stands separate from humans and their influences. Nature isn’t nature if it’s in a city; nature is nature only if it’s that glorious poster-worthy forest we all know and love. Accessing that isolated, irrelevant and imagined form of nature we call ‘wilderness’, however isn’t feasible for the majority of school children - just as accessing the schoolyard garden, neighbourhood pond, patch of forest, freshwater creek, or native flower field mentioned earlier isn’t feasible for most school children. Thus, by only valuing certain types of nature, we are further barricading children from connecting with systems, structures, mechanisms, and phenomena that can be experienced every single second spent outside - whether it’s in the middle of a forest or in an urban park.

Next week I’ll talk more about the importance of urban parks, and how they can be utilized and transformed as sites for exploration, active learning, problem-solving, and connection. Talk soon!

Monica ShoreComment