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Ecologically reworking American Politics and Its Dynamics

r.graham.barrett's picture

            In my earlier web paper, Hurricane Sandy, the Rotunda, and Thomas Berry, I talked about how an unexpected power outage provided me with an experiential form of environmental education. Standing inside the pitch-black Haverford College’s KINSC rotunda made me analyze the college courses proposed by author Thomas Berry for educating future generations to be more mindful of humanity’s role in the environment. By examining several of Berry’s prescribed courses, I was able to put my real world experience inside the rotunda into an educational context, thereby growing as an ecological-minded student. But while I certainly felt that Berry’s lessons were helpful for environmental education, I concluded that his classroom based and structured courses were not effective enough. Rather, I advocated that a true environmental education should incorporate more real world and unplanned experiences so that students can be thrust into the natural surroundings and realize their importance to society.

            As I lobby for both a greater abundance of environmental-minded college courses and a teaching method that relies on experiences in the natural environment to educate students, it would be in my interests to find the means to lead to an increase in ecological education as Berry intended. Haverford College would be an excellent choice of school to try and introduce an experience-based environmental education, as it is both a proponent of alternative teaching styles and its student body is full of students who seek the betterment of society. But while Haverford is certainly a good place to start trying to develop a lesson plan which encourages greater awareness and care for the natural environment, that does not mean it won’t come without some amount of difficulty. Although there are certainly a fair amount of students and faculty who have expressed an interest in environmental and ecological education, they still only represent a singular part of the student body and the staff. As a complete reworking of mankind’s views on the environment requires more than a fraction of people who express an interest in experiential-based ecological education, the entirety of Haverford’s student body needs to be incorporated into this environmental education. To really encourage Haverford students to take more responsibility in educating themselves, the curriculum needs to be reworked so that learning about the natural environment is a requirement for everyone. Much like a language credit, creating a required environmental science credit will at least give every student a basic understanding of the importance of the environmental impact human activities have and how to care for natural systems. Specifically having courses reliant on unplanned, real world experiences will help facilitate the importance of the natural environment. Although it could be said that planning a course to have unplanned experiences is counterproductive, if it could be structured so these courses are very flexible under the curriculum. Doing so will allow the courses to accommodate a few improvised real world within a vaguely structured lesson plan and let the students grow as a result.

            Making a required environmental science credit for Haverford student though would still prove to be problematic in encouraging a Berry-style awareness of the environment. Just because the credit is a graduation requirement, does not mean that students who aren’t pursuing the environmental science minor will give the courses the proper attention and care needed to really impart a lasting ecological awareness. It is likely then that these students will not take away the proper feelings and lessons the unplanned experiences of the proposed courses are supposed to impart onto their students. If the threat that a large number of Haverford students fail to grow as environmental-minded individuals exists, then the curriculum has to be organized so that fulfilling the credit interests all manner of students and still imparts the ecological lessons of these alternative real world experiences. This could best be done by reworking at least one course in each department of the school that is both related to environmental science as well as incorporating improvised personal experiences into the lesson plan. By doing so, a Haverford student would be able to take a class related to environmental science (even if not part of the official Environmental Science department) but still allowing the student to pursue their own academic interests. Through a reworking of the curriculum, Haverford would be able to provide the means to promote both Berry’s recommended natural environment education system, as well as my own advocacy for experience-based education.

            With the proposed reconstruction of unrelated departments to incorporate an environmental science credit, it is important to think about how specifically such reconstruction needs to be carried out. While creating a new course in each department specifically tailored for the credit does have merit, doing so takes time to draft the course layout, and requires the hiring and training of a teacher to be proficient in both environmental studies and the department’s specific subject. It might actually be more prudent if Haverford simply reworked an existing course in each department to count both towards the environment science credit and teach ecological-minded lessons via unplanned, outside the classroom experiences. Haverford certainly has many classes in which this reworking could be implemented, amongst which is American Politics and Its Dynamics. An entry level Political Science class, the course is designed to give students an underlying understanding of the American political system. Specifically the class’ subject matter is composed of learning, “The dynamics of the political process as seen in the Congress, the Presidency, and the judiciary. The role of interest groups, public opinion, and the political culture are also examined.” (Haverford College Course Catalog). Having personally taken the course during the spring semester of my freshmen year, I am acutely aware of the subject matter that the course covers, as well as the general layout of the lesson plan. Because of my familiarity with the course, I am also able to recall how the subject matter covered in class hardly covered contemporary environmental issues in the class lectures and discussions. Likewise, I also know how the class time worked, and I remember how outside the classroom experiences of individual students were nonexistant. It is because of both of these qualities of American Politics, that I feel as though the course would be an excellent demonstration of how personal experiences that invoke environmental awareness could be incorporated into the lesson plan.

            As a course that is largely unrelated to Environmental Science, the goal of American Politics and Its Dynamics needs to be reworked so that the idea of giving its students ecological awareness can be accomplished. This can be done though by making the overall class focus be on the political ramifications of addressing environmental issues in America. With the class focus laid out to justify the reasoning of making the course an environmental science credit, the actual format of what class lessons consist of must also change. To begin with, the manner in which class time for American Politics and Its Dynamics is carried out has to be reworked so that the course is not so dependent on sit down lectures in a classroom setting. While simply having the current professor teaching American Politics mix environmental issue into the lesson plan might seem like a good way to lay the groundwork for giving the students an environmental-education, the class can’t simply consist of this. Doing so would only result in a level of disconnect between the average student and truly understanding the politics of the natural environment. The best way to bridge this disconnect is by encouraging the students in American Politics to take part in outside-class experiences like I had in the KINSC rotunda. Doing so would allow the students to understand how class material relates to each one of them in context to the natural environment. I do understand though that the experience I had in the rotunda might not be perfectly applicable to the American Politics course format. My experience had allowed me to truly understand my place within nature as Berry intended by allowing me to reach out with my senses to comprehend my place within nature. If an American Politics student had been in the rotunda at that exact same moment though, they would have had a much harder time learning from it. While the experience in the rotunda certainly provides a lesson in understanding mankind’s role in the nature, it does little to provide knowledge about American political workings. Similar experiences which advocate the awareness of the individual within nature will also fail to engage the student if the ultimate purpose of reconstructing the American Politics course is to educate students about the ramifications of dealing with environmental issues in the American politics.     

            Although outside of class real world experiences which resemble my time in the KINSC rotunda might be too troublesome and unrelated to the expected lessons of the new American Politics and Its Dynamics to work, that is not to say that unplanned real world experiences couldn’t be included. Rather, just like reorganizing the college’s departments and individual classes to accommodate a required environmental education, the experiences can be reorganized and accommodated to best fit with the subject matter. Instead of advocating the idea of finding the individual within nature, required experiences could instead focus on discovering the natural environment within the country’s political environment. American Politics students would thus be able to find intimacy with environmental issues on both a national and local political level by experiencing them first-hand. Given how these experiences are supposed to be unstructured and personal, there exist plenty of options of what would count as a real-world experience. 

            The first example of a potential real world experience that could be used in the American Politics courses would be the option of actually being involved in the political process. Although hard to do on a national level, student political involvement could easily be accomplished locally. For instance, if there is a controversial issue being debated in the townships close to campus (i.e. a land developer trying to clear a wooded area), students would be encouraged to get involve with the issue in some manner. As hotly-debated local issues often mean that both township officials and townsfolk will all want a say in how the issue is handled, events such as public hearings and town hall meetings often occur so as to bring about a resolution to the issue. It is events such as these that students in the course should attempt to attend as their experience.

By attending these meetings, a student would be able to see the American political process in action (the course’s intention) and how it addresses the issue in person as opposed to experiencing it via a second hand media source. By being at that one meeting, or perhaps several, the student would be able to take note of several key features of the debate. They would be able to take into account the developer’s argument for why the land should be developed, the protestor’s claims for why the land (and thereby the environment) should be preserved, and perhaps most importantly, township laws and regulations for developing natural land. Besides gathering all of this information, allowing the student to be present at these meetings opens up the possibility that the student could participate in the proceedings as well. Since public proceedings provide the platform for the entire local community to have a political voice on matters like these, there is little to stop the student from doing so as well. By adding their voice to the rest of the public’s on environmental issues, the student has the potential to actually affect local decisions in regard to the environment. With an experience such as this then, an American Politics student has now actually become a part of the political system they are studying. Participation in local political issues can thus expose the student to the public opinions about the environment within typical American townships, the regulations that dictate how the population can interact with natural systems, and how much attention such conflicts are likely to generate from the populace. From this experience then, an American Politics student can manage to grow as an ecological minded student. This would happen because the student is now aware of how political issues pertaining to the environment affects the political debates and the American people, as well as realizing being able to have the opportunity to influence the ultimate political decision.

            Another real world experience that American Politics and Its Dynamics’s students could be encouraged to participate in for the benefit of their environmental education is to conduct interviews with political individuals associated with addressing environmental concerns. As the course description states, American Politics is designed to provide an examination of the dynamics of each of the 3 branches of government. As the differences between each of the 3 branches vary from large to small, each of the three’s views and actions in regard to the environmental is likely to differ as well. Such differences might not be noticeable in what is usually presented to the public via the media or to students via political science courses. These differences are important to know though because it could give some indication of who can influence how environmental issues are dealt with politically, why they choose to influence it in the manner they choose to, and how they decide to do so. It would be in student’s best interest to learn more about such differences, as doing so would provide further insight into the American political system as well as addressing the requirement for acquiring basic knowledge of environmental issues. Interviewing individuals associated with the political branches, would be perhaps one of the most prudent methods to do so. Although interviewing someone associated with the executive branch may be difficult (especially on the national level), there are certainly plenty of people in the other two branches to make interview possible for a students. These people could include lawyers, judges, town officials, federal employees, and state and federal senators. Although interviews with these people could easily be done via email or phone, it would serve the American Politics student best to conduct the interview in person. Doing so adds a personal level to the interaction and makes the acquisition of the knowledge of how the political branches deal with environmental concerns more intimate for the student.

                In conducting these interviews for the purpose of providing a necessary experience for their environmental educations, American Politics students are placed in a unique and educating situation. By having face-to-face conversations with the men and women who ultimately decide how best to deal with America’s environmental issues, students in the class are ultimately learning how personal experience views and shapes policy. The interviews provide information about how these government figures, as individual members of their political branch, have dealt with the environmental issues presented to American society. With knowledge of what has been tried in the past, what current policies are, and what future proposals might be, the interviewees are actually painting a picture of the general American political stance on the natural environment. By hearing it straight from the mouth of a member of a political branch, the student interviewer can thereby judge the interviewee’s emotions on these stances and gauge whether they were deemed appropriate or not. The interview thus experience opens up the issue to the student of how a particular government branch feels about how the issue of the environment is being handled. Better yet, the student can now get a sense of how environmental issues have been handled in the past, whether they were successfully handled or not, and what could be done to address future issues. With their position as an environmental science student, American Politics students can use the interview experience to understand whether the current members of the political branches are dealing with the issues in the correct manner. Better yet the experience provides them with the opportunity to understand what needs to be done in the future for better educating the American citizens on contemporary issues and know whether the officials they are electing are dealing with these issues in the correctly.         

            With such a reconstruction that encourages its students to be politically active in regards to environmental issues via individual experiences, American Politics and Its Dynamics could very easily give a rudimentary ecological education for Haverford students.  By getting individual students outside of the American Politics classroom and into the real world, the course can introduce ecological lessons that are applicable to their own lives. Likewise, in reformatting unrelated subjects to include an underlying environmental educational experience, it becomes apparent how natural and environmental concerns can touch every aspect of modern life. Ultimately students such as those within this reformatted American Politics and Its Dynamics class will be able to combine the environmental significance they discovered outside of the classroom with what they now know to be the most critical environmental issues facing the country. From here the students become the teachers within the classrooms setting of their chosen environmental science credit course, and can relay what their real world experiences showed them onto their fellow students. But the process of teaching cannot stop here, as the personal-experience based education system only works on the individual, specifically here among the small number of Haverford College students. The teachings based on personal environmental science experiences have to be continually passed on and used to encourage others to take part in their own independent experiences so that the importance of environmental education is established. It is only then that the Thomas Berry inspired-view of environmental education will able to take root among students everywhere and provide the change necessary to make environmental care a priority for future generations   



Anne Dalke's picture

"Planning unplanned experiences"

I like very much your stepping off from your own "unplanned, direct ecological experience" to begin imagining a curriculum that would offer similar experiences to all HC students. You make a number of important, and importantly linked, points here:
* making learning about the natural environment a requirement for everyone, while
* recognizing that "requiring" doesn't translate into learning, so
* using unplanned, real world experiences to facilitate that education, while
* acknowledging the paradox of "planning a course to have unplanned experiences."

As you work your way through a concrete example of how one course in each department could be overhauled to achieve these goals (a great way to develop your argument, btw!), you begin to lose sight of the "unplanned" dimension to your program; by the end of your paper, it's all about "real world" experience, without an acknowledgement of why that's so important to the larger program.

Along those lines (if you want to pursue this project for your final class assignment), you might want to read Walker Percy's essay, "The Loss of the Creature," which I mentioned to you all a few weeks ago; it's all about the importance of learning for yourself, not being guided by experts.

Doing so might also nudge you to reconsider your notion of "proper feelings and lessons"--a conundrum that will arise again when we look @ Timothy Morton's essay on "Ecology without Nature": what is a "proper" relationship with the earth? And who gets to say? How does such "propriety" rub up against the "unplannedness" and "serendipity" of your evolving course plans? (This is of course what makes praxis so valuable.)

You say that students could be helped to discover "the natural environment within the country’s political environment," while Aldo Leopold argues for the reverse: recognizing how many historical events were actually biotic interactions (plant succession "steered the course of history," he says). Could "American Politics and Its Dynamics" be taught from that perspective?

While I'm browsing again through Leopold's essay, I notice that he also argues that what is lacking in "conservation education" is a recognition that "obligations exist over and above self-interest." Education as we now know it "urges only enlightened self-interest." How to help people "extend their social conscience to the land"? How to alter internal " loyalties, affections, convictions"? Does any part of your re-programming of American Politics get @ these dimensions? Could it?

Along the lines of what you are recommending, you might also want to check out what David Ross has been lately in his eco/econ courses: see the description, for example, of Economics of Local Environmental Programs. Here's an attempt to take the step you gesture towards @ the end of your paper: how to take personal experience to the next level, to get students to think about policy?

And what about the class-based critique that mturer develops in her web event?

Do you want to conduct some interviews yourself (with local educators or environmentalists) for your own final project? To find out what sort of work is actually being done, along the lines you imagine? To practice some of what you are here preaching?