The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Earth Literacy Education: What, why and how?

Frans C. Verhagen, Executive Director
International Society of Ecological Educators


This short write-up of Earth literacy education proposes a new model of grade, secondary and tertiary education that would be based upon Earth awareness and Earth care, the two pillars of Earth literacy. This organizing concept of Earth literacy is shown to be phase six in North American environmental education, based as it is upon the emerging theory of bioregional environmentalism. The article describes those six phases, the nature of Earth literacy and how it can be accomplished. Persons interested in this model can get more information from the International Society of Ecological Educators.

Environmental education has gone through many phases and shows a great diversity even in specific cultures such as the North American one. Learning and instruction about a community's physical and ecological environment, both formal and informal, on both elementary, secondary and adult levels is a mosaic of situations that reflects the cultural diversity of a society at a particular time in history. In North America we can distinguish at least half a dozen phases in environmental education, which is culminating in an Earth literacy phase that includes most of the foregoing phases with different emphases, and most importantly, within a wellfounded theory of environmentalism.

The first phase was and, to some extent, is the Native American transmission of attitudes, customs and practices that can be characterized as living in unity and harmony with Nature. It is this earliest of phases that has to be reincorporated into the Earth literacy phase, changing the domination posture the early settlers and the cando technical outlook of present-day society.

The second phase was one of Nature study with spokespersons such as Thoreau, Muir, Emerson, Whitman, etc.

With the increase of industrialization, the need for conservation became clear to individuals such as President Theodore Roosevelt and New York State Governor Hill who around the turn of the century, respectively, established the Presidential Commission on Conservation and preserved regions in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.

Phase three--the emergence of camping education with the founding of the Scouting movement by Lord Baden-Powell in 1910--and phase four--outdoor education and school gardening--became part of the NYC school curriculum when, as leading NYC ecological educator Kominski stated, "School gardening may have been as important then as computer centers are to us now." Rachel Carson's work in the 60s brought environmental education to another level of sophistication by emphasizing the degradation and disintegration of Earth systems, a veritable advance in environmental education in this phase five. Present day environmental education that includes strands of those earlier phases has to be pulled up to a higher level of sophistication, an Earth literacy.

Phase six or Earth literacy education incorporates and is based upon the theory of environmentalism that organizes societies according to the premium values of sustainability and equity. Part of this political theory is a value or ethical system that includes both ecological and social equity as its guiding principles. Together, these form part of a biocentric and holistic worldview or a cosmology that incorporates the scientific breakthroughs in physics and astronomy at the beginning of this century. A new universe story is emerging that, based as it is on recent scientific achievements, can form the core of new myths by which humanity can energize itself and find the core unity that is needed in its ever increasing diversity.

Earth literacy education, therefore, includes not only learning and instruction in attitudes, skills and knowledge in respect to mother Earth, but also the development of a perspective or worldview that tells the story of the universe, of Earth, life, and human species with the Earth and life as central, not the human species. A major challenge of this phase in environmental education is to repurpose education (i.e., change the purpose of education from human-centered or anthropocentric to life-centered or biocentric learning and instruction).

This radical revision of education is already taking place through the networking of those persons, organizations and institutions that are implementing this Earth literacy model of education. An international organization that is based upon this Earth literacy model of education (the International Society of Ecological Educators [ISEE]), presently works mostly with secondary education and will be available on NYCENET (Telnet or and on Econet in the near future. Its headquarters are located at 97-37 63rd Road, Suite 15E, Forest Hills North, N.Y. 11374. Voice and fax:718-275-3932. v03/11/94

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