Shaping Bioregional Schools

by Gregory Smith

Cascadia Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

A realistic vision of our future is not one of unlimited growth and exploitable resources. By acknowledging these limits we make way for innovation and imagination in our search for a more sustainable way of living. Smith believes that schools, grounded in a bioregional approach, can be those instruments of change which could transform our market-driven society into a less-centralized, community-oriented society living within its means.

He addresses four issues essential to this transformation: instilling in each child a strong sense of community and an understanding of his or her role in promoting community welfare; bringing power back to the community level; knowing that the well-being of each community is inextricably tied to the health of the natural world; and broadening the focus of the individual from personal gratification to the nurture of community’ relationships. He outlines educational processes which promote these goals and clearly defines just what it will take to make education truly relevant for the citizens of our future.

During the past ten to fifteen years, environmentalists have become increasingly interested in the concept of bioregionalism. This is an era when the immense political and economic institutions that characterize modernity have become centralized and concentrated in a handful of urban areas; bioregionalism holds out the prospect of returning decision making to a human scale, a scale that also allows for a more localized understanding of the impact of our actions on specific ecosystems (Sale 1985). Such a shift seems necessary as we confront the very real limits of our planet and the economic and political downsizing that will attend the use of diminished resources.

However, the citizens of industrialized nations have in large degree been schooled away from the forms of consciousness and civic responsibility required to make this new vision of social reality work. We have been prepared instead to live as possessive individuals in institutions predicated on the transcendence of place and the disregard of natural limits. The transformation of contemporary institutions will require a citizenry prepared to think about the world and the relationship to it and to one another in radically different ways.

Schools have traditionally served as agents of social and cultural reproduction, but their role in modem societies has tended to be contradictory. They have acted as harbingers and carriers of change as well as transmitters of more traditional roles, expectations, and knowledge. Schools, after all, have functioned as the primary vehicle by which people from agrarian societies have been inducted into the industrial world (Inkeles and Smith 1979). Schools might help us to make the transition to a world based on bioregional assumptions about social relations, epistemology, and economic and cultural sustainability.

Four issues seem especially important if children are to gain the skills and dispositions required to negotiate a world in which the current model of unbounded economic expansion and political centralization is no longer realistic.

First, children will need to think about the relationship between the individual and community in a way that affirms the primacy of community. Americans’ preoccupation with individual development and mobility will no longer be supportable in an economic environment that could well offer restricted occupational opportunities. If economic security can no longer be guaranteed through individual effort, it will have to come from communities positioned to care for their members.

If communities are to fulfill this role, however, it will be essential to address a second, twofold issue associated with the bioregional agenda: devolving economic and political institutions to local or regional levels and preparing children to assume the position of decisionmakers. Although schools can do little to change the locus of power in our society, they can induct children into patterns of institutional membership that affirm their power as active contributors to the common good.

Neither of these steps will be sufficient to ensure the development of human communities in which resources are used wisely. This is the third bioregional concern that must be addressed by schools. Citizens must be prepared to think about their relationship to the natural world in a manner that stresses their fundamental dependence on the well-being of the ecological systems in which their community is embedded. The detachment and objectivity that characterize contemporary ways of knowing must be supplemented—and perhaps replaced—with an epistemology that focuses on interrelationships and a sense of identification with the other. Such an epistemology is likely to include rationalism, but not to view it as the sole route to understanding and truth. Helping children to grasp this more comprehensive approach to knowing about the world will require new forms of instruction and curriculum.

Finally, we will have to move beyond contemporary value systems that have tended to equate human meaning and purpose with material comfort and individual development, rather than with the sustenance of relationships with other people and the land around us. Children need to learn values that direct their attention to all their relations (to borrow a phrase from the Lakota) rather than merely their own promise as individuals.

Fostering these orientations in the young will require substantial changes in the way we approach education. Schools currently transmit and confirm assumptions and operating principles associated with modem industrial civilization: individualism, centralization, the exploitation of natural resources, and consumerism. Change will not be easy; to a large extent, it will depend upon the transformation of the broader social, political, and economic environment. Given the limitations of the planet, however, some form of change in these domains will inevitably occur. This will move schools in a bioregional direction, as the needs of communities and their children are transformed. Children prepared to adapt to mutable circumstances should be able to construct communities capable of fostering the well-being of their members and the land that supports them.

Schools must initially develop an educational process that directs children’s attention to the needs of their community, while helping them develop their capacity to serve that community in ways compatible with their own individual gifts and interests. Currently, schools tend to separate children from those communities and to emphasize personal development at the expense of the common good. This is one of the primary reasons that many children from groups that have traditionally been discriminated against in the United States have treated school success as a form of social betrayal (Fordham and Ogbu 1986; Fordham 1988). In this country school success translates into leaving home in pursuit of personal opportunities—despite the consequences of this mobility for the welfare of communities.

Overcoming this tendency will require that we help children to value their communities, and give them the experience of working with others toward the realization of shared goals. To break down the boundaries between schools and the communities they serve is one step toward accomplishing this end. Much education, for example, could take place outside school walls if local agencies and businesses were involved. Innovative schools now utilize internship and service opportunities in which students learn while working shoulder-to-shoulder with adults throughout their communities. The City- or Community-As-School model places students in occupational settings where they can earn appropriate academic credit for their work as budding lab technicians, reporters, or accountants. Such programs embed learning within communities rather than separating it from them. In the process, they contribute to the building of local social relationships and patterns of mutuality that can help strengthen, rather than weaken, community bonds.

Within the school, new structures, social relationships, and instructional strategies can mitigate the impact of individualism. Creating smaller schools, or reorganizing large schools into smaller units, can help children experience learning as a collective rather than as an isolating and anonymous process. Placing them with a team of teachers and peers with whom they can remain for a number of years can also encourage the development of more supportive ties and the building of relationships that are more familial than institutional (Ratzki 1988). Instructional patterns that rely on group, rather than individual, projects can help children learn to work with one another in ways that advance common goals rather than the pursuit of individual achievement.

A school that embodies many of these suggestions is located in Oakland, California. Starting in the mid-1980’s, the Media Academy now enrolls about 120 students. It operates as a school-within-a-school at Fremond High School, an inner-city institution that primarily serves black and Latino students from economically depressed neighborhoods. The Media Academy’s three-year program allows students to major in print and electronic media. Students work with a core group of teachers, and take responsibility for the school’s major publications—the school newspaper, the yearbook, a teen magazine, and a Spanish-English community newspaper. Students have access to internships and summer jobs in local media establishments. The program’s advisory committee comprises executives from these organizations; they encourage their employees to participate in developing the academy’s programs and to provide instruction in their own areas of expertise. Students at the Media Academy (many of whom were at risk of dropping out prior to enrolling in the program) ascribe the success they come to experience to the support and care of their teachers and the opportunity to work with other youth who don’t put one another down for doing well. Much of these students’ new willingness to learn can be linked to the way that academic effort is situated within the completion of tasks tied to valued group goals (Wehlage et al. 1989).

Preparing children to assume responsibility for the welfare of their communities will likely be furthered through similar group activities. Most contemporary schools provide students with few opportunities to make decisions that bear upon their own education and quality of life within the school. Since there are few other institutions where students might learn what it means to participate in governance, this failure on the part of most educators contributes to the general dearth of democratic experience among Americans. A number of educational strategies could be adopted to ensure that the youth have at least a working knowledge of what it means to participate responsibly in civic life.

In an effort to nurture the dispositions and skills associated with this kind of democratic participation, educators at the Jefferson County Open School near Denver, Colorado have been holding weekly governance meetings throughout the nearly twenty years of this innovative public school’s existence. During these meetings, students and staff make many of the institutional decisions normally reserved for administrators, including the hiring of new teachers. Students who want to facilitate the meetings must enroll in a leadership class that provides training in the group process skills critical to effective decision making (Gregory and Sweeney 1993). Students are given comparable forms of authority and responsibility at Rookline High School, outside Boston. Here a town meeting of about fifty people, including faculty and staff representatives, meets regularly to consider fundamental issues related to the life of the school (Purpel 1989).

In both of these examples, students are placed in positions where they must acknowledge the needs of an entire school community and the desires of the individuals within it. In doing so, they are required to think beyond their own (or their own peer group’s) narrow perspective and begin to acquire the sense of the whole that is essential for effective civic participation.

Students can also be given opportunities to direct their attention to broader community concerns. An elementary school teacher in Utah turned a unit on the environment into an exercise in social activism after one of her students mentioned that he passed a lot filled with rusted barrels on his way to school. The class took a field trip to the lot, then sought information about the barrels’ contents from the lot’s owner. They found that some of the barrels were filled with toxic wastes, but when they attempted to encourage first the owner and then the city to do something about it, they ran into roadblocks. Eventually, their efforts led to the introduction of a bill regarding the disposal of toxic wastes during the next state legislative session. The bill was passed, and the lot was eventually cleaned up. It is hard to imagine students who have learned how to negotiate political institutes in this way adopting a position of apathy or powerlessness in the face of similar forms of civic irresponsibility in the future (Lewis 1991).

Such efforts need not be limited to issues related to governance. As local economies become increasingly abandoned by the large corporate interests that now dominate life in the US, a comparable form of activism will need to be directed to economic activities. This is particularly true of rural communities that have seen their economic viability sapped by corporate sponsored exhaustion of local natural resources, or the replacement of family farms by agribusiness. In many urban areas, small factories that once provided employment for neighboring residents have been closed or relocated to the suburbs. In a handful of communities in the South and upper Midwest, educators are now attempting to help students transcend this problem by teaching them the skills needed to start their own businesses. High school students are taught how to identify sources of capital, do market analyses, and create enterprises that both meet important community needs and promise to offer reasonable occupational futures. Students who might otherwise be forced to leave their hometowns are helped to develop their own economic possibilities, In the process, they achieve some level of independence from broader economic trends that disregard the health of communities in favor of higher levels of profit (Haas 1993). These young adults will possess the knowledge, skills, and confidence required tosupport the decentralized economic activities at the heart of the bioregional agenda.

To ensure that these forms of political and economic activism serve the needs of the local environment as well as its human inhabitants, educators must also instill a deeper regard for and understanding of ecological systems. This will require the adoption of ways of knowing that emphasize our participation in these systems, as well as an identification with other life forms that exist within them. Such as epistemology stands in contrast to the detached objectivity of contemporary Western science. Since the sixteenth century, positivism and reductionism have come to replace the forms of knowledge that once encouraged human actions grounded in relatedness with the surrounding environment (Berman 1983). That experience of relatedness must be restored if children are to grow into people capable of developing ecologically sustainable social and economic systems.

To encourage the development of this kind of sensibility, educators will need to adopt forms of instruction that situate learning within the context of personal experience rather than the mediated experience of others. Decades of school research have shown that most instruction has consisted of the transmission of decontextualized knowledge to passive students (Goodlad 1984). Too often, students have viewed this knowledge as meaningless and insignificant. This may explain why college students interviewed by Arthur Levine in the early 1980’s believed that they would be able to construct secure and affluent lives for themselves thanks to their degrees even though they felt that society as a whole seemed to be on the edge of chaos. Although aware of the problems now facing us, they had not personalized this knowledge in ways that would lead to effective action (Levine 1981). What sociologist Mary Metz has called incorporative learning will have to be replaced with instructional approaches that emphasize personal investigation, inquiry, and discovery. Students need to be encouraged to draw upon the intuitive in conjunction with the rational (Metz 1978). Like Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, children should be helped to develop a “feeling for the organism” that allows them to know the world as part of their own bodies, a world that requires the same care and respect. (Keller 1983)

This seems more likely to happen if students are given ongoing opportunities to learn about the world outside the classroom through their own observations and encounters. Field trips, both short and longer term, should become a regular part of their school lives. The introduction of experiences similar to Native American vision quests could also contribute to the development of attitudes toward the natural world predicated on a sense of wonder rather than instrumental rationality. Acting from a sense of interconnection, students may come to value the sustenance of harmonious relations with nature as more important than its exploitation.

An exploitive approach to natural resources is likely to persist, however, unless we also construct schools that enable children to find their sense of meaning and purpose not in the preoccupations of a consumer society but in the experience of relatedness. As long as increased affluence remains a central goal of our society, the Earth will be endangered. In today’s schools children acquire little more than the instrumental knowledge required to enhance their own well-being. Few are given the opportunity to explore questions related to personal values or morality. In the absence of such learning, students often find themselves in a moral vacuum with limited guidance from adults. They then must turn to one another to construct meaning systems within which they can develop a sense of their own identities and purpose (Bernstein 1975). Those identities often have little to do with the health of the broader community.

Although few if any public schools now consciously attempt to address this issue, moral philosopher and mathematician Nel Noddings has written eloquently about the creation of an educational process aimed at helping children come to know what it means to care and be cared for. (Noddings 1984). Noddings argues that morality must be grounded in a commitment to the maintenance of relationships. Teachers can further this kind of moral development by modeling a deep sense of care and respect as they interact with their own students. They can also give children the opportunity to practice a caring attitude toward their peers and other members of their community. Such practice can take place if students are asked to act (for example) as tutors to other children. Placing students in community agencies that provide important services to the poor, sick, or elderly could also show them through personal experience what it means to care for others.

An ethic predicated on caring transcends sectarian differences, incorporating what lies at the heart of most religious and moral systems. The sustenance of communities depends on this fellow feeling and support. The health of any bioregional enterprise will require people able to act out of a deep and persistent sense of commitment to the welfare of those around them. Schools, as one of the few common institutions remaining in our collective life, could provide a site where this commitment to others might be nurtured.

Although selected elements of the educational processes I’ve described can be found in many innovative schools, I know of no schools that have adopted this more comprehensive bioregional approach. The transition to a world in which bioregionalism can become a viable social and economic alternative could be furthered by moving schools in this direction. Such schools would be better suited to helping children adapt to a world in which their well-being will be dependent on their ability to act collectively with others in ways that sustain both social and natural environments. Schools aimed at preparing individuals to participate in a competitive labor market will become increasingly irrelevant as opportunities for their students become scarce. A truly relevant education will foster the integration of these students into communities able to meet their social and economic needs, communities that more likely than not will embody many of the elements of the bioregional agenda.

Literature Cited

Berman. M. 1983. The reenchantment of the world. Cornell University Press. Ithaca. NY.

Bernstein. B. 1975. Class, codes, and control: Volume 3, towards a theory of educational transmissions. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London. England.

Fordham. S. 1988. Racelessness as a factor in black students’ school success: Pragmatic strategy or Pyrric victory? Harvard Educational Review 58:1, pp. 54-84.

Fordham. S. & J. Ogbu. 1986. Black students’ school success: Coping with the burden of “acting white. “The Urban Review 18:3, pp. 176-205.

Goodlad, J. 1984. A place called school: Prospects for the future. McGraw-Hill. New York.

Gregory. T. & M. Sweeney. 1993. Building a community by involving students in the governance of the school. In Public schools that work: Creating community. G. Smith, ed. Routledge. New York. NY.

Haas, T. Schools in communities: New ways to work together. In Public schools that work: Creating community. G. Smith, ed. Routledge, New York.

Inkeles, A. & D. Smith 1974. Becoming modem: Individual change in six developing countries. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. MA.

Keller. E 1983. A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock. W.H. Freeman. New York.

Levine, A. 1981. When dreams and heroes died. Jossey-Bass, New York.

Lewis, B. 1991. Kids’ guide to social action: How to solve the social problems you choose and turn creative thinking into positive action. Free Spirit Press. Minneapolis, MN.

Metz, M. 1978. Classrooms and corridors: The crisis of authority in desegregated secondary schools. Harper and Row. San Francisco.

Moddings, N. 1984. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. University of California Press, Berkeley. CA.

Purpel. D. 1989. The moral and spiritual crisis in education: A curriculum for justice and compassion in education Bergin and Garvey. Granby. MA.

Ratzki, A 1988. The impact of creating a school community: One model of how it can be done: An interview with Anne Ratzki. American Educator Spring: 10-17.

Sale, K. 1985. Dwellers in the land: The bioregional vision. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

Wehlage. G.. R Rutter, G. Smith, N. Lesko, & R. Fernandez. 1989. Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. Falmer, Philadelphia.

Gregory Smith was a professor of teacher education at Lewis and Clark College for 28 years. His work focuses on place-based education and the regeneration of communities.

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