Greg Hlavaty: Traditional education too controlled, take the kids outside

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 16, 2023

By Greg Hlavaty
“Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”
This stinging critique comes from famed ecologist Aldo Leopold who was admonishing a highly educated neighbor for being heedless of geese returning in March. Though Leopold was well educated, his field experiences pushed his knowledge beyond mere book learning. He knew the value of rifle and axe, as well as the importance of solitude and caretaking. To him, all these aspects were needed to appreciate the natural world.
Recently, I challenged my environmental literature class to consider Leopold’s critique. I expected them to agree with Leopold’s preference for direct experience, but immediately one student called Leopold “passive-aggressive,” an unfair critic of traditional book learning. Strange, considering how often they complained about reading.
Confused, I tried another angle: Aldo Leopold’s belief that we need an ethical relationship to land. Leopold cautioned that we can only “be ethical in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
To care, we must experience.
Again, the students were unmoved. Leopold’s Land Ethic should be foundational to environmental science majors and those who claim to love sustainability, but his landmark suggestion had fallen flat. Eventually, I realized that many of my students had spent no meaningful time in nature, and therefore lacked an ethical basis for caring about the environment.
And my students are not alone. As a parent, I meet many children with no real connection to the natural world; and often, I sense that they don’t really want one. But perhaps it’s because we, as parents and educators, have not provided an opportunity to connect. In fact, we are, ourselves, disconnected and have relinquished our mentoring duties to screens.
For my own children, I arranged family hikes to solve this problem, and though I’d once envisioned them learning birds and plants, my kids mostly roleplay. I hear snippets: Minecraft mobs hiding behind trees, other monsters in pursuit. My wife, Jenn, reminds me that they’re outside and having fun, but like many parents, I sometimes berate myself when experiences are not appropriately educational.
I want, in other words, a sense of control.
On a recent winter hike, my kids were roleplaying, barely aware of their surroundings, when a flooded trail stopped them.
My youngest son, Sylvan, abandoned his story and rock-hopped to a low wooden bridge. Trapped debris had mounded against its upstream edge, forcing the swollen creek to flood.
I don’t know why I got involved. I knelt on the bridge, rolled up my sleeves, and plunged my hands into the icy
water. The cold shocked me, but once I tore off a chunk of debris, I lost myself in the work.
Sylvan grabbed a stout branch and levered a huge leaf-chunk free. “Hey! It’s starting to work,” he said, and his enthusiasm inspired Jenn and my older son, Rowan, to grab branches and help.
I lay flat and reached beneath the bridge, dragged out a tangle of leaves and sticks, while Sylvan pushed loosened debris to shore. Soon a brownish trickle appeared. Together we released a strong current and watched as water receded from the flooded trail.
Mission accomplished.
I stood to leave, but Sylvan continued working further downstream. Though my hands were numb, I helped him clear more creek until he was satisfied the whole thing would run.
As we hiked home, Sylvan brandished his new creek-clearing stick and kept repeating, “That was fun!” and I realized he’d changed in a way I could never have planned.
I think of Sylvan’s enthusiasm whenever my students stare at phones and refuse to engage, behaviors I’ve even seen when taking them outdoors to start fires. It’s not a habit easily undone.
Maybe it’s time to admit we’ve been on the wrong path: turning our kids over to screens or hoping an outdated educational system will serve their futures. Let’s just admit we don’t know what’s coming or how to prepare for it.
Perhaps it would be best to ease our habits of stuffing minds with what we consider useful information. Instead, we could model engagement and then let them loose in the natural world. At least for a time.
No curriculum, no tests, no schedule.
Natural curiosity. Is that effective? Or just naïve?
I’ll only say: Sylvan still roleplays when he hikes, but he’s no longer locked within his imagined world. He frequently checks creeks for blockages, and when he finds them, he’ll always wade in and work.
Greg Hlavaty is a lecturer in English at Elon University.