Who's Teaching Your Kids About The Environment?
- Monday, August 27, 2001
Teachers are confused by today's environmental curricula, said Robert F. Legg, president and CEO of the Temperate Forest Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the "responsible consumption and production of natural resources."
Teachers need to distinguish between environmentalists and environmental activists, he said. He described some activists as "radicals" who are "really polarized." They do what they do "because they're either making money from at it or it's a religion to them."
"Somehow this word environmentalist has been co-opted by people," Legg said. "You don't get a college degree in environmentalism, communism or socialism ... any of those 'isms'."
Also accounting for the teachers' confusion, Legg noted, "They're working with textbooks that were written maybe 15 years ago and they have been in use for 5 or 10 years - pretty much out of touch with what's really going on out there."
Climate of distrust
Just as corporate interests may distrust the goals of some environmental activists, the activists criticize corporations for putting profit ahead of the environment.
John F. Borowski, an environmental activist and long-time science teacher at Salem High School in Oregon, claims teachers are being misled by corporate propaganda, including that put out by the timber industry.
In a commentary entitled "Chemicals 101: Selling Anti-Environmentalism to Kids," Borowski describes last year's National Science Teachers Convention in Orange County, Fla., where "industries and their front groups [were] trying to justify everything from deforestation to the extinction of the species."
In his commentary, Borowski said he "could not have imagined such a perverse display."
According to his account, more than 14,000 science teachers and hundreds of exhibitors attended the science teachers' convention, where exhibitors - many representing corporate interests - were "passing out armloads of pamphlets, packets, books, stickers, posters and other goodies."
"They were selling lies," Borowski wrote, and the teachers were buying quickly and filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes."
He singled out the American Farm Bureau, a group that lobbies on behalf of farmers, as being among the "avowed enemies of environmental education" for casting pesticides in a positive light.
Borowski has his own agenda at the science teachers' convention, according to Lori Wink, the director of the agricultural education at the American Farm Bureau's Foundation for Agriculture. Wink said Borowski has represented several environmental activist groups and distributed his own environmental literature, sometimes forcefully, on convention attendees.
Marsha Purcell, managing director of the American Farm Bureau's Foundation for Agriculture, said Borowski's argument against pesticides is off the mark. "If they (farmers) didn't protect the environment, they wouldn't have a job, because they wouldn't have the land to produce the food and fiber on."
"I think if most people will check, they'll find that farmers and ranchers were the original environmentalists and they care about their land," Purcell said. "The kind of information we're distributing is based on science."
Purcell said she has faith in teachers' judgment when they choose science books and materials for their classes. "I think the teachers are able to, for the most part, look at the information and determine whether or not it is science-based and then decide whether or not to use it," she said.
Textbooks aside, it's not uncommon for teachers and students living and learning in urban environments to have a difficult time differentiating between science and propaganda, Legg said. In fact, he added, today's society is now more than 70 percent urbanized, providing for "a huge disconnect" between teachers, students and the environment.
The TFF encourages teachers from both the suburbs and the inner cities to witness firsthand the workings of the forest products industry and make up their own minds about environmental controversies. Legg said the TFF has had teachers "from virtually every state and province come on the tours and they just do a 180.
"They all come with some degree of skepticism," Legg said of the visiting teachers. He added that prior to their visit, teachers "come in thinking the industry people are all a bunch of right-wing rapers and pillagers," while the forest industry people "think the teachers are all a bunch of liberals."
However, Legg said, those impressions change once the two groups become acquainted.
"We get them out there and we put them face to face with these people and we show them - large and small owners, public and private owners - we show them how trees are grown, we show them harvesting, we show them how wood products are processed, we take them through paper mills and saw mills and engineered wood plants.
"They come away with some pretty dramatically changed perceptions," Legg noted. "First of all, they come to recognize that they're the consumers themselves, the ones who are creating the demand for these products."
"The big thing with a lot of these activist groups is the mantra that they preach is 'preservation,' not conservation," Legg said. "And, they lead people to believe you can put a glass bubble over, say, a forest and just freeze it in some steady state. If you don't touch it, it'll just always be there. That's the big fallacy right up front."
Bringing city kids 'down on the farm'
The American Farm Bureau also hosts students and teachers from inner city schools. AFB's "Ag in the Classroom" program enables classes to go on farm tours and learn about the agriculture industry.
"For once in their lives," the AFB's Purcell commented, "they see something that really excites them and they come back and are more interested in what's going on in school because they see what they're learning relating to what really happens."
In an effort to better educate people living in urban areas, the AFB recently released a video entitled, "10 Things Kids Want to Know About Farming."
Purcell said the video focuses on ten questions about farming asked by kids who attend a city school. AFB took those ten questions and then went out and interviewed farmers from several parts of the country. The farmers then provided detailed answers for the students.
Legg warned that environmental activists and extremists are not always found on the far left. "There are groups on the right that put out misinformation too. If there's somebody telling kids, or telling anybody, that there are no environmental problems and you shouldn't worry about anything and it's all made up, that's not right either."
Borowski, the teacher and environmentalist, says, "Parents and citizens in general must assume the role of frontline warriors if environmental education is to remain meaningful. They must study the materials children receive at school."
Legg says the responsibility of truth is on the teachers. "We encourage them [teachers] to really think hard about this stuff, because whatever you say to your kids, it'll stay with the kid for a lifetime and will reverberate down through the generations," Legg said.
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