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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Unreality and reality
August 9, 2012 - 8:47pm

Sometimes you can learn things by watching "reality TV", so long as you keep in mind that it's not ... you know ... real.

I happened to be watching an episode of House Hunters International, largely for the scenery.  This episode was about a couple from the Netherlands who were moving to Limpopo Province in northern South Africa.  The motivation (have more fun), the budget (nearly half a million $US), the luxury of the homes they saw and rejected, and the final decision (they ended up deciding to build, even though they'd be living in Europe during the entire construction process) all seemed entirely unreal to me.  But the South African school their kids would end up attending gob-smacked me as entirely real.  Reality-based.  Reality-focused.  Really capable of educating real students who would understand and appreciate the real world. 

It was referred to as a "Nature School", apparently on the basis that the students would do much of their learning outside the classroom and interact within the classroom as cooperators rather than individual competitors.  Admittedly, the student body was situationally selected as kids who were comfortable (or at least capable) living surrounded by hundreds of square miles of undomesticated flora and fauna. As a result, their parents probably exhibited less anxiety about these kids venturing at least a small distance out into the bush than many American parents experience at the prospect of their sixth-grader walking unescorted from the suburban middle school to the suburban public library.  (After all, Junior or Missy might have to cross the road!  Twice (once in each direction)!!)

But those students in that relatively remote portion of South Africa were positioned -- by design or practical necessity -- to develop an inherent understanding of how the success of human activities is constrained by the local mix of natural resources, how real efficiency consists in making the most of what's least available, how what you do affects where you do it, how (at least) some complex systems operate, how science and math are tools to describe reality rather than abstract concepts, and -- perhaps most important -- how pretty much all aspects of reality make sense so long as you're willing to experience them in their own terms.

Will Rogers was famous for saying that it's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it's what we know that ain't true.  Somehow, I suspect that students who learn at a "nature school" learn less that ain't true than, for instance, students who subconsciously segregate what they learn in class from what they experience (or what society expects from them) outside the school setting.  And the saddest result of that early intellectual segregation might well be that it induces a life-long willingness to suspend a life-critical form of disbelief -- to suspend reality-testing of values and prejudices and expectations.

One of my gripes about most US public K-12 pedagogy is that it seems implicitly based on the institutional authority of the teacher and the textbook, which quickly translate into the intellectual authority of the teacher and the textbook.  Without getting into the question of whether a black-letter reading of what the teacher or the textbook conveys is arguably accurate, the fact that we're repeatedly encouraging students to accept that it's accurate because the teacher or the textbook says so contributes to the (re)creation of a society disinclined to critical thinking. 

If our society were significantly inclined toward critical thinking, we wouldn't be facing the current crop of sustainability issues. (We might well be facing issues, but they'd most likely be different ones.)  If our K-12 education system did a better job of exposing students to hands-on reality-testing of their understanding of how things work -- indeed, if that understanding evolved based on direct observation of at least a decent portion of extra-classroom reality -- US society might well be able to deal with climate, economic and social unsustainability as technical problems rather than heresies.

Oh, and the junior faculty members who teach the majority of "Introduction to (whatever)" sections might have a whole lot more fun.

 

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