The greening of young minds

Environment education cannot be confined to plants and animals or even conservation; its aim must be to open to children the interconnectedness between living and non-living things in space as well as time.

By Vibha Pathasarathi
Published: Sunday 31 October 1993

-- TALKING of environment education in schools, I can't help feeling the painful irony that we, the inheritors of the Vedas, are exploring in 1993 ways to conscientise our young citizenry about our environment. Vedic chants such as Servai Bhavantu Sukhina placed value on balance and equilibrium; sanyam (discipline) and sahachar (good behaviour) were great virtues; Vedic literature shows plentiful evidence of the sensitivity of very ordinary people in the routine of their lives, wherein the "dharma" with which they were brought up acknowledged the interdependence of everything -- living and non-living. Respect for all beings and things and for Mother Earth was a logical consequence of this recognition.

What we have witnessed in our march for "development" calls for rethinking and redefining. At the school level, the need for environment education has thus become disparate. But any meaningful programme cannot be confined to a few disjointed topics in the curriculum. What exists focuses more on facts. This bundle of facts, often borrowed from foreign publications, is commonly so coldly distant -- both physically and psychologically -- that the child finds it irrelevant and meaningless and thus cannot identify with its signals and cultural biases.

We are all aware that "environment" is an all-encompassing term, which includes the natural and physical, sociocultural and politico-economic dimensions; it is in effect the interconnectedness of the living and the non-living in a shared space, and that of the past, the present and the future in the time dimension.

These dimensions are explored in school from various angles with inputs from languages, history, geography, civics, physics, chemistry and biology. The goal of such an input is to enable the learner to see issues as well as ideas in an integrated way, to understand a part as essentially undivorced from the whole. Such an environment education programme helps children develop understanding and insight about happenings and occurrences.

Promoting an ideology
A well-conceived and clearly transacted programme of environment education thus promotes a way of looking at things, a way of thinking, a way of feeling. It is thus that such a programme promotes an ideology, in the sense that it transmits values, develops attitudes and more importantly, initiates change in behaviour.

The curricular content of an environment education programme has therefore to keep the following factors in mind: It should not be limited to nature -- flora and fauna -- as is too often the case. Environment education is not merely about tigers and trees. Nor it is about conservation alone, which would confine it too much. We have to save what is disappearing or is being depleted or eroded. But equally we have to go beyond, to promote what is still (fortunately) intact, as also create new things.

In all this, the focus on the tree, however essential in the formal, structured school system, should not stop us from showing the woods to the children. Children have to learn to see the whole and examine its parts.

Talking about conservation, when curricula moves away from tigers and trees, it generally encompasses historical monuments, which is fine. But monuments have more to teach than is often practised. They tell you about the skills of a people, their tools and technology, their mastery of scientific principles, of the chemistry and quality of building materials, their availability and durability, the needs and preferences of a people in a historical framework.

A good programme has to go beyond this to seek out other elements that need to be conserved, and be promoted as, for instance, practices, habits and behavioural patterns that are energising and dynamic.

It is thus that facts presented must lead to an understanding of the issue or the phenomenon. The context of the facts gives it a meaning, a reality with which the child can identify.

Let me give a few instances. Has the child been able to see the interconnectedness between the invention of the printing press in China, the printing of the Bible in Europe and the spread of literacy, which then influenced a host of other developments in that continent? Or does the student in Delhi see a connection between Columbus reaching North America and the potatoes, tomatoes and chillies on our dining tables today? Is the student aware of the direct connection between the forest laws enacted by the British and the plight of our tribals today?

A number of co-curricular activities in school can teach children more about their environment. Take the traditional practice of making rangolis, a skill to which the MTV-watching, middle-class, urban child, living in an apartment in a nuclear family, is not commonly exposed today. The "why" of the rangoli, the "how", "when" and "where", open up an enormous world, rich in environment education. Rangolis tell you about people in all their diversity, values, skills, needs and aesthetics, all in symbolic forms. These symbols, in turn, tell you about a region's history and geographical resources. In environment education, as in any other education, the content is of course important and therefore, has to be chosen with great care. But the strategy adopted for imparting education is even more important.

It is such an integrated approach, a way of looking at issues with seemingly effortless narration that characterises the four books brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment. Our children are being alienated because neither the media nor the world of books caters to them adequately. Given the right diet, I am sure they can develop eyes that see and ears that listen.

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