An Earthbound Education


I was a wild child.

My “coming up” was rich with imaginative outdoor play, and through a mix of scouting, camps, family influences, backyard mischief, and time at grandpa’s farm, I came into young adulthood with a healthy starter-dose of ecological literacy―and one helluva love affair with the natural world.

A quarter-century later, the burning question on my heart and mind is how to raise a wild child. Better yet, a flock of them, a wild generation. How can I best outdoor-educate my own someday-kids, my nieces and nephews, all those young charges at my rangering jobs? What can I do to instill in them a lasting sense of wonder, and a desire and aptitude for eco-literacythat all-important tool for the future of a healthy humanity?

wild child library

I’ve been reading along this line for a while now and have found guidance in a number of texts: Stephen Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan’s The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places; Thoreau’s classic Walden; and Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, by sustainability scholar, and Oberlin College professor and administrator David W. Orr.

Trimble and Nabhan write about personal, parental wildings, their experiences raising young children outdoors, and learning, in turn, from their kids.

“None of us can predict or control the career or avocational choices of our children. All we can do is introduce, try to prevent prejudice, battle gender stereotypes, teach by example of our own attention and wonder. All we can do is recite from the Scripture of maps and field guides. Give names to the mountains and rivers, give names to the trees. Give voice to the emotions that storms and tundra flowers, young bison and soaring ravens can pull from us. 

As parents, we can take our children with us to the land. We can be there with them as they climb on rocks, play in streams and waves, dig in the rich soil of woods and gardens, putter and learn. Here, on the land, we learn from each other. Here, our children’s journey begins.”

-Stephen Trimble, The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places

Thoreau, of course, waxes cheeky, passionate, and timeless about ways to live the good life, how to raise up young people into it, and in general how to Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure…to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Orr writes broadly about necessary overhauls in both K-12 and higher education, imagining ways to inculcate a lifelong sense of ecological citizenship and biophilia.

I encourage you to snuggle up with each of these texts, but here I’d like to dwell on, and in, the work of David W. Orr.

In Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, Orra scholar I came across during graduate school, who visited my campus and whose ideas and writings speak to me deeply―outlines the problems and dangers inherent in modern education, and follows with proposed solutions. Orr’s changes are thorough; no small tinkerings will do. His vision is for a new pedagogy aligns with both Classical and traditional schools of thought and experience; at its core, his ideal educative system takes the word back to its root: “to educe,” or draw forth, in a provocative rather than didactic manner.

As it exists, Orr writes, western education suffers from numerous gaps and corruptions. First, schools at all levels are far too susceptible to political influences and economic temptations. The ultimate goal of educating young people should not be merely to help them “compete effectively in the global economy,” he argues, but rather to urge them to question and rebuild that economic system, so it fits resiliently and honorably within the physical system of the earth. An economy that fits the earth, rather than exploitation of the earth to serve an economy, should be our goal.

Orr distinguishes between a career and a calling, warning students against settling for the former when the latter is far more desirable for self and planet. “A career is a job, a way to earn one’s keep, a way to build a long resume, a ticket to somewhere else,” he writes. “In contrast, a calling has to do with one’s larger purpose, personhood, deepest values, and the gift one wishes to give to the world.”

He criticizes academic silos, arguing that over-specialization teaches students to reduce the world―a complex and interdependent system―to bits and pieces. He writes that current education fails to distinguish between good knowledge, responsibly used, and bad knowledge, designed to exploit natural systems. He laments the critical loss of value, feeling, and love in education and argues that such normative components are not antithetical to good science. He writes about the importance of intentionality, caution, and restraint in the use of technology, reminding students to evaluate the wide-reaching impact of any technology on its human users and more-than-human stakeholders.

Lastly, he implores educators to stop teaching students as though the earth is not in dire crisis. Our goals, regardless of our disciplines, must coalesce, he writes: we must unite and strive toward the creation of a human society that harmonizes with, rather than attempts to dominate the wider earth-system.

“We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at least with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in David W. Orr’s Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect

To combat these failings, Orr offers the following solutions:

First, education must respect ignorance―that is, we cannot assume that we can “know” or “technology” our way out of ecological crises. It is far easier to “manage” ourselves by modifying our expectations, economies and politics than it is to “manage” any natural system. Orr suggests that we introduce back into curricula the sort of knowledge and skills we have let go, believing them to be less important than technology and commerce-driven ones: we should re-learn about our home flora, fauna, soils and weather patterns; redevelop basic survival skills (small-scale agriculture, shelter building, harnessing of solar energy) in our home environments; and practice skills as rudimentary as the use of simple hand tools.

Orr writes, compellingly, that all education is environmental education and should be taught as such, with each discipline instructed according to its implications and applications in the real, physical, local environment. (During grad school we were told, following similar logic, that “all texts are environmental texts”―meaning, all stories take place within physical, living, interactive, environmental “containers.”)

He argues that education should focus on particulars rather than abstractions, and that lessons should be taught outdoors or in out-of-classroom settings. “Indoor classes create the illusion that learning occurse only inside four walls,” he writes. Further, he argues that campus buildings should be constructed with primary focus on aesthetic appeal, positive environmental impact, and harmony with local natural settings. Constructing educational campuses this way would serve to fight “crystallized pedagogy that often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and artificiality,” he argues. (Again, back to grad school: I am reminded of a certain classroom in the English building called the “jewel box.” Parts of two walls were bookcase-lined; parts of three were floor-to-ceiling glass, allowing for crystalline views of Red Butte and the Wasatch foothills. No classroom in the history of classrooms has ever been as enchanting, as conducive to value-inclusive discussion of environmental humanities, as the “jewel box.”)

In sum, Orr advocates for a rich, sensory, biophilic education―one which honors the hypothesis, proferred by E.O. Wilson and others, that human intelligence evolved with, and derives from, the biodiversity that surrounds us.


“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world more habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

-David W. Orr, Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect

Recrafting education to build genuine earth-citizens is not a lost cause. But as Orr is fond of saying, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” We are all educators, in varying capacities, and we are all students as well. In our day-to-day practice of educating, exploring, and learning from one another, it is imperative that we keep our missions, materials, techniques, and minds earth-bound, that we honor all education as environmental education, and that we live, study, teach, and engage as earth citizens.



6 thoughts on “An Earthbound Education

  1. bird810

    I have long felt that all we can do is “plant seeds”in our children’s minds and hope that at some point, they will sprout and thrive.
    Also, I attended the U of Wisconsin in Green Bay back in the 70’s. It has always been known as “Eco-U” because everyone, regardless of their major, is required to take a few classes
    pertaining to environmental issues.


    1. Hilary Vidalakis

      How cool, and how basic! If only more U’s would become Eco-U’s. Orr writes about that, about crafting across-the-board curricula which include basic environmental coursework– for everyone. Cool to know that U of Wisconsin at Green Bay is a great example of that.


  2. I am happy to see that many more field trips in the last ten years or so when I sub in schools, send students out to “nature learning ” types of places; where kids just don’t just run thru and miss the kiosks; don’t hear and understand what a somewhat informed teacher reads to them; instead, I have seen students going to creeks to do actual nature studies, counts and tests; they go visit beekeepers in the area to have a hands on learning of how honey comes about; they get their minds and hands dirty in what goes on around them…not that trips to museums with dioramas aren’t once in a while good; but the “real thing” by informed docents and environmentalists; those are the ways that kids are going to get more informed…


    1. Hilary Vidalakis

      Cool observations. You’re right, it seems it takes such small, intentional tasks as these … up-close critter counts, dirty little hands … all the seeds of good future learnin’. Thanks for reading!! 🙂


  3. Neysa Dickey

    OHMIGOSH, Hilary! What a wonderful piece. Thank you! So many things bombarded my brain as I read this. Do you know Steve and Gary? I may have met Gary, but Steve Trimble, I’m grateful to say, is a life-long friend, having met him at Great Sand Dunes (then Nat’l. Monument) the summer of 1974. May I post this on my Facebook page and also make sure Steve sees it? I have their book on my shelf…time to read it again, apparently. Also, was thinking of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, when I worked for the Nat’l. Park Service in their Pacific Northwest regional office (no longer exists in Seattle) in Environmental Education. We held workshops (I was a lowly helper to my boss, Glenn Hinsdale) at Cispus, a camp near Portland, if I remember right. We “taught” the teachers how to teach the students in that type of setting. Even though I was born and raised in Appleton, WI, about 30 miles from Green Bay, I didn’t realize how forward-thinking the branch of the University is there…Eco-U, indeed – thanks for that, bird810! And now I must read Orr. So glad to know there are such bright and experienced and foresighted people out there, such fine writers and educators. And you, dear Hilary, are obviously among that group. Thank you, all!


    1. Hilary Vidalakis

      Hi Neysa ~ how cool! Of course, feel free to share this post (and any of them — we’re all into it 🙂 as you like. How cool to be a friend of Mr. Trimble. One of his works was taught in my Foundations of Environmental Humanities course in grad school. Have to say, though, that the work mentioned above, Geography of Childhood, is my favorite of his texts. I do encourage you to read David W. Orr, and see him speak if he’s ever in your neck of the woods. I continue to be moved by his words and example. Also, thank you for sharing that bit of your own history! How cool to be doing enviro education in the Pacific Northwest. Cheers!


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