The Emerging Role of Place in Ecology and Education

By Jonathon Schramm , Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Environmental Education at the Merry Lea Center of Goshen College

We all live in it, move in it, feel it solidly under our feet daily, and yet we don’t often think of ourselves as creatures of it. What is it? Place.

How is it that we have been so able to overlook the basic point of connection that we have as material creatures to the material world around us? Many authors have described some of the causes of the universalization of our collective thinking: globalizing society, culture and markets, advances in technology and communication and the mobility of most citizens. Deeper and subtler influences such as the schism between physical and mental work and abstraction in the sciences and arts have also driven us to minimize the value we place on a good understanding of our physical place in the world. The clearest symptom of this lack of place in our lives might simply be the increasing homogeneity of our buildings and developments across the country: recently-built housing looks much the same in Phoenix, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Birmingham, despite the wide range of biomes those cities are located in.

In the last several centuries, we’ve learned an immense amount about the world by lumping places together and minimizing their differences.  Abstraction and generalization have led to breakthroughs in many different fields. But this begs the question: what effect does moving our culture from a place-specific to a place-general approach have? Emerging conclusions from two fields close to my heart – ecology and education — are pointing towards the need to return to thinking in depth about our specific places in the world if we hope to have functioning places to pass on to those who will follow us.

In ecology, we have learned a great deal about the complexities of community interactions that seem to apply across most, if not all, ecological communities. Yet the existence of such things as land use legacies and priority effects, as well as stochasticity, mean that the specific composition and interactions of an ecological place always vary in both small and large ways from similar places somewhere else. So, for instance, to effectively manage plant invasions in a given habitat requires knowledge of that place, with a solution tailored to its idiosyncrasies. Or in another example, deciding which perennial bioenergy crop is the best fit for a particular place requires specific knowledge of that place, its climate, soils, existing plant community, etc. (see for more info on what is prompting this example). In other words, general ecological knowledge is of crucial importance in tackling any number of applied problems in the world today, but it is incomplete without close consideration of place as well.  A simple way to sum this up is to say, “All ecology is local.”

The field of education is also coming around (or back!) to the understanding that place matters. It matters both individually, with a learner’s particular reasoning as its own place (with components and interactions much akin to an ecological system), and communally, with the geographic and social location of a group of learners being important for what and how they learn. For example, children from rural areas often have a different set of background experiences than their counterparts from urban and suburban areas that should inform teaching approaches with each group. Issues in their home communities important to one group may be less important for another, but any issues important in their home setting can make for powerful teaching experiences. At the same time, even learners from a very similar background can vary widely in terms of the learning approaches and techniques that are most effective for them.

Much of the emphasis in educational systems over the last few decades has been on teaching students generalizable skills, which has clear value in a global marketplace. But shouldn’t it concern us that most students graduate with little knowledge of, or understanding of, the particular biome of which they are a part? Likewise, aren’t we doing students a disservice when we assume they all bring a similar background to the table, rather than finding out what the differences are in their understandings and experiences so that they can use those more explicitly in constructing new knowledge? In other words, education is ultimately best geared towards individuals, in all of their particularities, rather than disseminated in only a generalized way.

For Christians in particular, I think a place-specific approach to our life and work has special merit. This way of thinking helps us to stay grounded in the scale at which God created us. Not that we can’t think broadly, but God means for us, I think, to primarily be caretakers of the patch of earth around us. It is tough to devote our best work to that end if we are always focused on the abstract and place-general. Closely related to this is that such an approach helps to keep us humble, aware of both our potential to make a difference in the world immediately around us, but also of our ultimate limitation to effect the entire world. And in that, by increasing our awe for both the complex creation around us and our Creator God, I believe we can find lasting hope, that at the end of all things, we will find ourselves in a beautiful place once again.

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