Curriculum Opinion

Can Education Save the Lost Words and the Planet?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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As educators, we have accepted a responsibility to educate the future generation. The past provides the foundation for the future and informs us; it sets the context upon which the future lifts off. If we do this well, we prepare our students with an understanding and with an imagination and optimism for what might be. We, then, have educated students who, as adults, can maneuver an ever changing world and contribute to our economy and to our democracy. That responsibility calls for us to be aware, to notice shifts and changes in information, realities, capabilities, and possibilities.

We cannot deny that the world continues to change as a result of digital connectivity. We also have a responsibility to lean into the present and future reality as educators and as citizens of this earth. Our planet is suffering and the destruction of our natural resources is problematic. If our young people are not prepared to address this issue better than we ourselves have, how can we claim to truly be preparing them? Creating consumers is not enough.

First Came The World is Flat
Thomas Friedman caused a shock wave with his landmark book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, and for good reason. Simply put, it was an announcement that, in the first five years of this century, we have all become connected. What happens anywhere in the world, happens to us. Here is how: the rise of the Internet, work flow software, open-sourcing, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming, and digital and mobile communication and virtual capacities. It becomes clear that the change factor was seriously centered in the advances in technology and communication.

So when we read Mr. Friedman’s op-ed in the NY Times on September 7th entitled We Are All Noah Now, it was with respect, and little surprise that he continues to open eyes, hearts and minds to what is. He writes:

Our natural world is rapidly disappearing... When the coral and elephants are all gone, no 3-D printer will be able to recreate them... In short, we and our kids are rapidly becoming the Noah generation, charged with saving the last pairs.

The Disappearance of Words
Leaders juggle a myriad of never ending daily responsibilities. No one or nothing is drawing attention to the subtle vocabulary changes that threaten our students’ education and global awareness of the natural world! There is no other way to say it. Friedman shared his (and our) shock.

Robert Macfarlane, in his book “Landmarks,” about the connection between words and landscapes, tells a revealing but stunning story about how recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (aimed at 7-year-olds) dropped certain “nature words” that its editors deemed less relevant to the lives of modern children. These included “acorn,” “dandelion,” “fern,” “nectar,” “otter,” “pasture” and “willow.” The terms introduced in their place, he noted, included “broadband,” “blog,” “cut-and-paste,” “MP3 player” and “voice-mail.”

A subtle swap that might very well have gone unnoticed if not for Macfarlane and Friedman, but let’s not allow it get past us... at least not without a moment of reflection and attribution of meaning. First, the words disappear and then what is next? After we no longer have words for the acorns, dandelions, ferns, nectar, otters, pastures and willows, do we no longer have oak trees, or yellow fields in springtime or green on the deep, moist forest floor and so on?

Endangered Planet
We’ve recently read about the greatly diminished elephant population. Granted animal species lived and disappeared before the hand of man was responsible. But, this is our time on the planet. We are here now and our actions are making a difference. It is imperative that it be the right difference, the one that thinks forward for generations to come and for a planet as rich, diverse and abundant as the one we inherited and enjoy. If children aren’t experiencing the joy of the natural world they will not appreciate it as a gift. Words tell us stories of the past and of the imagined future...where will pastures be in those stories?

Thomas Friedman is right, “we and our kids are rapidly becoming the Noah generation, charged with saving the last pairs.” As educators, we have a responsibility beyond our personal one. We have a responsibility to stay alert and aware and to be sure the students who sit in our classrooms and the teachers who teach them, know the facts, the words, and the actions that will slow the decline or even better, stop the destruction of this planet and life as we know it.

Why? Because the students who are sitting in our classrooms today will inherit our inaction. If we have not opened their minds and invited them into stewardship of this planet, it is not likely they will be well prepared to conserve it as adults. We are now part of and are educating the leaders of the “Noah Generation.” We have a responsibility to educate students to be critical thinkers, creative innovators, effective communicators and collaborators. Our responsibility is also to teach them how to use those skills as conservationists and protectors of this planet. Without it, unless there are other worlds out there to be found, nothing else we teach will matter.

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