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Beyond basic biophilia: engaging college students with the real, real world.

"Nature is not content with creating something which is only as good, and she always wishes to make something which is better"--Meister Eckhart, The Book of Divine Consolation

American biologist and environmentalist Edward O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" in his seminal 1984 work (Biophilia) to make manifest our human propensity for other forms of life that is our deep-seated desire to experience the rich natural world among us. In 2002, scholars Peter Khan and Steven Kellert compiled a tome, Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations, that works off Wilson's original philosophy, and chapters within that particular text display concrete and sound evidence that children-as-learners develop strong cognitive and emotional abilities when they are among animals (primarily) and among other characters of our grand cosmos as well.

More recently, in 2013, the incredible skyrocketing in technological advances finds well-esteemed institutions such as The University of Virginia making headlines for offering non-credit courses in History to an unprecedented class size of some 40,000 students (viz. the Stanford University-created Coursera product). Undoubtedly, across the Western landscape of academia, the push is on for expedited learning modules replete with digitized presentations, online testing and grading, and one-click-away learning--and of course the registered student can take a break from heady study sessions behind their home laptop in order to purchase requisite texts on or to summon up online food delivery to forestall that momentary roller-coastering of their blood-glucose levels; the snail mail is waiting just outside the front door, should it ever be thought of out there where petunias used to grow. That is what they're called, right--petunias?

In Chapter 6 of the aforementioned Khan and Kellert text, Environmental Studies scholars Carol D. Saunders and Eugene O. Myers assert: "[A]nimals are integral reference points for the child's sense of self... [and] a 'natural care' about animals may lead to broader environmental caring." Furthermore, in Chapter 7 of the same compilation, Aaron Katcher argues that animal interaction may serve a vital therapeutic role for children with learning and mental irregularities, especially at the liminal state status. Thus, the Khan and Kellert text effectively portrays the variety of roles that animal--and to some degree--others aspects of the natural world can enhance the educational, cognitive, social, ethical, and spiritual qualities of the human-as-child and the human-as-adolescent.

And yet, nothing much has been made of the continuing role of Nature-appreciation for such enhancement of the various qualities with respect to the students of late-secondary and tertiary education. In one avenue of comparison, we may think of the importance of physical education, calisthenics, and breathing techniques instituted in most public and private secondary educational arenas, and which are put into place to serve critically important physiological and psychological needs before their being abruptly curtailed after the ninth grade. Meanwhile, the incidences of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and obesity soar in the tenth grade and continue throughout secondary and postsecondary educational settings.

The question, then, can be posed: What happens when Wilson's idea of biophilia is repressed for the human as they labor through the educational model--especially at the tertiary level?

For some students, it may only seem a cherished memory of days gone by: a class trip to a Nature reserve in the third grade, a field day in the fourth, a learning project conducted at the closest zoo. But at the collegiate level? Whiteboards, air conditioning, sterile lighting, swirling media presentation of pedagogy and busy, busy brains fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and sugar are the leftover fare du jour, as they have been for decades--and globally so. Granted, the occasional student of wildlife management, ecology, environmental studies, zoology will devote a high percentage of their academic rigor toward natural-world happenings. More specific--it now appears--would be a focus on classes and programs of study of a general education constitution and their concomitant cold absence of the ecosystem at hand, without which all would be for naught anyhow.

What needs to be implemented? Grand-scale approaches and longitudinal studies of classroom-space alterations. The teaching of Tang Poetry within a World Literature course should happen under elms and along Canadian geese paths, then. The American Civil War Battle of White Oak Swamp occurred, not surprisingly, in a swamp, and should be studied as such in the state of Virginia. In comparison, one would think that in most situations, the student body of certain welding programs would--after abundant study of welding terminology, precautions, and multifarious design methods--take to the asphalt or garages to conduct real-life welding. We have made the study of Humanities far too human. We have, perhaps, repressed the biophilic drive; we have, it appears, squashed Ralph Waldo Emerson's transparent eyeball:
   For Emerson, every object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the
   soul and, while he ardently valorizes the physical eye's potential
   to see in a way that discovers symbolic meaning, his most memorable
   metaphorical image for such potential, the transparent eyeball,
   posits a vision wherein the eye sloughs off its body and 'egotism,'
   merging with what it sees. It is within this transparent,
   disembodied state of total union with nature that Emerson claims 'I
   am nothing; I see all.' The 'all' that Emerson seeks access to is
   not simply harmony with nature or even knowledge, but perception of
   a deep unity between the human spirit and the natural world.

A "deep unity" can be reawakened in one of the most significant arenas of our lives. The real world of college needs the education of the real world outside bricks and mortar, something beyond cables and electron channels. The urge continues.
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Author:Hoeben, Ric
Publication:James Dickey Review
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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