Engaging the substance of the world: How do our youth learn today?

Engaging the substance of the world: How do our youth learn today?

Practicing what you preach: Rehabilitation of the lake at the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Center (LUREC) in Woodstock, Illinois, USA

Pedro Walpole, SJ

The right to education is recognized worldwide as essential to every community and to the interrelations of a just global village.  Part of that education calls for scientific understanding of the challenges and concerns we face in our environment today.  This includes the challenge to develop textbooks followed by the challenge to get the science out of the textbook and into the community as a lived understanding and basis for action.  This is what we seek as transformative education.

There is a need to understand not just the way life flows and how to build new technologies but how science works through societies in the world for the good of all people and the Earth.  We need texts that teach us the facts and we need to engage the facts and their entire environmental and societal context.  If we are going to engage, we need to understand not only the social values involved, but also the deepest human motivations that allow us to commit.  Without the motivation to make a difference, we will not change how we do things but stay with what we expect of society.

The crux of teaching scientific investigation that effects change is connecting first to spirituality and then to ethics.  This brings varied reactions including ‘what has religion got to do with science!’  The development of relating algebra and geometry in mathematics comes from the complex culture of Islam in medieval times.  Let’s not get distracted by these broader discussions but here focus on how Catholic education seeks to connect what we learn and how we evaluate its use as it affects people and all life.  Developing such teaching materials that are scientific based yet reflective of the broader consequences calls for a “living text.”

Michael Garanzini, SJ, Secretary for Higher Education for the Society of Jesus, through Loyola University Chicago of which he is President, is forming an international team of Jesuit people to inspire a deeply human way of doing science that is lived out beyond the classroom and engaging students in the environmental problems of our time.  This scientific communication with cultural and environmental context will seek to move people to engage though a creative website initially entitled Healing Earth.  The Loyola Chicago LIFT program, like many others, already affirms student transformation through social engagement.

Nancy Tuchman, Vice Provost and Professor of Biology at Loyola University Chicago, explaining a process to workshop participants at the International Jesuit Ecology Project, 21-26 October 2012, held at LUREC.

Spirituality is key in forming the scientific mind to transcend the self in a life affirming engagement.  Without the spirituality, ethics can become hot air moralizing without accountability.  Spirituality begins with wonder and gratitude for the diversity of life, its connectedness and simplicity, yet with great complexity of the natural systems and cultural interplay.  There is a desire to nurture a sense of care and accountability.

There is deep acknowledgement that much has gone wrong and I am part of it, before the commitment and empowerment of deep action emerges with a “yes.”  We need to understand our environment and the suffering to help youth understand the state of the world and develop a sense of compassion and hope.  Here is a fire where knowledge and commitment ignite and can grow in response to the concerns for the world.

We need to teach, for example, not only the chemistry of H2O but also ask: what amazes you about water?  What are all the ways we use water?  What has happened to our waters since the writings of Rachel Carson?  The greatest number of deaths in the world is still due to the lack of clean water.  Urban and industrially contaminated water has expanded and is evident also in our agriculture throughout the world.  Industrial agriculture introduces fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified crops that produce environmentally and culturally unsustainable landscapes.  How am I disturbed by these developments?  Where are mistakes being made and wrong choices?  Where am I part of them?

Industry, governments, and so much of the world turn away from the evident scientific problems without accountability.  Maybe I am in a village pressured by development from outside without choices where I feel helpless or in a city drowned out by the rush of rational economics, consumerism, and the inevitability that the strong will win.  How do I learn what needs to change and how do I go deeper in my own belief to change things with others?

In moving this project, Father Garanzini says he was motivated by Jonathan Foley’s talk, The Other Inconvenient Truth on how agriculture has had the biggest footprint across the world, bigger that any other human activity.  Fertilizers have more than doubled the phosphorus and nitrogen in the environment and of the 50 percent of the world’s freshwater we use, 70 percent of this is taken up by agriculture.  The greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions is produced by agriculture, greater than transport.  We have seen the rainforests chewed up, the conflicts, and unintended consequences.  Yet agriculture is a needed practice; how are we to feed the growing population of a projected 9 billion?  How do we get it right?

Father Michael J Garanzini, SJ. Photo Credit: blogs.luc.edu

Father Garanzini says, “Here is a scientist who understands how unsustainable agriculture is.  He alludes to the spiritual and ethical but does not develop the insight.”  Scientists desperately need to look at these complex situations with ethicists and spiritualists at the table.  We need to know how the ecological crisis of our times moves us, makes us feel fearful and compassionate, and motivates us to act.

How do I learn about the responses possible in a threatened world?  They require scientific understanding but also a commitment to make a difference.  There may be responses to a simpler living or encouragement to make changes; what attracts me to this, what gives hope, what are the difficulties and how can I join others?  How do I think about production and consumption, human health and hunger?  Where are the cultural values I can appeal to the depth of human feelings that will not deny the rights of others and the need for ecological sustainability?

These are the challenges that face writing a living text and we hope in the coming few years that our commitment deepens to meet our scientific knowledge and give us the moral charge to take accountability for a more sustainable world.

For further information, please contact Michael Schuck at MSCHUCK(at)luc.edu or Nancy Tuchman at NTUCHMA(at)luc.edu who are responsible for running this project.


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