Lessons from Elders

Is there any place more indoctrinating than a school? Is there any site of greater resistance than a school?

These questions emerge as I read Robert Mcfarlane’s Underland and listen to talks from Robin Wall Kimmerer. McFarland mentions Kimmerer, an indigenous scientist of botany, as a person developing a grammar that can flatten the hierarchy created by the use of “it” for everything that isn’t a person or pet.

In Kimmerer’s broad conception of the world, endowed to her through her indigenous traditions as a member of the Potawatomi people and her university science career as a moss specialist, we need to see plants as siblings in creation and heed their wisdom.

Plants are our elders. They have survived on the surface of earth far longer than us and can perform an act that Kimmerer wishes she could: photosynthesis. With air, soil, and water, plants create food, medicine, and shelter. And they do it for free. This creativity and generosity is beyond human capacity. As Kimmerer notes, we are consumers, not producers.

The most important lessons plants can teach us now, in the midst of mass extinction and climate crisis, are to be still, adapt, and survive.

Is there room in the science curriculum of schools for such lessons of science? When Kimmerer started her college career and wanted to study the beauty of flowers, she was told to major in the arts. Yet her perspective in the sciences could provide two advantages over the way science is traditionally taught.

The first is strategic. Traditional science curriculum treats the world as a series of objects connected to one another through mechanism. Tradition, religion, superstition, emotion, etc. are all considered barriers to knowing. Yet it is precisely the treatment of the living world as an abstraction that pushes so many children and youth away from science. Studies have found that when ethics and moral purpose are included in science teaching, groups that historically lose interest in science persist. Many children and youth of faith are turned off by science because it is seen as against religion. If plants are alive with the holy spirit (at minimum), or seen as our siblings, as Kimmerer suggests, science is less alienating.

The second is practical. Science will be less alienating and more accurate. Kimmerer says there have been no papers in the last 20 years suggesting plants are less intelligent than we thought they were. An accurate understanding of the connected mutualism of forests and prairies is powerful scientifically: it is an intricate characterization and provides a worldview more likely to lead to some, if slight, mitigation of climate crisis.

The image at the top of this post presents a dichotomy: schools can blindly teach technology or teach humanity. Kimmerer and those like her present a powerful alternative to combine the teachings of science and post-humanity. Civilization without barbarism. A mutualism that extends beyond a few species. “The democracy of species,” as Kimmerer says. I hope to continue to learn about this potential in science education and become one of its proponents because I know that schools are both places of great indoctrination and places of great resistance. One teacher here and another there make a huge difference.

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