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Using EcoJustice Principles in an Elementary School World Cultures Curriculum
SCOTT S. BARTZ
Dexter Community Schools, Dexter, Michigan
Eastern Michigan University
We will have to challenge the hubris buried in the hidden curriculum that says that human domination of nature is good; that the growth of economy is natural; that all knowledge, regardless of its consequences, is equally valuable; and that material Progress is our right. As a result we suffer a kind of cultural immune deficiency anemia that renders us unable to resist the seductions of technology, convenience, and short-term gain.
David Orr, Earth in Mind, 1994
The World Cultures curriculum referred to in this paper is taught in the Dexter Community Schools at Wylie Elementary in Dexter, Michigan. Wylie houses all the third and fourth grade students enrolled in the Dexter Community Schools. The students attend World Cultures for one hour a week and receive instruction that is aligned with the Michigan social studies benchmarks. The program was originally designed to relieve the classroom teachers of some of the social studies benchmarks outlined in the Michigan Content Standards as well as to provide students with more teacher contact hours. World Cultures is considered a “special area” class in the same category as Physical Education, Music, Art, and Media.
Teaching students about cultures from around the world will become more important as the effects of Globalization and all the challenges that come with it are realized in local communities. In this time of war and misunderstanding, there is need for a general appreciation of the values, morals, and traditions that operate within the various cultures around the globe. At the same time, a sobering assessment of how Western ideals impact other people and their environments is in order. The production of many technologies in the fields of communication, transportation and manufacturing are seen as a positive thing among most people who live in modern Western cultures. However, the sustainability of this lifestyle will be challenged as today’s elementary students reach adulthood. The supply of oil needed to maintain our current standard of living will rapidly decrease over the next few years. The answers for how to address this upcoming “crisis” will be to learn how to live sustainably on this planet.
The challenge for an educator of a World Cultures curriculum is to highlight some of the taken-for-granted assumptions of Western Culture and look at them through the lens of another culture. There is a tendency among educators when teaching global studies to present only those cultures that are similar to the American culture- a Western culture that is set in Europe, for example. A typical lesson might include a slide show on the sights and citizens of France, the United Kingdom or Spain. Attention would be given to the style of clothing they wear and the typical foods they eat. But this Travelogue approach to teaching World Cultures leaves students with the impression that everyone in the world ascribes to Western ideals. The clothing and the food are different, but the attitude toward the planet is the same. Viewing slides of the Eiffel Tower and baking baguettes does not accomplish an understanding that there are other perspectives that are not steeped in a consumer-driven, capitalistic and industrial mindset. Going beyond the considerations of fair and accurate portrayals of particular cultures, a World Cultures curriculum must provide a context for students to discern what is really at stake- the viability of the Earth and our children’s future dependence upon it.
The inhabitants of Earth are interconnected through the planet’s ability to provide for an ever-increasing human population. The universal need for clean water, air and soil requires us to take seriously the interdependent nature of life on a common planet. Locally, communities who care for the quality of their direct environment do their part by living in such a way that leaves the smallest ecological footprint. By doing so, they make decisions that are not only healthy for their immediate communities but also for areas farther away. Decisions regarding factory pollution, watershed contamination and pesticide use can affect populations many miles from the source.
This local approach is undermined when human-developed systems like trade policies make an impacted on cultures that might never share a common climate with the architects of such policies. From afar, the lives of people living in locally sustainable communities can be affected by the economic decisions of leaders who may have never been to or heard of their country. Part of this is accomplished through the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is an international rule-making body established in 1995 by an agreement among 125 countries (now over 140) to benefit certain commercial interests around the globe. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the WTO has judicial, legislative, and executive powers that allow it to wield economic power and influence in countries that have laws or policies that are considered barriers to the goals of the members of the WTO (Mander and Barker 1999). The WTO has been used by corporations to strike down environmental protections, which were deemed “barriers to trade.” It also increases inequality among the poorest people of the world for the use of resources. When this body opens up countries to foreign investment, it makes it easier for companies to locate where the labor and the environment can be most easily exploited (Danaher and Burback, 2000). This imposition of economic will and its consequences on the local societies merits consideration when teaching students about cultures from around the world. Doing so will give balance to the merits of “free trade.”
This paper will explore how teaching World Cultures using ecojustice principles will address the blind spots of the modern mindset that can hamper the ability of Westerners to understand the values, morals, and traditions of other cultures. It will provide a framework for examining current social studies curricula for cultural biases that omit cultural perspectives that could bring about social and ecological justice for all who share this fragile planet. Finally, it will highlight some of the environmental issues affected by Western lifestyles and what insights can be gained from ecologically sustainable societies.