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Re: E-M:/ The need for a re-democratization of science is pressing and urgent...



Well put Mr. DeFazio.

Our environmental illiteracy - indeed our growing illiteracy about all things social and political - is related, in part, to educational practices and professional training methods that have grown overspecialized and insular, captive to professional associations, zealous bureaucracies and conservative pedagogical techniques. 

Let's diagnose this pertinent Michigan environmental tale. . .

In 1998 the Michigan Public Health Institute, with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, sought to overcome incremental, specialized knowledge and create practitioners with a more holistic understanding of the issues, by catalyzing researchers to conduct holistic environmental health assessments that honestly uncovered a broad range of environmental issues and then conveyed that knowledge to the public in a compelling manner. After two years of research (1996-98) it released its "Framework for Assessing Local Environmental Health," guidebook, in 1998, to great fanfare. The authors hoped to inspire scores of local city and county-wide environmental health assessments across Michigan.

Five years later, not a single such study has been completed.

One of those uncompleted studies was a study about Ingham County's environmental health. A chief lesson to draw from that experience is that when one seeks to gather and synthesize empirical data from official governmental sources, --  each attuned exclusively to their own specialty or program area -- in order to better illuminate the environmental realities of our communities, and when one does it on the local level where there are plenty of powerful interests who prefer that such knowledge not be widely disseminated, one has a very difficult road to travel. In such settings, self-censorship provides some relief.

The deeper question is, "what are the motive forces creating so much specialization?" The Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno noted that,

"The dissection of man into his faculties is a projection of the division of labor onto its pretended subjects, inseparable from the interest in deploying and manipulating them to greater advantage." (Adorno, Minima Moralia,1951, p. 63)

Indeed, citizens' environmental illiteracy is tied to something much more encompassing. As one of my mentors, the late MSU anthropologist, Harry Raulet liked to say, "culture is that which is behind that which is behind." What did he mean?  Adorno put it well again when he said,

"We owe our life to the differences between the economic framework of late capitalism, and its political fašade. To theoretical criticism the discrepancy is slight: everywhere the sham character of supposed public opinion, the primacy of the economy in real decisions, can be demonstrated. For countless individuals, however, the thin, ephemeral veil is the basis of their entire existence."

Flowing from this deep cultural dynamic, our illiteracy grows from the "sham character" of our illusory lives. Those in environmental health who seek to narrow the discrepancy between reality and fašade often risk censorship of their work, or worse. It's easier for facts to be released incrementally, in a confusing and partial, overly specialized form.

A group of leading educational theorists, often referred to as the "critical pedagogy" school (Giroux, Apple, McLaran) have led the way in conceptualizing several important issues and guideposts for critical practice around these types of issues. Among the school's spiritual progenitors are the social theorists Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire.

Gramsci, an Italian social theorist, was capable of exhibiting hope and resistance even under the most difficult of conditions in fascist Italy, and even while in prison. His program was similar to what became known as the long march through the institutions in 1960s discourse. "Every relationship of 'hegemony' is necessarily an educational relationship," said Gramsci. Gramsci "came to understand the crucial importance of those aspects of civil society - the ideological, cultural and religious sphere (the so-called superstructural relations) where humans live by ingrained concepts of justice, morality and truth," writes Henry Giroux. His program was to enter, "the public sphere of both institutional and political life where people debated their 'truths' about education, morality and law as well as struggled over their immediate and antagonistic interests. Put another way, Gramsci understood the necessity of making the political more pedagogical.  

Freire, a Brazilain educator well known for his "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (1970) equally viewed education as a permanent feature of civic and political life. He founded a  literacy movement based, in part, on conducting an ethnographic evaluation of a community to identify the generative themes (or "dangerous words") which matter profoundly to people and which, for just this reason, contain their own catalytic power.  Part of this process involved the visual depiction of the word for peasants, so that the idea represented by the words were critically discussed before the words were analyzed as graphic symbols.  Many questions are asked of the signifier, whether it be a brick, a coin [or in our context, a given neighborhood pollution site]. Who created the brick?  Why? Who benefits from current arrangements? Who does not? What forms of knowledge concerning the cultural artifact are omitted or ignored in the dominant debates? How can things be improved? In the process of dereifying the image (that is, seeing the image as a social construction, something made by humans, and therefore capable of being transformed by them), the group gradually discovers that people can reclaim extant cultural knowledge to change their situation and create new knowledge.

At base the "critical pedagogy" movement recognizes that our literacy grows by leaps and bounds when literacy education (and by that we mean ALL education, science, environmental, pesticide education and so on) is co-taught along with political education. The curriculum springs, in part, from the everyday concerns and questions of the students. You cannot have real literacy without a dramatic increase in political consciousness.

In this light, Enviro-Mich is one of the best and most important environmental literacy tools in Michigan, if not the United States. Salud! 

In sum, the critical pedagogy movement in the United States continues to synthesize subaltern approaches with a number of theoretical problematics and apply them to educational endeavors throughout civil society. Critical pedagogues argue that education has two essential moments: it is a struggle for meaning and a struggle over power relations.  The second phrase is the crucial one, for in order to be convincing to the learner, knowledge, whether "dangerous" or not, must be enacted in some manner, thereby enjoining those who seek to repress the dialectical and creative urge to understand. There will always be external forces seeking to suppress the knowledge seeker. Regrettably however, this repressive tendency often exists within us as a semiconscious incorporation of an alien power.  Confronting this power takes work.  Once again, Adorno puts it well,

"The dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them.  The prudence that restrains us from venturing too far in a sentence, is usually only an agent of social control, and so of stupefaction (Adorno 1951:86)."

Brian McKenna