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When Will We Ever Learn?

- Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D.


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Article from Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature

When Will We Ever Learn?

- Michael J. Cohen,  Ph.D.

I'm sorry to interrupt you, friend, but it's 40 years later. If you don't do the right thing now, just who do you think will?

- Karen

On April 18, 1972, Karen, a high school junior explained to her principal why she was quitting school.  “Dr. Miler," she said. "Neither you nor the faculty here can teach me what I want to know because what I want to know is how not to be like you.  What you teach is insane. It perpetuates our destructive personal, social and environmental relationships.”

Karen's words come to mind more and more as I watch well-intentioned folks I love hurt themselves, each other and the environment. Their best thinking about how to solve our crucial problems has proven not to be as thoughtful as it needs to be.

Karen had decided to drop out of school after many attempts to “adjust.” She excelled as a student and Dr. Miler pleaded with her to remain. He pledged that if she did, he would teach her anything she wanted to know. That's when she told him he did not have the ability to do that. She explained that the harmful effects of his thinking and relationships depressed her. They showed that neither he nor the faculty knew what she wanted to know, no less how to teach it.  That knowledge was unavailable to the public in 1972.  It is available now. 

Today, most of us suffer from denial. Although crucial information that enables us to improve our relationships and well-being has become easily accessible, we seldom use it. This is because we are psychologically addicted to thinking we don't need it and we deny our addiction. However, we also know that in the forty years since 1972 the detrimental impact of how we think, feel and relate has dramatically increased. The population has risen from three billion to over seven billion individuals.  The mining and use of natural gas and oil has more than doubled as have CO2 emissions.  Today, we use about 150 percent more resources that our living planet produces. Earth's temperature has risen and continues to rise, causing greater weather extremes and great future problems. Land use for growing wheat, corn and soybeans has more than doubled.  Almost half the Earth's wetlands and forests are now gone and species are going extinct at a phenomenal rate.  Crime, narcotics and abusiveness have increased along with mental illness. Over 50 wars are going on. How sane is all this? Costs are soaring, the economy and jobs fading.  Balance is deteriorating while arguments are deadlocked in power plays. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and more powerful, the poor get poorer. The leaders we trust are molesting our children while we are drugging many youngsters to reduce their symptoms from our mayhem. Where are we headed?

Although Karen's faculty played their role well in school, they were a cross section of society then and today. For example, despite the warning labels, 30% of them smoked cigarettes. Because they protected others from the smoke by providing themselves with a smoking area, they were within their legal rights. Smoking was not, and is not, illegal. Karen felt that if cigarettes became illegal, smoking and its adverse effects would not stop. In her social studies paper she wrote “It would be like deer hunting. In many states more deer are poached illegally than are legally killed during hunting season.” In that paper Karen also said “We can't make sense of how our society educates, governs and socializes us because it is not sensible. I must help myself. I must stop learning how to think like you think.”

Karen discovered what most people tell me they know. With respect to helping us sustain happy, responsible lives out of harms way, our education and socialization is no more effective than the warning labels on cigarettes.

Karen was different than many students because, in counseling, she learned something extra. She discovered the integrity and value of her subconscious mind, of her sense of reason and her spirit.  She found that she wanted and deserved more than school and society was providing her. She began to realize that the world and its people were at risk. Her paper said, “We are in jeopardy. We don't just need information; we need an effective process that enables us to build responsible relationships with ourselves, each other and our planet. I want to learn how to build supportive and cooperative, not competitive and conquering, interactions with everything. That is not happening in this school.” She wrote, “To teach it or learn such a process, I have to live it, not just discuss or theorize it.  I have tried, in vain, to achieve this, to live it here.”

At a meeting, the faculty pleaded with Karen to stay in school, for she was exceptional. “I'm afraid to stay,” Karen said. “The abusiveness in the world scares me.” She choked, “We are on the brink of nuclear war. And the natural environment is deteriorating so quickly there may not be a world for me to live in.” Her tears flowed freely. “There is nothing abnormal with me feeling depressed at times. The hurt I feel is real. It comes from knowing and watching people being killed and bird species decline. In counseling, I am tired of just putting medicine on my hurt. I'm tired of thinking that there is something wrong with me personally. My hurt will only disappear as we stop assaulting the world and me, when sensitivity, peace and birds reappear. That is not happening here. This school is contaminated; it's a subculture, a breeding ground for our problems and most homes and families I'm aware of are seldom better.”

Mrs. Cook tried to speak. “Let me finish please,” Karen said, and continued, “The school has just bulldozed the natural area on the building's west side to build still another lawn. That area was not only a nesting and feeding habitat for birds. It was a womb for all forms of life, a place that I loved, where I could find peace at lunchtime and after school. Compared to being in class, or even in counseling, that place made sense. It was beautiful; it felt right. I could go there depressed and safely feel all the beauty and life in balance that flourished there. In just a few minutes, I would feel much better.
Haven't you had at least one amazingly wonderful experience in nature?  I refuse to be touched by the thinking here that has been bulldozed into such stupidity as to bulldoze that natural area, that 'Garden of Eden' in our backyard."

Dr. Miler interrupted, “Karen, there was no choice. That was part of a legal contract from years ago. We had to fulfill that contract or be sued. And some students smoke marijuana in that area.”

“I don't smoke marijuana,” said Karen, “I feel sad for those that do. I feel even sadder that the law says that I must spend half of my waking life indoors in school. This environment is bulldozing paradise to make still another lawn. Dr. Miler, you once told me that we learn more from the world around us than we do from books and lectures. I simply refuse to trash paradise or learn to do it. I refuse to let you rub off on me any further. What's wrong with that? It makes sense to me.  Why aren't you delighted with my sensibility?” She seemed stronger for her statement and its intensity.

“Earth and its people are at risk,” Karen continued. “Every year in this country, five thousand square miles of nature are bulldozed into our built environment. How can you possibly teach us to deal with such a massacre when you are engaged in it? What are you thinking? What sense is there for me to sit in Social Studies class to learn that our nuclear generating plants are dangerous yet their total electrical output equals the energy this country uses just to run hair dryers? That makes no sense. What do we learn here that helps us stop using hair dryers? To be accepted here, I feel pressured to use one, not to desist.  Where is the sense in that? In Biology, we learn that a decade ago Rachel Carson showed the danger in using pesticides and chemicals.  Since then, we have introduced thousands of new chemicals every year into the environment. What are you thinking when you use these chemicals on our lawns here? I don't want to learn to think like that. What kind of a world is this school teaching my mind to build?” she asked passionately.

Dr. Miler calmly advised Karen that the school did the best it could. If she left, she would be truant and there would be consequences. She would not be able to attend college. Karen replied: "I don't care. I choose to learn elsewhere. It's too stupid here. Here, society sentences me to live in an irresponsible mold, a change resistant, sterile, indoor learning environment that assaults the natural foundations of personal and global life. This environment is so boring, controlled and stifling that most students are drugged out or into something that is escapist, self-destructive or socially harmful. I'm spending close to 18,000 hours of my most impressionable, developmental years in this nature-isolated school closet. That's like growing up in a stupid culture."

Mrs. Cook, the English teacher, objected, "I, and other faculty members, have taught you repeatedly that these things don't make sense." "Not really," Karen retorted, "You merely say these things don't make sense. What you really teach me by forcing me to be in this setting is that I must adopt to being part of a runaway stupidity, not how to deal with it. Wake up, Mrs. Cook! You don't know how to stop it so how are you going to teach that? Am I supposed to just accept your belief that the communists and minorities cause our problems? At church we have a conflict as to whether it is right to subdue the Earth as the Bible says. Isn't there a separation between Church and State? You are not compelled here to subdue the Earth and its people, so why do you do it and teach it?" "This has nothing to do with religion" said Mrs. Cook. "Maybe not to you," Karen replied, "I have friends for whom that woodland was a cathedral. Think about it, weren't the lives of our greatest spiritual leaders shaped by profound experiences in nature?"

Smiling, Mr. Langely, the social studies teacher said: "Karen, cheer up. You are going to be the first woman President of the United States." Wiping her tears, Karen stammered "Oh sure, the first president with a prison record. State laws say I could go to juvenile prison if I am truant. That sucks! I don't care, I'll take my chances. Go ahead, turn me in. The law has me jailed here right now anyhow. The big advantage to being in this jail is that I can walk out and find a better way to learn. That's what I'm going to do," she stated confidently.

Karen's words bring to mind a study done by a sociologist in Maine. It shows that the students' level of morale in a high school is the same as the prisoners' level of morale in a state penitentiary.

Karen found a solution, an antidote that is now available to the world
via the Internet.  She located a unique holistic school whose nature-connected, expedition education curriculum helped her address her discontents. Its faculty and students recognized that the disorders that Karen identified resulted from people's indoctrination within the consciousness and thinking of misguided parts of Industrial Society.  The school recognized that our excessive indoor-living, nature-exploitive way of relating and its associated problems are seldom found in natural systems or in the consciousness and thinking of nature-centered cultures. In the latter, a person's psyche is genuinely plugged into the energies that natural systems use to achieve nature's peaceful and unpolluted equilibrium.

Natural system relationships produce optimums of life, diversity and cooperation without producing garbage or our insanity, pollution, war, isolation or abusiveness.  The school Karen located had invented a remarkable process, a sensory-awareness "nine-leg" tool that recognized that natural systems sustain and renew us as they flow through us.  It enabled its faculty and student community to think and relate while consciously tapped into the balance and healing powers of nature's purity and self-correcting flow through them and the environment.  Using this tool empowered the school community to build a comparatively utopian subculture, one whose academics taught them how to benefit while further using as well as teaching others how to use the tool. By applying it, most of the disorders they formerly suffered transformed into constructive relationships. A key factor in the unprecedented success of the tool was that it included doing sensory nature-reconnecting activities, backyard or backcountry. T
oday, that learning program is subsidized and readily available. It works. What are we waiting for?

Another question (with a humorous answer): Are lawns a form of madness?


From Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature. You may read, download or review it online, at http://www.ecopsych.com/ksanity.html, or obtain a review copy of it through links on that page.


Recipient of the 1994 Distinguished World Citizen Award, Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a Director of the Institute of Global Education where he coordinates its Integrated Ecology Department and Project NatureConnect. He also serves on the faculty of Portland State University and Akamai University where he directs it Applied Ecopsychology Institute. Dr. Cohen founded sensory environmental education outdoor programs independently and for the National Audubon Society and Lesley University(AEI.) He conceived the 1985 National Audubon Conference "Is the Earth a Living Organism," and has been identified as a “maverick genius” or “the reincarnation of Thoreau as a psychologist.”  He is an award-winning author of The Web of Life Imperative, Reconnecting With Nature, Einstein's World, How Nature Works and Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature. He founded a major form of Applied Ecopsychology and created the sensory science of Natural Attraction Ecology. Cohen is also an accomplished folk song artist and contra dancer who presents traditional music programs for the U.S. National Park Service and Elderhostel on San Juan Island, Washington.

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