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The Role of Wildlife in Liberal Education

Aldo Leopold is known as a father of conservation and the then emerging field of ecology. His most famous work is 'Sand County Almanac' where he more fully articulates the principles below.

It was written in 1942, upon the end of the great depression and the cusp of World War II, not to mention the dustbowl land destroying years at the peak of Mr. Leopold's development.

The Role of Wildlife in Liberal Education

Aldo Leopold, 1942

(From 'The Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold', Edited by Flader and Callicott)

Most of the wildlife education so far attempted is that designed to teach professionals how to do their job. I here discuss another kind: that aimed to teach citizens the function of wildlife in the land organism.

The two kinds contrast sharply in their war status. Perhaps the output of professionals is now excessive, even if there were no war. On the other hand, wildlife teaching for laymen has the same war status as any other branch of science or the arts; to suspend teaching it is to suspend culture. Culture is our understanding of the land and its life; wildlife is an essential function of both.

The bulk of our funds and brains are invested in professional education. In my opinion it is time to "swap ends" to curtail sharply the output of professionals, and to throw manpower and dollars thus released into a serious attempt to tell the whole campus, and thus eventually the whole community, what wildlife conservation is all about.

To see our predicament clearly we must see its history.

When wildlife education started a decade ago, three strong forces impelled us to our present course.

One was the obvious preference for preparing men to earn a salary rather than to live a life.

The second was the depression. The pump-priming policy sucked at the conservation schools like a waterspout. Anyone bearing a sheepskin, wet or dry, could soar into the clouds as a paid expert.

The third was expediency. It is easier to teach wildlife to a professional student in 3 years than to a lay student in a semester or two. Once a professional enrolls he must listen, be the teaching good, bad, or indifferent. On the other hand the lay student elects wildlife cources; if the teaching is not vital he can elect something else.

To what extent are these three strings still pulling?

Depression is dead. Expediency is no argument. The question, then, boils down to future jobs. Bureaus are now laying down plans for another post-war pump priming era, but it is a mystery to me where we are to find either the cash or credit for a repetition of 1933. I do not anticipate a post-war boom in "wildlifers". If I am right, and the market for professionals continues poor, then the deans and the presidents and the donors of wildlife funds will have the option of either shrinking the present schools, or switching their emphasis from professional to liberal teaching.

It is not likely that this switch can be made successfully if postponed until the 11th hour. The time to start is now.

Fortunately, the process of conversion does not call for a complete abandonment of professional output. All-campus teaching cannot be vital without research, and research is not possible without assistants, experimental areas, and definite local projects. This residuum of research can be made to produce a small high grade annual crop of professionals at the same time it feeds the all-campus teaching effort with vital local facts and questions.

In my own unit, I began this conversion 3 years ago, when the present overproduction of professionals first became visible. The response from the campus-at-large has been gratifying. I would recommend the change to others, even if there were no war to force the issue.

Liberal education in wildlife is not merely a dilute dosage of technical education. It calls for somewhat different teaching materials and sometimes even different teachers. The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. I say land rather than wildlife, because wildlife cannot be understood without understanding the landscape as a whole. Such teaching could well be land ecology rather than wildlife, and could serve very broad educational purposes.

Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment.

An illustration of what I mean appears in Figure 1, which traces some of the lines of dependency (or food chains, so called) in an ordinary community. These lines are the arteries of a living thing - the land. In them circulates food drawn from the soil, pumped by a million acts of cooperation and competition among animals and plants. That the land lives is implicit in its survival through eons of time.

Who is the land? We are, but no less the meanest flower that blows. Land ecology discards at the outset the fallacious notion that the wild community is one thing, the human community another.

What are the sciences? Only categories for thinking. Sciences can be taught separately, but they can't be used separately, either for seeing the land or doing anything with it. It was a surprise to me to find this was "news" to many well trained but highly specialized graduate students.

What is art? Only the drama of the land's workings.

With such a synthesis as a starting point, the tenets of conservation formulate themselves almost before the teacher can suggest them. Basic to all conservation is the concept of land-health; the sustained self-renewal of the community. It is at once self-evident from such an over-all view of the community that land-health is more important than the surpluses or shortages in any particular land-product. The "famine-concept" of conservation is valid mainly for inorganic resources, yet most teachers still apply it to all resources.

There is no need to persuade the student of land ecology that machines to dominate the land are useful only while there is a healthy land to use them on, and that land-health is possibly dependent on land-membership, that is that a flora and fauna too severely simplified or modified may not tick as well as the original. He can see for himself that there is no such thing as good or bad species; a species may get out of hand, to but to terminate its membership in the land by human fiat is the last word in anthropomorphic arrogance.

Finally, the student can deduce, if he thinks hard enough, the peculiar nature of human economics. What we call economic laws are merely the impact of our changing wants on the land which supplies them. When that impact becomes destructive of our own tenure in the land, as is so conspicuously the case today, then the thing to examine is the validity of the wants themselves.

I have been sketching the end points, rather than the beginnings, of instruction in land ecology. To reach those end points, the teacher must of course construct a bridge of hard-headed factual materials drawn not only from natural history, but from all land-sciences. This of course raises the question: why is it our job to synthesize and orient; why doesn't agriculture, or geography, or some other bigger and more important discipline do it for us?

My answer is: it is not our job, but it is our opportunity. If this opportunity is real, it is fair to ask: why hasn't it been seen and seized long ago? Why haven't the bigger and more important disciplines synthesize and ecological land concept? I am not sure of the answer, but I think I can see why in zoology and botany. Their pattern of teaching was set by the emergence of the theory of evolution. Some professors are still adding new findings to the evolutionary structure, but in the mind of the average student evolution quits growing, that is dies, when he receives his diploma. There is little opportunity for him to add to his classroom knowledge. Ecology, on the other hand, can lead to lifelong opportunities for study and even experimentation. Therefore, for the purposes of a liberal education, ecology is superior to evolution as a window from which to view the world.


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