Planting the Seeds of Environmental Education: Historic and Philosophical Origins, Higher Education, and Primary and Secondary School

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John Wargo
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This paper investigates the origins and path of environmental education in the United States, including a case study of the development of Yale College’s environmental studies program and implications for primary and secondary school curricula. The historical and philosophical roots of environmental education were heavily wilderness-focused and have influenced the way Americans think about the environment today. With an increasingly urbanized population and increasing environmental degradation and awareness, the late 20th century saw a push for environmental justice and comprehensive, interdisciplinary and experiential environmental education in primary and secondary public education. Hopeful and pertinent though the corresponding bureaucracy and policies that came out of this push were, however, they were incompatible with the rigidity of the compartmentalized American education system. The once-overwhelming push for environmental education dwindled with little to show for it, therefore limiting opportunities for environmental education to private programs and higher education. College environmental studies programs began developing around this time to fill the gap in environmental awareness and understanding students had. This paper looks specifically at the Yale College environmental studies program and how students’ areas of concentration have informed what topics have been most important and most interesting to students since the major’s inception. Environmental curricular innovations in colleges and universities might be adopted in primary and secondary school education. Much younger students could be taught the enormity of human influence on the environment. Bringing environmental curricula into the rigidity of American public schooling is not only possible, but would greatly benefit both students and the world.