The Importance of Reading for Environmental Leaders

Advancing Student Learning Outcomes Through Pre and Post-Program Readings

Working as a Global Learning Program Facilitator for Sustainable Summer, I have been afforded the opportunity to engage with bright students from across the globe. Our programs focus on  educating for sustainability by examining social, environmental, and economic forces that are topical to the destination. Our Global Learning Program participants come with an array of interests and backgrounds but all share one goal: to play an active role in creating a more sustainable planet. They come with the desire to learn, a craving to step outside of their realities, and challenge their assumptions about the world.

Each program operates according to a deliberate framework giving students a thematic focus for their trips; conservation, food and agriculture, ecotourism, corporate and political social responsibilities, etc… More often than not, these transformative adventures into unfamiliar territory unveil complex ideas and the realization of a rapidly changing world.  Participants finish our programs motivated to dive deeper into these subjects, continue to educate themselves and their peers, and become agents of positive change in the world. In their continued pursuits for developing an active and responsible global community, it isn’t uncommon for alumni to reach out to our staff in search of resources or direction in the field of environmental leadership.

As educators, we believe that student learning outcomes improve when participants pursue the intellectual interests that arise out of a program through independent learning post-program. We also want students to arrive on a program with some theoretical underpinnings of the topic at hand. This post will examine how two particular books by the same author, Charles C. Mann, could serve as the basis of a learning module that would extend student learning pre- and post-program. This could be either self-directed by individual students on our open enrollment programs, or a teacher might use this on one of our custom programs for schools with assigned reading and discussion of one book pre-program and the other post-program.

Charles C. Mann

Charles C. Mann is an American journalist and author. His book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus” won the National Academies Communication Award for best book of the year in 2006. At the time of its publication, the book offered an alternative perspective for understanding the pre-columbian world. His interdisciplinary research lends his publications to be widely recognized across vast branches of knowledge. Mann presents recent findings that suggest indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere were more numerous at the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Caribbean in 1492 than formerly assumed. Not only were these populations greater, but their lifestyles and cultures had much more significant implications on the natural landscape than scholars had previously understood as well.

His book’s revelations sparked critical dialogue concerning Western Hemisphere pre-columbian ecology and the historical evolution of arguably the most influential grain in human history – corn. His research revealed certain cities, namely, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and now the center of modern day Mexico City, populations were far greater than any European city at the time; not to mention they were living with running water. Mann’s scientific inquiry into the avenues that lead to the present day Americas began with the courage to step away from the known, delve into complex matters at distinct scales, and challenge the status quo. These are exactly the characteristics we are proud to represent and teach as an organization.

Mann’s most recent book was published in January of 2018. “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World” dissects two of the popular paradigms concerned with feeding the projected ten billion people on our planet by the year 2050. The opposing foresights are presented through the work of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt; two prominent men of the last century. Norman Borlaug is known as “The Father of the Green Revolution”, an initiative invested in the research and development of technologies aimed at increasing global food production, specifically in lesser industrialized countries, from the 1930s to the 1960s. These technologies included bio-engineered cereals, particularly dwarf wheats and rices, in conjunction with the application of synthetic fertilizers, agro-chemicals, controlled irrigation methods, and a new system for sowing and harvesting crops, chiefly the mechanization of these processes. Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and is credited with saving over one billion people from starvation thanks to his innovations. William Vogt, on the other hand, was a skilled ecologist and ornithologist. He published his best-selling book, “Road to Survival” in 1948 and was awarded the Mary Soper Pope Memorial Award in botany the same year. He later served as National Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was secretary of the Conservation Foundation. His resumé confirms his belief in population control being the measure to conserving healthy ecosystems. His work continues to influence modern conservation efforts, and has been credited by former presidential advisor, Bernard M. Baruch, as “the first attempt — or one of the first –… to show man as a part of his total environment, what he is doing to that environment on a world scale, and what the environment is doing to him.”

Mann tags Borlaug as the Wizard and highlights that the bedrock for this food production model rests with the idea that technological innovation and solution will continue to solve our modern day aliment concerns. Vogt, the Prophet, holds a contrasting point of view. Mann depicts this perspective as the need for “decrying the consequences of our heedlessness.” In other words, Vogt urges publicly condemning the ramifications of reckless action. The Prophet, in this case, is referring to the environmental destruction and cultural devastation following the implementation of “Green Revolution” technologies in rural and “developing” areas in the world. Throughout the book, Mann reveals how many of our modern day understandings of food and its cultivation have been born out of this dichotomy.

The Importance of Self-Directed Learning as Program Outcome

Our Global Learning Programs address controversies concerned with this very topic because both the quantity and quality of food are two factors largely influencing humanity’s ability to live sustainably. Through Sustainable Summer’s challenge-based learning approach, each program becomes a collaborative experience that invites students and educators to learn side-by-side through critical thinking, inquiry, and the proposal of practical solutions to real world problems. Exposure to relevant historical context and the art of self-educating through reading cannot be taken out of this equation and it is an educator’s duty to provide this platform. On any of our programs, participants engage with local populations, analyze various trends in global and regional markets, identify stakeholders and power structures influencing sustainability efforts, and reflect on what they have learned at the end of each day. While these experiences learning about regenerative agriculture and food production systems can be powerful on their own in – for instance – Ecuador, Costa Rica, or India, there is no doubt that the historical and global context provided by a book such as Mann’s will improve learning outcomes, particularly when paired with appropriate support services (discussion, reflection, etc).

By providing books such as Charles C. Mann’s “The Wizard and the Prophet” as an intellectual resource, the participants can begin to develop their own conclusions about the world. Just as importantly, this gesture offers guidance in the discovery of self-directed learning. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in furthering their understanding of the historical context of our global food concerns. For participants in any global learning experience, I think that revisiting the experience through critical literature is an essential follow-on activity that will foment understanding and advance student learning outcomes.

Maclaine Sorden is Sustainable Summer’s Program Director and has previously led programs in Ecuador and Cuba and at Dartmouth College for the organization.