Readying Students for the Conflagration

By Brian Gibbs and Holly Gibbs

When the LA Times reported that there was negative backlash from the Portland School Board’s decision to make certain that climate change was accurately described in all textbooks and instructional materials we had two reactions: A shrugging “Of course.” And, an exasperated “We’re still arguing about this?

In 2016, reputable scientists of all political stripes, conservative, liberal, and everywhere in between, agree our planet is heating up causing major fluctuations in weather patterns, extreme swings in temperature, increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, and rising sea levels that have recently subsumed part of the Solomon Islands. These scientists agree that human actions are the cause. This is why the Portland School Board’s decision entailed that the language not be softened in the textbooks and instructional materials and that they remove language that equivocates like “possibly,” or “perhaps,” or “one theory indicates” because there is no doubt about the causes and consequences of global warming.

Unlike some historical interpretations that can be argued and interpreted based on the available documents and historical record, or a piece of literature that can be open to multiple interpretations, that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity is an agreed upon fact. Many argue consensus existed years ago, and that the skeptics were outliers whose fringe views were given along side well established fact, only because media outlets were so determined to appear impartial. In the case of our changing climate, evidence comes from irrefutable measurements of air and ocean temperatures, retreating glaciers, and rising sea levels. Peer reviewed articles, interpretation of data, and critical feedback, and discussion by an extensive community of scientists, over many—too many—years, in fact, has led to our current understanding that climate change is happening, at an alarming rate, and that it will radically impact the lives of everyone in the world.

This isn’t the first time that content, curriculum, and textbooks have been changed. It is an ongoing and constant process. What facts and information should be included in texts and curricular materials, what should be focused on, and what should be lessened or removed from curriculum is an ongoing process as more evidence is discovered, new theories are tested, and consensus is built among academic and educational communities. Authors, genre of literature, historical content, mathematical knowledge, and scientific research are all reviewed, examined, and changed.

Recently the Armenian community launched a successful effort to include the study of the Armenian Genocide in the California content standards, for example. Concerned that an important history relevant to their community and to students statewide was being ignored, citizens organized, petitioned and successfully added the study of the Armenian Genocide to state requirements. Without citizen engagement a tragic and important part of history may never have engaged the minds of students.

We can no longer say with false hope that the changes we have experienced are generational shifts the Earth has always experienced. Scientists worldwide have come together repeatedly to loudly assert in one voice that climate change is here. It is a simple and profound truth that grasps at the root of what our children will face. How long must we keep them in the dark by shrouding the absolute certainty of the challenges? We need the next generation to be armed with the truth so that they can find solutions to the inevitable worldwide complications and social upheaval that will result. Our children must be inspired by the truth.

Social studies textbooks at one time didn’t include topics such as slavery, civil rights, tensions between classes, and other topics that were deemed too controversial. Harold Rugg, a teacher and scholar, wrote textbooks that included these and other issues to encourage students to engage difficult content and to apply it to their lived existence. When severely critiqued he responded, “The world is on fire, and the youth of the world must be equipped to combat the conflagration.”

Rugg was correct then and he’s right now. The world is heating up. This will have profound effect on how our children live and exist. They need to know climate change, fully understand it, so that in their futures as business women and men, lawyers, doctors, teachers, fire fighters, professors, artists, community activists, and politicians, they can live their lives in a way that could possibly save it.

The Portland School Board and the small group of thoughtful committed citizens who brought the proposal to the board, ought to be thanked and commended for their work. We hope above hope that the Portland resolution sparks change that spreads to school districts nationwide.

Brian Gibbs taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 16 years. He is an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a contributor to Rethinking Schools magazine.

Holly Gibbs is an assistant professor of Geography and Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on global land-use change.

 See the Rethinking Schools book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, for teaching resources. Rethinking Schools has made available a “seed packet” for individuals and organizations interested in initiating a school district climate policy similar to that adopted by Portland, Oregon Public Schools.