Teachers Beware

By John F. Borowski

Illustrator: API/Wide World Photos

Students plant trees on Earth Day, 2002 Los Angeles
– photo: API/Wide World Photos

For several years, I have watched a torrent of corporate-sponsored materials enter our schools: coloring books by the coal industry, biotech giants proclaiming that genetically engineered foods are needed to feed a growing population, and logging interests that justify the vast clearcuts that scar our public lands.

As a science teacher, I struggle with inadequate budgets and overcrowded classes – as do my colleagues around the country. Free curriculum can be a blessing, an opportunity to bring new and exciting materials into science courses. But I worry that new teachers, strained for resources and unfamiliar with the bias inherent in these materials, may be aiding and abetting this propaganda campaign.

Here’s an example: Ford Motor Company recently donated $1.5 million dollars to “Provider Pals.” This puppet show is designed to put a face on miners, loggers, and ranchers: a very happy face indeed. It’s organized by Bruce Vincent, an outspoken defender of logging, mining and grazing on public lands. Vincent and his band of “providers” apparently show the city kiddies how wood, meat, and other resources are brought to the market.

Teachers and students get to play logger or cowboy for the day, roping plastic cows and counting the rings of a giant redwood slab. But this is lying by omission. The students won’t learn about the practices of ranchers who routinely trap, poison, and snare predators. And the teachers won’t receive modules on the downside of cutting forests and replanting sterile rows of monocultures – or the threats to water, wildlife, and climate from massive fragmentation of clearcut logging. Will the miner character describe the practice of mountaintop removal in West Virginia that is tearing up mountains and leaving a legacy of acid drainage and strip mines for the future? Who is going to expose these practices? After all, no good citizen would criticize American icons like the cowboy and logger.

“Provider Pals” wants us to know that loggers, miners, and ranchers are good, hardworking rural folk. And that’s a valid message. But unless urban kids have access to the whole story, like the downsides of forestry for profit, programs like this one are akin to corporate commercials.


I teach in a small logging town in Oregon. In past decades, corporations like Boise Cascade and Weyerhaeuser destroyed millions of acres of watersheds, fragmented forests, and used “cut and run” techniques, caring little about workers and their communities. Then the logging industry spent millions of dollars building the public perception that Spotted Owls and environmentalists were trying to destroy the livelihoods of workers. As a result, even broaching the subject of logging in our local high school is seen as sympathy to environmental zealots rather than a logical step in reaching sustainable forestry techniques.

The New York Times recently exposed the American Petroleum Institute for trying to create “junk science” curricula to downplay global warming and discredit the Kyoto Protocol. The Institute – along with the American Coal Foundation and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers – helped fund a module on energy for Project Learning Tree, an educational program funded by the American Forest Foundation.

Learning Tree teaches that “managed tree farms” are forests. Children learn timber jargon, such as board feet, cruising timber, and silviculture. It leans heavily toward the utilitarian approach, as if forests are nothing more than fiber farms. When Learning Tree is challenged to explain their glaring omissions, they state that concepts such as fragmentation or dangers of herbicides may be too intense for children to learn.

In the K-8 module, terms like clear cutting or monoculture are rarely mentioned. How can that be? When its funders are the most notorious clearcutters on earth (Sierra Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Pacific Lumber) it’s not hard to come up with the answer.

While there are some good ecological activities, the slickness of the materials and their sheer volume (the K-8 module is more than 400 pages long) can lead teachers to believe that this is the end all to forest education. Here’s where large sums of cash (from the very deep pockets of the timber multinationals) have crafted an illusion too good to be true.

Unfortunately, since environmental organizations haven’t provided much sound curricula, teachers are being bamboozled into using Learning Tree materials.

Growing state budget deficits mean less funding for curricula and more temptations for educators to use corporate curricula that offer a fast-food approach to learning. And this serves corporate America very well: As long as students have literacy in environmental issues, there will always be people like Rachel Carson and César Chavez.

The time is ripe for ecological science to be mandated before high school graduation. This generation of students faces tough ecological challenges, and we can teach them to be ecologically fluent. Young citizens should be capable of comprehending the laws of nature, the organization and limitations of ecosytems, how climate governs natural communities, and the rules of energy that dictate the fate of planet earth.

Armed with this knowledge, they can analyze climate change, the accelerated rate of extinction, and the limitations to consumption. If they’re ecologically literate, they can challenge economic pretexts that often ignore the true cost of energy extraction or fail to calculate the environmental degradation into our GNP.

And maybe most importantly, ecological themes can make other subjects more relevant and exciting. Team teach Silent Spring (Rachel Carson’s classic on the dangers of overusing pesticides) in English class with a chemistry teacher. Have a civics teacher explain the process by which the Endangered Species Act became law. Have the ecology and economics teacher set up a debate on the pros and cons of extracting oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while addressing alternatives like wind and geothermal energy.

Ecological science establishes a connection between students’ lives and the natural world. It gives kids a sense of worth when they bring in life experiences that translate into knowledge about nature. Students quickly recognize that complex issues demand a basic level of competency in science, and that opinions quickly crash if they are built on misinformation.

Ecological science demands that students “know the data” and then they have the ability to analyze and dissect the information. Discussion and critical thinking, even in the face of corporate come-ons, will determine the best possible road to sustaining resources for eons to come.

John F. Borowski (jenjill@proaxis.com) is a marine and environmental science teacher in Philomath, Ore.