ASHLAND, ORE. — 'Don't waste things!" teachers have been exhorting children for generations. "And if you make a mess, clean it up!"
Sound advice for life, perhaps. But when those lessons in personal conduct and civic virtue extend to complex and controversial issues like dwindling rain forests or global warming, it can create political fireworks.
The latest environmental battleground, it seems, is not a patch of old-growth forest but a grade school classroom.
Critics say teachers, in cahoots with activists, have been disguising propaganda as environmental education - and as a result have crossed the line from teaching to advocacy. Stories abound of youngsters mailing off letters to lawmakers about clean-air legislation, boycotting businesses for allegedly polluting, and bringing home supper-time stories about how adults (read: their parents) are threatening the earth.
"School children across America are being scared green by environmental education," says Michael Sanera, research fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute and co-author of "Facts Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment."
The latest critique came this week when a panel of distinguished scientists reported "potentially serious flaws in a critical part of our children's education."
"Many high school environmental science textbooks ... provide superficial coverage of science. Others mix science with advocacy," reports the Independent Commission on Environmental Education, organized last year by the George C. Marshall Institute, a private research group.
Some public officials, in fact, promote educational policies that could be viewed as advocacy.
In a letter accompanying Massachusetts's environmental education guide, state Secretary of Environmental Affairs Trudy Coxe said: "Educators are a key element in the effort to improve the understanding of our ecosystems and to promote environmentally conscious lifestyles."
Environmental education advocates acknowledge the controversy. "Is it brainwashing our kids? Is it junk science? These are the questions that are coming up," says Kevin Coyle, president of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
To many in the "wise use" anti-environmental movement, the answer to Mr. Coyle's questions is "yes." As a result, conservative groups (particularly those concerned with "parental rights") have persuaded several states to cut back on environmental education. In Arizona last year, the legislature overturned a law requiring environmental education and cut funding for such programs.
Several issues are behind the problem, experts say. Environment as a school subject is a relatively recent addition to the curriculum, which means interest groups from the Sierra Club to Dow Chemical moved to provide materials while textbook companies labored to catch up. Meanwhile, the science behind such new concerns as climate change and loss of species has pitted scientist against scientist. In addition, conservation as a long-time societal goal means environmental education is bound to be as much social science as it is physical science - and that means values.
While they stress the importance of fact-based science, for example, the authors of the commission report state that "engendering a stewardship ethic in our children is clearly an appropriate goal for American education." But just what that ethic is and how it should be imparted to impressionable youngsters is a very subjective call.
"It's a field that's expanding, but by its nature it's very interdisciplinary," says Coyle. "So it has its growing pains."
Those urging changes in environmental education emphasize the importance of such programs as a hands-on way to turn kids on to science - particularly important as the US has dropped in comparison with other countries in science skills. What starts as a childhood interest in bugs can lead to world-class research, as it did for renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.
Coyle points out that environmental educators are revising teaching materials to reflect sounder science and the tensions between environmental restrictions and economics. And some educators are even urging caution. "Eight-year-olds should not be asked to become warriors or worriers," wrote Michael Weilbacher in the pro-environment magazine E. "Childhood needs to be preserved just as much as rain forests and wetlands."