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Back to Oct. Ed Reporter

Textbooks Teach Environmental Activism

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MILWAUKEE, WI - A report released by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute shows that textbooks frequently fail to provide a balanced, fair, or objective environmental education. Since Earth Day in 1970, awareness of ecological problems has proliferated, and so has misinformation. Today, over 30 states mandate environmental education and use textbooks that perpetuate many environment-related myths to school children.

Michael Sanera, Ph.D., director and research fellow at the Center for Environmental Education Research in Tucson, analyzed textbook treatment of the environment for his report, Environmental Education in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach. Dr. Sanera warns that "the messages your children receive do not focus on explaining ecological processes in a balanced way but on persuading children that the world is in danger and it is their job to save it."

For his study, Sanera analyzed the environment-related content of 62 6th- through 10th-grade science, health, and geography textbooks used in 12 representative school districts in Wisconsin. The report evaluates the textbooks' treatment of ten environmental issues: acid rain, American forests, endangered species, energy and natural resources, global warming, ozone depletion, population and food distribution, rain forests, recycling and solid waste.

"With few exceptions," according to Sanera, "textbook treatment of environmental issues is influenced by an ideological view that presents human beings as evil and blames the United States in particular and Western industrial societies in general for every environmental ill. The facts provided in textbooks should not be subject to ideological 'spin,' but should be presented, insofar as scientists know them, without attempts to propagandize students."

The information that the textbooks contain regarding acid rain, for example, "is overwhelmingly one-sided. Most texts don't bother to explain even the basic scientific facts about acid rain or the naturally acidic nature of precipitation. The texts tend to emphasize different detrimental results from acid rain," according to the report, and "most are certain that man-made pollution causes the harm done. Opposing views, with one exception, are either ignored or denigrated." These "opposing views" are based on a 10-year, $500 million study funded by the U.S. Congress.

Textbook treatment of American forests overwhelmingly conveys "the impression that government ownership of forests is the only way to prevent greedy private owners from clear-cutting forests for short-term profits," the study found. The texts largely ignore the fact that, since 1920, the private sector has been primarily responsible for the remarkable recovery of forests in America.

As for endangered species, "most texts favor the human causation theory of species loss," which holds that "human population growth is speeding species extinction because humans are taking habitat to build homes and grow food." Those who question the human causation theory, however, do not get equal time. "No text explains the opposing view, nor do any texts explain the weaknesses of island biogeography, on which estimates of species loss are based." The report continues, "Private ownership as a powerful incentive for preserving species is not adequately explained. No text explains the role of economic incentives in species preservation. Students should be informed of both strategies for species preservation and understand the reasons behind them."

Textbooks give mixed treatment of natural resource and energy. "Most texts present a more balanced presentation of these topics than of other environmental issues," Sanera writes. "Even so, the outlook is usually pessimistic, with dire predictions of resource depletion. No text mentions that resource prices have been constant or falling for years, indicating that scarcity is not really a pressing danger."

The global warming theory is fully explained in all of the texts featuring a discussion of the issue. "Most texts explain, some more adequately than others, that to avert these catastrophes, immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gases are necessary." Yet again, the opposing perspective does not receive equal consideration. "The vast majority of texts provide little information about the work of scientists who do not agree with the global warming theory."

Dr. Sanera asserts that textbooks present an incomplete picture of the supposed thinning ozone layer. "The texts generally skirt the issue of natural ozone variability in favor of an alarmist picture of human-caused thinning. The ozone depletion thesis is usually explained in detail, but opposing arguments are either not explored or denigrated. As a result, students will not understand the natural factors that cause variation. All the authors seem to accept the ozone depletion thesis without question. Since the information in the texts is so limited, students have no choice but to accept it," he explains.

The report advises that "environmental education should provide a balanced presentation of scientific and economic thought about environmental issues. To nourish the spirit of inquiry and critical thinking skills of Wisconsin students, texts also should clearly distinguish between fact and theory. In addition, students should understand that if economic growth and technology adversely impact the natural world, they also produce benefits for both humans and nature."

This report is an important resource for parents, teachers, students, and administrators of any state because it provides discussion of criteria by which to judge a textbook's treatment of the environment. Environmental Education in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach may be ordered from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute at 414/963-0600.

For those wishing more scientific and economic information behind the complex issues of environmental stewardship, Dr. Sanera has published a book entitled Facts Not Fear (available at 800/955-5493). This book will help parents give their children intelligent, balanced teaching with a solid grounding in science.
 
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