Nature is perhaps the ultimate educational tool, and yet we do everything we can to obscure it from students, who for the most part spend their days in inner-city buildings. The lucky might do a week-long school trip to the countryside once a year, and maybe some choose to go to college or university away from a city. But education and nature seem most of the time to be opposed; the former is for rigorous work, the latter for playtime.
John Cowper Powys (who the Atlantic honoured with a profile titled “An Irresistible Long-winded Bore”) took up the challenge of trying to explain nature’s relationship to education. More specifically, he writes about “culture”, an anachronistic phrase getting at the idea of a real education. His book The Meaning of Culture tries to explain how philosophy, literature, art, poetry, nature and religion might work together to produce a deeply educated person. In his chapter on “Culture and Nature”, he writes:
“No refining of one’s taste in matters or art of literature, no sharpening of one’s powers of insight in matters of science or psychology, can ever take the place of one’s sensitiveness to the life of the earth. This is the beginning and the end of a person’s true education.
It is nature, for Powys, that incites in us the sense that there is a great deal to understand, and that without attempting such an understanding we are to live in ignorance. He goes on to talk about the process of becoming “sensitised” to nature:
“The cultivation in one’s inmost being of a thrilling sensitiveness to Nature is a slow and very gradual process. The first conscious beginnings of it in early childhood are precious beyond words as the origin of dominant memories; but the more deliberately we discipline our sensitive grasp of these things, the deeper our pleasure in them grows.
And in what we might push back against as a high-brow interpretation of culture from a man who considered himself to live at its pinnacle, Powys tries to explain the difference in receptivity to nature between a “cultured” and an “uncultured” person. He attempts a description of how as we become educated we require less to be stimulated into thought:
“The difference between cultured people and uncultured people, in regard to their response to Nature, is that the former make a lot of a little, whereas the latter make little of a lot. By this I mean that the less cultured you are the more you require from Nature before you can be roused to reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentous signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades upon a little flat stone, or by a single dock-leaf growing under the railings of some city square.
This brings to mind Walt Whitman’s famous lines in his Song of Myself, “I loafe and invite my soul /I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Whitman’s receptivity and awareness of nature was so great that observing a single spear of grass allowed him to reflect on his body, his parents, his health, death, education, nature, and so on, opening up a world of thought in which to live and to reflect. His poem is in many ways an educational text, one that shows how by being aware of nature there is nothing we cannot at least attempt to think about and to understand. In a similar way, John Dewey’s educational philosophy focusses on “experience”, and there are perhaps no deeper experiences we can have than those in nature.
And perhaps the best thing about being educated by nature is that the reverse happens simultaneously: we are inevitably educated about nature. That is a first step towards solving the climate crisis, for unless we all understand nature and feel connected to it in some way, it is almost impossible to create an impetus for change.