By Denny Olson

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ Who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Aldo Leopold


Denny Olson

One of the things that my Dad could always do, and I considered it almost magical through much of my childhood, was to take apart a broken complex mechanical thing, assess the problem inside, and fix it. This happened over and over, usually with objects that, at the beginning of the process, he knew nothing about.

My curiosity was such that I watched carefully as he did this magic. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was applying the same principles of observation and organizing to analyzing his task as he was to fixing the piece of equipment. I noticed that the parts were put on in a sequence – first to last, and his opening task was to undo the process — last to first.

Then I noticed something more subtle. There was not a random scattering of parts as they were peeled layer by layer. The placement of the parts on the table was organized by their relationships. In my Dad’s brain, he was placing things specifically so he could remember the first to last in the later reconstruction. It was never the same kind of arrangement – say left to right – for each job, but each time there was a pattern to it.

He would eventually recognize the offending part, or the improper relationship between parts, fix it, or toss it because the repair was not worth the replacement cost. Sometimes there was nothing broken, but the relationship between parts was out of place. An easy fix.

My first car as a late teenager was an “Oldsmobile”, in every sense of the word. It was an old pink hardtop “boat”, that would have floated down the road in cushy luxury had its engine been a smooth runner. It wasn’t. I decided to do some intelligent tinkering. Halfway through the process of taking apart the entire engine, I realized two things. One, the intake valves were scored and burned, and could be fixed with a re-grinding down the block at Bill-the-mechanic’s shop. The second realization, and it did raise the neck hairs a bit, was that I was my Father, for better or worse. From him I also inherited an ability to imagine harmonies to new music and sing them, and to pour myself into work that I liked — as well as some parts that didn’t work, like letting anger build from frustration and feeling poorly about myself, and being helplessly tongue-tied with defensiveness when someone was wrong about me.

Fixing or replacing the parts that didn’t work allowed my cushy Olds boat to float down the road to my girlfriend’s house in a different town. It was great freedom. The metaphorical “parts” in maturing have taken more time, but the road is smoothing. I just had to figure out what to keep, and what to replace.

The same principles are, of course applicable to the rethinking of culture and education. To make it work, to float the evolution of education down the road, we need realize what we must discard or repair, and what already works for us. I’m a nature educator by lifelong commitment. I do think closeness to nature is keystone to mental health and clarity, as well as learning, but I have a list of other “parts to keep” in the work of educating our kids and ourselves.

There is little intelligent debate about things we can do without. Most of us don’t really want our culture and the attached-at-the-hip public education system to be defined by hyper-materialism, selfishness as a positive attribute, lack of empathy and altruism, short-term non-critical thinking, isolation from our families and friends, worship of celebrity, sports as obsession instead of a fun diversion, violence as a viable alternative to problems that are mostly internal and personal, massive economic disparity between haves and have-nots, or drifting away from democratic political processes. Those parts can be given the “buh-bye” without much damage to our American culture and education.

The parts to keep represent the best that humans and communities can be – altruistic, kind, giving, loving, patient – and also the other qualities in the education system that actually work, and probably always will.

Education happens all the time. We experience things, sometimes painfully and sometimes joyously. We learn from the experiences. And it is important to remember that there is a lot that is right about the ways that learning happens, whether those ways are called “education” or not. We should not ignore time-tested, even prehistoric, pathways that humans have always used to become better people.

As a teaching naturalist, my checklist of parts to keep, or educational methods to practice, are: 1) outdoor play, 2) carefully observing and learning from nature, 3) storytelling, 4) reading to children at all ages, 5) mentoring, 6) providing solitude, 7) humor, 8) surprise, 9) emotion, 10) early and often physical exercise, 11) the arts (including music and rhythm), and 12) the “consumer science” training for everyday life – all of these are the babies to pluck safely and preserve from the cultural bathwater.

This list can and should be a powerful starting place for further improving schools and strengthening the already solid foundations of American culture. And they are a constant reminder that in conservation and environmental education, none of them exist apart from the whole. Just as I preach “everything is connected to everything else” in my Audubon work, I can’t afford to forget that every educational method is also interwoven in a complex cultural matrix – and I should use them all.

This is remedial, of course. If I was a Native American, or even indigenous on another continent, I would grow up with the from-birth cultural assumption that every thing and every action is connected to all others, even seven generations down the road. So, intellectually, emotionally and professionally, I’m headed that way — in my Oldsmobile.