Book review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods

About a month ago I was pointed to this book by Richard Louv titled Last Child in the Woods (2005) after reading this article from the San Francisco Chronicle I seredipitously stumbled upon after reading another article from the same newspaper. I was so struck by both that I wrote one of my journal assignments for EDU532 Learning Theory with Trish Lichau on both. In another seredipitous event, I was in my boss's office when I noticed the book on her bookshelf, which was odd since the subject of Last Child in the Woods has nothing to do with our work. We had a brief discussion about the book and she loaned it to me. That was weeks ago and I finally had time to read it on the plane to San Francisco and back this week.

The basic premise of the book is well encapsulated in the first Chronicle article I mentioned and the subtitle is a dead giveaway: "saving our children from nature-deficit disorder". Here's a couple of exemplary quotes from the Chronicle piece.

"Nature is increasingly an abstraction you watch on a nature channel," said Richard Louv, the author of the book "Last Child in the Woods," an account of how children are slowly disconnecting from the natural world. "That abstract relationship with nature is replacing the kinship with nature that America grew up with."

"Anywhere, even in Colorado, the standard answer you get when you ask a kid the last time he was in the mountains is 'I've never been to the mountains,' " Louv said. "And this is in a place where they can see the mountains outside their windows."

Reading a few chapters in Last Child in the Woods left me reflecting on some of the things we've discussed in EDU533W Educational Technology that have bothered me, namely, that somehow, we're doing good by emphasizing technology in the classroom. I understand that it's a good thing to prepare kids for a future in the workplace. But is that really the primary goal of education? Isn't that setting the bar a bit low? Did I decide on being a teacher so I can help a child grow into a Dilbert or a Da Vinci? I've been a cubicle drone before, emailing the coworker down the hall instead of going over and actually talking to them. I still do that. Is that the connectedness the Internet is all about?

Here's a paragraph that especially struck me regarding technology (emphasis mine). Let me know what you think.

Frank Wilson, professor of neurology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is an expert on the co-evolution of the hominid hand and brain; in The Hand, he contends that one could not have evolved to its current sophistication without the other. He says, "We've been sold a bill of goods — especially parents — about how valuable computer-based experience is. We are creatures identified by what we do with our hands." Much of our learning comes from doing, from making, from feeling with our hands; and though many would like to believe otherwise, the world is not entirely available from a keyboard. As Wilson sees it, we're cutting off our hands to spite our brains. Instructors in medical schools find it increasingly difficult to teach how the heart works as a pump, he says, "because these students have so little real-world experience; they've never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through machines. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior — but now we know that something's missing."

I suppose when your angioplasty, the operation that's supposed to clear up the clogged arteries caused by lack of exercise from sitting in front of the computer for 12 hours a day, is done by an outsourced doctor in Bangalore directing the corporate drone in scrubs we'll really see the advantage of technology.

Here's another paragraph relevant to educational technology (again, emphasis mine).

The problem with computers isn't computers — they're just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature. As we pour money and attention into educational electronics, we allow less fashionable but more effective tools to atrophy. Here's one example: We know for a fact that the arts stimulate learning. A 1995 analysis by the College Board showed that students who studied the arts for more than four years scored 44 points higher on the math portion and 59 points higher on the verbal section of the SAT. Nonetheless, over the past decade, one-third of the nation's public-school music programs were dropped. During the same period, annual spending on school technology tripled, to $6.2 billion… Meanwhile, many public school districts continue to shortchange the arts, and even more districts fail to offer anything approaching true hands-on experience with nature outside the classrooom.

That last sentence reminded me of a quote from Cliff Stoll's outdated but still relevant High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian (2000). Stoll described his visit to a school in the Bay Area in which the administrator was proudly showing off the brand spanking new computer lab. When Stoll asked what the room was used for before being refurbished into the computer lab the administrator answered "the library." Imagine if that $6.2 billion was spent on hiring music and theater teachers.

These passages from Last Child in the Woods don't get at the true heart of the book but I think you can see where Louv is going. I haven't finished reading the entire book and I'm eager to get at the chapter titled "The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young". Nonetheless, this book is going to be very influential to my teaching career and to my person.

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