Who is Aldo Leopold?
A month ago, near the end of the fall semester, I mentioned to my students in advanced studio that I would not be in studio the following Monday. I told them that I was taking a two-day training seminar so would not be in class. They asked me what the seminar was about and I told them. It was a seminar put on by the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the seminar was on the subject of teaching land ethics. One of the students asked: “who is Aldo Leopold”. I stood there stunned, like a deer caught in the headlights of a vehicle. I gathered myself and asked the class if anyone knew the answer to the question. There was silence. For me that was a painful kind of silence . Silly me, I just assumed any student of landscape architecture would know about Aldo Leopold and his A Sand County Almanac.
Several years ago before I joined the landscape architecture faculty at LSU I read Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. I find the basic premise of the book has gained new relevance to me in today’s classroom. I find myself asking the question “what do students know” with greater frequency when talking with students on topics somewhat afield from the course topics. Hirsch makes the point that students increasingly lack a basic knowledge that would allow them to function in contemporary society. I know the students have taken courses in history, literature, political science not to mention biology and perhaps philosophy and art history. With the equivalent of 39 credit hours of general education courses there are what I would assume are past events, people, and ideas the students would of course be familiar with and understood when sharing something with them involving current events or cultural significance.
I am finding more and more that I am experiencing similar instances to the one described. I have come to ask myself with greater frequency: “What do students know?” I do not mean what do they know about grading, plants, design, or landscape history. Simply what do they know about, you know the things you just assume they would know about life and this world.
On another occasion I greeted my class of senior landscape architects at the beginning of class wishing to share a movie I had viewed the night before with my wife. The movie was “Motorcycle Diaries” and that I thought they might want to go see it as it had some beautiful scenes of South American landscapes they would find interesting and how this changing landscape contributed to the mood of the story. They asked me what the movie was about. I told them it was about Ché Guevara and his adventures on a motorcycle traveling from Argentina through Chile north to other South American countries in the early 60s. “Oh” was the look response of the class. After a brief room of silence one of the students finally asked: “who was Ché Guevara”. I thought to myself: “What, who doesn’t know Ché?” I decided to ask the class if anyone knew who Ché Guevara was. Silence. Forty students did not have an answer. Finally one student volunteered with: “You mean the guy on the t-shirt”. “Yes”, I responded, “the guy on the t-shirt.” I wonder if I am going to have to explain the term loss of bio-diversity to the class when we turn to the subject of wetland loss on the Louisiana coast and what that means? Maybe there is a bio-diversity t-shirt I can reference.