by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The fifth goal of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ Seven Year Action Plan is Ecological Education. In an elementary way this goal would seem straightforward, even simple to carry out. Just gather the enormous amount of research already existing as well as emerging data in the field of ecology and package them into age-appropriate courses of study. In other words, just follow the all-too-common method of conveying facts and figures for student consumption.

This is not education at all. It’s more like presenting facts as commodities to be stored in the students’ memories. Etymologically, education signifies a “leading out” or as one definition has it, “to teach or refine to be criminative in taste or judgement”. This understanding of education obviously demands entirely different approaches on the part of teacher and student.

The great exponent of authentic education in our times is Paulo Freire, a Brazilian teacher who “led out” thousands of illiterate people in that country by a method he called “conscientization”. The word and method means “consciousness raising” and it was much more than learning to read and write. Freire would begin with a simple concept, for example “casa” (house), and elicit from his students their understanding of the word and all the others which “casa” generates. In developing their vocabulary, the method also helped these impoverished people to understand and often strongly resist the social inequalities of housing all around them. Additionally, learning in groups this way gave them a deep sense of solidarity. Conscientization in Brazil became such a threat to the status quo that Freire was exiled to Chile and later to the United States.

Other examples of genuine education come to mind.

The first revolves around the Jesuit-led University of Central America in San Salvador. The administration of that school decided to place the entire operation at the service of the poor – conducting it in function of a preferential option for the poor. Every aspect of the UCA – from the physical campus, through the administration practices, to all the courses offered, were run on the premise of how they affected the poor. It was education exemplifying the “bias” called for by the Latin American Church – in this case “conscientization” of students to see life through the eyes of the poor.

The other example of education in the proper sense of the word comes with the Catholic Nonviolent Initiative. Thanks to a “bottom up”, inductive methodology the CNI has concluded that violence permeates every situation of injustice and inequality one can name. Its educational efforts, therefore, begin with this reality and address it nonviolently.

These two examples fold into one another in considering the goal of Ecological Education. The facts and figures of the current planetary crisis will best be taught from the point of view of the poor. They are the first ones who experience the harm being done to our common home and intuit that it is caused by institutionalized violence.

The conclusion to all of this for us who agonize over the violence being done to our common home is one more example of the crying need for what Pope Francis continually articulates – a “new normal”. He holds out a way of living on Earth that helps us supersede our individualistic, narrow and self-referential approach to the dangers facing our planet. This vision of comprehensive Ecological Education calls us away from an almost exclusive concern regarding our personal ecological footprints and their effects on us. It results in making us aware of the broader issue of how the vast numbers of people in our world suffer from the violence done to Mother Earth. It moves us to a comprehensive understanding and active concern for Her.

Ecological Education should “help people through effective pedagogy to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ #211).


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

One thought on “Ecological education begins with the preferential option for the poor

  1. thank you for the insight (wisdom). perfectly logical, not novel at all, yet a novel concept.

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