The pedagogical value of ecoliterary texts: an application of Adrian Rainbow’s views on an Afrikaans youth novel, a cross-over novel and a picture book for children

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According to Susan Smith (Steenkamp 2013) literature has the potential to develop critical consciousness. A literary text can stimulate critical thinking and can educate the reader towards a change of attitude, and eventually into action. During the development of a critical awareness the reader can be inspired into action and into making a difference. This potential of literary texts can be utilised and applied in the struggle for environmental literacy. Within the South African academy the potential of the ecoliterary text is still mostly undervalued. The value of fiction in the teaching of scientific and ecological principles, and of the author as eco-educator, is therefore underappreciated.

With this article I investigate the value of ecologically oriented fiction texts in creating environmental awareness, and in environmental education. The question that is at the core of this investigation is therefore: How successful can fiction texts be applied to educate young readers ecologically and to sensitise them towards the natural environment and the human-nature-relationship? The investigation will be done using Adrian Rainbow’s (2014) work in which he reflects on the power and the pedagogical value of the ecoliterary text. With this overview article I reflect on his viewpoint that a combination of aesthetic texts and scientific facts can lead to a better knowledge of the natural environment.

Research done by South African academics, inter alia Dan Wylie (2014), E.R. Jenkins (2004), Julia Martin (1994) and Susan Meyer (2009), will be applied during the investigation of the position of the Afrikaans ecoliterary text within the South African context. The article also has a research component, as these theories will be applied to three texts: ’n Tuiste vir Bitis (a youth novel by Freda Linde, 1980) Kringe in ’n bos (a cross-over novel by Dalene Matthee, 1984) and a picture book for children, Arboreta, die heks met die groen hare (Riana Scheepers, 2008). A conclusion will then be reached with regard to the research question. I will also reflect on the notion of the role of the author as an environmental educator with reference to each of these texts.

Apart from Rainbow’s views, there will also be references to the theories of Karen Blincoe and Glen Love on the author as a change agent (Blincoe 2011) and nature endorser (Love 2003), as well as to Paulo Freire, a Brazilian pedagogue, and his notions of conscientisation and praxis.

Rainbow argues that a new kind of nature literature is developing: one that can lead to a better understanding of science and ecology, which in turn can lead to new thinking on, and a deeper appreciation of, the ecosystems and man’s relationship with nature. The purpose of this study will be to test Rainbow’s theoretical views by analysing the chosen texts and their potential to educate young readers and to sensitise them to the natural environment and the human-nature-relationship.

At the core of the question on the effect of literature in educating about the environment is the issue of cultural change (Shoba 2012:442). According to Shoba, the belief that the study of, teaching on, and writing about the literature of nature, can somehow effect social change. Intellectual inquiry can change belief systems, and consequently, behaviour.

With these educational theories as background, and with Rainbow’s notion on the literary text as an emotional, empathic and aesthetic impact on the subconscious mind of the reader, I investigate the assumption that the application of fiction texts in ecological education can lead to a sensitising towards the natural environment and the human-nature-relationship in young readers.

Although the portrayal of the delicate balance between man and his natural environment has been a recurring theme through the years in several Afrikaans fiction texts, very little research has been done in the ecocritical field on Afrikaans children’s and youth literature (Meyer 2009:30). The few studies that have been undertaken were done by E.R. Jenkins (2004), Susan Meyer (2009), Dan Wylie (2014) and Elzette Steenkamp (2015). Susan Smith’s and Susan Meyer’s research in the past years have also led to very valuable contributions on the ecocritical approach to Afrikaans literature. Meyer’s research sheds light on different aspects of the literary embodiment of the man-nature-relationship in prose. She researches the ways in which man interacts with nature in different Afrikaans texts. Smith’s research is on the influence of new materialism on the ecocritical reading of Afrikaans texts.

Research was also done by ecocritics and researchers like Julia Martin, Wendy Woodward and Hedley Twidle. While these contributions were done mainly with respect to English adult literature, they can also be of great value in investigations on the portrayal of the natural environment in Afrikaans texts for the youth.

The idea of critical awareness is at the heart of Paulo Freire’s pedagogical methodology. The notion of conscientisation pertains to a process of dynamic, individual growth, re-education and self-reflection, as well as critical thinking (2014:118). It is representative of the shift from not knowing to better understanding. Freire emphasises critical awareness throughout his works Education for critical consciousness (1974), Pedagogy of the oppressed (1970), Pedagogy of the heart (1998) and Pedagogy of hope (1998).

According to Rainbow (2014:118) Freire identifies conscientisation as instrumental in exposing the cultural and political contradictions of, and the historical processes that define, society. It is a process in which the illiterate becomes critically educated to see reality and their place in it. It also entails the realisation that they can make a difference and bring change. With the notion of praxis a transfer from theory to action is implied. In order for this to take place there needs to be inspiration, passion and a theoretical, philosophical or politically conceptual thrust (Rainbow 2014:119).

According to Freire (1970:168), “human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action”. Critical education is therefore a combination of critical awareness, critical thinking, and praxis. It implies a pedagogical approach that emphasises the need for critical consciousness to challenge and subvert existing thinking patterns in such a way that change will be inevitable (Rainbow 2014:119).

The current environmental crisis, according to Rainbow (2014:119–22), is the result of existing ways of scientific thinking, ontology and education. It is the result of how man thinks about the earth, what value he ascribes to nature and how he sees his place in relation to nature, and how we then transfer this information to learners/readers. Rainbow implies that the way in which we think about this problem is influenced by several factors. Some of these factors include the ways in which educational disciplines and practices are being chosen or being privileged, and how they develops. Rainbow (2014:119) regards science as an area of formal and impersonal thinking; of objective reasoning and instrumental rationality.

It is against precisely this strict scientific reasoning, and the justification of human supremacy that post-human thinkers such as Karen Barad, Stacy Alaimo, Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino advocate a rethinking of the issue of human vs non-human life forms. Iovino (2012:3) and Alaimo (2010:7) call this the “material turn” in which the separation between matter and the cultural construction thereof is bridged (Smith 2014:774). This dualism on which the dogma of human supremacy relies, is being questioned by the new materialism. A new approach includes that “things and nonhumans in general are no longer seen as mere objects” (Iovino and Oppermann (2014:4), but as worthy role players in the network of co-existence and discourse between man and nonhuman life forms.

Rainbow (2014:120) argues that man has, for many years now, been engaged in a “Frankensteinian quest for knowledge and progress”. The result has been that earth has been regarded as mere dead, inert matter that can be exploited for human gain. Fortunately, scientists are now trying to inspire new ways of reconnecting man with nature. When Blincoe (2011:206) asks that existing educational practices need to be revised, that there needs to be a platform for new ways of thinking, she relates to this holistic idea that teaching methods must include intuition, imagination and spirituality, and that there must be a basic knowledge of the relatedness and interdependency of all existing things.

With this article I investigate children’s and youth literature as a possible vehicle towards the development of environmental awareness and environmental education. I consider the potential of the ecoliterary text to motivate readers in creating better knowledge and awareness, but also a deeper appreciation of the non-human world.

In answer to the research question I conclude that Afrikaans children’s and youth literature have the potential to create awareness on, and appreciation of, the natural environment and the non-human. Authors provide ecoliterature, but it depends on educators to apply it during environmental education to cultivate critical thinking and develop skills towards environmental discourse. In this way learners will be able to make a real difference and contribution to the struggle towards environmental literacy. It is my conclusion, as Rainbow also states, that the ecoliterary text, and the inclusion thereof in educational practices, can support this process.

Keywords: children’s and youth literature; critical awareness; conscientisation and praxis; ecocritics; eco-education; ecoliteracy; ecoliterary texts; environmental awareness; nature-oriented texts

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die opvoedkundige waarde van ekoliterêre tekste: ’n Toepassing van Adrian Rainbow se sienings op ’n Afrikaanse jeugverhaal, ’n oorgangsroman en ’n prenteboek vir kinders

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