Plant Blindness: Why Scientists Who Know Nature Are Becoming an Endangered Species

“The U.S. is running short of people who can tell the forest from the trees.” So says a recent Wall Street Journal article that is at least partly indicative of the fate of science education in the U.S. in recent years. It tells of the growing problem of “plant blindness,” the term used among botanists to indicate the inability of many people, even those in the scientific community, to identify plants.

As the Journal’s Douglas Belkin warns:

Organizations such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management can’t find enough scientists to deal with invasive plants, wildfire reforestation, and basic land-management issues.

… The issue has prompted botanical gardens around the nation to raise the alarm. Colleges are beefing up plant identification coursework for a generation of botanists more focused on their microscopes than studying leaf patterns. Bills introduced in the U.S. Senate in July and the U.S. House last year are aimed at promoting botany education.

I confirmed this fact with a young friend of our family who is studying botany in college. She related a conversation she had with one of her professors who had the same worry: too few students are focusing on the actual study of plants, and instead studying the commercialized applications of the discipline. Nobody, said her professor, seems interested in the plants anymore.

As Belkin relates:

Not only are there fewer university botany programs, but those who graduate from them may not be well versed in plant identification. The cutting edge of plant science, which has commercial applications, is molecular. Students and universities are following the significant money.

As William Friedman, a Harvard biology professor, explained to Belkin, there is molecular biology on one hand, and global ecology on the other. “The area in the middle is all about how a plant grows; that is disappearing from most university curricula and we need this information because things are changing really fast.”

There is now, says Belkin, only one botanist on the federal payroll for every 20 million acres of land, many having retired in recent years. And herbariaplant collectionsare disappearing from the colleges in which they used to be housed.

The money one can make in molecular biology is clearly one reason for the shift away from a focus on plant identification. And the focus on global ecology is another. However, a third reason may be the way we teach science in our elementary and secondary schools.

In fact, science education in many American classrooms has turned almost completely away from teaching a knowledge of what nature consists of, instead focusing on what I would call “instrumental” sciencescience as it can be used for certain practical or commercial purposes. We’re all about figuring out how to clone animals or measure the level of global warming or genetically develop insect-resistant strains of corn, but we can’t say what kind of insect it is that our child just brought in from the backyard.

If you look at the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by many states over the last several years, you can see pretty clearly the almost complete lack of emphasis on the actual study of nature.  No more bug collections. No more classification of plants. None of the things that really get people interested in science in the first place.

Can students have an adequate understanding of nature without knowing what makes it up?

There is not a single instance in the standards of any student being required to identify, name, define, classify, observe, or describe any individual natural object. In fact, a student could easily meet the new science standards without ever meeting an animal, a plant, or a mineral.

There is no mention of the taxonomy of animals, no morphology of plants, and no attempt to teach the physical properties of rocks and minerals.

While for many of us it was a rite of educational passage to learn the name and order of the planets in our solar system, there seems to be no concern that the next generation of students know anything at all about the individual astronomical bodies with which we share a sun—much less those that occupy the further reaches of space.

The Next Generation Science Standards have at least one thing in common with the space they don’t teach very much about: They are both made up largely of a content vacuum.

Our students need to know about the amazing things that make up our world, and the only way to do that is to teach them what it contains. If we excite them about science in this way, we will not only produce enough students with the skills to identify plants, but more than enough to meet the needs of the more commercial areas of science.

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