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sheryl silent spring
If meteorologists are to be believed, the current winter we are seeing is among the warmest on record. I find this intriguing because September 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book length exposé  that helped launch what we today call today the “environmental movement.”

According to an informal survey I conducted among students in my first year college English composition and rhetoric course, excerpts of the book are often read in high school AP Environmental Science classes. Since my class serves as a bridge between high school learning styles and college level critical thinking, research, and writing, we looked at some additional excerpts. The study grew out of longer conversations we were having about Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, David Orr’s Ecological Literacy, and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.

Students kept coming back to the conundrum: What has the parent-and-teacher-and-authority-figure generation been doing for the last twenty-plus years—about the environmental mess we find ourselves in? About the loss of “joy and wonder” in both nature and learning? About chemical farming and pesticide use?

In one discussion, a sharp business-marketing major from Charlotte said, “Ms. Cornett, even if I agree with Carson on some of her points—like the pesticides and DDT—I can’t, like, totally agree about global warming.” He looked around our state-of-the-art computer classroom at his peers sitting in front of PCs and saw heads nodding.

“Thanks, Tyler, for speaking up,” I said. “Can you explain more?”

“I just think this whole climate change thing is like, you know, propaganda.”

Hands shot up in the twenty-person class. Benita, an out-of-state bio-chemistry student from the Bronx, jumped in: “I agree with Tyler. It’s, like, a totally lame thing to equate DDT with global warming.” Gore-Tex jackets scraped on chairs as students turned, nearly in unison, and looked at Benita.

“I mean how else will we feed the poor if we don’t use all methods available to reap the most abundant harvest?”

“Good question,” I replied.

Kimberly, a shy, animal-loving science major who spends much of each class staring out the window into the main street of our urban campus, spoke in a quiet voice: “What about the connections Carson makes to chemically-enhanced farming and cancer?” I knew this was a tough question for her to ask because of her mother’s recent diagnosis. And because her family owned a large hog farming operation.

These voices come to me from a new time. Most of my students were born in the ‘90s when Silent Spring was age thirty.

I have often wondered, as do many writing teachers facing knee-high stacks of student essays, if reading controversial, challenging content like Spring makes a difference in student’s critical thinking and written expression.

The kind of “joy and wonder” in my students inquiries and insights—especially in an educational environment focused on “getting a job”—might make a difference in environmental literacy and activism and may even assist the development of future leaders in science and industry and medicine and the humanites. And in education.

I hope so.

Sheryl Cornett currently teaches English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has also taught high school French in Kenya, East Africa, homeschooled her own kids, and conducted creative writing workshops in the public schools. Her recent poems, stories, and essays appear in the North Carolina Literary ReviewImage, Pembroke Magazine, Mars Hill Review, and The Independent Weekly among other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.

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