Conceptual Extinction: The Highjacking of Our Children’s Minds

Conceptual Extinction: The Highjacking of our Children’s Minds

            We live in the world of knowledge and technological advances. The growth of information technologies generates rigorous exploration of our Universe.  Yet, despite intensive exploration of both our planet as well as the “last great frontier,” there remain surprising gaps in our knowledge and preservation of the plant and animal world.  While new birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians are discovered and described every year, others are lost to the world, extinct.  And though normal extinction, driven by competition or climatic change, is an eternal part of life on this planet, for humans to drive an otherwise healthy species into extinction, either deliberately or by neglect, is ecologically and morally unacceptable.  Most would agree that actions that contribute to the endangerment of a species should be prevented.  Yet, what about the threat of extinction of the concept and consciousness of living things?   Should we be concerned not only about nature’s physical deficits, but also about the widening gap in our actual knowledge of the natural world?

             As our lives become more and more virtual, as we clutch our Blackberries yet never pick a blackberry off a bush, or spend more time playing Facebook Farmville rather than watching horses graze in a field of clover, our experiences with and memories of the natural world are fading.  This is evidenced by the omission of over one hundred and fifty words in the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. To put it into perspective, three categories of words have been removed — nature words, Christian-focused religious words, and words of fantasy —to be replaced with words associated with computers, technology, and politics.   Words such as “blackberry,” “otter,” “acorn,” and “beaver,” have been replaced with technical words such as “Blackberry,” “MP3 player,” and “blog.”

This dictionary is aimed at readers between the ages of seven to nine, and has 10,000 words contained in 288 pages.  It is advertised as “meeting all the needs of your 7-9 year olds.” And yet, how is such a book meeting all of their needs when it is omitting words reflective of the natural world around them, fantasy words found in children’s books, and religious terms reflective of Christian beliefs?

            The ultimate purpose of children’s dictionaries is to encourage and find joy in their usage.  The two uses of a children’s dictionary are to spell check words that children frequently come across on a regular basis and to define unfamiliar words. Encouraging the pleasure of words, by including words that tickle their tongues and their fancies, as well as those that reflect a reality beyond the computer screen, should be the ideal goal of a dictionary for children.            Yet, with the removal of words like “chestnut,” “violet,” and “apricot,” words that tickle the tongue, or “dwarf,” “elf,” and “goblin” that tickle the imagination, what are we teaching children?  Are we professing that words are utilitarian, not aesthetically or imaginatively significant?

Along with words associated with animals, flora and fauna, and fairy-tales, words associated with the Christian faith, as well as words relating to Christmas were removed. And yet the Oxford Junior Dictionary includes words of other religious faiths.  In fact, along with words such as “additive,” “biodegradable,” and “bungee jumping,” the Oxford Junior Dictionary publishers, pride themselves on including “Baisakh,” which is a widely celebrated tradition of the Sikhs and Punjabis.  Its addition to the 2007 edition is additionally significant in comparison with the omission of “bishop,” “ chapel,” “ nun,” “disciple,” “minister,” “ sin,” and “devil.”

            Is this a narration of our culture?  The words included in the book, as well as those that have been omitted, set the tone for our youth.  It tells them how to behave and what to think.  Besides being descriptive, a dictionary should be prescriptive too.  It should not merely contain words that are used in our popular culture, but should reflect words and the ideas that they define, which should not be forgotten.  Besides the fact that it seems strange to remove words like “elf” and “dwarf,” given recent widespread interest in fantasy novels such as  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, it sends a message, a common thread, that the activities related to these areas are passé, old, or, more accurately, antiquated.  This, in fact, is defining culture as much as it is defining the words contained in the dictionary.

            Vineeta Gupta, who heads the children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press stresses that changes in the world are responsible for the word omissions in the 2007 edition, words that were contained in the previous edition printed in 2003. She notes that the omitted words were just not used by young children anymore. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance,” she said. “That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.” 

            Pamela Michael, co-founder and executive director of River of Words, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting kids to their watersheds through poetry and art, regrets that our present day society has increasingly disconnected with nature.  She notes, “The ill-considered elimination of words like ‘sycamore,’ ‘cygnet,’ ‘canary,’ and ‘beaver’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary is a sad reminder of the degree to which children are living indoor, often virtual, lives these days. Not knowing the names of the wild things around you prevent you from being able to fully engage with them, talk or write about them, and ultimately, even think about them.” Through River of Words, Michael, along with Poet Laureate Richard Hass, has put into action a plan to conserve the new endangered species — the natural world — in the minds and hearts of today’s youth by co-founding River of Words and pioneering the place-based education movement, which encourages the exploration and creative expression of one’s natural world.  The Oxford Junior Dictionary, on the other hand, inhibits both the exploration and the creative expression of one’s natural world, encouraging focus on the virtual, computer world.

In the end, we must ask, is it morally acceptable for the publishers of this dictionary to contribute to the endangerment of the concept of nature by omitting words like “dandelion,” “blackberry,” “beaver,” and “clover?” As a seven-to-nine year old, wouldn’t you use the dictionary to look up the spellings and meanings of entities that you would come in contact with throughout your everyday life, as well as words that you have heard referenced or that tickle your sense of wonder? Your consciousness of the world around you and what should be valued as important is formed through language.  Words are the adventure that children use to develop and awaken their experiences; it becomes their self-sufficiency and precedes their moral, intellectual, and emotional growth, contributing to their ability to sense, perceive, feel, think, and wish.  Words help develop the intensity of their feelings and beliefs, of the rightness or their convictions about any experience.  Their identity and conscious individuality is tied to language.  If children’s identities are defined by what they do with their attention, isn’t the decision by the publishers of Oxford Junior Dictionary to omit these words sending a message that nature just really isn’t important at a time in their growth and development that is extremely significant?  Canadian wildlife artist and conversationalist Robert Bateman said, “This is another nail in the coffin of human beings being acquainted with nature.  If you can’t name things, how can you love them?”

            Just as the endangerment and extinction of habitat lead to the extinction of a species, the endangerment and extinction of words in children’s dictionaries may also lead to the endangerment and extinction of important aspects in the minds of children. What is at risk is the highjacking of children’s minds, of the development of children’s imaginations, and their love of nature and identification with an important aspect of their heritage. This is a risk that the publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary need to take seriously in order to prevent highjacking our precious future.

 

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Galapagos Thornton Blease

GALAPAGOS

           

            After sailing the Galapagos water all night, I shall never forget the magic of the first beam of light reflecting off the stone arch, and the first blaze of the warm sun embracing my shoulders. Flocks of coal black and snow-white tuxedo Nazca Boobies, birds decorate the monumental arch, hanging their simple yet elegant plumage to dry in the early morning sun. I take a deep breath, smelling the magic of the ocean mist as it kisses my cheek ever so lightly, admiring the arch, deposits of volcanic tuff standing tall and proud in the Pacific Ocean. I understand why the first Spanish explorers named the Galapagos Islands, Las Islas Encantadas, the Enchanted Isles. Magic, yet as with all magical locations, man made his mark, and the arch, an oceanic Arc de Triomphe stands as a silent witness of our changing times. As I finger the smoothly polished wooden railing of our ninety-six foot schooner, I view the first of many Galapagos Islands.  Wearing a red carpet of red, rocky flowerbeds under an arid terrain splattered with cacti, South Plazas Island rests at peace under the clear blue unpolluted sky. I wonder how Ecuador has been able utilize our changing times to restore harmony to the islands, creating a delicate balance between man and the environment. Finding his place within the Galapagos Island ecosystems, man is working towards balance and stability. I am excited that a country that is full of corruption and mismanagement on the mainland, can manage the Galapagos rather effectively. Thus, I believe with an eye to the future, and an effective master plan, man can live in harmony with its environment, weaving a web of balance in their own ecosystems.   

            Charles Darwin in A Naturalist’s Voyage (1845) said, “…If, as poets say, life is a dream I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which best serve to pass away the long night…” As I lie in my bunk and reflect on my day, the peaceful serenity of the island contrasts in my mind with the rocking of the boat, swaying in a violent rhythm until my stomach is wrenched up into my throat. My thoughts drift back to our wooden sailboat glistening in the sun. We are gliding gently into the rock jetty of the island, dancing alongside the rough, oversized rocks coated with a pod of coco brown sea wolves, sea lions taking over the prime rock real estate, and brilliant orange side stepping Sally Light Foot crabs scurrying like stocker brokers on Wall Street. I maneuver around the sunbathing party, taking extreme care not to touch the peaceful colony. 

            I follow the rules given at orientation by Mauricio, our guide; I remain on the path, and do not touch any of the animals. I bend my knees and squat down until my eyes look directly in the big brown eyes of a resting sea lion, a sea lion with the tiniest ears jutting out like miniature antennae on the side of his head listening for danger. Yet he is unaffected by my presence. Is there no fear because man keeps his distance, following the rules of the master plan? Since one of the rules is the precise timing of one’s visit to the island, I must hurry along the trail. Like a complex ballet, all the boats that tour the islands are choreographed and timing is essential to prevent an overload of visitors on each individual island. My attention returns to my surroundings as a large brown pelican with a bright orange stripe of feathers running the length of the back of her neck opens her cavernous mouth. The odor of fish hit my nose like bullets before I realized that she was feeding her chick five feet from where I was standing. Excited to see every detail, I ask Mauricio if we were going to hike around the entire perimeter of the island.  He points to a pair of young great frigates in flight; dark silhouettes in the vivid blue sky with wisps of white clouds suspended in the backdrop soaring slowly, and informs me that the east end of the island belongs exclusively to the animals such as the Great Frigates. 

            Mauricio is a fountain of knowledge and points out that a prickly pear cactus, a giant Opuntia, has slender Kelly green leaves that project off of the round, six inch flattened ears that appear to be needles, and the Frigate birds soaring overhead have a bright red chest that blows up to huge proportions to intimidate other birds. He is the pirate of the sky feeding himself and his family by snatching the catch of other birds right out of their beaks or feet. Every step on the trail is packed with wildlife unafraid and unaffected by my presence. A little grayish black Lava lizard with white specks and a red-orange throat swiftly darts in front of me, while a golden yellow land Iguana with a pointed nose, red eyes and a fringe like spiked tufts of hair of a punk rocker cascading down his spine, munches on a cactus uninterrupted. Assuming that the rules aid in the security of the wildlife, I wonder what it would take to modify these rules to fit other environments.  Are the naturalist guides a key? On the other hand, are the guides arrowheads of integrity because they know the laws will be enforced at all times? My head is full of visions and dreams as I drift off to slumber as the boat continues to wrench and moan under the hands of the slamming waves.

 

            “ET phoned home, to Santa Cruz Island,” I said the next morning to my friend Mark, one of the fifteen passengers on our intimate cruise ship, as I looked at the long green neck and soulful eyes of a saddle back Galapagos tortoise named Lonesome George, who was studied for six months prior to the filming of the movie ET.  Geochelone nigra abingdonnii, the scientific name of a lonely tortoise that is the surviving member of his race, came from Pinta Island. The carapace or top shell is raised like a lip in the front to allow the neck to extend upward. Therefore, by morphology, this type of tortoise looks for food high above the ground, extending his neck like a periscope, and utilizing his legs long like a fashion model. Back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, man, unaware that he was upsetting the balance of nature by bringing invasive species, brought goats to this island. They mowed down cactus pads or leaves, high above the ground, and that particular tortoise species, with the exception of George, died out.  Researchers presented George with females from other subspecies, but George remains celibate, and lonesome. Goats are only one of many invasive species that have upset the balance of nature of the Galapagos Islands. Invasive species remain a problem as animals such as goats, rats, cats, rats, pigs, donkeys, and dogs brought to the islands years ago are now feral and abundant. However, each island has a master plan, utilizing common sense, to addresses this, and slowly balance is being restored. 

              Being at the equator, I wondered how cold the water could be. After lunch, I found out quick enough as I plunged forward ready to snorkel.  Brrrr—my toes, only slightly exposed to the water in flippers, felt nippy kisses by the water as it paraded in and out of my fins. My body heat began to warm up the layer of water between my wetsuit, and as the water began massaging my legs and torso, I felted myself relax a bit, smelling the salty, fish perfumed air. I was not quite under water when I was startled when a dark blackish green marine Iguana swam past me headed to shore “hmsss, hmsss,” snorting salt out of special glands aside his nostrils. I ducked under water and entered a world of lemon yellow angelfish, teal blue parrotfishes and coral beds that looked like undulating rock candy growing from the sea floor, rock candy in brightly colored formations of candy apple red, orangeade orange and lemon meringue yellow depending which zooxanthella abides in symbiosis in that particular coral. A sleek brown shadow swims towards me and swims away as if playing tag.  He repeats this game, and I am sure that he is bantering with me, knowing that I would do no harm. At this moment, I am glad the sea lion is in charge, and these waters and coral beds are protected. 

            Back on shore, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, I watch as a Waved Albatross with a white head topped with an undersized black hat on the top of her head, and a gray –blue chest, long slender brown wings and pale blue webbed feet, lands to lay her eggs. Espinola Island is the only place in the world that the Waved Albatross lands, and lays her eggs.  I wonder, what would happen to her if her natural habitat was destroyed. How many other stories like this exist around the world?  How many species are threatened? “Squall, squall,” I heard a sea lion squeal, admiring her brown fine and glossy fur with a large bloated abdomen; I realized her baby was being born. In a way, I felt like an interloper, invading in her private affair, but I am drawn to the beauty of this animal and her young, both flecked with olivine remnants of the beach. Within minutes, I am reacquainted with the balance of nature as a red-breasted Frigate bird and a Galapagos Hawk, with a liver-spotted chest soars onto the beach and shares in the afterbirth. I realize that all the animals here live in balance, each with its own niche to fulfill.

            On our late afternoon hike, walking up a gradually sloping path, we encounter a male sea lion with teeth marks tracking along his neck, and exposed flesh of a pink gaping wound. “What happened?” asks a New York City social worker.

            Mauricio replies, “Shark bite.”

            “Can you do anything for him?” they inquire further.

            “Yes.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Why not?”

            “We follow the laws of nature here. If man wounds an animal, we intercede, as we did several years ago when there was an oil spill, but if man does not wound the animal we let him be. If the sea lion is strong enough to survive, he will survive, but if he is weakened, he will provide food for another animal. Thus, saving him upsets the balance of nature, and breaks the food web.”

              I recall the magic and spell of the Enchanted Isles in the inquisitive look of the Blue-footed Boobies waddling with their bright robin’s egg blue feet; in the peaceful frolic of the sea lions in land and water; in the detached somnolence of marine iguanas flat on the rocks under the equatorial sun; in the puzzled smiles of the land iguanas under the cacti; in the eternal immobility of the giant tortoises in their centenarian shells, overlooking the world from the rim of a volcano; in the wave that crashes against the wooded sail boat breaking up into thousands drops of iridescent light. But the true magic is in common sense master plan devised in 1974 to maintain the Galapagos Islands, a master plan that allows the people of the Galapagos to live in harmony with their environment, taking from nature only what they need, and disposing only noncontaminating materials. A plan with an eye to the future that can be adapted to fit other challenged ecosystems around the world. A plan all countries should consider.  

As I drift away in memories, I also realize that application of the kind same plan can be applied to my life, my internal environment.  Balance means staying true to my goals and myself, and thus I believe I will be able to pass through the trying teenage years without internal destructiveness common with teens today.  Balance means following the rules established by society, yet being able to say no to peer pressure.  Balance means evaluating situations before they leave permanent impact on my internal landscape, before my being self destructs, and my talents become extinct from overindulgence and negligence.

 

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