Liberty Hyde Bailey and environmental education

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In his 1997 paper: Environmental Education: Historical roots, comparative perspectives, and current issues in Britain and the United States, William E Marsden begins by exploring the origins of the designation environmental education.  In this he mentions Liberty Hyde Bailey:

"... as early as 1905 an American pioneer of nature study in schools, L.H. Bailey, considered employing the label "environmental education" but rejected it on the grounds that it implied only natural surroundings, was imprecise, and would "always have to be explained."  In addition, he thought it sounded "pompous and theoretical."

The implication of the Marsden citation is that Bailey was way ahead of his time as the next use of the term "environmental education" is popularly credited to the UK's Keele Conference on Education in 1965 which had the theme of Countryside in 1970.  It was the second in a series, organised by the Nature Conservancy Council.  Paul Vare and I mention Bailey in our most recent book, but only as the first president of the American Nature Study Society.

I have used the Bailey quote, however, in talks I have given on environmental / sustainability education, and up to now (confession time) I have relied on the Marsden citation rather than reading the original.  I use the quote to help make the point that all such phrases need explanation and are hence all a bit problematic.  ESD, of course, is über-problematic as whilst most people have heard of "environment", few outwith Unesco's cabals have heard of "sustainable development".

But I digress.  Back to Bailey, as I have now read the background to the quote.

It's very clear from the original document that what Bailey was writing about was not environmental education as we have come to know it.  In some ways, it's more interesting than that.

Bailey was searching for a phrase to describe a form of education that he was advocating:

"an education that uses the native objects and affairs of the community as a means of training in scholarship, setting the youth right toward life, making him to feel that schooling is as indigenous and natural as any other part of his life, that he cannot afford to neglect schooling any more than he can neglect the learning of a business or occupation, that schooling will aid him directly in his occupation, that the home and school and daily work are not only different phases of his own normal development, and that common duties may be made worthy of his ideals."

He rejected the term industrial education, and also nature studies because the term "has been so long used with another signification that it cannot be pressed into service for the larger and fuller idea".

But that "larger and fuller idea" was nothing less than a radically remodelled "education".  Bailey wasn't the first to search for such a term, and 60 years on it was "environmental education" that was proposed to serve this fuller purpose, and then we had ESD.  But all such searches seem lead to tragic consequences: the significant idea marginalises itself whilst mainstream education meanders slowly on increasingly disengaged from contemporary realities.


Bailey LH (1905) The Outlook to Nature.  New York: Macmillan 183

Marsden WE (1997) Environmental Education: Historical roots, comparative perspectives, and current issues in Britain and the United States. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 13(1) 92-113

Scott W & Vare P (2021) Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas. London: Routledge


A History of Environmental Education: 21 / 7 / o9

This is the latest in a series of articles about early environmental education in the UK.  Others will appear here every month or so.  You can read previous essays here:

Environmental Education in Derbyshire

Celebrating Earth Day with Philip Larkin

Philip Neal

Ten Alternative Commandments

Good grief – What a title!

Tbilisi 1977

Remembering Sean Carson

Environmental education in England 1960 to 1979 – a pen picture

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