Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: SMART BY NATURE by Michael Stone [Vol. 2, #47]

A Brief Review of

Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability.
Michael K. Stone / Center for Ecoliteracy.

Paperback: Watershed Media, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

To understand what it means to deschool society, and not just reform the educational establishment, we must [focus] on the hidden curriculum of schooling…  Even the best of teachers cannot entirely protect his students from it.  Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practices against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new title to condescend the majority.  Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike.

— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society.

On one level, Michael Stone’s recent book Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability is an excellent and innovative book that compellingly tells the stories of schools that are finding creative ways to shift their curricula in the direction of sustainability.  Stone begins the book:

There is a bold new movement under way in school systems across North America and around the world.  Educators, parents and students are remaking K-12 education to prepare students for the environmental challenges of the coming decades.  They are discovering that guidance for living abundantly on a finite planet lies, literally, under their feet and all around them – in living soil, food webs and water cycles, energy from the sun, and everywhere that nature reveals her ways.  Smart by Nature [seeks] to find solutions to problems of sustainable living, make teaching and learning more meaningful and create a more hopeful future for people and communities (3).

We find here many stories of schools that are thinking more holistically about education; lunchtime is no longer segregated from teaching on nutrition, health and botany; the school building and lands are not merely space in which teaching and learning occurs, but rather an environment which must be cared for and itself has much to teach.  In the early parts of the book, Stone unmasks the powers of “school food systems,” the complexity of which can serve to make reform in the direction of sustainability a challenging task.  At the same time, however, he also tells stories of schools that are starting to grow some of the food that is eaten for their lunches and others that are collaborating with local farmers to make fresh foods affordable for student lunches.

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the book is the chapter “Sustainability: A Community Practice,” which takes a broader look at the contexts in which schools exist and recognizes that the schools are inextricably woven into the fabric of local communities.  The stories of schools told as part of this chapter remind us that schools can be catalysts of ecological change in the larger community.  And yet for all its focus on the importance of community, one cannot help but feel that Smart by Nature does not go far enough.  Jamie Smith, in his new book Desiring the Kingdom, eloquently describes the liturgy of the shopping mall, and one could analogously reflect on the liturgy of the school, and indeed that is what Ivan Illich has done in his classic work Deschooling Society (albeit minus the specific language of liturgy).  As the quote offered at the outset of this review indicates the greatest barrier to sustainability is perhaps schooling itself, a liturgy which propagates economic divides and nurtures the desires at the core of consumerism.

Smart by Nature is enlightening and inspiring, but alas in its taking of schooling as axiomatic it does not go far enough in its quest for sustainability.  The wisdom it offers is great as a starting point in the here and now, but ultimately if sustainability is our goal, a more radical approach is needed, one that calls schooling into question.  Maybe, just maybe, our churches – driven by a vision of the reconciliation of all things – can be the place where we start to rethink learning and formation in more radicals ways with the end of moving toward a deeper and more sustainable way of being, namely the all-encompassing shalom of God for which we were created.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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