Reconceptualizing natural history study in higher education: Perspectives from the field

Brian Eugene Hagenbuch (2006)

Natural history, broadly defined as the study of the natural world and its species, shares a long tradition in the sciences and humanities and is unique in its regard for amateur scholarship. Opportunities to study natural history in higher education, however, are facing impending extinction due to limited funding and fewer programs and courses. This study examines the status of natural history study, the challenges and opportunities facing the field, and prospects for its academic revitalization. Research methods include interviewing a diverse group of naturalists and educators, correlating their experiences with the literature, and providing examples of initiatives that represent models for revitalizing the field. Among the significant challenges, two are explored in depth. First, higher education favors disciplinary specialization over broad, general inquiry. As a result, pejorative perceptions of the field persist and prospective students, who are well prepared for natural history on both a cognitive and emotional level, are discouraged from undertaking its study. The second challenge is to explicitly include the human element as part of natural systems and cultivate inclusivity in terms of race, ethnicity, and class. To address these challenges, natural history is experiencing a transition away from conventional organism-based studies to systems-oriented, applied fields such as environmental studies and conservation biology. Natural history is also expanding into new ecosystems, technologies, and cultures. Opportunities for future naturalists exist as interpreters of nature, liaisons of science, and teacher educators. Such fields require interdisciplinary and experiential training that unites the historical traditions. The examples of natural history study cited are all embedded in the study of place. Place-based natural history is proposed as an interdisciplinary, experiential, and contextual framework that can reconceptualize natural history as an integral component within liberal arts education. College students appear to be an appropriate audience for rediscovering natural history as they integrate their cognitive and affective development, define their own identity, and seek to make positive contributions in the world. The outcome of a reconceptualized approach to natural history could generate an active citizenry that understands ecological processes, embraces an ethic of caring, and civically engages in appropriate actions.