Great World Texts Program Revisits “Silent Spring” and the Legacy of Rachel Carson

On a Monday in early April, hundreds of high school students from across the state of Wisconsin woke up early and took buses to Union South for an entire day of discussion about Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring. They read papers, performed skits, displayed original art work of all descriptions, and interacted with Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, author, and cancer survivor who writes about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment.

Silent Spring book
“Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson.

Orchestrated by the Center for the Humanities, the yearly Great World Texts program is a vibrant example of what happens when teachers, staff, and students get together and embody the Wisconsin Idea. Office of Sustainability Communications Director Nathan Jandl spoke with Aaron Fai, who serves as the Public Humanities Program Manager at the Center for the Humanities and who runs Great World Texts, to learn about this year’s program.

Nathan Jandl: Let’s start simply: what is Great World Texts?

Aaron Fai: For fourteen years, Great World Texts has connected high school teachers and students across the state in reading a piece of literature. Our faculty and staff provide books and curricular support to the schools and we come together at the end of the year for a student conference on UW-Madison campus to witness the creative and critical responses the students have come up with, and also to have a discussion with the author or a keynote speaker.

NJ: Why do you think it’s important to work with high schoolers and introduce them to the academic conference model by bringing them to the UW?

AF: I hope that we’re not so much promoting the academic conference model, so much as encouraging students to see that they’re not alone in their intellectual activity in their communities. Whether or not a student goes onto college, we want them to come away from Great World Texts knowing that across the state, there is also another person their age who is reading deeply and reflecting on how this book applies to our lives in Wisconsin today. Perhaps they will go onto higher education and have an academic life, but it’s more important to us to build these opportunities that encourage students to become good community members and public thinkers.

All photos by Caitlin Barry, courtesy of the Center for the Humanities. Click to enlarge.

NJ: This year’s book is Silent Spring, which is obviously a seminal text for environmentalists. Why should we revisit it in 2018?

AF: We often choose books that are often seen as too difficult or unusual for high school students, because what we are offering is a challenge: how can we, as citizens of Wisconsin, collaboratively read and reflect on a text? This year, the challenge was two-fold in reading Silent Spring— first and more obviously, we asked the schools to revisit Rachel Carson’s passionate argument against pesticides as a historical lens through which they could examine and discuss current environmental issues in our state. Secondly, we were intentionally challenging disciplines in our schools: how can our language arts classes read and find relevant a work that is also a deep dive into organic chemistry? And how can our environmental studies and science classes engage with a work of science that is also thoroughly literary? As so many of our students highlighted in their projects, our environmental problems in Wisconsin are very much problems of science communication, not science itself. Silent Spring is proof that the humanities and the sciences are partners in creating an informed public.

NJ: What were some of the most interesting things you noticed about the students’ projects about the book and Carson?

AF: I was impressed by how far some students were willing to take their projects beyond the context of Carson and DDT and into new areas. For example, an entire class at the Kettle Moraine School for Arts and Performance collaborated on a line of skin care products that use organic materials and packaging. They not only learned about the process of creating lotion and lip balm, but also the professional skills needed to market and communicate the environmental mission of their products. They were very capable of discussing their entire process, the lip balm was amazing, and I hope to see their salespeople out in the world one day, like a new, enlightened generation of Avon ladies.

Living Downstream book
“Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment,” by Sandra Steingraber.

NJ: How did Sandra Steingraber approach Carson, and particularly connect Carson to our present environmental moment?

AF: Dr. Steingraber just finished editing the Library of America edition of Rachel Carson’s work, and she had in mind not only Carson’s legacy, but Carson as a person. Dr. Steingraber highlighted how Carson hid so many things in her life. In order to not allow her critics to discredit her, Carson hid her own breast cancer and she hid her relationship with longtime partner and collaborator Dorothy Freeman. Dr. Steingraber emphasized the relative freedom she has now in comparison to Carson. She is able to talk about environmental issues in the context of her own cancer that developed because she grew up downstream from a rubber processing factory, and also in the context of her children. At the same time, Dr. Steingraber was cognizant that as an educated, white person with publications to her name, she has certain privileges within the environmental movement, and she hopes to use her privileges to good use. She told the students, “You only have one life. Why not try and be heroic?” She is currently at work on a book about climate change that she hopes will have the impact that Silent Spring had on pesticides, and I hope that she succeeds.

NJ: Any other thoughts? Future plans for GWT?

AF: Next year we will be reading the A Small Place by Caribbean-American writer Jamaica Kincaid. We are choosing to somewhat continue our environmental theme, as the book examines the effect of tourism and the postcolonial economy on the island of Antigua. The author also frequently writes and talks about gardening in terms of its place in colonial history, and some of our participating schools have already started talking about creating school gardens as part of the curriculum. Ms. Kincaid will our keynote speaker for the student conference and the schools are just thrilled.

For an extended conversation with Dr. Steingraber, see this interview in Edge Effects.