Full disclosure: I am not a historian, but a geologist. My job is still to tell stories, just that I mostly tell stories of the Earth and planets rather than of peoples and cultures.  As a professor of the natural sciences, I teach a course on regional, state, and national parks in which we spend a significant portion of the course in the outdoors using firsthand experiences to demonstrate concepts and reveal meaning and relationships in geologic and environmental processes. Both in the parks and in the classroom, students explore the physical process that have shaped the parks and environmental issues that the parks face, such as restoration, natural hazards, and land management and use. I found that it was impossible to teach these topics without also discussing social and cultural implications as well.

As Pope Frances states in Laudato Si “…we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”  We therefore discuss the mission of the National Park Service to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” considering the questions of “who.” Who are the parks preserved for? Whose history is being represented? Who has access? Who is speaking? I am particularly interested in participating in the working group “Interpreting our Heritage for the 21st Century” in order to help answer these questions and to help increase diversity, inclusion, and relevancy in the outdoors.

This was my first-time reading Tilden’s Interpretive Principles and I found that his principles align with my own pedagogy and the mission of Saint Mary’s College of CA. I believe a true understanding of concepts and techniques commonly come from “doing.” An engaged classroom treats students not as empty brains to be filled, but as contributing learners. I engage my students in scientific inquiry and student-centered learning, recognizing that students learn best when they are involved, active, and responsible, and when they relate to their studies on a personal level. When I consider the influences on my teaching and how we as naturalists, historians, and appreciators of the outdoors can contribute to their accessibility of all persons, I believe that returning to Tilden’s original principles provides a solid starting point. Specifically, remembering that the intellectual and spiritual journeys of the human person are inextricably connected and we should therefore treat visitors to the outdoors, like students, not as empty brains to be filled, but as contributors to discovery and preservation. My pedagogy capitalizes “mere curiosity for the enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”

I particularly relate to Tilden’s fourth principle: “The aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation.” Tilden states that the purpose of interpretation is to “stimulate toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind and statement of fact.” The parallel mission of Saint Mary’s College “places special importance on fostering the intellectual skills and habits of mind, which liberate persons to probe deeply the mystery of existence and live authentically in response to the truths they discover.” This builds an intellectual, social, spiritual community both inside and outside the classroom and helps students continue to be curious and to grow as whole persons.

I think it is important to allow my students (and visitors to the outdoors) time to contemplate and reflect before we begin learning. Tilden states that “beauty of and for itself needs no interpretation. Later, questions will come. ‘what great natural forces lie behind all this?’” Then visitors and students alike should be encouraged to discover answers to these questions together with interpreters. “Through interpretation, understanding, through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation protection.”  Interpretation helps the public to understand the meaning and relevance of park resources, and to foster development of a sense of stewardship. But we as storytellers we need to also consider an additional question: Whose story is missing?

By 2050 persons of color will make up the majority in the United States.  If this population is missing the firsthand experience, a personal connection with the outdoors, if their stories are missing, if the outdoors are not accessible, there is not representation, they do not feel safe, or they do not feel like they belong, will they see a value in preserving it?  The NPS states that “inclusion is the practice of intentionally building a culture that is flexible, values diverse ideas, and embraces the meaningful participation of all.” Therefore, as we consider the principles of interpretation for the 21st century, we must consider the provocation of all.

As interpreters this is not always an easy task. In fact, for many of us discussing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion can bring up uncomfortable and even defensive feelings. NPS Ranger Shelton Johnson encourages us to “become comfortable with our own discomfort,” to notice when we start to become uncomfortable or defensive and consider what those feelings are telling us. It is important that we are vulnerable with our audience, listen to our audience, and admit our mistakes.  I think that if we can revise Tilden’s principles at all it would be to include this vulnerability with our audience, the ability to listen and see our audience, and for us to learn from their experiences.

I am particularly interested in participating in the working group “Interpreting our Heritage for the 21st Century” in order to help answer the questions of “who?” and to help increase diversity, inclusion, and relevancy in the outdoors. I hope that through this working group I can listen and learn from other’s experiences and knowledge, both cultural and disciplinary, and that we can work together to create a more inclusive park system to preserve these great spaces for the enjoyment of all future generations.

Alice Baldridge is an Associate Professor of Geology at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, California. She holds M.S. and PhD degrees from Arizona State University in Geology. Alice has developed several outreach activities, educational initiatives, and field studies concerning the study of geology in the United States, Iceland, Australia, and numerous other countries.