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Reinventing Higher Education
David W. Orr
Toward the conclusion of his book Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, Yale historian, Paul Kennedy, calls for "nothing less than the reeducation of humankind" (Kennedy 1993, p. 339). Implicit in Kennedy's proposal is the idea that formal education has failed to prepare us for the rigors of the next century, which he describes in great detail. But what does it mean to reeducate humanity, and how will it be done, and by whom?
Most of the present debate about reforming education has to do with preparing the young to compete more effectively in global markets. There are, however, better reasons to rethink education that have to do with the rapid decline in the habitability of the earth. The kind of education that enabled us to industrialize the earth will not necessarily help us heal the damages caused by industrialization. Kennedy is right, I think, in believing that our capacity to respond effectively to the great crises of the 21st century will require a fundamentally different education, one that prepares the young to live harmoniously on a planet with a biosphere. Those now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilize world population, now growing at the rate of a quarter of a million each day; reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that threaten to change the climate—perhaps disastrously; protect biological diversity, now declining at an estimated 100—200 species per day; reverse the destruction of rainforests (both tropical and temperate), now being lost at the rate of 116 square miles or more each day; and conserve soils, being eroded at the rate of 65 million tons per day. They must learn how to use energy and materials efficiently. They must learn how to run civilization on sunlight. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to conserve resources for the long term. They must begin the great work of repairing, as much as possible, the damage done to the earth in the past 200 years of industrialization. And they must do all of this while reducing poverty and egregious social inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda.
For the most part, however, we are still educating the young as if there were no planetary emergency. It is widely assumed that environmental problems will be solved by technology of one sort or another. Better technology can certainly help, but the crisis is not primarily one of technology. Rather, it is one of mind and hence within the minds that develop and use technology. The disordering of ecological systems and of the great biogeochemical cycles of the earth reflects a prior disorder in the thought, perception, imagination, intellectual priorities, and loyalties inherent in the industrial mind. Ultimately, the ecological crisis is a crisis of education that purports to shape and refine the capacity of minds to think clearly, to imagine what could be and is not, and to act faithfully. Resolution of the great challenges of the next century, then, will require us to reconsider the substance, process, and purposes of education at all levels.
Another Yale University historian, Yaroslav Pelikan, has recently questioned "whether the university has the capacity to meet a crisis that is not only ecological and technological, but ultimately educational and moral." He goes on to question "the readiness of the university community to address the underlying intellectual issues and moral imperatives of having responsibility for the earth, and to do so with an intensity and ingenuity matching that shown by previous generations in obeying the command to have dominion over the planet" (emphasis added) (Pelikan 1992, pp 20—21). Why have colleges and universities, the very institutions that purport to induct young people into responsible adulthood, failed to respond with "intensity and ingenuity" to environmental deterioration that is undermining the world the young will inherit?
Higher Education in Ecological Perspective
First, institutions of higher education are products of the Enlightenment era and were shaped by its explicit optimism about progress. To the Enlightenment mind, ignorance was a solvable problem. Every victory for knowledge meant a corresponding defeat for ignorance, superstition, and darkness. In the language of game theory, this was thought to be a "zero sum" game. We now know that the relationship between knowledge and ignorance is not that simple. Knowledge advances, but ignorance does not necessarily retreat as once assumed; sometimes it advances as well. The discovery of chlorofluorocarbons, for example, represented a significant gain in knowledge, but no one thought to ask what such a substance might do to the atmosphere until it was too late to prevent significant damage to the biosphere and to human health. In this case, as in so many others, we were ignorant of the larger effects of our actions that were based on increased knowledge. As the scale and complexity of science and technology have grown, so too have the possibilities for disasters that we could not foresee.
The Enlightenment also bequeathed to the modern university its distinctive mission of conquering nature. The idea came from Francis Bacon, but it is now the operating creed of the modern research university. Simply put, Bacon proposed that power and knowledge should join forces to render nature everywhere subservient to human purposes. When humanity was small relative to the biosphere and our technology crude, a little domination was tolerable. No longer. (For more on this subject, see the discussion of full earth versus empty earth scenarios in Chapter 4, Economics.) Humanity is causing major disruption of the biosphere, but the idea of domination has no stopping point. Bacon didn't tell us when to quit. The university, likewise, has no notion of enough applicable, say, to technology or to the extent of the human domain on earth. If it did, it would be a significantly different kind of institution.
Second, we've organized higher education like a system of mailbox pigeonholes, by disciplines which are abstractions organized for intellectual convenience. Hardly one scholar in ten could say why or when this came to be, but most would state with great conviction that it is quite irrevocable. The "information explosion" has further added to the impulse to divide knowledge by smaller and smaller categories, and the end is not in sight.
There is, nonetheless, a good bit of grumping about academic specialization, intellectual narrowness, and pigeonhole thinking. But despite decades of talk about "interdisciplinary courses" or "transdisciplinary learning," there is a strong belief that such talk is just talk. Those thought to be sober, or at least judiciously dull, mostly presume that real scholarship means getting on with the advance of knowledge organized exclusively by disciplines and subdisciplines. It doesn't seem to matter that some knowledge may not contribute to an intelligible whole, or that some of it is utterly trivial, or that parts of it are contradictory, or that there are significant and life-enhancing things omitted.
If this were all that happened as a consequence of the way we organize knowledge, the results would be merely unfortunate, but the truth is that they are, in a deeper sense, tragic. The great ecological issues of our time have to do in one way or another with our failure to see things in their entirety. That failure occurs when minds are taught to think in boxes and not taught to transcend those boxes or to question overly much how they fit with other boxes. We educate lots of in-the-box thinkers who perform within their various specialties rather like a dog kept in the yard by an electronic barrier. And there is a connection between knowledge organized in boxes, minds that stay in those boxes, and degraded ecologies. Many suspect where all of this is going but believe themselves powerless to alter it.
Our situation is tragic in another way. Often those who do comprehend our plight intellectually cannot feel it, and hence they are not moved to do much about it. This is not merely an intellectual failure to recognize our dependence on natural systems, which is fairly easy to come by. It is, rather, a deeper failure to join intellect with affection and foster loyalty to particular places, which is to say a failure to bond minds and nature. It is no accident that this bonding happens far less often than we might hope. Professionalized and specialized knowledge isn't about loyalty to places or to the earth, or even to our senses, but rather about loyalty to the abstractions of a discipline. The same can be said of the larger knowledge "industry" that was intended to make us rich and powerful by industrializing the world. This may help to explain why increasingly sophisticated analyses of our plight coincide with a paralysis of will and imagination to get at its roots.
Third, colleges and universities are expensive institutions that can only work expensively. As a result, fund raising is now the chief occupation of college and university administrations virtually everywhere. Financial need has made administrators increasingly subservient to corporations and government and all the less likely to think deeply about "having responsibility for the earth." This is not a new condition. Henry Adams, writing in 1912, complained that "capital has long owned the leading universities by right of purchase ... and has used the universities, in a general way, to develop capitalistic ideas" (quoted in Smith 1984, p. 115). It is worse now than Adams could have imagined. It is not uncommon for whole university departments to hang out "for sale or rent" signs. The result is a growing trend toward corporate—university research in areas such as computer science, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering, which creates constant pressures to define knowledge in ways that can turn a profit. Commercialization, in turn, creates its own kind of pressure to conform, which undermines any intense or ingenious effort to get at the roots of technologically induced ecological disorder. And I think that Adams was both right and prescient in saying that: "Capital has preferred the specialized mind and that not of the highest quality, since it has found it profitable to set quantity before quality to the limit the market will endure" (Smith 1984, p. 115).
Fourth, higher education has not responded with intensity and ingenuity to the ecological crisis because of a failure of leadership. College presidents and trustees have, on balance, provided little vision about the place of higher education in relation to the large issues looming ahead. The result has been an erosion of a sense of the larger purposes of learning beyond the creation and certification of specialists to carry out the further industrialization of the earth. In ecologist Stan Rowe's words:
Years ago the university shaped itself to an industrial ideal—the knowledge factory. Now it is overloaded and top-heavy with expertness and information. It has become a know-how institution when it ought to be a know-why institution. Its goal should be deliverance from the crushing weight of unevaluated facts, from bare bones cognition or ignorant knowledge: knowing in fragments, knowing without direction, knowing without commitment (Rowe 1990, p. 129).
Institutions of higher education became "know-how" institutions with hardly a whimper of protest from administrators. Most, in fact, welcomed the change and did not stop to question the reasons for it or the likely results. Caught between financial duress on one side and a sense of intellectual complacency on the other, college and university presidents have rarely asked how the work of their institution adds up, and whether it adds up ecologically over the long haul. In fact, I doubt that the environment is taken seriously by more than a few college and university presidents or their trustees for that matter. I have a further hunch that the majority of them know little more about the global emergency looming ahead than what appears on the financial and business pages of the paper or Forbes Magazine, unlikely sources of ecological enlightenment. Finally, I doubt that one college president in 20 has pondered what his or her institution costs the earth each year through routine operations.
In sum, colleges and universities have not been entirely hospitable places for uncomfortable ecological truths and the kind of ideas that will be necessary to build what is now called a "sustainable society." In the words of former Harvard President, Derek Bok:
Our universities excel in pursuing the easier opportunities where established academic and social priorities coincide. On the other hand, when social needs are not clearly recognized and backed by adequate financial support, higher education has often failed to respond as effectively as it might, even to some of the most important challenges facing America (Bok 1990, p. 105).
Rather like the U.S. auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s, colleges and universities have been complacent in the face of mounting evidence of serious challenges. When moved to innovate, they have mostly done so by tinkering at the edge of the status quo. They continue to graduate a high percentage of students who are ecologically illiterate, by which I mean ignorant of how the earth works as a physical system and why that knowledge is important to them. By and large, colleges and universities are overmanaged and underled. And most important, they are increasingly infused with a kind of fundamentalism that prevents them from the institutional self-analysis necessary to re-examine the basic foundational assumptions of modern education. What can be done?
The Greening of Higher Education
What would it mean for higher education to respond with intensity and ingenuity to the planetary emergency now upon us? No satisfactory answer to that question can be given until we know more than we now know. I am certain, however, that the same institutions that enabled us to industrialize the earth will require radical overhaul if we are to consolidate our tenure on the earth in any kind of humane and ecologically sustainable manner. To this end I would like to propose three broad changes in education having to do with: (1) the standards by which we judge colleges and universities; (2) the architecture of places where learning occurs; and most important, (3) changes in curriculum and pedagogy.
Like that done by U.S. News and World Report, most ranking systems are based on such things as peer reputation, SAT scores of incoming freshmen, GRE scores of graduating seniors, the size of endowments, number of books in the library, percentage of PhD's on the faculty, publications by faculty, tuition, faculty/student ratios, and so forth. These purport to describe, in one way or another, the capacity of educational institutions to educate.
Judging the capacity of a college to cultivate the higher qualities of life and mind, however, is considerably more subtle and complex than most indicators of educational quality would lead us to believe. In fact, in an ecological perspective, many of the indicators now used to rank educational institutions are highly misleading or wrong altogether. Peer reputation may measure only the excellence with which some institutions do what should not be done. It can also be an index of snobbery and intellectual inbreeding. Faculty publications may even be a tolerable indicator of student dissatisfaction and the decline of forests. Large endowments might be a reasonable index of the strength of institutional attachment to the status quo. The volume of research grants may, on occasion, reflect ties to corporate and military activities, the effect of which is ecological ruin.
And there is that unavoidably embarrassing fact that colleges and universities have played a major role in the industrial devastation wrought on the world roughly in proportion to their national rankings. Current budgets, dependent on endowment earnings from stock held in major corporations, will cause even more of it. We have, as a result, several centuries of hard work ahead of us to clean up the mess: sequestering toxic and radioactive wastes; restoring depleted and mined land; cleaning up lakes, seas, and rivers; stabilizing climate; replanting forests; protecting whatever biological diversity we can; rebuilding decayed urban areas; and bringing the vital signs of earth back to health.
For this reason I propose a different ranking system for colleges based on whether the institution and its graduates move the world in more sustainable directions or not. Do four years at a particular institution instill knowledge, love, and competence toward the natural world or indifference, ignorance, and incompetence? Are its graduates equipped for a responsible life on a planet with a biosphere? What kinds of indicators would suggest such possibilities?
The first basis for ranking has to do with how much of various things the institution consumes or discards per student. Arguably the best indicator of institutional impacts on the sustainability of the earth is how much carbon dioxide it releases per student per year from electrical generation, heating, and direct fuel purchases. Other ratios of interest would include amounts of paper, water, materials, and electricity consumed per student. These can only be determined by careful audits of how much of what enters and leaves the campus (Smith 1992; Eagan and Orr 1992).
A second criterion has to do with the institution's management policies for materials, waste, recycling, purchasing, landscaping, energy use, and building. What percentage of institutional purchases is made from recycled materials? What percentage of its material flows is recycled? Does it limit the use of toxic chemicals on the grounds and in buildings? Does it emphasize energy efficiency and solar energy in renovations and new buildings? Does it use nontoxic materials?
Excerpted from Greening the College Curriculum by Jonathan Collett, Stephen Karakashian. Copyright © 1996 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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