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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Teaching sustainability in 21st Century America - #3 (*)
July 25, 2013 - 8:22pm

When I started thinking about all the generally assumed/tacit/implicit 'truths' in current American life that mitigate against any sort of real sustainability, I came up with rather a long list.  That's hardly surprising, given that it's been what we've all been doing pretty much reflexively, consistently, unthinkingly that's gotten us into this mess.  But as I began focusing on how IHEs might be able to teach against those assumptions, I realized that there's a larger underlying 'truth' in the minds of most -- not all -- students which makes any more specific sustainability education project almost impossible.  Worse, I realized that I have only the vaguest notion of what we might do about it.

The big 'truth' -- and it probably comes as no surprise to many -- is that most students (certainly, most Greenback undergrads, and I suspect the same is generally the case), even those who will agree that change is necessary to approach (in their minds, attain) sustainability see that change as relatively minor.  Not trivial, of course, but probably involving no more effort -- and no more social impact -- than the Apollo Program.  Certainly nothing on the scale of World War II (which they experienced at the hands of Steven Spielberg in a bit less than three hours).  Probably more like (re)building the Interstate Highway System.  Or switching from land lines to cell phones.  Or desktop PCs to smart phones.

The large majority of undergrads I've spoken to in the past five years have arrived on campus aspiring to join the meta-system, or even to game it, but certainly not to change it.  While most of them can identify aspects of US and global socio-political-economic structures which they'd like to see improved, virtually all of them believe profoundly that the basics of those structures are, if not optimal, then more or less inevitable.  Things are the way they are because it makes sense for them to be that way.  Each identifiable aspect may not be perfect, but it's the way it is because that's better than all the alternatives.  I think of it as a slightly rueful Panglossianism -- society, the economy, the political situation may need tweaking, but in each case the basic mechanism is sound.  The imperfections are minor, temporary, a fact of life.  And if change is necessary in order to attain sustainability, then the change required must just be a matter of resolving imperfections.

It's easy to see how, by the time they arrive on campus, such a worldview has been inculcated into our young people.  It's not just the ever-increasing basic skills emphasis of K-12 education (learn what you'll need to know to become part of the meta-system).  It's not just the tacit triumphalism at the heart of US K-12 history and social studies.  It's not just single-language/single-culture instruction for those whose first language is English (and, as quickly as possible, for everyone else).  In fact, it's not just K-12 education at all.  The socialization of children extends far beyond the schoolhouse, into the few remaining common areas and into the home.  Consumerism is the new "bread and circus", and distraction from the larger reality has been raised to a commercial art form.  (To my mind, Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines is the epitome of this, but I'm more than willing -- if a little scared -- to be proven wrong.)

In my previous career of re-engineering business processes and organizations, I learned to respect the ways things were currently done.  One watchword was that "things are the way they are because they got that way".  It reminded us that at each decision point in the evolution of the current business process, the current organization, the determining factor was likely to be whatever made sense at the time.  The "old" way of doing things wasn't random, and it wasn't intentionally inefficient.  Most often, it was the outcome of a set of perfectly logical responses to conditions, many of which might no longer apply.  I learned to respect local tradition, but I was never under the illusion that the traditional way was the only way, or even the best way.

Of course, people who had operated for years within the "old" systems and organizations often seemed to believe that there was only one way (or only one good way) to do the job -- the way they'd always done it before some snot-nosed systems analyst started making trouble.  Introducing change is never easy; sometimes, it's near impossible.  Pushback is to be expected.  But in a business situation, where a logical appeal to corporate values, customer satisfaction and the bottom line can always be made, change is often possible.  Alternative scenarios can be presented, evaluated, sometimes implemented.  The more explicit the shared set of values within an organization, the more easily real and effective change can be implemented.

Maybe one of the reasons students have trouble envisioning alternatives to our current market-driven society is that no fully explicit set of values it's supposed to provide and support has ever been made clear to them.  Of course, to make explicit a set of values or objectives for a social structure would be to imply that other social structures could exist, and thereby to raise at least the potential question of whether any of those alternatives might do a better job.  For many of the students I interact with, the question "what's an economy (or a political structure, or a society) for?" seems entirely nonsensical.  It is, of course, a radical question.  But in the absence of radical questioning, radical change is impossible.  And radical change of some sort will be required if anything resembling modern society is to long endure.

Are colleges and universities well positioned to confront the average undergraduate with radical questions?  I tend to doubt it.  We're too dependent for our funding on grants from foundations set up by folks who have succeeded under the "old" way of doing things, on grants and subsidies from the political puppets increasingly (and likely to be even more rapidly increasingly since the Citizens United decision) selected by folks who have succeeded under the "old" regime, and on full-price tuition dollars (which can only be afforded by ... well ... you know).  Add to that the fact that student recruitment is increasingly a matter of seeming to promise personal financial gain in the market-driven economy and that first-year retention rates would likely drop if we were to confront entering students with uncomfortable questions.  

Let me be clear, I'm not proposing that colleges and universities propound any particular radical alternative to the economy, the political system, the society with which all current US residents are quite familiar.  Many aspects, perhaps even many major aspects, of that situation may well survive.  And, truth be told, I don't think that faculty members (or even university operating staff, lol) are especially well qualified to determine the best US social paradigms for the 21st Century.

I know we don't have the answers, but I also know that we've got to find a way to start asking the questions.  And getting our students to consider those questions.  And the realistic possibility that those answers might not closely match the systems we currently have in place.  Because if the effective majority of society can't even envision the possibility of change, it's not going to happen.  And if we keep doing what we've been doing, . . .

 

 

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