• Getting to Green

    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 - #6

Why "sustainability" is the opposite of "whatever".  

October 17, 2013

Probably the most common gripe I hear from teachers -- professors, instructors, trainers, high school teachers, the lot -- is that students don't know how to write any more.  

I ran into an extreme case of that a few years back, when I tried to mentor a recent high school graduate who just wasn't clicking in community college.  One of his courses had a title along the lines of "College Writing 101", and every week his homework consisted of writing sentences, paragraphs, eventually short essays.  He didn't have a clue.

I don't mean that he didn't understand what differentiated a sentence from a sentence fragment, nor that he tended to put commas between his subjects and his verbs.  This kid, at the profoundest level I can imagine, had no concept of forming a thought in his head, putting that thought into words, and then putting the words onto paper.  To the extent that he had any definition for the verb "to write", it involved finding various strings of words that seemed somewhat related to the topic at hand (Google was his best friend), cutting and pasting seemingly random pieces of those strings into Microsoft Word, and then grinding off any serial numbers.  Kind of like sampling tracks recorded by folks who can actually sing, looping them for 3+ minutes, mashing them together into some danceable rythm, and treating the product as an original composition.  Except without the rythm.  Or the danceabilty.  Or the originality.  Or the taste.

I look at this kid as an extreme example, but less marked examples surround us daily.  "Whatever", used to disengage from any discussion which isn't sufficiently stimulating, is only one icon.  A popular culture where folks accept a conversational statement along the lines of "So, I was like <grimace> but then he got all <wild eyes> so I was just <shrug>" may value expression of emotion, but it doesn't value concision.  Or detail.  Or vocabulary.

It's increasingly clear that one (admittedly, only one) of the reasons many college students can't write is that many high school students -- including a large portion of the ones who go on to college -- can't (or at least don't) do well expressing themselves verbally.  And while that may be only one reason, it's a pretty fundamental one.

Now, I'm not going to argue that a disinclination to display verbal facility in the description of everyday thoughts and events is proof positive of an inability to manipulate complex concepts.  And I'm certainly not saying that words are the only, or even the best, symbols for conceptual manipulation (more on that next time).  But in the absence of any sort of concise expression, it's certainly difficult to ascertain that complex conceptual manipulation has occurred.  And it's even more difficult to communicate the results to anyone other than the immediate manipulator.

Or, as my middle school English teacher used to say, "I can't grade you on what you think; I can only grade you on what you write.  If you want credit for good thinking, you've got to communicate it to me."

Sustainability concepts are hard to grasp, especially for someone who's grown up in a profoundly unsustainable society.  Sustainability depends, in part, on imposing constraints determined by thinking and experimentation in one subject area on activities generally considered to belong to a different discipline entirely.  The constraints may best be expressed mathematically, but the relevance -- the need for imposition -- can only be expressed verbally.

If the graduates we turn out are going to be able to understand and engage with problems of sustainability -- much less solve them -- those students must be functionally literate.  And I don't mean at a 5th-grade reading level.



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