Giving our curriculum, our co-curricular activities and our research a regional emphasis -- an explicit awareness of, and engagement with, local geography -- can do more than just improve town/gown relations. It can position our communities to survive an increasingly challenging future, and our institutions to serve an increasingly central role in that future.
Part of the threat to places like Backboro over the past half-century is that less and less actually happens here. We're no longer the site of significant manufacturing activity. We're less and less a transit and distribution hub. Commercial activity has dissipated, and an increasing share of our commerce is web-based, with fulfillment taking place somewhere else. "Eds and meds" is much of what remains, and the business models for even those remaining services are under increasing pressure to become cloud-based and, thus, location-independent.
At the same time, a lot of the assumptions and conditions that underlie the ever-more-pervasive concept of globalization are showing signs of becoming untenable, and climate change is part of the reason. Manufacturing has been relocated to parts of the world where labor costs are low, which is to say where many people are living in poverty. "The tragedy of resources" has been visited upon country after country, with the result that much of the physical material on which global enterprise depends comes from places where the majority of the population is economically poor and politically powerless. Climate change is already reducing the ability of low-lying and/or low-rainfall societies to feed themselves; there have been literally hundreds of warnings about how its early impacts are being (and will continue to be) visited upon populations least able to adapt and survive. And the last hundred years provide us with all too many examples of what happens when populations feel both threatened and politically powerless; occasionally it ends well, but that's hardly the way to bet.
Add the physical vulnerabilities of a globalized economy for food and other goods to the increased need for information and control that's inherent in any large, complex system and it becomes apparent that the intercontinental supply lines on which life in Backboro -- as in pretty much any North American community -- depends are not to be relied upon. Toss in the virtual certainty of political disruptions around the world (a major reason why Pentagon planners take climate change very, very seriously) and the case for bringing activities on which society depends closer to the societies that depend on them becomes intuitively obvious. Perhaps not to politicians focused on the next election in their little home-ruled corner of the world. Perhaps not to business and financial leaders focused on the next quarterly earnings statement and today's stock price. But (we can hope) to any institution whose role includes taking a long view.
The good news for colleges and universities is that by taking the lead in a process of re-regionalizing both society and economic activity, we can address one of the most pressing challenges facing campuses nationwide. After having re-invented itself at least three times in the 20th century, higher education is being pressed to re-invent itself out of any recognizable existence by making maximum possible use of opportunities for online learning and other modern information technologies. Web-cast lectures, online evaluations, even ostensibly demonstrated mastery based on correctly answering ten questions in a row might arguably be efficient training tools, but their applicability is limited to topics where "correct answer" is a pretty cut-and-dried concept, and their acclaimed efficiencies exist only when they're applied to material that's equally true, equally useful, equally applicable pretty much everywhere. A regional emphasis in exemplifying, demonstrating, applying even universally true information (think content of any introductory physics course) can make a college's educational offerings unique in a way that's attractive to a geographically definable customer base, that's not readily reproduceable in a web-hosted environment, and that (if, as I'm inclined to believe, constructivist pedagogy is more effective, and effective for a larger subset of society, than mainstream teaching methods) can create desirable, demonstrable, valuable learning outcomes not readily tested in multiple-choice format.
A shift from teaching abstract if ostensibly universalized knowledge applicable everywhere in today's rapidly-paced, ever-expanding globalized socio-economic system to teaching local application of recognized principles with an emphasis on understanding and thriving within the local environment can revitalize an institution's regional reputation (with attendant increases in regional applicants and, in time, alumni), whether the "environment" being addressed is physical, biological, social, political or economic. A geographic region which takes advantage of increased understanding of local conditions, local challenges, locally-effective solutions is more likely to thrive than is one that merely tries to survive as one more player in an undifferentiated mainstream. And when that undifferentiated mainstream begins to fail as a result of its own overextension and unsustainable complexity (the question to my mind being not whether, but when), locally-aware metropolitan regions will be best positioned to thrive in the face of adversity. As will educational institutions which have fostered local/regional awareness and solutions.
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