• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability commandment #10

Be clear about what education accomplishes.

January 27, 2015

Teach for the society we need, not the one we find ourselves in.

Let's be honest.  We -- all of us, regardless of job description or discipline -- are in the  business of creating future society.  When we get lucky enough to stumble upon a student of truly outstanding potential, we get a chance to shape a leader of future society.  The rest of the time, we shape the rank and file of future society which, while it might sound less personally fulfilling, actually exerts a greater cumulative influence.  It's the rank and file of any society which (usually unconsciously) create the expectations by which would-be leaders are evaluated and either followed or rejected.  Case in point, it's the expectations of the rank and file of society which pretty much determine whether that society succeeds (is sustained) or fails.

The truth of the matter is that our students are always learning.  What's at question is whether what they're learning reinforces expectations of long-term sustainability or short-term profligacy.  Whether they're learning to redirect society or to participate in its journey further along the path that got us into this mess.  Whether we're fostering in them expectations of consumption or conservation.

Given the dominance that consumerism and consumption holds in day-to-day American consciousness, it's pretty much a given that any time we're not consciously teaching our students to value long-term viability, we're (probably unconsciously) teaching them to engage in short-term excess.  Most of us have been conditioned not to see average North American consumption patterns as excessive, but every comparison of natural resource consumption to the constrained availability of such resources concludes that we (at least, those of us in "developed" societies) are living well beyond the planet's support capacities.

As things currently stand, if we -- institutionally, but also individually -- graduate folks who expect to eat the median American diet, we're creating alumni who will suffer from high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  We don't have to actively encourage unhealthy eating -- the industrialized food system in this country already does that quite effectively.  If we don't teach our students healthy eating habits, we're tacitly complicit in the long-term results.

Similarly, if we graduate folks who expect to participate in, accelerate and be rewarded for furthering the conversion of finite stores of valuable natural resources into seemingly infinite piles of waste material, we're creating alumni who will suffer from decreased food supplies, polluted water, a drastic loss of invaluable genetic material and an increasingly inhospitable climate.  We don't have to actively encourage consumptive behavior and immediate gratification -- the industrialized economic system (and its political servant class) in this country already does this quite effectively.  If we don't teach our students socially and individually healthy living habits, we're tacitly complicit in the long-term results.

Is all this too much of a guilt trip to lay on the education industry (particularly, the higher education segment)?  Arguably, yes.  But on close inspection, I don't think that argument stands up.  Higher ed defends its existence and our activities on the basis of providing young people with the  skills, abilities and perspectives to be successful throughout their lives.  It's only fair that we expect ourselves to examine what the meaning of "success" is in that context. 


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