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

Beyond modernity
July 9, 2008 - 10:08pm

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Beyond the Modern University, by Marcus Peter Ford. It's a slim volume, but heavy going for those of us not fully conversant with the differences between Cartesian ontological dualism and Kantian epistemological dualism. Still, it's an intelligent analysis of the role higher education has played in the creation of the current sustainability crisis, including a set of criteria for what the solution -- higher education reinvented -- might look like. Ford's view comes from a completely different perspective than Vance Fried's, but the two seem to have several areas of agreement. I'll probably know more when I've finished Ford's book (I certainly hope so, or what's the use of reading the last one-third of the text?), but I wanted to share a passage from the introduction, as food for thought.

Ford states:

The university came into being almost 1,000 years ago, under circumstances vastly different from today's. It came into being when there were far fewer people, when human technology was much less powerful, and within a culture dominated by religious ways of thinking, where human beings were understood as children of God and earthly existence was seen as a staging ground for eternal life. Much has changed since then, and the university itself has gone through several important transformations in response to the social, political and economic changes that define the historical shift from medieval to modern to post-modern times. This book looks at the university and asks the question, given the present state of the world, what should be the primary objective of higher education? One of the underlying assumptions of this book is that higher education should help make the world a better place by enabling human beings to live more meaningful and satisfying lives and by helping to promote social justice and environmental sustainability. It begins with the critical assessment that the university is failing in this role, having in some ways lost its moral commitments, in other ways having committed itself to false and destructive modes of thought, and in other ways having made it difficult to know what to think or do.

The modern university is a complex and contradictory entity. It is now an intensely secular institution that has its roots in the Christian past. It was once an elitist institution and is now open to millions. It is committed to theory above all else and yet is also extremely practical -- programs in literary criticism and theoretical physics exist side by side with programs in computer programming, engineering, management and design. Most academic disciplines have their own metaphysical commitments, and yet the overall structure of the university undermines the very possibility of a coherent worldview. The university is both intimately tied to the dominant culture with its commitment to economic growth and, at the same time, seeks to promote a life of reason and reflection. It is an institution given to conserving cultural traditions and at the same time calls into question the basic assumptions of these traditions to examine their validity.

Because the modern university is such a complex and contradictory entity, it is easy to misunderstand it. It is easy to lift up one or another aspect of it and applaud or criticize it, depending on one's idea of a university. One can fault it for being too practical or too abstract, too political or too otherworldly, too hierarchical or too democratic. And all such criticism has some warrant. Easier still, one can take refuge in its complexity and avoid any careful analysis. More often than not, this has been the path taken by individuals within the university itself. The university goes unexamined by the very individuals who are most closely associated with it. ... For an institution committed to critical analysis and self-understanding, there is a fair amount of irony in this situation.

Ford goes on to show how the modern university, as an institution, became what it is as the result of a series of individually logical steps. I hope and expect that the remainder of the book will be equally insightful in showing how it can move to the next historic stage -- how it can both adapt to and facilitate a rapidly changing social, political, economic and ecological circumstance. Watch this space.

More immediately of concern is the fact that Ford's writing, in combination with Fried's current proposal and some study of the cultural role of education as a whole in Western society, is redrawing the role of higher ed in addressing the sustainability crisis, at least in my mind. Ford's words wring true, his analysis is well-considered and reasonable. What he describes, I've seen at Greenback, and at many other colleges and universities. Higher ed has been instrumental in facilitating modern society, and promoting economic growth at the sacrifice of all else. Higher ed can be equally instrumental in facilitating what comes next.

As a sustainability administrator, my immediate objectives are to decrease energy consumption on campus, increase recycling, encourage adoption of sustainable technologies. As a change agent, though, my long-term goal has to be to help Greenback U. look at what it's doing, how it's doing it, and what the alternatives might be. Not that I know all (or even most, or maybe even any) of the answers, but at least I'm starting to understand some of the long-term questions.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.


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