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  • Getting to Green

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

More useful than fact
November 6, 2009 - 2:12pm

I'm currently reading Dorothy Ross's book The Origins of American Social Science. Truth be told, I've just started reading it, so I'm not yet sure whether it's any good as a whole, but one sentence in the first chapter smacked me upside the head, big time.

That introductory chapter (as so many others) undertakes to place the subject matter into context. Ross calls it "the discovery of modernity", and touches on European intellectual and philosophical responses to -- among other things -- the French Revolution. The concept of history emerges, bringing with it the idea of progress. And it's during her discussion of the general adoption, and resultant impact, of the ideas of history and progress that Ross writes:

In a still Christian culture, progress could compensate for the intolerable imperfections of the world.

OK, so it's hardly a clarion call to arms. Shakespeare would never have envied its quotability. Sondheim might be able to set it to music, but Rodgers or Gershwin would have had trouble. Still, it stopped me in my tracks (which is to say, in my chair). Let me try to explain why.

First, there's the presentation of the myth of progress (and, to my mind, "progress" clearly has major mythic elements to it) as a successor to religious mythology around which a society could organize its emotional life.

Second, there's the connection of this succession -- during the first half of the nineteenth century, largely in Europe -- to the development of a scientific perspective. Ross goes on to speak of scientists who "propounded the laws of nature as 'rules through which divine governance flowed,' thus fusing the scientific view of law as observed regularities in nature with the older religious concept of natural law as the agency by which God governed the natural world." Somehow, I immediately thought of the Yale Report of 1828.

And third, I was struck by the fact that a large portion of society -- not limited to the USA, but perhaps more prominent here -- is still working its way through that transition two centuries later, is as likely to take a step back as one forward, and is certainly not ready for the next (call it "existentialist") logical step. That existentialist step is what our communication efforts to date have insisted that society take.

So, perhaps as evidence that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I quickly formed a notion of (1) why this country, for all its good points, maintains an insistence on threatening the ecology on which higher forms of life entirely depend, and (2) what educational institutions need to do to counter that insistence.

We need to construct a convincing model of sustainability as the next step in progress. We need the model to make such obvious sense that educators in virtually all disciplines find it informative. And we need to communicate that model widely, consistently, continually, and comprehensively to our students, our neighbors, and the world as a whole.

Yes, many of us in the sustainability field are driven by "the intolerable imperfections of the world" in which we find ourselves -- the threat that we perceive to our planet and our progeny, the malformed mechanisms by which society determines its direction, the empirical evidence faced off with assertive ignorance and irresponsibility. But focusing on those imperfections and pointing out their idiocy hasn't been working well enough. Whatever progress can be made by that approach has already, for practical purposes, been achieved. We need a different focus going forward. We need a different focus so that we can go forward. The myth of 'progress' has proven strength and can easily be adopted in our efforts.

We need a strong myth at the center of the sustainability movement. We need to heed the advice of Salman Rushdie, that "sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than facts." There are many ways in which a sustainable society can be shown to be progress -- a step in the right direction, an improvement on the imperfections around us. As educational institutions, we need to construct that picture, we need to show it to all and sundry, and then we need to sell the hell out of it.

Just between you, me and the bedpost, the education system sells myths all the time. We don't call it that; in our more honest moments we call it "cultural reproduction", but still . . .

We can do this. We need to do this. There's now enough backing in the economy and the political sphere that the risks are manageable, and are probably exceeded by the development (read "funding") opportunities. As institutions, we're better positioned to do this than just about anybody else. And it can only enhance our public image (offsetting the worldly imperfection of rising tuition rates).


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