So, it was Friday, February 1 — the day after Focus the Nation — and I was basking in the remembered glow of a day-long teach-in that went really well. Then I read Elia Powers’s article, and reality came crashing back in. Sure, the day went well on my campus, and probably on a lot of others. But surely, on some number of the 1500+ colleges and universities involved, the turnout was disappointing. More than there were (or would have been) a year earlier, but nowhere near enough. Student awareness of global warming is far broader than it used to be, but it’s not very deep. Our students recognize the term, and the concept, but they don’t yet respond to it in their guts.
Looking forward, if we hand diplomas to graduating seniors, in 2010 or beyond, who still understand global warming the same way they did when they were admitted, we will have failed in our jobs as educators. Even a slight refinement of understanding -- a little more technical detail, the ability to quote a couple of statistics -- won’t be enough. In the 21st century, anyone who doesn’t viscerally understand climate change as the greatest challenge ever to face the human race, can’t be considered educated.
That isn’t as radical a statement as it might first appear. According to Hanna H. Gray (former president of the University of Chicago), educated status requires “the capacity for independent thought, a sense of relationship between different questions, a sense of history, respect for evidence and a sense of how to define and approach important questions.” For the next few decades, is there likely to be a more important question than how to minimize and mitigate the effects of global warming? I sure hope not.
And L. Jay Oliva (former president of New York University) added the criteria of “strength of character, ethical behavior, understanding one’s role in society as an active participant and feeling that helping other people is one of the most instructive and beneficial things you can do.” If that’s a requirement, then an understanding of global warming has to be coupled with a sense of involvement and responsibility to contribute to workable, even if incomplete, solutions.
Administrators like me can take steps to decrease, and eventually perhaps eliminate, the climate impact of our individual campuses. For those schools which have signed the Presidents Climate Commitment, it’s an obligation. But for colleges and universities to really fulfill their leadership responsibilities on this technically and socially complex issue, they have to make sure all their graduates “get it.” As a matter of fact, for PCC signatories, that’s an obligation, too.
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