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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.

Preaching less than we practice
August 27, 2008 - 4:21pm

A recent article by Bryan Walsh in Time Magazine reports the National Wildlife Federation's conclusion that, while campus operations have gotten considerably greener since the turn of the century, the sustainability content of the curriculum hasn't increased one iota. (Check out the original NWF report here.)

Walsh's abbreviated analysis of why this isn't happening cites the amount of effort required to create new curricula and the inherent difficulty in determining the quality of the result. Creating (or rehabbing) campus buildings is presumed to be both easier and more readily testable, hence quicker.

But the fact that sustainability is inherently an inter- (indeed, trans-) disciplinary subject gets only tangential mention. The article states that "[t]he NWF report notes that few universities offer interdisciplinary programs for environmental studies — a key failure, because the environment touches on everything from politics to the economy to straight science." What Walsh doesn't point out is that creating interdisciplinary programs on any topic is a steeply uphill battle for most institutions, which are inherently and explicitly organized around the concept of disciplinarity. I've said it before, and I'll doubtless say it again -- our current paradigm of academic disciplines is both a result and a key facilitator of the larger societal paradigm which got us into this mess. We wished for economic growth and more efficient use of capital to the exclusion of all other considerations; we got what we wished for. (If we keep teaching what we've been teaching, they're going to keep learning what they've been learning.)

Meanwhile, an additional contributor to the lack of curricular change, at least at Greenback U, lies in faculty sensitivities around the concept of "academic freedom." Kind of like the apocryphal old coot who was so ornery that when he fell off a bridge and drowned his body floated upstream, some of our faculty are bound and determined that no (academic or other) administration is going to tell them what to teach in their classes. I don't know whether it's sheer cussedness or fear of appearing weak, but I sometimes get the impression that we'd get faster change by suggesting, requesting, or downright insisting that certain of our faculty members NOT cover sustainability issues in their classrooms!

Not to say that curricular change isn't going to happen, but (like so many other "impossible" tasks), it's going to take a long time.

Or am I just not yet fully recovered from my recent bout of cynicism?


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