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

Projecting sustainability
December 10, 2009 - 5:03pm

Michael Legaspi is concerned that too much of American higher education consists of political advocacy. He's right to be, and I agree with him. In fact, I'd go further. I'd say that too much teaching consists of social and economic advocacy, as well. Too much of what goes on in social sciences and professional schools treats how things are as the best they could possibly be (in this, the best of all possible worlds). Advocacy may be an acceptable form of consciousness-raising, but it's far from the highest form of teaching.

When I work with professors at Greenback, I really don't know how much sustainability-related advocacy they indulge in. My impression, and my sincere hope, is that it's not much. Advocacy is appropriate in the marketplace of ideas, but potentially troubling in the classroom. My objective is to get students to engage both with the material -- the facts -- and in some degree of substantive analysis. If a student seriously engages with the idea that natural resources (both sources and sinks) are finite, that the systems which interact to produce the planet's climate are many and complex, and that societies may have a responsibility to address problems of their own creation, then I'm satisfied. Not everyone has to agree with my conclusions about climate disruption, its causes, its likely costs for humanity if left unchecked, or the need to address it globally and immediately. What I comment on when I review student projects and papers is whether they demonstrate an understanding of the material, not whether that understanding matches my own.

Remember, I don't get involved with projects for Environmental Science class or anything remotely similar. Environmental Science professors don't need my help. It's the statistics profs, and the writing instructors, and the librarians who teach research methods -- they're the ones I most often work with. Most of them appear very capable of training and coaching students in the use of specific skills. But they're not experts in the subject of sustainability. And (for some reason) they think I am.

So if there's advocacy (or, worse, indoctrination) going on, it's more on the topic of the well-formed argument, the properly-performed t-test, or the correctly cited source than it is the topic of climate disruption. I've worked with a number of students who flat disagree with my conclusions regarding climate change. Some of them have based their disagreements in data, and others have founded theirs on the premise that financial resources are more important than natural ones. I don't comment on the correctness of their arguments, only the cogency.

Or, to be precise, I don't comment on conclusion correctness to their instructors. I have been known, on occasion, to complain loudly at the dinner table at home. And I vent some of my frustration here (although that's more likely to be about faculty than about students).

So, in the main, I agree with Dr. Legaspi. In fact, perhaps I agree with him more than he agrees with himself. He comments: "Advocacy rears its head too often, in multicultural moralism, identity politics, and, as the CRU debacle shows, in too many kinds of environmental studies." What the CRU debacle really shows is the alacrity with which the mainstream media (and not just the Roger Ailes branch thereof) will give credence to any controversy which (1) allows them to generate short-term profits and -- coincidentally, I'm sure -- (2) contributes to the longer-term viability of the business plans of the mega-corporations which buy and pay for them.

The number of people apparently willing to draw ironclad conclusions from those stolen emails exceeds the number who have actually read the things by several orders of magnitude. The number willing to parrot those conclusions as if they were Gospel is far greater yet. As an Old Testament scholar (to the best of my knowledge), I'd expect Legaspi to understand the importance of reading the original material, and of interpreting that material within as full an understanding of its context as is possible.

Given the sheer volume of the leaked material, the far greater volume of material which creates that context, and the relatively short time since the emails were posted, the only people qualified to draw conclusions are the ones who were already operating from a broad understanding before the theft occurred. In general, they're called "climate scientists". And when more than 1700 of them in the UK alone are willing to state that their understanding of the climate change issue is entirely unshaken by the "revelation" of the stolen emails, I consider that the best possible form of political advocacy.

Not all education takes place in the classroom.


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