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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.

Realistic radicalism
October 24, 2008 - 11:24pm

I just received my electronic copy of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Solutions newsletter. It contains an article by Cameron Burns about a study of successful campus greening strategies, the results of which will be published next spring (don't you just love the lag time involved in publishing academic studies -- by the time the data gets into print, it's nearly obsolete). Conducted by Michael Kinsley and Sally DeLeon, the study sounds quite comprehensive -- I'm looking forward to its publication (can you tell?).

The part of the article I found most immediately riveting, however, was material quoted from David Orr of Oberlin. Orr was commenting on why it's so hard for most schools to "green" their curricula. He's quoted as saying, "The main architecture of the curricula is sacrosanct ... Conversations still don’t easily cross back and forth between disciplines. And anything that begins to threaten that structure dies a pretty quick and painful death.”

I respect Orr's work immensely, and I have to say that his observations parallel my own. But I very much hope that past curricula are not a guarantee of future outcomes. The need to start teaching, and researching, and thinking in ways that are unconstrained by the set of familiar academic disciplines is immediate and immense. Whether we're talking about ecological, economic or social sustainability, the systemic problems the developed (and the developing) world faces are all created by thinking that focuses itself based implicitly on academic discipline. Taking a hint from Einstein, we need to start trying to solve our most difficult problems by moving beyond the level of thinking we were at when we created them. What Greenback has been (and still is) teaching within the disciplinary framework isn't wrong, but it's significantly incomplete in that it typically assumes away any constraints imposed by the relevant higher level system. Assume away constraints on the ecosystem's ability to absorb waste, and you disrupt the normal cycles of climate, ocean and soil. Assume away constraints on society's ability to price financial risk, and you disrupt the confidence necessary to conduct an efficient trading economy.

In a nutshell, the complexity inherent in the information we need to exist in this world intelligently has surpassed the organizational capacities of our current system of academic disciplines. This isn't the first time: the fight to include sciences; to de-emphasize dead languages; to offer engineering, business and other career-focused concentrations of study; all of these shifts caused tremendous upheaval in the halls of academe. The faculty at Yale rather famously came down in 1828 on the side of giving up their classical curriculum when it was pried from their cold, dead fingers, and not before.

Those changes took decades, sometimes generations, to accomplish. We don't have decades. If we're lucky, we have a few years. Realistically speaking, we're already well behind the eight-ball. We need to do something, and do it fast.

At Greenback, as at most schools, the patterns of thought we encourage in our graduates are clearly structured around the principles of academic discipline. We meekly encourage multiple majors, or majors combined with minors, but those are just changes at the margins. The vast majority of our degrees go to students who major in single subjects, and fill out their degree requirements by taking courses which are selected not to contradict the tenets of their major subject in any way.

Getting new, trans-disciplinary curricula designed, approved by the Senate, blessed by the appropriate state governing board, staffed, scheduled, and taught is enormously difficult. But what's the alternative? If we keep teaching like we've been teaching, we're going to keep graduating what we've been graduating. And let's face it, the dominant paradigms for all developed societies -- specifically including the economic and technological paradigms -- were created by graduates of our global higher education system as it has existed for the last century or so. We can't keep graduating what we've been graduating, because we can't afford for society to keep thinking like it's been thinking. Change is no longer optional.

So here's a modest proposal -- no more single-subject, or even single-faculty (in the British usage) degrees. If your major is already trans-disciplinary, you're fine. If you have two majors, drawing on differing academic traditions, you're fine. However, if you're majoring only in a subject among the humanities, you need to at least minor in a social or a physical science. If you're majoring only in a physical science, you need to at least minor in one of the humanities or social sciences. And so forth.

As a solution to strict disciplinary thinking, this is an incomplete solution. But it's one which could be implemented more quickly and with less resistance (note, not zero resistance) than a true trans-disciplinary reworking of the academic organization. Professors could continue to teach their established subjects, and use much of their existing material. But students would be better positioned to interrogate material presented under the auspices of one discipline based on information understood from quite a different perspective. Not all students will do that, of course, but some will. And not all professors will be well positioned to answer questions posed from perspectives with which they are not, themselves, familiar. But the quality of academic discourse, even in undergraduate classrooms, will likely improve. And so will -- I hope -- the quality of the thought processes used by our alumni as they design and implement the world in which their children will grow up.


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