• Getting to Green

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


Why Johnny can't jump-start


March 18, 2009


I’ve been working, this semester, with a senior engineering student who’s doing an honors project at Greenback U. He’s not in the electrical engineering program, but his project does involve electricity. I was more than a little surprised, then, to find that his practical (never mind theoretical) knowledge of electrical circuitry was pretty close to zero. He’ll be graduating with a BS in engineering from a respected school, and he was confused when a household light bulb (120 volts, 60 watts) didn’t seem to be lighting up from a flow of 12-volt current. In a nutshell, this guy might be an engineer with (soon) an honors diploma, but I wouldn’t trust him to jump-start my car.


This student might be an extreme case, but in some ways I think his story exemplifies why college and university graduates have created a world (society, economy) with a sustainability crisis, and why colleges and (especially) universities are having a hard time making the cultural change necessary to make that crisis go away. We don’t do a good job of connecting subject matter to real world problems/applications. We don’t even do a good job of connecting it to closely related subject matter (like other engineering specialties).


And this failure to connect has real-world consequences. Not just the BS which serves so often as academic writing, not just the inconsequential drivel which can pass for research in the humanities, but the infliction on society of hordes of working professionals who have been conditioned never to think outside their particular boxes, and the increasingly (and intentionally) elitist academic blather which serves no purpose but to get its writer tenure (and an ego boost) while fooling no one with an ounce of sense or perspective.


Let’s face it, the process by which we credential academic professionals grew out of, and is thereby premised on, an assumption of elitism. The essence of the PhD is the quest for some iota of knowledge which no one has yet discovered; the real-world utility of that knowledge is rarely an issue. Indeed, in the social sciences and humanities, schools of qualitative research actively promote concentration on more and more abstruse extensions of theoretically constrained academic discourse – effectively discouraging connection and communication with the real world in any form. But real problems exist in that real world, and solutions of any consequence can't be implemented only be elites.


Greenback U’s attempts to become sustainable suffer, as a result. Strictly disciplinary thinking leads easily to a conclusion that sustainable technologies/operations must be less financially efficient than current ones, thus any economic slowdown is an excuse to put efforts towards sustainability on a back burner.


What I suspect I’ll never be able to convince the brass hats on campus is that their thinking is rooted in their understanding of finance, but that understanding doesn’t extend much beyond the knowledge that finance is a special case of economics. Looked at with a broader perspective, economics is itself a special case of politics (since political systems create/enable markets), and politics is a special case of sociology, and sociology is a special case of anthropology, and anthropology is a special case of ethology, and ethology is a special case of biology, and biology is a special case of chemistry, and chemistry is a special case of physics.


You might quarrel with the specifics of that hierarchy (as, on another day, might I). But the specifics don’t matter – the message is in the model, the hierarchical pattern. Taken to its extreme, everything becomes a special case of theology, or cosmology, or some such -- but extremes aren’t necessary. No one can be expert in more than a tiny portion of the integrated body of knowledge the hierarchy represents. Still, the assumption of integration is key. Only systems and technologies which integrate well into their environments are – or can be – sustainable. Our current system of creating education (and educators) emphasizes only small grains of knowledge, well-isolated in their disciplinary “silos”. The fact that what we call “silos” are really more like a set of matryoshka dolls is rarely taught and even more rarely understood.


That’s why I insist on jump-starting my own car, thanks very much.


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