Greening the Curriculum?

iStock_000006160804XSmall.jpgIn the most recent edition of GreenBuzz, Joel Makower, the editor, takes universities to task for failing to match commitments to green the campus with equivalent moves to green the curriculum. I believe that it is much more than a lack of commitment at work here. I do not think that academics have a clear enough idea of what sustainability is all about to develop courses and syllabi on the subject.

Greening the campus is easy compared to the job of thinking through what should go into courses that incorporate aspects of sustainability. We can read of many efforts that point to LEED certified buildings, recycling programs, carbon use reduction, and more.

Yes, all these program will lighten the load on the planet, but they will not create sustainability. Sustainability is not the same as the absence of unsustainability any more than health is the absence of disease or peace is the absence of war. But reducing unsustainability is exactly what greening means not only to the university campuses but also to most of the organizations where their graduates will find employment.

Education has a critical role to play in the sustainability game. The key is in the classroom as Makower's article suggests. The absence of courses that incorporate sustainability has a lot to do with the structure of academia at its roots. Most academic courses are predicated on filling the students with facts and theories, based on the findings of normal science and the notion of an objective world. And this way of producing, disseminating, and using knowledge is strongly implicated in the unsustainability of today's modern nations.

Objective reality and the whole notion of absolute truths produce domination because the coordination of action, then, comprises a battle among the parties as to which one's truth is the right one. Academic pedagogy at the undergraduate level is largely didactic with little real dialogue between the faculty and the students. While greening is focused on nature, sustainability also requires that humans stop fighting and killing one another. The inherent fundamentalism of the basic story of how the world works can only reinforce the tendency of one group of believers to dominate another at the individual and at the global scale.

Ecology shows up very rarely, yet ecology is one of the very few subjects that brings with it appreciation for the complexity of the world and the limits of reductionist thinking. It is popular these days to emphasize the need for more mathematics and normal science in schools. This stress comes from the desire to compete more effectively with other producing nations like China and especially India. This will only reinforce the piecemeal and ultimately ineffective battle against unsustainabiity. To become founts of sustainability, universities need to inject a large dose of complexity into the curriculum, teaching students that those systems that create sustainability are technically complex and require different ways of learning and governing than do the complicated, but mechanical models of the world we base our teaching on.

It will not be easy to do this as academic structure and pedagogy is based on dividing up knowledge into very small pieces--disciplines and departments, and matching organizations and curricula to conform to the pieces. If universities, just like the world at large, does not re-examine its governance and culture, than it will be able only to green the campus. Sustainability will enter the classroom only after campus politics changes its tune. One thinks of the not so funny academic joke: What's the reason that campus politics is such a big deal. The answer: because the stakes are so small.

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greenhearted said:

You've explained clearly and succinctly, John, something that has frustrated me for several years. You're right that facilities/campus greening takes precedence -- even in the K-12 school system, where I've been working on greening initiatives -- because it seems easier to people. Changing the veneer of our grounds and buildings isn't nearly as scary as changing the essence of what we teach -- which would call into question our own sense of purpose along with the motives of a school system "invented" about the same time as factories and prisons.

One of the strategies I'm now promoting is teaching students how to integrate their learning (cuz it's been too tough getting teachers to do this). At the post-secondary level, many universities have general education credit requirements; perhaps a project that wherein students integrate their learning from all their other coursework could become a prerequisite for graduation.

For the Earth, the Future and the Children of All Species,
Julie Johnston