Refocusing Environmental Education
Worldwatch Institute examines the need for immediate changes in environmental studies and science to better prepare students for turbulent times ahead
|Resilience and Its Roots|
|Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels Before It's too Late|
|Envisioning Sea Rise|
|Tweets by @WorldwatchInst|
|BY MICHAEL MANIATES | SEPTEMBER 26, 2013|
Over the past decade, more college students than ever have completed environmentally oriented courses or graduated with degrees in environmental studies and science (ESS). While many hail this environmental renaissance in U.S. higher education as an important step toward sustainability, others see it as a missed opportunity.
At just that moment when we need students capable of guiding a raft through violent, Class 5 rapids, we are training them to excel in placid waters. The college student of today will graduate into a world singularly defined by turbulence. Now is the time to explore how current ESS programs undermine student capacity to navigate a turbulent world—and to entertain new curricular features that foster nimbleness and wisdom in times of crisis.
Because of their interdisciplinary and problem-solving focus, ESS programs raise vexing curricular questions: What is the appropriate mix of breadth and depth? How does one prevent multidisciplinary illiteracy? What exactly should ESS students know, and why? These questions rightly preoccupy the ESS community, but at the cost of asking tougher questions about some inadvertent yet pernicious consequences of an ESS education.
NOAA volunteers and Morgan State University students plant smooth cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, at the Ft. McHenry site. Too much of today’s ESS education trains students to perform in predictable, small-scale environments. This education is a good start, perhaps, but it is not nearly enough.Source: NOAA Photo Library
One such consequence is the absurd faith in crisis that ESS students consistently demonstrate. By virtue of their education, students too often conclude that crisis—with extreme, powerful, and potentially devastating consequences—is the best driver of needed social change, providing an opportunity to redirect society down a sustainable path. In an Allegheny College study that establishes, across 15 U.S. universities, the depth of students’ faith in crisis and lack of faith in our collective capacity to move toward a world that works. Yet crisis is rarely a friend of progressive political change, he argues.
The risk here is not that students see crisis on the horizon, for crisis is surely coming. The danger instead is that ESS graduates increasingly view crisis as a benevolent force that will rally the public and enhance the power of environmental problem-solvers like themselves. Moreover, while waiting for a crisis to come, ESS graduates disproportionately focus on innocuous strategies of green consumption that trivialize looming environmental challenges, while assuming that most people are unwilling to entertain major steps toward sustainability. All of this is aided and abetted by the existing curriculum.
But perhaps the most damning deficiency in contemporary ESS programs is the lack of systematic inquiry into the drivers of social change. Too often students are forced to concoct their own theories of political and social change drawn from a smorgasbord of disconnected classes. These theories are often wrong, or wrongly applied. Why would a field like ESS, which studies how change occurs in natural systems, shy away from asking the same questions, rigorously and methodically, about social systems? Drawing on interviews and existing scholarship, he points to factors such as the natural-science origins of ESS, the field’s ecumenical scholarly inclinations, and the fear among some faculty of being accused of training environmental activists, rather than scientists and data analysts.
In my chapter “Teaching for Turbulence,” in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? I argue that we can, and must, do better. The optimism that students bring into the classroom in their first year should be cultivated, not squashed, and that their desire to make change in the world should be sharpened through analyses of theories of social change rather than disempowered by participation in local environmental projects with little prospect for scaling up. We need a vision of undergraduate environmental education that speaks to the best of the human spirit, and urges educators to reexamine how their curricula can better help students effect change in an increasingly turbulent world.
To this end, here are five directives for stronger ESS programs: