Magazine article USA TODAY

Environmental Ed Refocused

Magazine article USA TODAY

Environmental Ed Refocused

Article excerpt

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. In the Worldwatch Institute report, "State of the World: Is Sustainability Still Possible?," contributing author Michael Maniates argues that ESS students are being molded for a world that no longer exists, and calls for a refocusing of educational efforts: "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."

Maniates, a professor of social sciences and environmental studies at Yale-National University of Singapore, observes that 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? Maniates illuminates how 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.

One 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. Maniates points to 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 rarely is 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.

Perhaps the most damning deficiency in contemporary ESS programs, indicates Maniates, 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 often are wrong--or wrongly applied. Why, asks Maniates, 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? …

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