To the extent that all of our disciplines and personal lives are rooted in the natural world, and the natural world is changing dramatically because of human impacts, the foundation for each of our lives and disciplines is likely to change in the decades ahead. And the lives of our students and their opportunities for a rich liberal arts education will be impacted as well.
Responding to these changes is a matter of theory, methodology, and praxis. Higher education needs to develop a curricular strategy to help our students learn how to navigate this change and become important leaders in business, government, science, and civil society.
But it is also a matter of cherishing human-environmental experiences and preserving some of them for future generations of students, faculty, and the rest of the world. Being a scientist, writer, photographer, sociologist, educator, fisherman, hunter, farmer, or islander in the year 2100 may bear little resemblance to these experiences now because of the diminution of the natural world in which these activities thrive. Whole cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world may disappear:
What is the measure of success when our graduates do well in a world that is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust? Higher education can be a leader in society’s transition to reinvent itself, but to do so it needs to think critically about how disciplines are rooted in an environmental context. We are training students to have disciplinary depth and proficiencies in writing, quantitative literacy, foreign languages, and breadth across natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Now we must take the next step and help our students understand how their lives impact and are dependent upon the natural world. In the short run, technical skills and distribution breadth are undoubtedly important for an individual’s well-being in society, but in the long run, teaching sustainability—which has been omitted from the curriculum taught to generation after generation of college students—is vital to the well-being of society itself.
To extend the Titanic metaphor, higher education is in the business of producing people who can count, speak, and write about ships and icebergs, but it is failing to train them how to recognize that the ship is sinking and how to rescue those on board.
It’s time for higher education to integrate the environment across disciplines to help our students become leaders of this sustainable future and to ensure that the cultures, experiences, and ways of understanding the world we enjoy today can also be enjoyed by future generations.
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