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Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 4: Making it happen

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

We should work towards the goal of creating a curriculum where the majority of students are learning environmental perspectives outside Environmental Studies (ES) programs.

ES programs are often the focal point for environmental education and scholarship.  It seems natural, then, for ES programs to deliver environmental literacy (EL) to the academic community.  But giving ES responsibility for EL absolves the rest of campus from addressing it.  Our disciplinary silos remain intact.  If, as many suspect, traditional, disciplinary structures produce graduates unprepared to meet contemporary environmental and social challenges, higher education needs to re-frame the disciplines.  ES programs are certainly key to this conversation, but all disciplines need to be part of this transformation.  Environmental issues are increasingly covered in political science, economics, history, and philosophy courses.  We could do more to show students how environmental changes are relevant to civil society, social traditions, and other expressions of the human condition.

Environmental literacy needs to grow from the bottom up—from faculty and students realizing the importance of using multiple frames of analysis.  Faculty in ES could take a leadership role in providing information, helping faculty understand concepts, and identifying useful case studies.  Issues can be framed through the use of readings, papers, field trips, issues, media, case studies, and other approaches, where students would have the opportunity to explore how an environmental perspective adds meaning and important new perspectives to their understanding of disciplinary issues and experiences.  Faculty outside ES programs have an active role to play in thinking about which connections they’d like to emphasize in their courses. There are many courses on the books that include potential ES or ES-related material without being fully self-conscious about it.  With a little retooling, it can be as simple as asking a different set of questions about existing reading and subjects.

Women’s Studies, International Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs have undergone this transition and can serve as a useful template.  In the last decade, disciplines have become more international, multicultural, and focused on issues of power and identity. The environment now needs a similar nudge.

And there should be reciprocity.  As mentioned in the previous posts (here and here), ES programs could do a much better job of incorporating how issues of race, class, gender, power, and culture inform attitudes on the environment.


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One Response to “Environmental literacy in higher education—Part 4: Making it happen”

  1. [...] That’s the question asked by Robert Stavins at Harvard.  This piece is worth reading.  He wrestles with many of the same questions that many of us in higher education have thought a lot about (here, here, here, and here): [...]


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