Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Role of Higher Education in Redefining Prosperity - Part III

I am woefully behind in posting to this blog due, in part to a very busy semester, and also due to my work with a phenology project that has expanded beyond what I had expected.  You can learn more about this project at

The final essay on the theme of higher education's role in redefining prosperity was written some time ago (the end of January to be exact) by Ms. Caitlin Campbell, but I wanted to share it because of the message she has for us.

Next up, I will be posting some student essays about the impact of nature.

Innovating our Education to Innovate

            Last Tuesday, I watched Obama’s State of the Union address as I worked out in the Moravian College’s South Campus fitness center. I found myself bopping along on the treadmill, nodding and smiling—I’ll admit, sometimes I’m more enchanted by our president than what he says. But when he addressed education I was listening carefully. My mom has been teaching New Jersey middle schoolers for as long as I can remember. After Moravian, a career in education probably awaits over the horizon for me too. When Obama spoke, with his index and pointer finger glued to his thumb, about leaving behind “No Child Left Behind” for a better plan, I actually pumped my fist. “Educate to Innovate,” he called it. I liked the sound of it. Then he went on describing how we should charge up our curriculums with science, math, and engineering. I went to a science and math high school, I was still with him on the plan.
            But eventually he shifted topics and I left the fitness center to watch the rest of the address in my room. Even as he moved on, I kept thinking about “Educate to Innovate”. I thought “Innovative Education to Innovate” would promise more than a different version of the same. When I later read Jeremy Rifkin’s “Empathetic Education,” I didn’t pump my fist in excitement, but I was nodding, smiling, and highlighting the whole way. The United States will only regain our edge when we make our students well versed in the issues confronting our global community. We can give our next generation the tools to fuse molecules or build new infrastructure, but unless they understand the context and implications of their work, we’ll have prepared a fleet of workers to build dead-end bridges.
            I think middle school and high school are the places to develop the basic skills a global citizen needs, including recognition of what Rifkin calls our “global family” and a “shared biosphere”, and Colleges and Universities should be the place where these basic skills are honed and the student develops her career in the global community. Institutions of higher learning should no doubt continue to educate on global issues, but I don’t think values like empathy can be easily instilled or even called up in a college student who has never cared before. Before colleges can do their best to inform and inspire, we need to get our future college students on track. When “Generation Me” —as social researcher Sara Konrath calls the current group of “self-centered, narcissistic” college students— grow up and start families, we might have a new generation of “Me-Me-Me!” entering our school system.
            But of course an education revolution won’t happen over night, so what can our colleges and universities do right now? The best way to promote solutions to our global challenges is to inform, take Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle for example. But whose responsibility is it to inform? Professors can do wonders by enlightening students, and certainly colleges should promote global literacy in their classrooms. But once outside of the classroom, some of the best teachers can be college students themselves. And united, these young people can be an incredible force as the were in the COP15 discussions.  Thus, I think colleges and universities should help students to not only connect with the material, but also connect with one another. As Paul Hawken said in his Commencement Address to University of Portland’s Class of 2009, humanity is already, “reconstituting the world,” and it is “the largest movement the world has ever seen.” Enlighten American students to see the global issues and show them that we are part of a global community. Give them these tools and help them find one another. I’ll bet the result will be incredible.
Rifkin's opinion piece on Empathic Education can be found at  

Friday, April 8, 2011

The role of higher education in redefining prosperity - Part II

Another perspective by Moravian College student Jen Kerchner:

In this time when we are nearing a point of possibly no return, we need all the influence we can get to change our perceptions of what is truly necessary to our culture. Are new phones, laptops, mp3 players, electronic book readers, and game systems every few months essential? Shouldn’t they be made so that they aren’t obsolete within a few months? Should every 16 year-old rushing out to buy a car as soon as possible really be an expectation or a status symbol? How about the mindset that huge cars and unnecessarily large homes are what we should strive to own? Everything about our culture tells us that waste is okay because we’re a wealthy country. We can afford to be greedy and selfish because the consequences don’t affect us. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince people to change now when they think all these products are an entitlement.
 In order to phase in a new way of thinking, schools definitely must play a part. If they don’t teach us, who will? Schools are the one place that has the potential to reach everyone at the time when they are most impressionable. We need legitimate information presented to us in a reliable way. Mass media also reaches unimaginable crowds, but anyone can produce it. As easily as a good message can spread, so can a bad one. Schools however, are expected to present us with the right information. They strive to prepare the kids for their turn to be in charge. But as soon as school is over, so is many people’s involvement. Opportunities to volunteer and participate aren’t handed to you outside of school; you need to find them yourself. Many people won’t do this. Therefore, achieving a sense of community is much harder when schools aren’t providing the framework.
            Colleges would be ideal places to teach about the environment and also general responsibility towards the wellbeing of others. After all, liberal arts colleges already require taking general classes in many other fields- why not in environmental studies too? Students are old enough to intelligently understand the truth by then, and they can better understand the results of their choices and actions. The problem is, we’re already pretty set in our ways at that point. We know what we want in order to live comfortably. We’ve grown up thinking we need many things, and it’s normal to us. And by college, we’re already under the pressure of finding high-enough-paying jobs that will allow us to continue that consumerist lifestyle. No one wants to earn less money because society tells us to be competitive and greedy. So, waiting until college to try changing our thoughts is too late. We need programs starting in elementary school. We need to grow up thinking conservation and sustainability are natural and necessary. Then by the time we’re in colleges, we’ll have the confidence to challenge others. Although radical reformers are necessary and make a difference, the everyday unstated peer pressure of what’s considered normal is probably much more effective.

            Although waiting until college to teach about the environment has its problems, it’s still better than nothing. It has the potential to start a shift in education’s focus, from a “fend for yourself” attitude to a “we’re all in this together” one. Although colleges mainly prepare us for our careers, they also have the ability to promote sustainability through classes and campus-wide efforts: recycling, cafeteria food choices, the possibility of walking anywhere on campus. By setting a positive outlook for us, they’ll give us the confidence to carry on the trends. Students at this age have a powerful position; we’re on the verge of stepping into the world and making important changes. The things we do now will determine the quality of life for our children and grandchildren. With the right influences, we can transform our relation to our planet without feeling like we’re losing anything along the way.