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

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Fires Should Educators Light?

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

Good educators really “get” the first half of this quote from Yeats.  Rote memorization of facts does little to inspire students.  We doubt that it does much for learning either, preferring to focus instead on developing critical thinking skills and tools for life-long independent learning.  But while few would question the value of a focus on critical thinking, we do debate our role as educators in lighting fires. 

Throughout my teaching career, I have been a proponent of providing opportunities for students to engage in undergraduate research – intense experiences in which students are co-creators of knowledge, rather than simply vessels to be filled with facts and ideas that others have already published.  It was the transformative opportunity of doing independent research that lit my own fire as a first-generation student, so much so that I went on to graduate school to pursue a research-focused career.

As both an undergraduate and graduate student in science, I was trained to believe that the process of doing science is an objective one.  But this never totally made sense to me.  Science performed in a vacuum does little other than to satisfy one’s curiosity about the world around us or about the secrets of life at the molecular level.  What makes science so exciting and so important is that it provides us with the ability to solve complex problems or to create technology which can be used to improve the quality of life.  However, as we learn those secrets of nature and transform them into tools to manipulate elements of our natural world, including humans, we are faced with tremendous ethical dilemmas and a realization that the information we learn can be exploited and used in ways never intended.  Knowledge comes with power, something that is rarely objective.

So as educators of science, do we stick to the facts and theories and “the” scientific method (as if it is a single linear process)?  Do we continue to perpetuate the myth that science is not subjective at times or could never be used for questionable purposes?  I think not.  It is important to teach about the social context of science and to critically evaluate the outcomes of scientific research.  Would this crush an aspiring young scientist?  I certainly hope not.

My personal career path in science and education has certainly not been a linear one.  I was fortunate to have one of those early research experiences – working on a project that had an environmental chemistry focus.  I had, after all, grown up during the first environmental movement of the 1970s and was clearly influenced by it and by the wilderness-like settings I lived in. I then went on to graduate school in plant at a time when genetic engineering of plants was a new field.  Because I understand the science behind the technology, and probably also because I know personally some of the individuals who created the first genetically modified plants, I tend to have more positive views about GMOs than many of my friends, despite my ongoing love for wild places. 

Graduate school was followed by a stint in cancer research when HIV/AIDs first emerged as a new disease within the gay community.  How can you stay objective when you attend a conference in San Francisco and walk to the venue through crowds of terrified men – many the same age that I was – facing an early death and begging you for information on what advances in science will help them?

To this day, I show my students the film “And the Band Played On” so that they might know the early and ugly history of this disease – the science, the cultural context, the politics, the religious fanaticism, and the fear.  This fear was not only experienced by those dying of HIV infection, but also by the public who was afraid they might catch this dreadful disease for which there is still no cure over three decades later.  I share my stories of those days in San Francisco – both the horrors I witnessed and the egos of scientists who cared more about their future fame than the lives of so many.  I find that I can’t simply stick to the facts about the biochemistry of this disease.

As fate would have it, I eventually returned to my environmental roots and now work in the areas of ecological restoration (which involves value judgments about what to “restore to”) and climate change.  Today, it is the scientists who are fearful – this time not about a disease, but about the fate of the planet.  They find themselves caught up in a bizarre social frenzy which is fraught with controversy, public distrust, media manipulation, and politics.  Top climate scientists are the ones facing the threats of death – simply because of their area of research.  There are many who aim to silence the voices of researchers like Michael Mann and James Hansen, attempts that go way beyond those who tried to silence and discredit Rachel Carson as a “hysterical female” who set aside her science and, in a “tragic turn” in career began to write fables that encouraged “some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.”[1]

Science textbooks don’t tell stories about the character assassinations and death threats.  And nowhere in my science training was I told that these sorts of things might happen, perhaps because it didn’t happen in the past.  But today, be it climate change, evolution, nutrition, or genetic engineering, science has been flung into the throes of political battlegrounds.  Should I ignore this in my teaching?

At a time when society is faced with tremendous challenges of poverty and growing inequality, global environmental problems, food security, new and emerging diseases, scarcity of resources, and conflict, more than ever we need not only science and technology, but also innovative thinkers, advocates and activists.  We need educated people who aren’t content with simply finding a job, but are still idealistic enough to want to change the world for the better.  In other words, we need higher education to lead the charge in lighting fires, to be inspiring the next generation of problem solvers who will work at the front lines of these grand challenges of the 21st century.

So is this happening?  Today, there is pervasive criticism of higher education on many fronts ranging from tax payers to the White House.  Administrators don’t want to rock the boat, or more precisely, are begging faculty not to rock the boat.  They implore us to be more balanced in what we teach or in who we invite as speakers to campus – so as not to offend or discourage potential donors or prospective students.  Public institutions fall into line of submission for fear of losing state and federal funding.  The modus operandi is to keep the faculty busy learning new technology which supposedly will enhance learning or filling out assessment reports to appease Washington, so they say.  But perhaps it is really just to keep faculty busy so that we don’t have time to incite a movement or write a provocative op-ed.  We wouldn’t want to tarnish the image of the institution. 

What happened to the times when college campuses were at the forefront of calling for social change – be it during the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, or calling for divestment during the times of apartheid?  I applaud the handful of students who are now calling for divestment of another sort – aimed at shifting investment funds from fossil fuel-related corporations and calling attention to global climate change.  And kudos to the almost 400 students who were arrested in Washington, D.C. this past weekend.  They, along with busloads of others were protesting the Keystone XL pipeline project. 

A few years ago, during the fall of the Occupy Movement, I participated in a march in Washington about the same pipeline project.  When I came back to campus and told students in my Introduction to Environmental Science course about the experience, it was obvious that they were a) shocked that I would do something like this (it isn’t what scientists do), and b) fearful that it was my expectation of them to do sometime similar (it wasn’t).  But, we talked about their obvious aversion to political activism.  Some noted that such activity would be a black mark on their record, thus hurting their chances for securing a job in the future.  Most didn’t have a clue as to what the Keystone Pipeline XL project was.  My bad.  I hadn’t yet gotten to the chapters on energy or climate change.  But surely they must have seen something via social media from or other organizations?  Nope, they had no idea who Bill McKibben is.  I witnessed, with some sadness, the same reaction and lack of awareness of current events from students in my first year seminar which had the title of The Future of Nature and Humans: 21st Century Environmentalism.  My fault I guess.  I hadn’t yet added those details into their pails. 

Since that incident, I have been thinking a lot about these messy issues.  My work with the United Nations on climate change has taught me that while science might get countries to the negotiations table, policy and multilateral agreements will ultimately be battles about economics, cultural differences, national priorities, and politics.  Nothing about the process is objective or logical.  But the process is filled with passionate people who care about the future of the planet, or at least their countries, and about protecting their people and national interests.  In too many of my students, I see apathy, disconnect with current events, and a lack of awareness of historical context.

Over the past few years, we have brought some fascinating speakers to campus.  Some were involved in the civil rights movement (Jesse Jackson and John Lewis).  Winona LaDuke talked about environmental and cultural sustainability initiatives on reservations.  Students wanted to know how she dealt with the label of “activist’.  Her response:  “I don’t consider myself an activist, just a responsible citizen.”  Perfect.  Ph.D. biologist and author Sandra Steingraber spoke of the need for a liberal arts education to understand issues like natural gas extraction (fracking), to be able to formulate educated positions about whether it is a good idea or not.  Yes, she is an activist, but that wasn’t her message on our campus.  Each of these speakers illustrated to students what it means to be engaged in a cause, to care about something. 

What has been the response?  Students texted during the talks, and administrators ask us to be more balanced in our choice of speakers (reportedly because some donors and board members were upset).  Aren’t issues like inequality, the impact of the forces of capitalism, the consequences of past and present exploitations, social and environmental justice, clean energy (or energy independence), and climate change the very ones that we should be lighting fires over?  If not us in higher education, then who?  Many colleges and universities have somewhere in their mission statement a line about preparing students for “service for the common good.”  If we aren’t tackling the big questions of our time, what “common good” are we working towards?  And who decides?  These aren’t questions that are objective, or ones that any science I know can answer.

Recently, I was reading a blog post that pointed out that more than twenty years ago the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 1990) concluded that scientific goals to solve society’s problems are fostered by a greater emphasis on liberal education.[2]  In other words, it is the liberal education of students that will help move science out of the laboratory and into practice for the common good.  To create those responsible citizens that Ms. LaDuke spoke of.  Along these lines, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has a major initiative known as LEAP:

Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) is an initiative that champions the value of a liberal education—for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.[3]

In making a “Civic Case” for a liberal education, AAC&U has a slide presentation on their LEAP website (see reference 3) that is really worth all of us on college campuses to peruse.  Two slides in particular that caught my attention contained excerpts on “Education and Citizenship” from Ben Barber in An Aristocracy of Everyone[4]:
The fundamental task of education in a democracy is the apprenticeship of liberty—learning to be free... The literacy required to live in civil society, the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act deliberately in a pluralistic world, the empathy that permits us to hear and thus accommodate others, all involve skills that must be acquired..

“Democracy is not a natural form...; it is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination... [E]ndow the uneducated with a right to make collective decisions and what results is not democracy but...the government of private prejudice and the tyranny of opinion...”

Reviews of this book indicate that Barber’s perspectives are controversial, critical of conservative views, and exciting.  Exactly the types of topics we should be debating on campuses over twenty years later.

In 2010, I wrote a chapter for a monograph published by the Council on Undergraduate Research entitled “The Role of Department Chairs in Promoting and Supporting Transformative Research.”[5]  In that chapter, I noted that
In defining liberal education, the AAC&U LEAP initiative speaks of preparing individuals to deal with complexity—to “develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

The goal of creating an academic environment that could lead to transformative research is certainly not contrary to the institutional goals of liberally educating students and preparing them for making a positive impact on society. Indeed, students who are being taught in an environment that promotes critical thinking, a sense of social responsibility, and the application of knowledge gained to solve real-world problems are precisely the type of students who will likely be the next generation of innovators.

In rereading this now, I realize that the experiences of my non-linear career path were starting to converge in those words.  My role as educator, was to not only teach students about science and to give them experiences in research, but also to inspire in them a desire to be socially responsible and use their knowledge and experience to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.  A lofty ambition, perhaps, but in my mind, an essential one.

I take students to the United Nation climate change conferences so that they can see the many world views on this topic that differ from the official position of the U.S.  We grapple over environmental and social justice issues when we are in the field of the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River, trying to figure out how to revegetate a mountain.  We even read excerpts from those who started the environmental movement and maintain it today.  Some of those famous scientists, writers, and activists have radical views, but they have changed public policy in this country, and some have had global impacts.  Certainly not the stuff of objective science, the type that is safely done in laboratories, hidden amongst the beakers and solutions and equipment.  If my students and I simply stayed in the labs and focused only on reciting the facts, would we be working on problems that really matter?  And if so, we would be doing so without really understanding the social and political context of the problems or any solution that we might come up with. 

If you are still following this rambling, you may be wondering what prompted this diatribe.  Several times in the past few months, I have found myself at conferences where the question of whether scientists should be engaged in advocacy on issues such as climate change.  I have been approached by some who fear that my climate change work is too liberal.  And recently, our college president chose to publicly admonish a colleague who wrote a thought-provoking, well-written opinion piece that was published in a local paper.

 What is this left-leaning work of mine that has some concerned?  I lead a project that involves ecological monitoring of eastern Pennsylvania, to see if there are signs of the impacts of a changing climate and whether we can predict vulnerability of species and habitats.  I serve on both state and international committees trying to advocate for science to be used in developing policy related to climate change.  My students, colleagues, and I blog from the U.N. meetings to report on what we are hearing and learning, since most of this is not covered by the U.S. media.  I even occasionally have an op-ed published, some of which are subjective, non-scientific pieces.[6]  Others are carefully crafted responses (retorts) to some really uneducated letters-to-the-editor that are filled with all sorts of factual errors, especially ones on the topic of climate change.  All radical stuff, I suppose, at least for a scientist and an educator.

I have a number of colleagues from other institutions who believe that it is an ethical obligation of higher education to deal with climate change – through curriculum, research, modeling best practices of sustainable practices, and public outreach.  I was recently reading a blog post on this topic and realized that Dr. John Lemons from the School of Law at Widener University captured the very essence of what I have been thinking in a much more articulate way that I could have written.  So to conclude, I share four excerpts from Dr. Lemons’ essay with emphasis added.[7] 

Why should universities deal with global climate change in a more wide-spread and comprehensive manner? The reason lies within university responsibilities to educate about important societal issues across all disciplines, including the benefits of liberal education for all students. Recent quantifiable scientific evidence concludes that mitigation of serious and irreversible consequences of global climate change are plausible but only if urgent action is taken within about a decade or so. Drawing on assessments about the efficacy of environmental and sustainability programs, it seems clear that “piecemeal” approaches to addressing the complicated root causes and possible solutions to global climate change will not work. Because of the pervasive influences that have caused global climate change, its solution needs to include all disciplines and programs.

In order to foster comprehensive education about global climate change, it will be necessary for educators and environmental scientists and managers, and high-level university administrators to advocate for university reform. One might not relish being involved in advocacy, but the stark choice is this: Either engage in advocacy or not. But if not, understand that this is a decision, intentional or unwitting, to support the status quo that is responsible for global climate change. Scientists or other educators who might be reticent to engage in advocacy because of fear that it might compromise real or perceived objectivity would be well advised to read Lemons (1987), Nelson and Vucetich (2009), and Moore and Nelson (2010) which dispel myths about the legitimacy of such reticence.
Seth (2008) makes explicit the failure of higher education to address the strong ties between capitalism and ever-increasing consumerism which, of course, increases the problems of global climate change. Vucetich and Nelson (2010) demonstrate how the lack of inclusion of ethics into sustainability programs, and by extension those with a focus on global climate change, is stifling progress. Nussbaum (2010) also lends her voice to how universities have neglected liberal and civic education and by doing so contribute to the root causes of problems such as global climate change.  

The failure of universities to develop comprehensive global climate change programs might also stem from a lack of attention to responsibilities that come with the protection of academic freedom, which not only allows faculty to conduct their own teaching and research, but also entails the responsibility to enable all students through university-wide programs of study to acquire learning to make significant contributions to society (AACU 2006). Academic freedom therefore requires faculty to advocate for the inclusion of comprehensive global climate change programs. Surely, global climate is a huge societal problem. Further, if faculty members avoid taking action this implicitly or unwittingly represents a form of advocacy because it is tantamount to supporting continuation of the status quo that is responsible for global climate change.
These excerpts include citations that can be found at the link that I provide; I highly encourage you to read the entire piece by Dr. Lemons.  And thanks for reading mine.

[1] Roger Meiners and Andrew Morriss, Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic, PERC Policy Series #51, 2012, available at  Or, see Miller, H.I. and Conko, G. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies”, an op-ed in Forbes (9/5/12) available at

[2] AAAS American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1990) The Liberal Arts of Science: Agenda for Action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.

[4] Benjamin R. Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[5] In Kerry K. Karukstis and Nancy Hensel, eds., Transformative Research at Predominately Undergraduate Institutions, CUR Publications, 2010, available at: 

[7] John Lemons, Universities And The Need To Address Global Climate Change Across Disciplines and Programs, See:




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