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’s State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, contributing author Michael Maniates argues in his chapter “Teaching for Turbulence” 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,” says Maniates, “we are training them to excel in placid waters.” Maniates, a professor of social sciences and environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, observes that: “[T]he 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.”

Professor Michael Maniates gives a brief summary of his State of the World 2013 chapter.
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.

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Allegheny College students and faculty work with a local farmer on an aquaponics project that raises tilapia and grows lettuce in the same facility. (Image courtesy of Bill Owen)

One such consequence 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 is rarely 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,” Maniates notes. “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.

But perhaps the most damning deficiency in contemporary ESS programs, says 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 are often 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? Drawing on interviews and existing scholarship, he points to factors such as the natural-science origins of ESS, the field’s ecumenical scholarly inclinations, and the fear among some faculty of being accused of training environmental activists, rather than scientists and data analysts.

In “Teaching for Turbulence,” Maniates—a scholar of ESS programs and an award-winning professor in the field for almost three decades—argues that we can, and must, do better. He writes that the optimism that students bring into the classroom in their first year should be cultivated, not squashed, and that their desire to make change in the world should be sharpened through analyses of theories of social change rather than disempowered by participation in local environmental projects with little prospect for scaling up. Maniates offers a vision of undergraduate environmental education that speaks to the best of the human spirit, and urges educators to reexamine how their curricula can better help students effect change in an increasingly turbulent world.

To this end, Maniates offers five directives for stronger ESS programs:

  • Embrace founding passions: ESS programs are eclectic and varied, and reflect the passions of their architects, participating instructors, and the college or university within which they sit. Programs needn’t respond to the challenges of an increasingly turbulent world in the same way.
  • Think critically and imaginatively about change and transition: In their own way, ESS programs must engage students in thinking long and hard about human nature, the nature of crisis, and shifting pressure points for change. Most ESS students hunger for this work and are poorly served by the incoherent patchwork of explanation and theorizing they receive. The best ESS programs ideally leave students focused on how sustainability initiatives might bring the noble and compassionate qualities of human beings to the surface, without involving a catastrophe or tragedy.
  • Stay true to the core tools of ESS: The focus on feedback, thresholds, and dynamic change that runs through natural-science ESS coursework must also infuse discussions of social and political change. It is no longer acceptable for ESS professors to hope that other departments or students’ own experiences will provide ample coverage of how change happens in human systems.
  • Understand the severe limits of logic and facts in an increasingly turbulent world: Students must be exposed to contentious environments and participate in classes that foster strategic thinking for promotion of action in times of political angst. Courses in conflict resolution and mediation, issue framing, social-movement theory and human behavior must play a greater role in the curriculum.
  • Acclimate to uncertainty and change: Ultimately, the best ESS programs will make students comfortable with turbulence in the same way that river rafters feel at ease jostling through whitewater rapids. Too much of today’s ESS education trains students to perform in predictable, small-scale environments. This education is a good start, perhaps, but it is not nearly enough.

 

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