Retrofitting Colleges

Promising developments in higher education --
preparing for a humane, sustainable society

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 28
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

WHEN SERIOUS PEOPLE today talk about learning, few consider formal institutions of education. We’ve seen too many failures in public and higher education – from simple illiteracy, to small-mindedness that picks up the crumbs of wisdom but ignores the feast, to pandering after any new technology that promises a job, no matter how degrading or ecologically harmful. But all isn’t dead in higher education.

Several dozen colleges around the country (listed at the end of this article) have programs that stimulate a humane sustainable society. The programs go by a variety of names: "Agroecology", "Science, Technology, and Society", "Global Studies", "Appropriate Technology", and one – "Human Ecology" – that is becoming widespread at such diverse places as Cornell University, the College of the Atlantic, and Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, where I teach. This new paradigm for liberal arts education – what we call "liberal arts for the 21st Century" – is not yet written in stone (and let’s hope it never is!). It’s fluid and vital, and may in the next fifteen years replace the antiquated liberal arts degree based on outdated assumptions (i.e., a specialized social state, an expanding industrial base, and unlimited energy and resources) and which employers and students find increasingly irrelevant to the modern world. Most students today are faced with this bleak choice: take a degree in mentally stimulating but fragmented and skill-less liberal arts, or take a narrow, mind-killing degree in an employee-training program. It’s no wonder so many schools outside traditional academia are flourishing!

But beside the dead stem of the old liberal arts, a new shoot is emerging. I’d like to describe MCC’s program in Human Ecology as an example of what higher education can do to promote a sustainable society.

Twenty faculty members from eighteen academic and administrative departments are working on our project. We’ve put five years of planning and three of action into it already. Well over 200 students have taken our five new courses so far, and we’ve interested some traditionalist educational groups in our ideas. Two years ago The Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education awarded us a three- year grant to bring sustainable society advocates to speak on campus, create greater community awareness of the philosophy of sustainability, to buy materials for alternative energy equipment, and bring the program to fruition. We hope to make it easier for others to wade through the red tape of higher education.

We began with several premises. Tomorrow’s graduates enter the post-industrial age, face global energy and resource depletion, a cancer scourge induced by individual and societal pollution, and a world in which one billion people live in absolute poverty- more people than inhabited the planet in 1835. Nor does pouring more possessions into people’s pockets seem to be making them any happier or morally responsible. We concluded that the technological dream of a materialistic utopia is receding each year.

Ecologists predict almost unanimously that by the end of the century man will exterminate 20% of all fellow species alive on Earth in 1975 as well as level 40% of the world’s forests and desertify an area the size of Maine each year. One fourth of all nations on the planet are currently at war – a condition that has existed for more than a decade. Individuals want more freedom and opportunity to express their deeper consciousness, yet face Orwellian-type threats to freedom and individuality, and many realize now how much of our evolutionary heritage of self-reliance we have forgotten during the industrial/technological revolution. How many people today have the skills to sustain themselves, let alone create a sustainable society?

Our group at MCC decided these were the key facts of the world our graduates would be asked to manage, and we knew we’d better create an improved curriculum for higher education.

Our two pioneering courses were "Global Interdependence" and "The Self-Reliant Lifestyle." In "Global Interdependence" students examine the Spaceship Earth concept, the interconnectedness of resources, energy, and culture that tie the people of the planet together. Human Ecology must be built on a "one earth" foundation. The course is team-taught by a social scientist, biologist, and English professor to insure a healthy mix of ideas and perspectives.

"The Self-Reliant Lifestyle," which I developed, teaches concrete self-reliance skills in conjunction with the philosophy of voluntary simplicity. I try to unite hands and head – traditionally separate in our blue collar/white collar society. Students do individual and group projects in self-reliance – building solar collectors, food dehydrators, recycling projects, hydroponic gardening, thermal window shades, cold frames, etc. Last semester we built a 14-foot dome green house. Some students do unique self-reliance projects, like one who divorced herself without a lawyer. We explore the idea of outward simplicity being fertile ground on which to grow inner riches, and I hope to show how, in gaining greater control over their individual lives, students contribute to global harmony and sustainability. For example, the food energy, and recycled objects that are not demanded from society by consumers cannot be wrung from poorer nations. If you would like the U.S. fleet to come home from the Persian Gulf, build a greenhouse.

Student response was so strong to these courses, we’ve created a two-year Associate of Science program in Human Ecology that will encourage better planetary citizens, more acute observers of technological developments, and more self-sufficient people.

The Program

Along with courses in writing, math, and free electives, the curriculum we ended up with has three components: courses studying Spaceship Earth; courses analyzing technology from a human-values perspective; and courses developing self-reliance skills.

The Spaceship Earth courses develop the sense of global interconnectedness necessary to sustainability. Students are required to take "Physical Geography" which emphasizes global climate, resources, and vegetation in relation to human activities. How do people change the climate? What is the greenhouse effect? Are we heading for a mini ice age? What are the climatic effects of nuclear war? They also take "The Human Environment," relating ecology, pollution and people, and which develops a sound sense of ecological sustainability and global interconnectedness. Students take electives in this area from among "Environmental Geoscience," "Community and World Health Issues," "Advanced Ecology," "International Politics," "Economic Geography," and "Environmental Sociology."

To help focus awareness on these problems, we’ve brought to campus such advocates of a sustainable society as Anne La Bastille (author of Woodswoman and Assignment: Wildlife), Lee Goldman (editor of Organic Gardening Magazine), and Amory and Hunter Lovins (authors of Soft Energy Paths and Brittle Power). While we explain the complexity of such interactive problems as pollution and energy depletion, we also stress the value an individual has in contributing to their solution. As Amory Lovins said here last year in our first symposium, Creating a Sustainable Society, "America can become energy self-sufficient in two years just by plugging holes and not driving petro- pigs."

To relate technology to human concerns, we ask our students to take three courses. "Technology and Values" examines the way these two shape each other and the historical evolution of attitudes toward technology. "Technology in Literature" examines the perils and promises of technology and its influence on the imagination as seen in literary works like 1984, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Soul of the New Machine, and the poetry of Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. "The Individual in Society," a psychology/anthropology course, studies the impact of technology and social change on biological imperatives and on individualism and freedom. These changes aim to reduce the mutual fear/suspicion between technologists and humanists, but at a deeper level attempt to re-integrate man and machine. We operate on the premise that technology is an extension of the human brain, neither an alien invader nor a superior being exempt from human values. Students take electives in this area from among the following: "Science Fiction," "American Literature," a lab science, and a course in computers.

While we have a bias toward appropriate technology – small scale, diverse, easy-to-fix, and powered by renewable energy – we ask students to look freshly at all new technologies and to analyze the values behind them. Which encourage ecology, self-reliance, and sustainability? Are technology and nature opposed? Is individualism in our evolutionary heritage? Can it survive – flourish? – amid modern technology? How can we get the enormous wealth and imagination of contemporary technology to serve people rather than make people serve it? To answer these questions intelligently, people must be both technologically and ethically literate, and re-directed colleges can teach both.

The third and most innovative part of our program is five required self-reliance courses: "Health for Life," a holistic self-health course that replaces a physical education requirement; "Applied Energy Systems," which provide basic physics and hands-on experience with solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy systems; "Energy-Efficient Home Design" in which students design and construct various types of shelters; "The Self-Reliant Lifestyle"; and a "Human Ecology Practicum" in which students work for a semester as interns – as, for example, a reporter for an environmental newspaper, with a solar builder, or on an organic farm. (IN CONTEXT readers in upstate New York with a sustainable society project who would find an intern useful are welcome to contact us!) We ask students to take some of these electives as well: "Design," "Personal Money Management," "Contemporary Consumer Chemistry," "Fundamentals of Law," and "Consumer Health Concerns."

The self-reliance courses aren’t really as innovative to higher education as some of our traditionalist colleagues think. We had to remind them that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "American Scholar" speech in 1837 – hailed for a generation as "America’s Declaration of Intellectual Independence" – declared that the university scholar must not become a bookworm, that there are three primary sources of learning – Nature, Books, and Action – and that any learning is incomplete if it does not use all three. Higher education must return to that ideal. Learning in the coming years must be a holistic experience involving the complete person, not just an abstract thinking process. The self-reliance courses also suggest concrete answers for the resource and ecological problems raised by the Spaceship Earth courses and for the threats to freedom and ethics raised by the technology evaluation courses. By relying more on themselves, people quell the spectre of 1984′s Big Brother. Self-reliant people empower themselves and weaken centralized control of food, health, and energy resources. Conserving lifestyles reduce the drain on world resources. Our not-so-disguised moral principle may be said this way: a person pays his way in life by what s/he is or does, not by what s/he has.

You can imagine how a proposal like this might be received by administrators afraid of "smelly" compost on campus and of courses not transferring smoothly or by faculty members obsessed by the "purity" of disciplines or concerned only with their students getting jobs – no matter how dull or inhumane those high-paying careers might be. We were called "astrologers" and "alchemists" by some for thinking we could put life into the sluggish beast of formal education.

But we’ve persevered and succeeded in getting our program through. Students love the courses. Although some only fit one or two into a packed schedule as electives, we hope that little crack may be a wedge that some day will let more light into their lives. Personally, at the end of my teaching life, I don’t want to say I trained students; I’d like to think I helped them learn.

Colleges To Contact

Antioch College (OH)
Political Economy of the Environment.

Antioch College West (CA)
Ecosystem Management and Appropriate Technology

Appalachian State University (NC)
Earth Studies

College of the Atlantic (ME)
Human Ecology

College of the Siskyous (CA)
Appropriate Technology

Cornell University (NY)
Human Ecology

Evergreen State College (WA)
Health and Human Behavior

Goddard College (VT)
Social Ecology

Greenfield College (MA)
Human Ecology

Humboldt State University (CA)
Environmental Resources Management

International College (CA)
Human Ecology

Jordan College (Ml)
Energy Program

Lehigh University (PA)
Science, Technology and Society

Lyman Briggs College (Michigan State)
Science, Technology and Society