It’s been a busy spring term for Green Roots. Lawrence finished ninth among 346 schools nationwide in the Recyclemania competition. We celebrated Earth Week with speakers, music, and crafts. We installed our first set of solar energy panels. In my ENST 300 class, we’ve been studying “The Greening of Higher Education” all term, exploring the meaning of education in a world facing severe environmental threats and developing projects that will have an impact on Lawrence not only this year, but beyond. (Keep watching this blog for more on these projects.)
Tonight, we’ll be welcoming our first Spoerl Lecturer of the year to campus. Nan Jenks-Jay is a national leader in campus sustainability due to her work at Williams, the University of Redlands and Middlebury, where she is currently Dean of Environmental Affairs. She’ll be speaking about “Sustainability and the Liberal Arts.” Obviously, I don’t know what she is going to say, but I’ve been thinking about this topic constantly for the last two years, since we began the Green Roots initiative.
Sometimes it seems as if “sustainability” and the “liberal arts” don’t have much to do with one another. The classic liberal arts education rests its legitimacy on a claim to enduring values that have little to do with the practical matters of living in the world: food, shelter, transportation. The liberal arts were historically the purview of elite gentlemen, who could afford to ignore the material realities of life while they contemplated The Good and the True (often, while women, slaves, etc. took care of food, shelter, and transportation). Today, liberal arts colleges devote themselves intensely toeducating people who know how to reason, how to write, how to speak, how to critique. These are all good things to know how to do, but what if someone can do all of these things and still doesn’t know where his food comes from? How to fix her own bicycle? Read a bus map? Select native plants for his garden? Insulate her home? That’s not a person who is going to be able to live lightly upon this planet, because he or she will be dependent on a network of goods and services that extend widely across the world and consume tremendous resources in doing so. And if this person can’t live lightly, and therefore sustainably, can we really call him or her “educated”?
This is David Orr’s position in Earth in Mind, a classic text in the campus sustainability movement, and it’s one to which I’m sympathetic. Yet I also think Orr is a bit too hard in that book on the traditional notion of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some things are worth knowing, not because they’re “useful” but because they’re beautiful. I think of this particularly in the context of Lawrence because of our Conservatory. Learning how to play Beethoven’s string quartets may not teach you how to do anything that will decrease your ecological footprint, but does that mean no one should learn how to play them?
As Orr himself has acknowledged elsewhere, “carrying out the Great Work of making an ecologically durable and decent society will require us to confront the deeper cultural roots of our problems…” If sustainability is more than a toolkit of hands-on skills, more than an grasp of the technologies of wind energy and composting — if it really is about the heart and the soul as well as the head and the hand — then even those liberal arts subjects that do not seem to have anything to do with helping people live more sustainably may be of great use. Medieval history, for instance, teaches us how to approach a society enormously different from our with openness and curiosity. Literature can teach empathy, wonder, and wit. Art can challenge us to see even the most simple and overlooked objects anew. All of these qualities matter in the task of creating a sustainable world.
I doubt that either the author of Earth in Mind or Professor Jenks-Jay would seriously argue with what I’m saying. No one’s proposing that liberal arts colleges toss out the fine arts and humanities, keeping only the “useful” subjects like the sciences while adding agriculture, machine repair and orienteering. To that extent, then, I’m debating against an opponent who doesn’t exist. Yet I do feel that we need to continue to consider relationship between sustainability and the liberal arts, all of them, if only to keep us from sliding into the complacent conclusion that “someone else” will take care of this stuff. Someone else — maybe those people over in Science Hall or down at the Tech — will figure out how to keep us from killing ourselves on this planet. That’s a conclusion I don’t think any of us can afford.