TCS Daily

The Greening of Higher Education

By Alex Standish - May 7, 2004 12:00 AM

This May a conference in New York City titled Integrating Environmental Ethics into Environmental Studies: Ethics, Science, and Civic Responsibility will bring together faculty from higher education institutions to discuss how they can "incorporate an understanding of environmental ethics and values into their research and teaching". The conference sponsors -- the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the Environmental Conservation Education Program at New York University -- suggest that current environmental science courses in colleges and universities that combine scientific knowledge with an awareness of geographic, cultural, political and economic realities, have neglected the ethical dimensions of environmental issues. One of the conference objectives will be to develop "ecological citizenship" as a component of environmental science. Ecological citizenship, they propose, extends the idea of public engagement to obligate students to take an active interest in environmental issues.

Another project, Second Nature (also supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), seeks to extend environmental ethics across the whole higher education curriculum. It describes its mission thus: to make the principles of environmental sustainability central to the curriculum of the nation's colleges and universities. Sustainability (not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) may mean different things to different people, but in practice it frequently means putting environmental concerns above human needs.

Americans are rightly concerned about the dearth of shared cultural values at the heart of society today and the difficulty of presenting young people with a meaningful set of ideas with which to shape the future. Widespread disinterest in electoral politics, especially among youth, has renewed interest in citizenship education and a search for avenues through which to socially 'engage' young people. A growing preoccupation with environmental 'crisis' has been seized upon as one topic through which young people can learn to take responsibility and engage in social concerns, hence, the term ecological citizenship.

However, while students should learn about environmental issues (even if the scale of problems is in all likelihood exaggerated) and the interactions between the natural and social worlds, inserting environmental ethics or promoting environmental values in curricula is anti-intellectual, inhibits independent thought, and the search for truth, as academic goals.

Externally imposed ethical codes or principles frame student thought and guide action. However, complex social and environmental problems are political in nature and cannot be reduced to simplistic general rules or principles. Teaching students to use pre-determined ethical principles to judge social and environmental issues is teaching them to rely on externally given parameters instead of thinking through issues for themselves and deciding which is the best course of action. This means that they only engage in complex issues at a very superficial level and are not taught to use and trust their own judgment.

Inserting non-academic values into the curriculum, such as environmentalism, also displaces the central role of humans as creators of knowledge and agents of historical change. It teaches students deference to natural forces rather than encouraging them understand problems through scientific and rational means, thereby taking control of their own destiny. Ultimately, it will also breed disillusionment as environmental ethics fails to offer them the intellectual tools with which to understand the world.

It is, of course, important that the up-and-coming generation of US citizens mature to be ethical individuals who want to move society forward through political engagement. In fact studies have illustrated that many young people value social issues more than their predecessors (1). They are just turned off from traditional politics (and who can blame them?!). This will only happen if they are taught the value of knowledge and rational thought through education and allowed to develop as moral individuals capable of independent thought and judgment. Educators need to focus on delivering a rigorous academic curriculum that enables students to understand the complexities of social and political issues. Then they at least have a chance of helping to transform the dull and narrow discourse that currently passes for political life and take responsibility for issues that will result in meaningful social change.

Universities and colleges are supposed to be institutions that challenge and stimulate students, producing worldly independent thinkers. Rather than resolve the disengagement of students, environmental ethics classes undermine the role of individual political subjects, inserting the will of the institution and academics in its place. The only individuals to emerge from these classes will be compliant lemmings!

Alex Standish is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Jersey

(1) Braungart, R and Braungart, M (1998) 'Citizenship and Citizenship Education in the United States in the 1990s.' IN: Ichilov, O (ed) Citizenship and Citizenship Education in a Changing World. Portland, OR: Woburn Press


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