National Academies Press: OpenBook

Agriculture and the Undergraduate (1992)

Chapter: 5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergraduate Land-Grant Future?

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Suggested Citation:"5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergraduate Land-Grant Future?." National Research Council. 1992. Agriculture and the Undergraduate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1986.
Page 51
Suggested Citation:"5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergraduate Land-Grant Future?." National Research Council. 1992. Agriculture and the Undergraduate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1986.
Page 52
Suggested Citation:"5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergraduate Land-Grant Future?." National Research Council. 1992. Agriculture and the Undergraduate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1986.
Page 53
Suggested Citation:"5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergraduate Land-Grant Future?." National Research Council. 1992. Agriculture and the Undergraduate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1986.
Page 54

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CHAPTER 5 The Environmental Curriculum: An Undergracluate LancI-Grant Future? John C. Gordon These are heady times for those centrally concerned with the environment, but they are hard times for universities. In the former category, we have the atmosphere and forests emerging as global and foreign policy issues at par with war and peace. On the latter front, we have books entitled Profscam (sykes' 1988), Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (smith' 1990), and The Moral Collapse of the University (Wilshire 1989). Linking the two themes, David W. Orr, writing in Conseruation Biology (Orr, 1990), asks, "is conservation education an oxymoron?" Land-grant universities are getting their share of opprobrium for not being environmental or sustainable enough and for being obsolete in an increasingly urban nation. I argue that no amount of curriculum tinkering and academic committeeing will cause us to rise from these doldrums and to the environmental occasion. We must, rather, transform ourselves en- tirely and, in the process, remake higher and lower education, par- ticularly the part of it concerned with what we call science educa- tion. This is entirely in the land-grant tradition. We invented ourselves once; we can do it again. What to Build On Land-grant universities were founded on a sense of place: an integrated landscape containing people who needed help. They were directed at altering the environment for the better, with better farmers and mechanics as tools. They realized that people were at once the primary problem and the principal resource. They set out humbly and realistically, but with a massive sense of purpose and 51

AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERG~UATE destiny. If we can rediscover those attributes, we have all we need to build on. The Problem Suppose that, for once, the popular perception Is correct: It is time both to make environmental concerns central In human affairs and to seriously change universities and schools in the United States. If that is so, there Is a striking symmetry. The mayor barrier to making the environment functionally central is that we know so little about it. Not only Is research deficient (see, for example, recent National Research Council t1989, logo] reports) but people have not been taught much about environmental questions and solutions. On the other hand, universities have avoided making the environment an important component of their product mix," except when it is a trendy topic, and even then their main contributions have tended to be rhetoric that warns of environmental problems and that attempts to establish primacy in the environment for a particular faction or unit of the university. In their current configuration, universities do not usually deal well with the environment, because they must serve disciplinary probity. Because the environment is everything, it tends to have no constituency and, thus, to be functionally nothing to universities that demand disciplinary packaging. Some parts of some universi- ties package things by professions, commodities, or Resources," which has essentially the same effect. The environment is not a subject or a discipline, a commodity or a resource, or even several of these. It is, rather, an integrating point of view. Indeed, it is the most integrating point of view possible. In perhaps its simplest form, It is the point of view of those who see that ensuring the livability, productivity, and beauty of the earth is not only an Impor- tant task but is the central mystery and, thus, Is worthy of the most rigorous scholarly attention. It is also the single most obvious organizing principle for places with the temerity to call themselves universities. Therefore, the first problem for the "environmental university" to solve is to keep the environmental point of view and the studies that this calls for from the existing conflict and competition with the various disciplinary departments and professional schools. This is probably best done by adopting an open, external problem-solving mode as the practical way to be environmental. Fortunately, from this academic perspec- tive, there are plenty of external problems and there is overwhelm- ing evidence that those who support universities would like to see them addressed, or even solved. Nor does this mean that basic or curiosity-driven study would be downgraded or displaced. Perhaps the central environmental problem is that we do not understand the 52

THE ENVIRONMENTAL CURRICULUM fundamentals of how large systems work; the mechanisms regulat- lng whole river basins, the coupling of forests and climate, and the workings of coastal zones, to name a few, are all still relatively obscure. Nor do we understand how human cultures adapt to chang- ing environments and what human potentials this adaptation releases or suppresses. So there is plenty for everyone to study. The second problem Is to get people, particularly but not exclu- sively the students, at unlvereltles and schools relnterested In sci- ence and scholarship In general. This Is not a problem specific to the debate In universities about what to do about the environment. It is, rather, a general and alarming product of our current educa- tional society. We are perilously close to becoming a society of the kind called "mandarin," in which qualifications are supreme and the ability to know and do real things is vastly secondary. I trace this directly to the concentration on backward-looking subjects in edu- cation, those that depend on views received from the past: law, history (although' paradoxically, history Is a discipline with a fu- ture)' and to a great degree, business, In the case study mode. By no means do I want to imply that these academic pursuits and professions are somehow bad. Indeed, it is their scholarly and worldly successes that have created their intellectual dominance. Rather, It is the weakness of the competition that has left the field and clubhouse to those who primarily interpret events after their time. Science, particularly the practical sciences and science-based professions, from agriculture to zoology, has retreated within itself and has virtually ceased to Influence the broader curriculum. The marvelous empirical hard-nosedness, innovation, and involve- ment perhaps best exemplified by the old land-grant univerelties are largely in disrepute or invisible, and with that loss, the real, broad-based interest in science has perished. The Solution People are interested in the environment. Universities can use it as an integrating theme. No discipline need be categorically ex- cluded. There are plenty of problems to solve and theoretical and immediate opportunities to pursue. All we need to do Is couple in a practical manner the interest in the environment to the teaching of science and scholarly ways. Landfills, like winter wheat and loblolly pine, will yield, literally and figuratively, to hard-nosed empiricism coupled with strong theory. The interest in science thus revived in undergraduates will cause a disciplinary flowering unprecedented in our history as natural scholarly proclivities are matched to real individual and collective interests. The creative energy now under "mandarin" repression will be released, and many of us will be too excited to be lazy or venal. 53

AGRICULTURE AND THE UNDERGRADUATE The Sober Task Most of us are turned inward on disciplinary, professional, or commodity tracks. We must turn outward: outward from our de- partments or professions and outward from our institutions. Many will need to think about how to do this. My list of specifics, doubt- lessly deficient, follows. 1. The basic course in the basic curriculum should be an envi- ronmental problem-solving course treating productivity, sustainable development, environmental ethics, and the application of science and scholarship to problems. All students should take this. It should be taught by the best teachers in the university and should occupy most of everyone's first term. 2. All students should be required to acquire science, history, mathematics, and languages on an individual design derived from their experience in the first term. All undergraduates should design and carry out an environmental scholarship or research project. This will be relatively nonrestrictive, because we have already stipulated that the environment is everything. 3. Subsequent specialization should be allowed, more or less in the mode of current liberal arts mayors, but no one should avoid the basics described above. 4. Professional and true disciplinary education is reserved for graduate school; even then, flexibility, communication, and curios- ity are inculcated and rewarded. If these steps are taken, colleges of agriculture will regain their role as shapers of thought and destiny. They will be teaching every- one and not have the sole role of specialized, insular research insti- tutes. They will be doing what they did best in the past: making learn- ing broadly popular and useful. There is a catch. To participate, they will have to lead, and that will require painful and difficult reassess- ment. But nothing worthwhile, particularly in academia, is free. - Re~erences National Research Council. 1989. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. National Research Council. 1990. Forestry Research: A Mandate for Change. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Orr, D. W. 1990. Is conservation education an oxymoron? Conservation Biology 4(2): 1 19-12 1 . Smith, P. 1990. Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. New York: Penguin USA. Sykes, C. J. 1988. Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Edu- cation. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway. Wilshire, B. 1989. The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation. Albany: State University of New York Press. 54

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This book presents efforts to chart the comprehensive changes needed to meet the challenges of undergraduate professional education in agriculture. The United States needs to invest in the future--in human capital and the scientific knowledge base--to revitalize one of its leading industries, the agricultural, food, and environmental system. That objective can be met by educating all students about agriculture as well as by educating others specifically for careers in agriculture.

Agriculture and the Undergraduate includes perspectives on rewarding excellence in teaching and formulating curricula to reflect cultural diversity, the environment, ecology, agribusiness and business, humanities and the social sciences, and the economic and global contexts of agriculture.

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