Thursday, October 09, 2008


The headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education says it all, but unfortunately the article says even more: that among the early victims of the financial crisis as it plays out on college campuses is likely to be schools' sustainability efforts. What for many schools has been discretionary spending--"slushy," as one college sustainability officer quoted in the article describes the funding for her job--will be curtailed as smaller colleges focus more tightly on services deemed essential.

The public's attention seems at last to have been brought to the idea that environmental sustainability is a survival issue, and forward thinkers in the education community have begun to articulate a comprehensive, integrated vision of sustainability as a strategic educational direction. It's lamentable, and possibly more, that the immediacies of faculty salaries and plant maintenance may limit or put an end to what some colleges are trying to do, just at what looks so much like the ideal "teachable moment."

New Progressivist schools at the primary and secondary levels have taken a range of approaches to the issue of sustainability, from whole-hog commitment to environmental studies, environmental action, and campus sustainability to more measured, curriculum-focused efforts to teach students the complex interrelationships between the human and natural environments, the economy, social structures, and even the arts. The common element is the desire to help students develop an awareness of the impact of their own lives--and vice versa--on the places and cultural milieus in which they live.

Among the more sophisticated approaches to issues of sustainability is "place-based education," in which Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics are local" is extended to a deep understanding of the way historical and natural forces have converged to shape specific communities. An intensive study of a single city block or rural stream can yield extraordinary amounts of information about the way people have lived, the ways they have regarded their environments, and the ways in which stewardship for place might yet lead us out of our political, social, economic, and climatic thickets.

Rather than let operational sustainability efforts peter out in our educational institutions, I like to think that progressive educators will see the current crisis as little short of a mandate to guide students in digging even deeper into what has made aspects of our society so patently un-sustainable; this may seem re-active, but the work has already been started and needs only to be expanded and supported. Through place-based education, through the incorporation of issues of social justice and economic theory into our curricula, and through an optimistic commitment to sustainability as a mantra for building a better world, let us work as educators to keep the concept alive and well.

We'd love to have comments or be able to add links here that would provide a broad sampling of the ways that schools are approaching this topic.

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