California State University at Chico has worked hard to achieve a reputation as an institution that takes sustainability seriously. It won the National Wildlife Federation's Chill Out contest and was listed by Yahoo in 2011 as one of the top five ‘green’ colleges in America. A charter signer of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), CSU-Chico hosts an annual “This Way to Sustainability” conference, offers a sustainable dorm for eco-minded freshmen, has a solar-heated outdoor pool, and has made creating “environmentally literate citizens” an official strategic priority.
Its curriculum reflects this priority, in two ways. Chico’s Institute for Sustainable Development boasts “over 100 ‘Green Courses,’” and the university has elaborated its general education program to include a “sustainability studies" track. First the green courses.
Chico’s list of “over 100” courses is actually over 200 and growing. You can find them by looking for the little green leaf (California black oak if I’m not mistaken) next to the course listing in the catalog. Thirty-seven of Chico’s 45 academic departments have sprouted this foliage.
A good segment of this list consists of science courses: “Principles of Cellular and Molecular Biology,” “Pyrogeography,” “Zooarchaeology: Vertebrate Identification and Analysis.” Of course, calling these “green courses” is arguably more a marketing maneuver than an intellectual classification. “Molecular biology” is pretty much the same whether or not it is taught by a sustainability-minded professor.
Many other courses on the list relate to practical applications of environmental work: “Water Quality Engineering,” “Solid and Hazardous Waste Management,” “Urban Transportation Systems Planning,” “Rigid Pavement Preservation,” “Hospitality Design.”
Some of the so-called “green courses,” however, require a greater stretch of the chromatic imagination. What is inherently “green” about “The American Indian,” “American Indian Literature,” “African History,” “The Long Eighteenth Century,” “World Religions and Global Issues,” “Justice and Global Issues,” “Mysticism: East and West,” “Personal Values” (now renamed “The Good Life”), and “End of the World”?
Course descriptions for some of these seem to reveal an overt agenda; for example, “The American Indian” focuses on “Indian-white relations” and “the disruption of the Indian way of life.” Perhaps this involves a spin on the Rousseauian idea of the “noble savage” living in harmony with the Earth. If so, it would have to avert its gaze from a lot of recent scholarship that points to the rather destructive ways in which many Native American societies exploited natural resources, from driving whole herds of buffalo over cliffs to setting forest fires. See, for example, Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian (2000).
“The Good Life” surveys “different theories of happiness and meaning in life, including discussion of the roles of moral values, mental health, art, music, and food and drink in living well.” Given its categorization as a green course, this sounds like it could be a convenient springboard to talk about whether a good life is possible without plastic water bottles, 15-minute showers, disposable grocery bags, bacon, or having children.
Some courses, such as “The Long Eighteenth Century,” for which the course description simply lists the British authors on the syllabus, appear to have no connection at all to environmental themes. But if we have to guess from the assigned authors—Dryden, Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Hume, Sterne, Goldsmith, and Johnson—perhaps it earns the green star because several of these writers contributed to the genre of pastoral romances. Then again, Swift is best known for his bitter satires of contemporary society—a species of writing which has some connection to today’s sustaina-mopians.
What does African history have to do with the environment? We can guess. What is now the Sahara Desert was once, long ago—before the Nile civilization arose—a lush and verdant part of the continent. It is more prehistory than history to point to the large-scale climatic change that desiccated it. But within historic times, the Sahara’s southern border, the Sahel, has been giving way to more desert, perhaps because of over-grazing. If we try hard enough we can find green connections almost anywhere, but that seems to raise the question of why should Chico students have to see the whole world though this one lens? African history is a large and complex subject in its own right and stands only to be distorted by insisting on seeing it mainly as a narrative of “green” politics.
And by that token, what do mysticism, justice, world religions, or American Indian literature have to do with greenness?
For CSU-Chico (and many colleges and universities now), the supposed connections are everywhere. Leaders of the campus movement have made it clear that all lines of academic inquiry ought to be integrating sustainability into their classrooms. The buzz-phrase is “sustainability across the curriculum.”
A Straight and Narrow Path
The other new development in the intensification of Chico’s sustainability commitment is the addition to its general education options.
When Chico implements its “pathways” model for general education this fall, one of the options is Sustainability Studies. These pathways are separate from academic majors, but students can choose to turn their pathway of choice into an interdisciplinary minor. They are in addition to other Gen Ed requirements in oral communication, writing, science, math, U.S. history, and U.S. government.
Here are all ten of the pathways:
This list raises some immediate questions.
Why, in Global Development Studies, will students “explore the peoples of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia,” and not North America, Europe, and Australia? For that matter, why will they explore “the challenges they face” and not the progress they have made?
Why is Great Books and Ideas a discrete pathway? It seems to suggest a kind of segregation. Will students who opt for other pathways be kept at a safe distance from great books and ideas?
Why are so many of these general education options focused on trendy subjects rather than ones that have stood the test of time?
The Sustainability Studies pathway, writes coordinator Jim Pushnik, aims to mold each student into a “socially-responsible and environmentally-minded citizen.” Pushnik introduces the pathway as one that will address the questions:
how can societies be vital, while maintaining healthy ecosystems and creating strong and just economies? How has the natural world shaped our political, social, and economic systems? How can human innovations and commitment repair ecological damage and lead to a shift in problem solving?
According to the sustainability GE track, climate change is one of those problems, along with air and water pollution and radioactive waste.
One of Professor Pushnik’s courses, ENVL 105 “Environmental Literacy,” is part of the sustainability pathway. A main text for this course, for which the latest syllabus available is spring 2009, is called Earthscore, a sort of environmental audit that awards positive points for fluorescent lights and exponentially negative points for having two or more children. Students are urged “to recognize that your life is dependent upon the environment, and that your personal decisions affect the environment,” and Professor Pushnik requires essays to be written “from the developing perspective introduced in the class.” In other words, this class should change your personal habits and the only correct perspective for you to take is the one projected by the course.
The green courses and the sustainability pathway by no means exhaust Chico’s efforts in the jungle of sustainability. The university does its best to turn its philosophy into practice. It tracks its employees’ mileage on business trips and urges students to “say no to plastic straws.” And of course it builds LEED-certified buildings, integrates solar power, and recycles.
Saving university funds and conserving energy and water are worthy goals. If Chico can find ways to be more efficient with its use of financial and natural resources, it may inspire students and employees to be more thoughtful about how way they handle their own personal resources. College ought to cultivate character in the community, and thrift and prudence are virtues worth aiming at.
Practical applications of eco-stewardship aside, however, Chico represents two growing campus trends. One is making sustainability an interdisciplinary subject. The other is connecting it with courses such as “The American Indian.” This says some things about the nature of the campus sustainability movement, namely that—like liquids, gases, and baby turtles—it tends to expand to fit the space of its container; and that its purview goes beyond what is strictly scientific or environmental. Both of these characteristics are about enlargement.
The NAS has been paying close attention to the campus sustainability movement for several years. We do so in the spirit of wanting to keep higher education focused on liberal learning, scientific inquiry, and reasoned scholarship, and the place of the university in a free society. We are not opposed to environmentalism in general or “sustainability” in particular. But we are worried that the sustainability movement has a tendency to tip over into the sort of advocacy that compromises the deeper purposes of higher education.
Chico State provides a ready example of what happens in higher education when ideological enthusiasm gets the better of the curriculum and a university’s larger vision of its role. We would like to call Chico back to its better self.
Which is to say, Chico and any other university that wants to invest its resources in cutting its energy bills and improving its campus ought to make the appropriate studies and proceed accordingly, but universities need to be cautious in how much leverage they grant to “sustainability” advocates.
The advocates are pretty clear that they see few if any limits to advancing their program on campus. The mission of the sustainability group Second Nature is to “make the principles of sustainability fundamental to every aspect of higher education.” In a roundtable discussion published by Sustainability: The Journal of Record, Paul Rowland of AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) said we need to “transform universities”; former Unity College president Mitchell Thomashow urged faculty members to “radically transform the curriculum”; and Jim Elder, director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, argued that we need to “change how they [faculty members] think, how they teach, how they do their research.”
Those are, in our view, steps too far. Colleges and universities might legitimately practice some forms of sustainability, and surely the ideas promoted by this movement deserve critical scrutiny and study. But the “every aspect of higher education” standard toward which Chico seems to be moving is an exercise in uncritical endorsement, and the goal of “transforming” universities to advance the sustainability program amounts to a betrayal of the university’s indispensable role as the place for intellectually free examination of competing ideas.
A shortened version of this article originally appeared on Minding the Campus.