The Liberal Arts Education in a Time of Ecological Crisis

Smith College, Northampton, MA

We are at a crossroads in society. The problems we face—wars, climate change, healthcare, the advancement of democracy—require great skill and increased social responsibility from a new generation of leaders. At the same time, higher education that prepares these leaders, at least in America, is facing its own crisis. In the last decade the cost of a college education has skyrocketed. Many young people graduate with specialized knowledge that do not fit with demand in the work world. Even with a staggering student loan, many have to take on more debt in order to qualify to work in their chosen field.  In this environment the liberal arts have suffered especially. In 2000, fewer than 100,000 students in the United States, or less than 0.6 percent of all U.S. higher education enrollees, graduated from liberal arts colleges.[i] The cost of an education that does not spell out a clear career path is becoming too risky for a large number of Americans.

We live in a world of profound ecological and social problems that won’t be solved merely by doing more research. We need education that teaches students how to live sustainably as well as how to make a living. Does a liberal arts education provide that kind of training for today’s generation? As a relatively recent graduate of a liberal arts college, has my own education enabled me to sustain myself in a world of increasing specialization? Has it empowered me to solve some of the problems of society, or of my own life? What is the value of a liberal arts education in today’s highly technical and specialized world? What are its flaws and how can higher education address them to prepare citizens that can confront its challenges, such as the ecological crisis? While every education is different, I offer my own experience to illuminate what I think are some of the benefits and shortcomings of a liberal arts education today.

The world around us

I entered Smith College, a private all-women liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts, in early September of 2001. The New England air was cool and crisp, the leaves were just beginning to turn yellow, and church bells pealed sweetly on our way to class and home to our friends. Then two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the atmosphere of our idyllic college was instantly broken. For the next four years, anti-war protests were constant on the campus and in the community, and the war fueled discussions of everything from the environment to race relations. Our professors encouraged this dialogue within the classroom and outside of it. Ours was a community of learners. Intellectual conversations extended into lunch and dinner and informal gatherings with professors. Our residences were spaces for socializing and relaxing but also salons where we hosted professors for tea, invited guests for candlelight dinner, and held workshops on campus issues. The college was a microcosm of society where we could engage in the issues of our times. Almost every student had a leadership role in an extracurricular activity and it was difficult not to be drawn into some cause or another.

The lesson we learned was that learning wasn’t just about getting a grade and moving to the next level, it was about how to engage in the world around us, become a participant in the dialogue, a player in the events beyond those of our own lives. We learned to care about these issues not because it would be of any personal benefit, but because we live in this world and justice and other people matter. One value of a liberal arts education is that it teaches us to enjoy intellectual inquiry and challenges to our preconceived ideas. In this way an education goes beyond learning a vocation and becomes a spiritual endeavor to stretch our intellectual capacity to become more developed human beings.

Poetry

When I watch reality shows such as “The Real Housewives” series or read about the lives of the Kardashians, I realize most acutely the benefits of a liberal arts education. These individuals devote their lives to material pursuits. Their sense of meaning and identity come from having huge homes, fancy cars, and expensive clothes. Their pleasures are the material kind, and because human desire is endless, they are never satisfied with what they have. Their life is a constant chase of the next best thing and their self-worth is dependent on having what others cannot afford. When an entire society embraces the values of conspicuous consumption, the result is endless depletion of natural resources and the fragmentation of society into the haves and have nots, not to mention the stress that comes from having to keep up with the Jones.

The liberal arts offers an alternative to the frenzied, materialistic life. While learning poetry, philosophy, painting, or sociology in college seem impractical and indulgent, perhaps divorced from the realities of life, these studies are the most conducive to cultivating a sustainable lifestyle. In an age where words are a dime for two dozen and speed reading is the norm, studying poetry taught me how to slow down and appreciate language, which is equivalent to appreciating life. In a world where we are encouraged to seek meaning in conspicuous consumption, the humanities cultivates an appreciation for the higher things of life, things that do not require money or the depletion of natural resources to enjoy. I may never earn money writing poetry, but through it I gained the key to living a good life morally, emotionally, and aesthetically.  Through poetry I learned something far more valuable than how to solve problems; I learned to love the contradictions of the human condition and to have compassion for our weaknesses. Poetry gave me hope because the poets show me that even in the darkest night of the soul the light of grace is never distinguished. My eduction enabled me to unlock an endless source of wealth and joy that surpasses all the luxuries that money can buy at little cost to the environment.

How to learn

Two years after graduation, I decided to switch from English to environmental studies for my career path. Even though I was not a science major, my liberal arts education had prepared me so well that I was able to tackle this new subject with confidence and skill. In addition to basic competence in mathematics, chemistry, and biology, I knew how to conduct research and write persuasively in any field. I had no problems picking up Statistics or Economics in graduate school even though they were far outside of my major. I knew how to present an argument, analyze an issue, and critique an analysis. My liberal arts education has also taught me that the world is complex and what I know about a topic is a tiny amount of what is to be known about it. I’m able to defer to experts when I feel that I have reached the limits of my knowledge, and not have blind convictions. I believe this attitude of intellectual humility is essential for being a good citizen.

So were these skills enough? What were the things that I did not learn? And should they have been a part of my liberal arts education?

Cooking

Among all the useful skills for life, one that I did not learn in college, but wish I had, is cooking, and related to that, the many practical skills one must learn to handle life. How essential is eating and cooking, how important it is to culture and the economy, and what a huge impact it has on the environment! Here is an activity that we do three times or more a day, yet I did not learn anything about it until I graduated and moved out on my own. At Smith, the wonderful staff did the all the purchasing, cooking, and cleaning up of our meals. A portion of work-study students (mostly first years) helped in the dining halls, but for the most part, we were utterly uninvolved with our daily bread except for its consumption. At most residential colleges students are liberated from the responsibility of preparing their own meals with the understanding that this enables them to focus on their studies. But this practice does nothing to prepare them for the reality that everyone, except for the fabulously wealthy or helplessly ill, is responsible for her own meals every day.

Not only is eating supremely important for health and quality of life, it also has profound implications for society. Agriculture consumes a huge portion of the world’s resources. The majority of our water is used for agriculture, and the need to find more space to grow crops for food, livestock, and fuel has been the leading cause of deforestation and loss of habitat around the world. Agriculture is also the leading contributor of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. More than 30% of greenhouse gases released each year come from agriculture, more than those from transportation or electricity. Eating meat is a practice that demands many times more energy, land, and human resources than a plant-based diet. To not know the profound implications of this basic function is ignorance of the grossest kind. Yet so many educated young people leave college taking this resource completely for granted.

Likewise, I found that my education left me helpless in other practical skills. For example, I had no knowledge of investing and financial planning, other than what I endeavored to learn myself. In a society where the majority of women retire in poverty, I had no lessons in this practical skill. I had no practice in doing anything physical—such as constructing a fence, sewing a garment, tuning a car, or fixing plumbing. The unspoken assumption seems to be that if you are a white collar professional, you will hire someone to do these things. But it is hypocrisy to teach students empowerment when they are not empowered to tackle some of the most practical challenges of day-to-day life. The lesson seems to be that if it breaks, throw money at it or buy a new one. This attitude is hardly helpful when we are trying to teach stewardship of the environment. If we cannot exercise stewardship of our own environment by doing basic maintenance, then how can we exercise stewardship of the planet’s atmosphere or oceans? What good is it to learn about global climate change if we do not know how to insulate our houses?

As much as I relished the life of the mind, it was divorced from the environment in which it happened. On our beautiful campus, I enjoyed the arboretum but never had a hand in tending the plants or learning about the trees and flowers. I ate wonderful food but never learned how to grow them. We read about climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and some of the things being done at a national and international level, but we did not address these problems on our own campus even though there was much that could have been done. At the time our school’s recycling rate was extremely low, there were no considerations of social responsibility in purchasing, and green power was not a part of our electricity portfolio.  A lot of our education is devoted to what one colleague calls “admiring the problem”, but to get dirty and try to tackle them in a hands-on way, is something that scholars, in the shelter of the ivory tower or corporate tower, avoid at all costs.

Today, as an environmental professional who works on these issues to improve campus sustainability, I learned that most of what it takes to address these issues have to do with navigating the decision making process, managing work relationships, designing work plans, and crafting educational and advocacy messages for a general, not specialized, audience. It takes as much time and practice to develop these skills as it does to learn how to write academic papers. Yet hardly any attention was paid to developing those skills. Instead young people are thrown into the workforce with the necessity of performing perfectly in these aspects and at great cost to their careers if they don’t.

Life decisions

When I was a Sophomore at Smith, my friend who was a Junior declared that she was taking a semester off from school “to do her own thing.” Why? We asked her. She replied, “I don’t want to study study study all the time, I want to live!” At the time many of us were baffled by this, as we were wholly engrossed in the enterprise of graduating from college, getting a job, going to graduate school, and getting a better job. But should that be our only concern in life? What about relationships, creative endeavors, and “living”? If we acknowledge that those goals are also important, then why do we not devote a portion of our education to learning how to do them well and chart a course for the non-career aspects of our lives? Do personal life decisions have no bearing on careers and the rest of society?

Issues such as marriage, children, aging, and death–issues that we all have to deal with–get relegated to sociology classes where they are studied as a discipline. But what about their relevance to our own lives? For example, despite all the talk about feminism at Smith College, I actually cannot remember any discussion about traditional female roles of marriage and motherhood. Here we were, at an institution with outstanding female role models, yet we never discussed the issues that every woman must face, whether in her own experience or as social expectation. We were Smith women, out to have adventures, careers, and conquer the world, and marriage and family were sideshows to be figured out after graduation. Many of us struggled for years to reconcile our own high expectations with desire for companionship, family, and a place in our communities.

My education taught me to question, but I felt confused about my choices. I didn’t know if I really wanted marriage, some other arrangement, and how I felt about children. What does it really mean to be a parent, practically and philosophically, and is it compatible with a high-powered career? In 12th century Paris Heloise refused to marry Abelard because she felt that the domestic life was incompatible with their calling as philosophers. Does a planet with an ecological crisis really need more children from a country that consume more resources than all the poor countries combined? And what does it mean to question a lifestyle that our society takes so much for granted? In Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, she demonstrates that women in the 21st century struggle tremendously between the demands of their career and their family. For better or for worse, my education set me up to have very high expectations. We were the generation of women that believes we can do it all—career, family, children, personal fulfillment. Yet the reality is that it’s not that simple. It was difficult for us to understand that having choices means that sometimes you have to choose among them. Sacrifice was not a part of our vocabulary; we could do it all.

Perhaps the challenge has to do with the fact that higher education, especially at elite institutions, is part of the engine of our industrial society and its relentless drive for economic growth. The main purpose of all education, not just at liberal arts colleges, is to prepare students to enter the work force, earn money, and spend it to drive up the GDP. Personal growth, social responsibility, and creative development are for the most part side benefits. How we should live and how to deal with life issues such as parenting and aging are outside the purview of a liberal arts education. Even in English literature it was more important that we learn about metaphor and rhetorical devises than learning the essence of what the writers were trying to communicate. Again I find that my liberal arts education developed my intellectual capacities but left me little acquainted with the realities of life. I may get wisdom from other sources, but it will be without the benefit of the openness and intellectual exploration that such learning would have afforded in college.

There are other things that my liberal arts education did not teach me. For example, even though I learned a lot about literature, I was not really prepared to teach it to undergraduates. How to lead discussions, how to project authority and accessability in the classroom, there was a whole set of skills needed for teaching beyond merely knowing the subject. I was trained in doing research and writing papers, but how to supervise the work of others, how to motivate and inspire, and how to negotiate outcomes with others were things that I had to learn by trial and error. Throughout college and graduate school, I was so satisfied doing work that was mostly intellectual and getting praised for it that it was a most uncomfortable transition to enter the workforce where much work was mundane and you almost never got credit for the work you do. Perhaps if my degree had been an MBA I would have learned more about these things, yet these skills are hardly unique to business managers, they are essential for every walk of life. Research and teaching do a lot of good, but if we only learn the skills of academia, then we cannot be effective change agents out there in the world where we are needed.

But if colleges had to teach basic practical skills to every graduate, then wouldn’t all the time be spent on teaching cooking, investing, negotiating, budgeting, and the like? Since these skills do not require PhDs to teach them, wouldn’t it be a waste of the colleges’ resources to devote their curriculum to these subjects? In answer, if college should be a time devoted to learning more subtle skills, then let’s teach basic life skills in high school so that everyone can employ them regardless of whether they go to college. In addition, while I feel that it would be valuable to have some of these skills integrated into syllabuses, that is not essential. The college experience consists of much more than classes, and some of the most important skills can be learned from extra-curricular activities, internships, campus jobs, and residence life. Co-curricular offerings such as conferences, workshops, and guest speakers can broaden one’s exposure. On this point I feel that universities underutilize their staff as potential instructors who have valuable skills and life experience to impart. Many of the careers that students go on to take after graduation are similar to those held by universities staff. Could not the staff, not to mention the alumni also working in diverse fields, be called upon to assist in the educational endeavor?

Environmental educator, David Orr, writes that “we have developed a version of the liberal arts in which it is assumed that learning is an indoor sport taking place exclusively in classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and computer labs and that practical competence is to be avoided at all costs” (120).[ii] Orr suggests reforming the liberal arts education by integrating more practical experience and real life skills into the curriculum. He suggests more encounters with real places, conversations with people outside of academia, and using the college as a laboratory where students can be engaged in solving real problems. Many schools are doing these things already. Colorado Springs College, for example, equips students to work on the ranch and run every aspect of the college in exchange for free tuition. Dickinson College in Pennsylvania incorporates its farm into its classroom learning on subjects from biology to art history while producing organic produce for the college dining services. Even Smith is integrating more practicums as part of its curricular requirements. I think if I had more of these kinds of experiences as an undergraduate, I would have had more confidence to pursue projects that required skills beyond those of research, writing and strategizing.

The university is a wonderful place where students can learn not only from their teachers, but also from each other. It provides a setting where experiments can be tried and solutions tested without judgment or fear of failure. If schools do not take advantage of this setting to teach students how to confront real problems, then when the students face real problems in the real world where the stakes are high, they will not be prepared. An education should not be about book learning alone, or in many cases, preparing for the workforce. Work, life, learning, love, should all be a part of the equation. Henry D. Thoreau wrote, “We boast of our system of education, but why stop at schoolmasters and schoolhouses? We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe. To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is absurd. If we do not look out we shall find our schoolhouse standing in a cow-yard at last.”[iii] His experiment at Walden suggests to us that education, even a liberal one, is insufficient if it involves book learning only. The best learning is not to be had indoors, but lived, in the fields or cities or wherever we choose our Walden.


[i] Trubek, Anne. “‘Wither’ the Liberal Arts College?”Pacific Standard Magazine. 27 Sep 2011: Web. 22 Sep. 2012. <http://www.psmag.com/education/wither-the-liberal-arts-college-36476/&gt;.

[ii] Orr, David. Earth in Mind. Washington DC: Island Press, 1994. Print.

[iii] Thoreau, Henry David. Journal, 15 October 1859. http://www.walden.org/Library/Quotations/Education 26 Sep. 2012

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