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The vitality of a sustainability-related education

By Sustainability Office on April 25, 2014

By Sara Reese ’16

As Colgate students and faculty, we are challenged to meet “The 13 Goals of a Colgate Education,” goals that embody the true meaning of a liberal arts education – 1) Conduct interdisciplinary inquiry, 2) See ourselves critically and honestly within a global and historical perspective, 3) Be engaged citizens and strive for a just society, and 4) Respect nature and the diversity of life on earth, just to name a few.  As an Environmental Studies major and intern in the Colgate Office of Sustainability, I believe that integrating sustainability more deeply into the curriculum will help students accomplish these goals and will produce more globally minded students.

Sustainability is defined as a mechanism for creating and maintaining harmony between humans and nature, while still fulfilling the social and economic requirements for the prosperity of present and future generations (US EPA).  It calls on individuals to have global awareness of the human impact on our environment and take local action to minimize our impact on the environment, while also ensuring that human needs are met.  In this way, sustainability calls on students to be able to think about global issues and produce local action surrounding these issues – thinking in an interdisciplinary manner, seeing themselves critically within a global perspective, engaging and striving for a just society, and respecting nature and diversity of life.  Working towards sustainability directly addresses the goals of a Colgate education.

While taking Earth, Society, and Sustainability with Professor Jessica Graybill last semester, we examined human-induced environmental changes from a range of time scales and considered the political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that played into these environmental changes, drawing from student knowledge across a wide variety of disciplines.  We were required to think critically about major environmental issues, both past and present.  Professor Graybill urged us to consider how our own local actions contribute to larger global issues and how we could be more sustainable and just to nature in our own lives.  Looking back, this sustainability-related course has been the course to emphasize interdisciplinary knowledge and to connect our own lives as students at Colgate to the larger global society.

Sustainability-related courses are lacking within Colgate’s curriculum, yet I have found them to embody the goals of a liberal arts education at Colgate.  On the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS), Colgate earned a 15% within the category “sustainability-related courses,” reporting that 58 of the 1,295 courses offered can be considered “sustainability-related.”  While this may not be a true representation of the number of sustainability-related courses at Colgate due to difficulty in identifying courses efficiently, I have found that our sustainability-related courses are predominantly found within the usual suspects: the Environmental Studies, Geography, Geology, and Marine Science departments, with a few courses scattered throughout other departments and only offered on a sporadic basis.

I argue that instead of simply working to add more sustainability-related courses into the curriculum in general, sustainability should be integrated as a component of Challenges of Modernity or Legacies of the Ancient World.  Adding more sustainability-related courses to the curriculum wouldn’t necessarily dramatically increase the number of students exposed to the curriculum, but integrating sustainability into Challenges of Modernity or Legacies of the Ancient World would guarantee that every student at Colgate would at least spend part of a semester learning about what sustainability is and how it has evolved over time alongside global social, political, and economic changes.

For example, most Challenges of Modernity courses read works by Karl Marx, who discusses the exploitation of industry in a number of his works.  Not only does Marx believe that these industries exploit their workers, but they’re also industries that are harming the environment.  These industries have a history of doing so and have evolved over time, changes that have been accompanied by and been a product of social, political, and economic changes that the course focuses on.  Additionally, works that were read in both my Legacies of the Ancient World and Challenges of Modernity sections, such as Charles Darwin and the Bible, dwelled on nature and its significance, drawing on the importance of sustainability across time and subjects.  The integration of sustainability into these Core courses would not only naturally fit into the works already focused on in the curriculum, but would also increase the well roundedness of Colgate’s liberal arts education and help students achieve the 13 goals of a Colgate education.

Colgate University has pledged itself to carbon neutrality, or offsetting the carbon released on campus through reforestation, shifts to more sustainable energy options, and other initiatives, by 2019 and has already recognized the existence of climate change as a global issue through the signing of the American College and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  As a university, we have a demonstrated obligation to a more sustainable future.  Integrating sustainability into the curriculum and teaching students about what a sustainable future could look like not only aligns with this mission, but will also prove to create more educated, globally aware, and prepared alumni.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel that sustainability is appropriately covered in Colgate’s curriculum?


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