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Opinion: Sustainability Should Lead the Way Out of our Disciplinary Silos

My university is trying to increase opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary topics.  I responded to an email solicitation for ideas with a suggestion: Sustainability.

“I am afraid that ‘Sustainability’ is too general,” an administrator and gatekeeper of the dialog tells me, “questions would arise such as ‘sustainability of what?’”  This refrain is too familiar.  It is also a major obstacle to educating students about sustainability.  It is therefore also a barrier to constructing a sustainable society—higher education should be leading the way, not throwing up obstacles.

Starting in the 1900’s, and accelerating in the decades following World War II, land grant universities such as where I work, shifted focus from serving communities to building scientific expertise.  “Peer-reviewed” scholarship grew in importance.  As a consequence, disciplinary and professional silos emerged and faculty now speak about topics that interest narrow audiences of like-minded peers.  Hence the call for more interdisciplinary opportunities.

One strategy for promoting interdisciplinary studies is to organize programs around resources or problems, such water, forests, energy, climate.  This approach is interdisciplinary because any solution to our mounting water problems, as an example, requires coordination among policy wonks, land planners, hydrologists, engineers, foresters, architects, and so on.

But how can one focus on water without considering energy, especially since it takes so much water to make energy?  And how do we separate water and energy from climate?  More importantly, how do we separate any of these problems from citizen values that ultimately cause the problem, values such as consumerism, intolerance, and loathing of governance?  All of these issues are linked.  Messy, huh?  Perhaps too messy for the tools of science, kept sharp but impotent in disciplinary silos.

Studying and teaching “sustainability” requires university faculty to step out of our comfortable silos and address the whole problem, rather than just slice off the tiny piece that fits our analytic tools and funding connections.  Sustainability forces us to address the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of every issue.  We cannot solve the water problem without solving the water demand problem—and that requires accounting not just for social and economic values of water, but also water’s deep connections to climate, energy, food, land use, governance, and the myriad other factors that make up a sustainable system.

Higher education is struggling to break free of the thinking that served it so well in the 20th Century.  For inspiration we can look to lessons from 1862, when the national government established land grant universities to service regional communities and build a nation, not to publish papers in ISI journals and secure grants from NSF.

Earnest Boyer, respected scholar and longtime president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in one of the last things he wrote, challenged universities to become more engaged. An engaged university deals with real world problems.  An engaged university offers a two-way street for the communities being engaged to direct as well as receive assistance. Dozens of higher education elite have wrestled with how to make this happen, generating insightful reports and exhaustive internal studies.  Many have signed on to the Campus Compact, promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education.

What can be more engaging than the problem of sustainability?  What problem requires more community involvement?  What problem requires greater integration of university expertise with the challenges of daily living?  What topic can better promote interdisciplinary study and practice?  What topic can be more relevant to institutions of higher education?

Sustainability does not fit neatly into the structure of university programs shaped by 20th Century thinking.  It will be difficult to change, with gatekeepers protecting the past.  But change we must.  The future demands it.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: November 15, 2010, 1:24 pm Category: Opinions Tagged with: , , ,

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  1. Advice on Choosing an Environmental Studies Graduate Program – Getting to GREENR linked to this post on September 8, 2011

    […] particular program’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity. There have been a couple posts on this site (such as this one)  regarding the need for holistic and integrated thinking in sustainability issues, so I won’t […]

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