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The Challenge of Sustainability Studies Programs: Careers versus Citizenry

Editor’s Note: This entry continues a series of reflections by Professor R. Bruce Hull on the value and future of Sustainability Studies programs at universities and colleges. See his previous post on the need for Sustainability Studies programs in higher education and Rachel Harkai’s related post on living laboratories at Warren Wilson College.

University degree programs balance the demands of careers and citizenry.  Students need marketable skills that lead to jobs in the current economy as well as preparation to be thoughtful citizens able to engage and shape society.  The traditional logic suggests that liberal arts programs lean towards citizenry and professional programs lean towards careers.   Sustainability programs must do both.

Sustainability stands on the three legs of environment, economy, and ethics.  All three legs must be strong if society is to thrive—not just survive—when confronted with inevitable social and environmental disturbances.   A sustainable system needs people who can work at the interface of environmental management, technological innovation, economic development, cultural change, and community governance. It needs direction from the arts and humanities about which future to create and why we should sacrifice now to create it.  It needs environmental and ecological experts who understand the functions and services of our life support system and resource flows. It needs the engineering skills that invent, build, and maintain the infrastructure and technology upon which society depends.  It needs entrepreneurial know-how to create sustainable businesses that deliver goods and create opportunity.  It needs a civic society that balances individual freedoms with the common good. Sustainability also requires a blend of theory and practice.  We must see the big picture while operating in the details.

Can all this be accomplished within a single degree?   Such a degree risks trying to be everything and may end up being nothing.  The challenge educators face is providing enough of a foundation in core areas upon which can be build integrative, problem solving, experiential learning opportunities.  We need to teach enough content so that students can learn how to solve complex problems that don’t have simple right-or-wrong answers.

Lecture halls and multiple choice exams get us only so far.  We need living laboratories, engagement with real problems and communities, and opportunities to wrestle with values and perceptions as well as facts and figures.  There will be a lot of learn by doing.  The most important lessons learned will not be the answers to questions asked by professors, but the ability to ask the questions that need answering, the approaches used to find the answers, and the analytical skills used to evaluate whether the outcomes were better or worse than the alternatives.  Medicine, law, architecture, landscape architecture, business and some engineering and environmental management degree programs have figured out how to educate the whole person and emphasize experiential learning and solving wicked problems.  We need similar programs teaching sustainability.  And we certainly need more people who can excel at both careers and citizenry.

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: September 2, 2010, 11:09 am Category: Opinions, Sustainability and Education Tagged with: , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. R. Bruce Hull said

    Absolutely! Experiential education works. It is perhaps the most powerful tool educators have for integrating knowledge and practice, motivating student engagement, and triggering reflection and learning. Study-abroad programs are masters at using this tool. I recommend to my students that a study-abroad experience is worth any semester of classes you can take here at home.

    The challenge for established, place-based universities and the students we service, is to create meaningful, deep, practical experiences related to sustainability. The opportunities are everywhere, if we want to look, but integrating them in with our established, classroom based instruction requires taking risks and being innovative.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for following the blog and for recommending Living Routes and Gaia Education. I’m looking forward to exploring the websites.


  3. I’ve been appreciating this series and have been sharing your posts with alumni and friends of Living Routes, the organization I direct that runs ecovillage-based programs in partnership with UMass-Amherst.

    To me, “ecovillages” present the best “living laboratories” in which to immerse students interested in these topics. If you’re interested, you might like to check out our take on Sustainability Education at

    You might also be interested in another organization I’ve been involved with called Gaia Education ( which has been developing “Ecovillage Design” curriculum that has been presented to thousands of students around the world.

    Take care and I look forward to future posts.

    In community,
    – Daniel

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