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An Inquiry Directed at Tech's Faculty

By Bruce Wallace, university distinguished professor emeritus

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 29 - April 25, 1996

The following query is directed at my faculty colleagues not because it bears on Tech specifically but, rather, because data of the sort I am seeking do not exist. As most of you know, increasing numbers of knowledgeable persons (including tens of thousands of natural scientists) are gravely concerned regarding the coming fate of the earth's ecological and environmental life-support systems.

As a rule, colleges and universities seem unable or unwilling to react in decisive ways. A common instructional option is to require that the term "environment" be used at some time in every course. Such a requirement is cheap.

Unfortunately, the required term is used by many instructors who either are unfamiliar with the gravity of the approaching problems or deny that they exist. In addition to being cheap, this option avoids tampering with already over-crowded curricular requirements. It is this latter problem that I want to address in the light of three suppositious conditions. Given that these suppositions were to become reality, would you (or would you not) volunteer to team-teach a course in "environmental literacy"?

An adequate course dealing with environmental literacy (not with environmental science which involves appropriate technologies) would have a solid base in the sciences and in scientific (i.e., logical) thought. Not that this science would be "elementary"; topics currently reserved for advanced courses, when presented properly, can be grasped by undergraduates. Among the sciences included in the course would be mathematics, astronomy, geology, and physics as well as many branches of biology. The first supposition is that natural scientists would agree that the proposed course satisfies a non-major's science requirement.

Because environmental concerns cannot be alleviated by technology alone, the proposed course must of necessity dwell in depth upon ethics, behavior, philosophy, religion, and related matters. All persons who have thought seriously about the environment agree that as the number of people grows (now approaching six billion at the rate of 100 million persons per year), their individual physical demands must be reduced--that is, aspirations must be changed. The second supposition is that those in the arts and humanities would recognize the proposed course as satisfying an "arts" requirement. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the humanities and the sciences in a single year-long mix should enhance the intellectual value of both.

The third supposition is that administrators and curricula committees recognize a new mathematics: each instructor (and his department) who team-teaches environmental literacy is to be given full credit for teaching it, not fractional credit. The need for this requirement is that no single profession or professional ethic is adequate for dealing with coming environmental problems. Hence, the two or three instructors who seriously undertake to teach environmental literacy must be present in each class period, must learn from one another, and must read a great deal of unfamiliar material. Periodic retreats may be necessary to enable these instructors to collate information stemming from many sources. Without this intensive interaction, each instructor will continue espousing the conventional (and inadequate) wisdom of his/her major.

An obvious corollary of supposition 3 is that many esoteric courses (e.g., 14th-century French literature or a plethora of "for-poets" science courses) will no longer be offered; those now offering them will be teaching environmental literacy, and receiving appropriate credit for doing so.

A second corollary is that the basis for sabbatic or research leave no longer be restricted to improvement in one's specialty; environmental literacy requires competence in many branches of knowledge.

If the suppositions listed here appear to be unreasonably idealistic, consider the gravity of coming environmental matters. Some persons have compared the seriousness of coming events with that of World War II; the deaths of 40 million Chinese through starvation in the 1960s, and the ultimately lethal infection of 15 million persons with HIV legitimize this comparison. An inability of colleges and universities to adopt the suppositions outlined here makes these institutions part of the growing problem, not of its solution.

I would appreciate your comments: campus mail, Biology, 0406, or fax, 1-9307.