‘Reason’ and What Sustainability Teaches

By Julian Macrone

As the Campus’s editorial staff pointed out last week, on April 3 the National Association of Scholars released a report titled “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” Authored by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, and funded by Tom Klingenstein (a Williams College alumnus), the report attempts to systematically examine and reveal the various factors it sees as responsible for a supposed “fall from grace” of the American liberal arts college. The report also claims that Bowdoin’s institutional emphasis on sustainability is a product of the same kind of aversion towards what the authors see as the fundamental tenants of Western Civilization.

Wood and Toscano assert that the foundational underpinnings of “the Common Good” and general education at Bowdoin — “virtue and piety” — have been replaced with radical new cosmopolitan ideas of “social justice, transnationalism and sustainability.” While the report singles out Bowdoin, its derision of the school’s sustainability efforts are more a “one-size-fits-all” critique of environmentalism on the larger scale — and we should be worried. Here at Middlebury, we have claims to the oldest environmental studies program in the country, a commitment to carbon neutrality with goals loftier than Bowdoin’s and a mission statement that commits our curriculum to teaching environmental stewardship. For Wood and Toscano, these features of our community are not only ideologically misguided, but an apparent disservice to you and me.

What the authors see as the “sustainability agendas” that pervade dialogue at our colleges has apparently provided a detrimental distraction to our education. Wood and Toscano argue that where a liberal education had historically taught the development of “open-minded seeking of human excellence” and “great-souled men,” it now teaches “environmental literacy” within a larger intellectual climate uninterested in debating the value of what is taught. For Wood and Toscano, an environmentally-minded education comes at the cost of critical thinking abilities, rationalism and the ability to appreciate opposing arguments. I’m not sure they’re quite right.

The fact that learning institutions in our day and age are able to recognize the gravity of the problems facing our species serves as a testament to the vitality of the liberal arts. If critical thinking is about analyzing and weighing perspectives, then Wood and Toscano fail to see that sustainability and environmentalism represent the practical application of a cost-benefit analysis embodying the multi-epochal consideration of how human reason affects the world around us. Wood and Toscano are certainly right to point out that problems of collective responsibility like climate change will not be solved when ears are closed to alternative opinions, but they don’t propose solutions that will get us any closer to solving the problem. What they do offer is an appeal to the conservative ideals that perpetuate our inability to consider environmental issues with the weight they deserve.

Wood and Toscano’s fundamental criticism of Bowdoin lies in what they see as a failure to develop character in its students. The report claims that students are ill-equipped to confront what life has ahead of them because, like Middlebury, Bowdoin lacks a core curriculum that requires students to associate themselves with the intellectual pillars of western culture. Though the authors seem committed to the idea that American liberal arts have come to idolize diversity for diversity’s sake, they fail to acknowledge how the presence of a diversity of perspectives — western and non-western — can allow for the rethinking of how we apply the lessons that the western canon teaches. The principles underlying environmental and sustainability efforts worldwide — justice and equality — are the same principles that western culture has held near and dear throughout its history. Efforts to ensure that humans and other animals have a livable environment constitute no blind pursuit of the undermining of the individual as Wood and Toscano would have it. Rather, the movements seek to preserve the conditions that allow us to care about individual well-being and character development.

“What Does Bowdoin Teach?” concludes that self-restraint, self-criticism, moderation, “how to distinguish importance from triviality” and wisdom are some of the things lacking from a liberal arts education in this day and age. While all of these things seem to fundamentally motivate environmental education and sustainability efforts in American higher education, the authors assert that they can only come from an education committed to parochialism and tradition. If a college education today places an increased emphasis on cosmopolitan thinking, it is only because the problems that face our generation are cosmopolitan in nature and scope. Bowdoin and Middlebury College earn their classification as “liberal” precisely because they offer the opportunity to freely and dynamically craft conceptions not only of the good life, but the good environment.