Educating for a Greener Future

By Guest Contributor

With all due respect to my fellow faculty members, I’d like to think that Nick Muller and I, with joint appointments in Economics and Environmental Studies, have the best teaching jobs on campus. Our students not only study the great challenges of this century; if we’re doing our job, they also acquire the critical tools to begin to take them on. So many of the students who are burning the midnight oil in Warner and Hillcrest these days (and yes, soon they’ll be burning biomass!) are learning to think like economists and ecologists.

I admit, though, it’s not really the choice of discipline that determines whether students are acquiring tools to lead a life of meaning. Biology, Political Science, Dance: randomly choose any major in the Middlebury College catalogue and you’ll find a unique, valid means to understand the world’s complexities. And there’s one other thing you can be sure of at Middlebury: behind every major are outstanding scholars.

But in these changing times, how can we faculty members do even better? It can be difficult for modern educators to connect the everyday experiences of the student – what is immediately observable and within the grasp of even the most sophisticated student’s worldview – with the systemic challenges that the global community now faces: stabilizing the climate, alleviating poverty, and expanding human rights. I’ve recently adopted an approach called “open-source learning” to increase the odds of success. This approach includes five basic elements: a non-hierarchical classroom; group-based learning within the classroom; network-based learning across classroom walls; real-time creation of knowledge; and knowledge creation for the common good.

In the spirit of John Dewey’s vision of the civic purpose of democracy, the open-source classroom is dedicated to the proposition that the classroom has a public purpose. In a non-hierarchical classroom, students are taught that knowledge which they create is potentially as legitimate and important as knowledge from elsewhere. Through group-based learning within the classroom, students learn the importance of persuasion, reflection, and collaboration. Network-based learning across classroom walls – for example, analyzing data for a social-service agency – dramatically expands the scope of enquiry. Perhaps most importantly, the joint call for real-time creation of knowledge and knowledge creation for the common good lets students know that what they learn now can matter for others, now.

I have found that that open-source approach is consistent with three aspects of a successful 21st-century classroom: developing students’ awareness of their own agency (what William James calls “the ability of a person to structure and make sense of her life experience”); assigning challenging content (for example, analyzing the interrelated determinants of poverty); and using the power of networks in this digital age (our students, masters of the world of Facebook and, need little nudging here!) Ultimately, to challenge students with the open-source approach is to ask students about their own role in effecting social change. And critically, doing so can lead to the self-discovery that is the very core of the educational experience. As Ron Nahser, a scholar of pragmatism puts it: “Through inquiry, you find what you do believe, your values and vision.”

Given the traditions behind the liberal arts model, it is not difficult to take on this call for open-source, pragmatic inquiry. In his recent Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish writes that the professor’s job is to: (1) introduce students to equip bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experiences; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills – of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure – that will enable them to move confidently within these traditions and to engage independent research after a course is over.

I believe that the first part of Fish’s formula is paramount. Indeed, users of the open-source approach can flounder (at times I have) without it. To eschew analysis, to jump right into “problem-solving” dilutes what students learn and sells them short. Above all, higher education needs rigor.

But (rigorous) open-source learning calls for a modification of Fish’s final phrase: it should read “and to lead collaborative research while a course is underway.” The end result of matching Fish’s call for comprehensive rigor with pragmatic, meaningful inquiry? The opportunity to achieve, in this challenging new century, John Dewey’s ideal: education as “the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”

My confidence about this approach is not solely based on my own experiences in the classroom. It also comes from the outcomes of many comparable experiences on campuses nationwide. For example, scholars at MIT and Berkeley have successfully guided students in the design of clean-energy solutions. Here at Middlebury, open-source learning can help Middlebury students to prepare for a life of meaning in a challenging new century.

JON ISHAM is the Luce Professor of Environmental Economics