Enchanting Sustainability

Peter Wood

Current Anthropology is a model scientific and scholarly journal. Now beginning its fiftieth year of publication, it takes a wide view of the discipline (“To encompass all scholarship on human cultures and the human, or closely related, species”) and publishes important and often ambitious work (“Analytical, theoretical, or synthetic articles that communicate significantly to the largest number of anthropologists and to scholars in related disciplines.) The journal is also notable for publishing along with major research articles “commentaries” written by a wide spectrum of scholars who have a chance to study the article before it goes to print. The author then rounds it out with a reply.   Current Anthropology thus presents exemplary intellectual debate in a rather contentious discipline. 

That makes it all the more astonishing to find in the newest issue of this important journal an article that seems a flat-out repudiation of the ideals of disinterested intellectual inquiry and the centrality of rational analysis in scholarship and higher education.   In their place it extols a new horizon in education that focuses on promoting “institutional change” by evoking among students “wonder, delight, awe, and meaning linked to both personal and political spheres of action.”

The article, “Reason and Reenchantment in Cultural Change: Sustainability in Higher Education,” is by Peggy F. Barlett, the Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. I have no inside knowledge of how Barlett’s article passed muster to appear in a serious professional journal but it is perhaps relevant that it is the last article under the editorship of the out-going editor, Benjamin Orlove, whose own research deals with climate and weather.   In any case, “Reason and Reenchantment” is unlike anything I’ve seen before in 25 years of faithfully reading Current Anthropology.    For those readers of this website who are not familiar with the journal, it might help to note that Barlett’s manifesto against rational thought and in favor of “the phenomena of sensory, emotional, and nonrational ways of connecting with the earth’s living systems” follows articles on such sober topics as:

“Diet, Tuberculosis, and the Paleopathological Record”

“Size and Place in the Construction of Indigeneity in the Russian Federation”

“Community, Identity, and Conflict: Iron Age Warfare in the Iberian Northwest”

“Primate Vocalization, Gesture, and the Evolution of Human Language”

Barlett’s article stands out in this company—not for its merits.   It is, rather, an explicit, detailed, and sustained argument in favor of turning American higher education into an instrument of propaganda for an ideological movement. 

Calls to overturn the rule of law are almost always founded on a claim of urgency. This is no less true of the laws of intellectual inquiry as it is of other juridical structures. The notion that we advance knowledge by means of rational debate based on scrupulous use of evidence is the governing idea of the university. Like all governing ideas, it gets challenged from time to time. Barlett is not all that original. William Blake, in his prophetic effusion Jerusalem, thundered at John Locke and Isaac Newton:

I turn my eyes to the Schools and Universities of Europe

And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire

Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth

In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation: cruel Works

Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic

Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden: which

Wheel within Wheel, in freedom revolve, in harmony & peace.

At the end of the 1960s, George Leonard unloaded a paean to what might be called the Summer of Love school of pedagogy, Education and Ecstasy.   Leonard denounced regimentation, standardization, and rules in favor of helping children feel groovy. (Ecstasy was not yet the name of a street drug. Leonard, who is an expert in Aikido, went on to become president of the Esalen Institute.) 

But we don’t have to go to romantic visionaries or the fringes of the counterculture to find people who doubt that a diet of nothing but strict Gradgrindian rationality is good for us. All of us, or almost all of us, know better. Philosophy, after all, is the love of knowledge and the humanities; rightly taught, it enriches our experience, deepens our emotions, and helps us clarify how we should act in the world. If Barlett were only recalling us to this need for humanistic balance in a university that takes its basic epistemological impetus from the natural sciences, her article would be merely an anodyne reminder of an old truth.   Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be her goal. 

                “Reason and Reenchantment in Cultural Change” is roughly a 5,000 word article, available on-line only to Current Anthropology subscribers.   I give some sense of Barlett’s argument here, but the reader who wishes to take the full measure of what she says really needs to head to the library and find CA, volume 49, number 6, December 2008 (pages 1077-1098). 

                Barlett sees a crisis before us—a crisis so grave that it warrants overturning disinterested intellectual inquiry in the university in favor of appeals to emotion aimed at propelling students into social activism.   The crisis, of course, is the international favorite of the moment: “the earth’s capacity to sustain its life systems.”     Barlett is unhesitant in asserting the priority of environmental issues over all others: “Sustainability has emerged as the challenge for our time.” 

                We can pause on this for a moment. How does Barlett know this?   There are, in fact, other views about the challenges that face humanity as a whole and particular parts of humanity. One of the advantages of intellectual pluralism is that the best cases in favor of differing views get to be heard, and no one side gets to sweep the field.   Sustainability is a popular intellectual cause on campuses. But there are those who would say, for example, that the advancement of human freedom is a more pressing matter; some who would say that advancing science, health, and medicine is more important; some who say that civilization itself is in peril.   I have no brief to argue for what “the challenge for our time” is. But I recognize a tendentious statement. Those who think sustainability is of prime importance cannot be allowed simply to reorganize the university around their brand of millenarianism. 

That’s where Barlett would like to take this. Her aim is “to incorporate sustainability principles into education,” not as one topic of study among others, but as a pervasive theme in the curriculum (“history, law, chemistry, business, public health, languages, religion, literature, sociology, and the arts”) and as a “transformation” of the way teachers teach and students learn.   Emory University, where Barlett teaches, has already established a curriculum development project, the Piedmont Project, to further these ends. 

The Piedmont Project involves two-day workshops for faculty members that have the flavor of those consciousness-raising exercises pursued by groups that are not content with simply persuading participants of the merits on an approach. Some of what Piedmont does seems ripe for parody: participants “deepened their knowledge of the campus ecosystem and enjoy heightened sensory awareness in nearby woods.” 

What is supposed to be happening in those woods is—literally—“enchantment.”   Barlett draws on a growing body of writers who want to “expand the scientific paradigm of an objective relationship with the natural world (based on science and the use of reason) to include a more personal reconnection with the living earth.”   Well, nothing wrong with that. I like my hikes in the backwoods of Vermont as much as the next rusticating academic. But wait. By “expand” does Barlett mean changing the science itself? Are we going to talk to the animals? It isn’t quite clear, at least initially, what this might entail:

Separate from the rational, but not incompatible with it, this way of knowing involves a sensory, affective engagement that includes dimensions of wonder and delight and embraces an identity that includes connections to other species and the earth’s living systems.

(I like you little drosophilae, you charming vinegar flies.   Really. I like you a lot. Your glowing red eyes fill me with wonder. I delight at your feats of multiplication over the bananas I bought last night. You like bananas. I like bananas. I feel a sense of connection. You too?) 

Barlett tells us that the term of art for this sense of connection is an “enchanted” relationship with the earth, or a “reenchanted” relationship, since the mean old scientists starting with Roger Bacon so successfully rid the world of its former sense of enchantment. What we need now is a way to combine “reason and reenchantment—a stereoscopic vision.” Some might think this sounds like a call to combine reason and anti-reason. It would have been helpful if Bartlett anticipated that objection and told us why it is mistaken. But so confident is she in the powers of enchantment that she doesn’t bother with this little peep of remonstrance from the side of reason. “Reason” in this “stereoscopic vision” seems to play the role of a compliant silent partner.

Instead Barlett proceeds to lament that higher education in the United States lags “sustainability leaders” in business, government, and elsewhere. That’s because “colleges and universities are inherently conservative and highly fragmented.” Again, I have to pause.   I don’t know very many people who see the American university as “highly conservative.” Breathlessly in love with changing intellectual fashions? Slavishly devoted to the ideological shibboleths of the partisan left? Yes, I know quite a few people who would endorse those characterizations. But “inherently conservative?” Not so many. I’m willing, however, to see Barlett’s point. If you see science as essentially a cumulative intellectual enterprise and the university as an institution that conserves the achievements of civilization, then yes, the university is “inherently conservative,” though it is driven by those who don’t see all that much value in science or civilization. As to the university being “highly fragmented,” it is indeed in most cases divided by discipline-based academic departments, but by many measures the faculty present a remarkable level of unity—one might say especially on the topic of “sustainability.” 

But that’s not how Barlett sees it. “Most faculty are not engaged, most trustees do not see sustainability as a high priority.”   This seems to border on zealotry. Just how committed do faculty members and trustees have to be to be “engaged?” The proliferation in a few short years of sustainability vice presidents, campus initiatives, academic programs, residence life undertakings, and large budgets seems to count for naught.   What’s lacking, of course, is a sense of fervent belief instilled into the heart of every last person on campus. Barlett’s re-enchanted world seems, in some ways, not too distanced from Puritan Boston, rife with the suspicion that some of our number may be harboring doubts. 

Lots of things will need to change in order to achieve full re-enchantment. We will need “a new set of organizing principles” and “mechanisms” by which “decisions to live within our biological limits can be encouraged and enforced.” Enforced? We will need advanced “political coalitions” made up of faculty members, students, and others “who are willing to experiment with behavioral shifts.”

Let’s pause again and remember that this is from an article in a mainstream and highly respected academic journal.  

What Barlett lays out in this article is, in effect, a program of religious conversion. It starts with an un-argued premise—that the world teeters on the edge of environmental catastrophe— and then proceeds to lay out a plan of salvation. And the centerpiece of salvation is the conversion of all sinners. The rest of the article is a fine-tuned theology for how the hearts, minds, and souls of the sinners can be won by those who are already true believers. The grand strategy is to transform the university into a means of proselytizing. 


Within this campaign to convert, “reason” is a problem to be overcome. “Reenchantment involves dimensions of fascination, mystery, delight, and awe. It evokes elusive dimensions of reality that are hard to put into words and that resist easy translation into the language of an academic journal…” I would not want to stand in the way of anyone’s enchantment with nature, but this does not seem to me to be the primary work of the university, or even its secondary work.   The university simply isn’t the universe.   It is an institution with a limited set of goals, which include cultivating the human capacity for disciplined intellectual inquiry, improving our knowledge and understanding of the phenomenal world, and preparing students for some of the practicalities of life.   

There are, to be sure, other views of what the university might achieve. It is not too surprising to see Barlett veer into theology, aesthetics, and Heideggerian philosophy—and is perhaps not out of line in this context to recall that Heidegger himself was an unrepentant devotee of another 20th century leader who elevated the worship of nature and considered the rational inquiry overrated. Once we climb fully inside Barlett’s church of reenchantment, we discover it a very spooky place.   I am glad I don’t usually have to choose between “science” and “joy.” 

This summary takes me only about a third of the way through Barlett’s article. Even more startling sights lie ahead, but I suppose if my summary so far fails to raise alarms, nothing I can add will do so either. It is worth adding, however, that Current Anthropology did have an opportunity to place Barlett’s essay in broader intellectual perspective—and chose not to.   All four of the respondents whose commentaries follow the article are well-disposed to Barlett’s views.   Did no one critical of her premises agree to comment? Or were none asked? 

In any event, the appearance of this article in a mainstream journal is unsettling. It is perhaps a testimony that the substance of Barlett’s views is itself becoming mainstream. Given her radical and destructive thesis, that should evoke some awe. And maybe a little overdue disenchantment.

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