Letter to Stanford Committee: Vote Against Sustainability in Gen Ed Requirement

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • April 09, 2010

The following is a letter NAS president Peter Wood sent today to the Stanford University Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy, which is voting today on a proposal to make sustainability education part of a requirement for graduation. See the Stanford Daily article "Students Pitch Sustainability Grad Requirement" for background.

Dear Professors Buc, Beach, Bobonich, Byers, Fendorf, Glasser, Jolluck, Mazzeo, Summit, Stephens, Ms. Alexander, Mr. Milonopoulos, Ms. Rhines, Provosts Black and Bravman, and Dean Osgood,

I write to urge you to vote against the proposal before the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy to “Incorporate Sustainability into Stanford’s Undergraduate Education for Citizenship Curriculum.”

This proposal raises questions that deserve earnest consideration and serious debate.  But time is limited before the committee meets and perhaps the only realistic option is to urge the Committee to table the proposal pending a fuller consideration of the underlying issues.

Adam Kissel has written to you a letter pointing out that “sustainability” in the manner presented by Elaine Albertson et al. is an ideology, and that incorporating it as a curricular requirement will damage the quality of Stanford’s liberal education.  I concur.  To say that “sustainability” is an ideology is not to condemn the concept in totality.  It is rather to say that it is a contentious view, and one whose advocates have a record of promoting it so aggressively that they give little room for reasoned consideration of their critics’ arguments.

Ideologies are usually attractive and “sustainability” is surely that.  It offers its advocates a sense of virtue and righteousness, as well as credit for superior insight and knowledge.  Who would not be in favor of saving the Earth and humanity, if a particular set of ideas and actions would stand against a known peril?

But if sustainability is so compelling an idea in its own right, why must it be advanced by compelling Stanford students to study it?  And not only study it, but subscribe to it?  For, to be sure, the proposal before the Committee is not just about informing students.  It is about capturing their belief and re-shaping their values to accord with someone else’s concept of “good citizenship.”  Adam Kissel quotes some of the regnant phrases, and I will too.

Professor Pamela Matson, Dean of the School of Earth Sciences writes (page 2) that, “Thinking about sustainability does not mean standing outside and looking in at it.  It is a full-fledged engagement in the matter that must unite people and environment.”  (Italics original.)

Professor Nicole Ardoin, assistant professor of education and a fellow of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, writes that, “The goal is not to prescribe behavior.  This is about enhancing people’s attitudes, values, and knowledge and citizen action skills to make good choices about environment.”  (Italics original.)

      I don’t doubt the good will or the sincere conviction of Professors Matson and Ardoin, but their statements are at odds with the fundamental values of liberal education in a free society.  If indeed “thinking about sustainability” does not allow students (or scholars) to stand outside and look in at it, sustainability would on those grounds alone place itself beyond the legitimate bounds of a secular curriculum.  “Standing outside and looking in,” in Professor Matson’s phrase, is exactly what we scholars do when we try to understand a doctrine, a revelation, a tradition, or any body of ideas.  We may also benefit from empathetic exploration of the “inside” point of view.  In some fields such as my own (anthropology) that insider’s perspective is deemed essential.  But if all we have is the insider’s view, we have forfeited our claim to critical understanding.  “Full-fledged engagement” is the rhetoric of zealous belief and far beyond what any university grounded in the principles of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment reason can adopt without profoundly compromising itself.

Professor Ardoin’s language is more temperate but still disturbing.   A college education should indeed enhance “attitudes, values, and knowledge.”   But it should do that by giving students the capacity to exercise their reason, evaluate alternative views on their merits, weigh evidence, and sharpen their discernment.  The proposal at hand pays lip service to such open-minded inquiry but really decides in advance what the outcome will be.  In Professor Ardoin’s case that outcome is teaching students to be loyal advocates of the “good choices about environment” that she herself endorses.

There is much more to say about the proposal itself, but under pressure of the clock, I will stop there.  For context, the National Association of Scholars has been examining the campus side of the sustainability movement for the last two and a half years.  We have tracked developments at colleges and universities across the county, published some fifty articles on the movement, and just last week released a special issue of our journal, Academic Questions, that focuses on sustainability.  Our concern is that “sustainability” takes perfectly worthy campus policies and areas of academic inquiry and bundles them together with apocalyptic fantasies, quasi-religious credos, and striking violations of the principles of open-minded inquiry.  We have encountered and documented the movement’s frequent resort to hyperbole, but also its willingness to impose rather than persuade.  Often it does this in the spirit of induced panic:  that the peril is so great, we must suspend the usual niceties of evidence and open-minded inquiry and get right along with “full-fledged engagement,” and fixing people’s “attitudes and values.”

Sound familiar?  Stanford should stand back and give this proposal a truly critical examination.  I see that it comes before the Committee with the imprimatur of administrative support.  Perhaps that means it is a done deal, but I hope that the Committee will not simply concede to the advocacy agenda.  Stanford students have much to lose if the University opts for this program.  At the very least, the University should pause long enough to hear and consider what the critics of the proposal have to say.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood

President, National Association of Scholars


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