Peter Wood

The sustainability movement in American higher education is new. Five years ago, it did not exist. Today it is nearly everywhere, and declares itself as having overwhelming importance.  

The sudden emergence of the sustainability movement in higher education provokes some basic questions: Where did it come from? Why did the university prove so receptive to it? 

I offered my preliminary answer to the first question in The Sustainability Movement in the American University.  The short answer: the sustainability movement grew out of three independent developments.  These are (1) The search by radical leftists such as Murray Bookchin in the 1960s for a substitute for proletariat revolution that might prove more popular with Americans; (2) the rise of a middleclass environmentalist movement concerned with clean air and water, symbolized by the first Earth Day in 1970; and (3) the United Nations-sponsored international commissions and treaties on the environment, especially the 1987 Brundtland Commission. 

But for several decades, while the sustainability movement took shape, higher education stood aloof from it. What changed that made the university in the latter part of this decade so eager to take it up?  I’ve previously suggested two factors: (1) the eagerness of university student affairs personnel to find an “educational” issue of their own on which to build their careers and advance their standing; and (2) the susceptibility of ideologically-oriented college presidents to a pitch targeted at them by a sustainability activist group called Second Nature. 

This account leaves out a great deal and we are at work trying to fill it in. The NAS website will present additional material as we find answers. At the moment I want to look a little more closely at the “fit” between sustainability and the university. The proponents of the movement urge the extraordinary idea that sustainability and the university are pretty much the same thing –or that the sustainability doctrine ought to be the foundation of all higher education. 

Do I exaggerate that last point? Not at all. As the sustainability advocacy group Second Nature puts it:

Second Nature's mission is to accelerate movement toward a sustainable future by serving and supporting senior college and university leaders in making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education.

The bold font is in the original, and much the same claim appears in the annual report for the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). We have written about that bit of irrational exuberance in “Does Environmentalism ‘Fit Squarely’ with Higher Ed's Mission?”

Let me propose an answer: “Sustainability” is not the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education.  Higher education is a complex enterprise that combines the pursuit of truth through rigorous inquiry with the transmission of culture and civilization from generation to generation; the practical preparation of students for work in fields that require advanced intellectual preparation; and the pursuit of personal excellence, usually in the context of moving to full adulthood.  

Some aspects of this involve “sustaining” what already exists. The university builds on intellectual and cultural traditions which must, in some sense, be sustained. But Second Nature, ACUPCC, and others who evoke “sustainability” in this context are engaged in mere word play. We sustain the pursuit of truth by pursuing it; we sustain cultural traditions by participating in them; we sustain complex utilitarian learning by mastering and exploiting it, and if possible extending it. We sustain the pursuit of personal excellence by distinguishing worthy from unworthy goals and pitching ourselves tirelessly toward the former. 

There is nothing in these forms of “sustaining” that has any real connection with “sustainability” in the environmental sense, or in the senses of the other appendages of the sustainability movement: sustainability economics and sustainability social justice. The environmental sense of sustainability emphasizes curtailing the use of resources; simplifying; going without; substituting less energy-demanding alternatives; trying to leave the conditions of nature as little perturbed as possible.   This ethic of self-erasure is antithetical to much of what is truly foundational to the university, which elevates man’s pursuit of knowledge, not his determination to render himself carbon-neutral. 

Sustainability at bottom is a doctrine of doing less. Higher education is at bottom an institution that strives to do more. 

What the sustainability movement aims to sustain above all is the earth. What higher education aims to sustain above all is civilization. 

The fit between sustainability and higher education doesn’t look that good. But that just deepens the question. Why did the university in fact prove so receptive to a doctrine that seems profoundly at odds with higher education? To reckon just how profoundly at odds it is, consider the case I described in Enchanting Sustainability of the university professor whose advocacy of sustainability takes the form of repudiating rationality in favor of teaching students to experience “wonder, delight, awe, and meaning linked to both personal and political spheres of action.”

Exotic Derivatives

The sudden emergence of a movement that sweeps away all reservations and treats any hesitance as a form of immorality ought to give us pause. The sustainability movement is to prudent planning in education as exotic derivatives were to the banking crisis. The “returns on investment” in this novel idea sound too good to be true. That’s because they aren’t true. 

Academics ought to have more immunity than ordinary folks to the lure of utopian ideologies. After all, the academic life is based on a commitment to reason and to deciding difficult questions by scrupulous examination of the evidence. Unfortunately, for more than a generation, that picture of academic standards has been growing out of date. Today’s academics tend to be more, not less, susceptible than the general public to the excitements of fads and manias.

The National Association of Scholars was founded more than twenty years ago in response to another such fad: the rise of “political correctness” in higher education.  Back then, the prominent issues were the attempts of multiculturalists to demolish the study of Western civilization as the core of the college curriculum; the attempts of feminists to twist every area inquiry into an obsessive focus on women; and the expansion of racial preferences from merely a betrayal of fairness in college admissions to an assertion of the priority of identity groups in all aspects of intellectual life.   NAS’s founders charitably imagined that the university could shake off these derelictions of duty and get back to basic principles. 

They were wrong. The welcome mat that the academic Left had laid out for illiberal ideologies was never withdrawn. To the contrary, the message was propagated to undergraduate and graduate students, including the next generation of college teachers, that the pursuit of “social justice” trumps old-fashioned ideas about treating individuals as individuals who all enjoy or ought to enjoy the same basic rights. The new, ideological form of social justice emphasized that one’s position in society inevitably counts more than abstractions about “liberty” and “equality.” A new commonsense was born—one in which a person’s sex (now called gender, to emphasize that it is cultural and therefore fluid, rather than rooted in biology and therefore fixed); one’s race; one’s cultural background; and one’s class were and ought to be the primary considerations. 

The master term that summarizes and encodes this new commonsense is “diversity.” It is a peculiar word in this context with a peculiar history, and I spent several hundred pages in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept tracking it down to its origins.   Roughly it evokes the richness of human difference, but wraps that evocation over an attempt to stoke group resentments. Diversity sometimes outwardly pretends to like America; but inwardly it looks upon America as a history of oppression that must be atoned for by perpetually awarding special treatment to the heirs of oppression. The awarding of this special treatment shatters the old idea of treating people as created equal and free to choose their own lives. Group identity comes first. 

Higher education is the birthplace of the diversity ideology, and though diversity has since spread as an ideal to all sectors of American life, it remains at its most powerful in the academic world. In higher education, as nowhere else, institutions can trample individual rights, engage in outrageous group favoritism, punish and reward on the basis of group affiliation—and do all this with an air of sanctimony. The pride with which today’s university officials engage in acts of outright bigotry makes no sense at all, of course, without the loop-de-loops of logic that made it respectable for academics to elevate political advocacy over the ethic of striving for detachment and objectivity.

The exact point at which the university tipped into self-satisfied consumption of ideology and laid aside the stern task of truly disciplined inquiry is impossible to pin down. Allan Bloom’s 1987 Closing of the American Mind pictures the moment in April 1969, when faculty members and administrators at Cornell University capitulated to a group of heavily armed black thugs who had occupied a building and threatened the life of at least one black student who refused to participate in their uprising. Bloom took this as an especially clear instance of “dismantling the structure of rational inquiry” by “ideologized student populace” intent on replacing rationality with “value commitment.” And Bloom took full note of the component of moral self-approbation among the university authorities who were in fact selling out the university’s most important traditions. He speaks for example of a provost who justified his inaction with “a mixture of cowardice and moralism not uncommon at the time.”

The only real difference between the capitulations of April 1969 and the present is that all these factors are now entirely institutionalized. Twenty years of hiring as college presidents only individuals who met the test of “proven commitment to diversity” made sure that the combination of cowardice and moralism could be phased out in favor of complacency and conformism. We have the instructive exception of Larry Summers, who as president of Harvard, strayed into uttering a thought deemed at odds with feminist orthodoxy, and who was summarily dismissed for his error. Only a college president exceptionally sure of his intellectual footing would have dared to express such a thought—or a college so far from the American mainstream that his ideas could be ignored.       

In short the sustainability movement fell on fertile ground. The university of today is ripe for almost any ideology that views America and, more broadly, Western civilization as inherently exploitative and destructive and in need of radical replacement. Sustainability fits the bill.

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