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and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Mar. 24, 2012

Can We Teach This?

Five Lessons All URI Graduates Need to Master

It wasn't fair to end my last post by complaining that academics are "exhibiting unfathomable ignorance of ... the unprecedented challenges of the 21st Century," and that "Process-oriented change, built on a world view appropriate for the last century, is paving a useless road to a future of nowhere." I was writing the day before leaving on my first real spring break vacation in more than 20 years, and the post was already too long, but yes, it needed a more positive and useful ending.

My unfinished ideas rode with me to Disney World and gnawed at me all week on my deluxe (and last) tour of the parks. I'd been invited to share luxury resort accommodations and a fantastic meal plan, and in the best of company I did enjoy five days away from my usually Spartan bachelor lifestyle.

We stayed in a new (2009) contemporary hotel, a short walk from the Magic Kingdom. I marveled at the monorail and bus system, built in 1972. I wondered when the University is going to build a short "L" down from Kingston Hill to the main commuter lot and over to a research park built on the Superfund site north of Flagg Road (and not in the century woods). And when will we see light rail connecting to the station in West Kingston, or rails to Narragansett, Newport, Wickford junction, and points north. We need to begin rail projects soon, else there will be no effective transportation network in southern Rhode Island as we accelerate down the declining fossil fuel production curve (see below).

I surveyed the people in the parks with a sense of deep despair. Disney World is so overcrowded, yet no one seemed to mind. I know that children are a great joy, but I also understand why so many Europeans, Japanese, Chinese, and Americans say they will not have any offspring. Our ability to sense that the world is over-crowded should not be discounted. We need to control our population and to bring it down. Birth control isn't arbitrary, and the voters this fall will repudiate the horrifying, anti-women political overreach on reproductive rights seen in bills being passed in so many states.

There were so many elderly and obese people, too infirm to walk, riding in myriad electric carts. In all previous ages, none of these people would have lived as long as they can today in the condition they are in. I am not a crazed tin-can stocking, munitions hoarding wild-west survivalist, but I do wonder how long any of these folks would last if today's high degree of social order ever breaks down. They'll be the first to be eaten, I imagined.

In general, Disney crowds are as docile as grass-feeding cows. You have to be like a cow to tolerate the endless lines waiting for all of the parks attractions, some lines up to or exceeding two hours of tortuous meandering. Yet the crowds were also peppered with the rude, self-adulating loud, and brain-dead littering creeps that make being out in public so unpleasant now. What must visitors to this country think of us?

Mostly, I mused about the unsustainable nature of corporatized America, wondering how this all will play out. It is so easy to see Disneyland as a real place, a vital escape from our dull lives working for other corporations back in New Jersey, Texas, or Illinois. Disney, however, is a corporation, and no, Mr. Romney, corporations are not people. They do have personalities, much like people, but their essential nature is determined by, in Joel Bakan's (2004) words, "the pathological pursuit of profit and power." Most corporations are, at heart, psychopathic, and Disney is no exception. Disney, Inc., is an efficient machine that gets you to spend hard-earned money on plastic souvenirs, branded garments, and fancified amusement rides, all the while getting you to accept the parks as some form of a real world. But Disney is not real. It is just an effective pathology (Rushkoff, 2011).

Back home and settling in to finish the second half of the semester, I find myself still dragging around the set of thoughts spawned in the ungroundedness of my unusual vacation time. Disney is an unreal corporate experience, but then, so is most of life around me today. In particular, the University where I work, much like almost all of the other 4300 colleges and universities of my country, is also in too many ways an unreal corporate experience. Certainly, the political correctness of the modern public university calls for suppression of challenges to the corporate world-view. Popularly slammed as hotbeds of liberal subversion, on the contrary I see my campus and most others as quagmires of conservatism, turning out the next generation of tempered cogs for the grinding machinery of our earth-killing economy. We are, as I find myself saying constantly, preparing students for a life in a century gone by, as though tomorrow were 1972, and the world was all about self and consumption. That's the way corporations and the people who run them—unfortunately now including those boards and administrators who run most of higher education—think things should be. Back to the future, staring into the rearview mirror.

As aware of the critical meanings of the 21st century as I pride myself to be (witness: this blog), only one of the four courses I teach this semester has anything particular to do with the future as I see it affecting my students.

Only one of my courses (one of the rarest in the University) actually focuses on the current century and its challenges and how we should be acting. If I could, I would require every URI graduate to take either the freshman version (Grand Challenges 104) or my senior course, COM455 Science and Communications for a Century of Limits (a capstone course in the hodgepodge listing "sustainability minor"). But as the University is structured, senior-level elective courses in Arts & Sciences are largely anathema to students in the sciences or engineering, and only about half of the mostly Communications Studies majors in my classrooms have any real interest in either the science or the communications material presented in my course. Here's the syllabus, with links to lectures, readings, assignments: judge for yourself whether students should be more interested in the greatest challenges facing them this century or the intricate problems of communicating vital science to the public for purposes of forming the most critical social movements in the history of humanity.

The point is, courses that seriously investigate the future or that call for a rejection of contemporary corporate inertia are very rare. That's how corporatized the State University has become: nothing challenging the status quo creates any real sense of excitement; if anything, there is an aversion, as though some unnatural act is being proposed. Believe me, progressive change-oriented thinking (let alone teaching) is not welcome at the University of Rhode Island today, as much a bastion of social conservatism (defined as "leave society unchanged") as any right-leaning campus in this country.

So if college campuses are ultra-conservative (again, not from a social-values perspective (the right is ridiculous here), but from a maintain-the-status-quo corporate slant), what are the most important things we are not teaching? In what follows, I list five. For the first two, I provide a little more background; these are generally poorly understood by even the most educated fractions of our population. For the last three, I merely suggest some possible future areas of discussion. Five seemed like a nice target.


1. We will exhaust fossil fuels within this century, with significant decline in world production beginning now and declining at an accelerating pace through mid-century.

Despite television advertisements from the American Petroleum Institute, the world is not awash with fuels adequate to run everything for the rest of our lives and to create huge numbers of American jobs. We are, to begin, running out of oil.

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hubbert_world_2004.png

This is a composite of production curves for major oil producing regions. The curves are labeled with region and the year of peak production for the region. The United States is divided into Texas (peak in 1971), the rest of the lower 48 states (1971), Alaska (1989), and the Gulf of Mexico (GOM, no peak indicated). Note that much of the middle east is not included here; if the U.S. is to become totally dependent on remaining world reserves, we will be competing with the rest of the world (including China, which owns a substantial share of U.S. debt and much of the manufacturing behind American consumption).

The end of the age of the automobile will occur this century, almost as fast as it began last century. With the decline of the individual car, powered by a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, the age of the automobile-centric suburbs as we have known them will also come to an end.

The assumption, of course, and one touted by corporations—including the oil lobby, who want to finish running out the last of the fossil fuels in a greedy, ours-is-the-only-generation-that-matters aberrational spike—is that when the time comes we will just perform some technology miracle and automatically switch to an at-least-as-good alternative energy source that will leave us with a twentieth-century lifestyle intact. That is the driving myth of the early 21st century, a myth that needs to be confronted by higher education—now.

source: http://www.paulchefurka.ca/WEAP/WEAP.html

For reasons having to do with simple quantum physics and the relative density and portability of combustible products made from oil, there will be no alternative that will preserve the independent car as a primary means of transportation (see Laughlin, 2011, for the physics). By mid-century, not having a personal car to drive will be overshadowed by far greater concerns about such survival essentials as finding adequate food, water, and liveable shelter, for an increasing fraction and then a majority of the US population; much of the rest of the world will be in far worse shape.

For more on this topic, see here and here.

2. The human impact on the climate from burning oil and natural gas (probably unstoppable) will be major and largely irreversible for at least 1000 years. The impact from burning coal (stoppable) will be disastrous and last longer.

Global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased steadily since the beginning of the industrial age. Keeling's mid-Pacific observations since 1958 are incontrovertible.

Similar increases in atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide are clearly anthropogenic. There is a consensus among qualified climate scientists that the earth is warming (about .7oC since the beginning of the industrial age) and that the cause is human activity. Anticipated warming through the end of the century is estimated to be about 1-3 degrees C for each doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration, and the amount of warming thought possible is in the range of 2-6oC total (since the beginning of the industrial age.)

"A simple, clear, urgent conclusion leaped out from our research on the appropriate target level of atmospheric carbon dioxide: Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty."

James Hansen. 2009.

Anthropogenic climate change is real. It threatens the planet. There is a scientific consensus on warming and its cause and widespread concern among qualified scientists and policy makers that unprecedented global changes in the use of fossil fuels are required immediately. Those who deny or serve as contrarians on climate change are simply wrong, and the delay that their politics causes is a threat to the planet.

More:

For more on this topic, see here or here.


In the interest of bringing this post to an end, let me toss in, with brief elaboration, three more areas where we are failing to teach our students things vital for their future, leaving further reflection for future posts.

3. The human population of the earth exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet and must be reduced (through lowered birth rates) if we are to have adequate food, water, shelter, and basic needs met in a post-fossil fuel era.

The effect of humans on their planet is complex, a result of numbers, levels and types of consumption, and local ecology. Human impacts are geographically varied and subject to cultural change. Americans need to understand that there are too many people: families need to be smaller, and not having children needs to be valued. Personal worth must be reevaluated and the signals we give younger generations adjusted to reverse a sense of entitlement and rights to material consumption. Our culture must become more conscious of our fellow humans, living now and in the future, distant in space and time. We must learn to value fairness and sharing, to reject material excess in the face of dreadful degrees of poverty for much of humanity.

For more on this topic, see here and here.

4. Americans must come to understand the threats to traditions of democracy, fairness, and equity posed by our current imbalance in wealth and political control.

The political naivete of most Americans and nearly all college students is poorly served by a higher education system that ignores world geography, planetary ecology, and contemporary moral and political philosophy. Perhaps out of fear of attacks from the political right, contemporary colleges and universities are notably apolitical to the point of providing no focused general learning such as is required to maintain a competent electorate. 30 years of systematic transfer of wealth from the poor and working classes to an increasingly narrow and powerful upper echelon (Pierson and Hacker, 2010) is now the stimulus behind the Occupy Wall Street movement and its attempt to create awareness of the vast differences in wealth and control afforded the 1 and 99 percents. The future of American democracy demands a more rigorous and systematic incorporation of awareness into the academic program.

For more on this topic, see here.

5. Graduates need to develop pragmatic domestic skill sets for purposes of increasing individual and community resiliency in a time of post-peak transition.

Here, I refer to my previous post and simply state that for the URI Deans to conclude, as was alleged, that filling seats is more important than preparing students for the future, or that Rhode Island needs no central place in higher education for graduates trained in agriculture and food systems is indefensible.

A healthy American society—one capable of withstanding the social disorder almost certain to accompany the accelerating challenges of post-peak oil and climate change—requires not only the technologically competent corporate-serving workforce— being produced efficiently as the main product of public higher education— but also a college-educated class capable of surviving, prospering, and leading (social movements) in a age of unprecedented struggle. Simply put, students need to be taught to cook, grow and process food, and how to eat wisely (yes, I am advocating for significant reductions in meat and dairy consumption, and for a strongly vegetarian or vegan diet) and take care of their bodies. All graduates should also have a basic understanding of how to repair and use hand tools and small motorized devices. They would almost certainly also be better off with an exposure to skills that allow them to be creative, including the basics of artistic and musical technique.

In our age of corporate focus, we have nearly abandoned all such basics, and the society that has resulted is the weaker for our neglect. Yet the current tussle within the academy seeks to undermine the types of general education that could nurture critical resilence education in favor of more self-serving specialized pedagogy (i.e., serving the interests of stocking departmental courses and keeping disciplinary faculty busy in the classroom). The assault on general education at URI borders on the immoral, and would be immoral were the actual general education curriculum worthwhile, which needs to be questioned (but isn't being, for the same self-serving reasons within status quo gen-ed-offering departments).

For more on this topic, see here.


It is difficult to maintain a position as a senior faculty member in a public university and to deal with awareness of the disconnect between the real needs of the near future and the real content of the last-century curriculum. I have no doubts that most of my colleagues across campus would heartily disagree with my inference that our contemporary curriculum is inadequate to meet the needs of our students. Kingston's campus community—as is true of most American academies today—is largely unaware of the major challenges that the earth will present to humanity in the years ahead. Nevertheless, I should state that I believe that to the extent that we fail—individually and institutionally—to switch to a new pedagogical path, one that serves society both by creating awareness of the future while also motivating all graduates to engage in movements to change society, we also fail to meet our foundational social trust. That, to me, is morally and philosophically bankrupt, a dereliction of the sacred and ancient responsibilities of generations to provide for the needs of their descendents.

Certainly, we must and can do better than this, for the sake of all generations.

References

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