|Sterling College. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon.|
Most colleges in the United States today try to practice conservation, or as the saying goes, be green; whether in recycling trash, giving uneaten dining hall food to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, maintaining a small organic garden where students can grow vegetables, encouraging faculty and staff to sign up with CSAs in the area, and so forth. My school, Brown University, does all of these. Our motto in this regard is, of course, “Brown is green”; but in fact Brown is many other things besides. The Brown community does not emphasize any one of them over all the others but, rather, sees itself as offering diverse opportunities.
Some colleges have made more of an effort at sustainability than Brown. Berea College, in Kentucky, where I taught as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies a little more than 20 years ago, moved in that direction, seeking among other things to make the college a self-sustaining energy community. They had an advantage here, because the College happened to own and operate the town’s electrical plant. And Berea's commitment is serious and pervasive; see http://www.berea.edu/sustainability/ for more information. At Sterling College, on the other hand, green is the raison d'être: learning green, doing green, and promoting green. There is nothing more important.
With approximately 125 students, an average class size of 10, and major concentrations available in ecology, sustainable agriculture, environmental humanities, outdoor education, as well as curricular combinations put together by the students themselves with faculty approval, it must be one of the smallest colleges in the US. (Interestingly, there is another Sterling College, not related; it is in Kansas.) The average cost is about $18 thousand per semester, while the average financial aid award per semester per student is around half that. Of course, $20 thousand per year for college still represents a large sum. By contrast, Amherst College, my undergraduate alma mater, costs twice that; and it is one of the least expensive so-called top-tier colleges.
One way Sterling keeps costs down is with a relatively small administrative staff. Another is by employing students to work at the college, in the dining room, on the farm (which supplies much of the delicious organic food), and on other parts of campus. Students earn a small portion of their tuition in this way. Based on what I saw, and what the students who were there told me about it, the Sterling students are strongly committed to the College and its work program, understanding that they are contributing to keeping the costs down for all. All students at Berea also participated in the College’s work program, but the jobs were for the most part menial and upon asking them, I learned that the students were less than enthusiastic about the work. Of course, this was 20+ years ago; student work attitudes at Berea may be different today.
Because Sterling offers less than a half-dozen named major concentrations, it doesn’t maintain the broad range of professors, courses and majors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences that the majority of colleges (including Berea) do. This sharp focus is another way to trim costs, but it also means that Sterling can't provide students with a broad, traditional liberal arts education. Yet that liberal arts education—one which I myself had as an undergraduate at Amherst College—has been under challenge since the 1960s. Charges ranged—and range—from elitism and lack of diversity to insufficient opportunity for specialization and depth, not to mention relevance (can a humanities major find a job?) and expense. Sterling’s focus on environmentalism is one answer to that challenge.
After all, in the first half of the 20th century, American undergraduate education had moved away from what remained of the traditional classical education (Latin, Greek, the humanities, philosophy, Greek and Roman history, mathematics, natural history, English literature) and toward a more contemporary one, which included modern science, modern languages, the social sciences, and American as well as English literature. Equally important was the persistence of breadth, for although curricula had become more specialized (the result of an increasing faculty orientation to research and a professionalization of academic disciplines), undergraduates were required to take at least one elementary course in the main divisions of the college (arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences) in what usually was called a “distribution requirement.”
The liberal arts ideal, especially as embodied at colleges like Harvard and Columbia, and at my own undergraduate college, Amherst, was that an educated person ought to be familiar with the way artists and critics and philosophers and historians and scientists defined their subjects and thought about them, even though the students would surely not be pursuing careers related to all of them. In addition, most of the educational establishment, at the mid-20th century, believed that students ought to know how to write a proper, persuasive essay; and to be familiar with the great works of art, literature, music, and philosophy, at least at an elementary level of appreciation and understanding; and that they ought to be able to read and speak a modern foreign language, like French or Spanish. The colleges most committed to this ideal adopted, for the freshman and sometimes the sophomore years, a core curriculum of required courses. In this way, no matter what career they chose—and a liberal arts college education was not thought to be career-preparation except in the most general sense—students would be able to read, write, figure, know the past and how it informs the present, have a well-developed sense of ethics, think critically and intelligently, and take their place in the nation as effective and well-informed citizens. Liberal arts education of this sort embodied the Greek concept of paideia, educating for good citizenship.
That ideal of a liberal arts education came under increasing pressure in the second half of the 20th century, to the point where colleges now find it impossible to maintain it publicly, even if some would wish to. Sputnik struck the first blow. In response, American science education was reformed from the high school level up. Research scientists argued that if the US was going to “win the space race,” a concept that did not seem silly during the Cold War because of the possible military consequences of winning or losing, the world’s leading scientists ought not to have to waste a lot of time in college taking courses in subjects that were irrelevant to their future scientific research. It was good for the nation’s future (non-scientist) leaders to learn how scientists defined their subjects and how they thought about them, so that they could work intelligently with scientists on national and international issues. But the nation’s future scientists ought not to be required to fill their undergraduate transcripts with courses broadly distributed throughout the arts and humanities; they didn't have time to learn how to work with humanists, I guess.
Next, beginning in the late 1960s, the traditional arts and humanities curricula were critiqued as elitist, and as a result curricula became far more inclusive. The Great Books with their heritage of classical learning were thought to offer a narrow, Eurocentric, racist, sexist and colonialist worldview. Therefore they could not equip a contemporary student to understand and act in a culturally diverse and rapidly changing, globalized world. The list of great works now expanded to include women and authors of color the world over, and the ancient heritage and contemporary history and thought in Africa and Asia, not merely Europe and North America.
Eventually, the traditional liberal arts education itself came to be seen as elitist. Efforts to maintain distribution requirements gradually weakened, and today they are very modest. The argument runs that those who wish such a broad education ought to be able to get one through a combination of electives in a diverse curriculum with good advice from professors; and that such an education would now be much more inclusive than it was fifty years ago anyway, and better. But where some see diversity, others see fragmentation and disarray. The humanities have been in retreat; according to a recent Harvard study, only half as many students major in humanities now as did fifty years ago.
The latest blow comes from a growing consensus that middle-class American families no longer can afford to pay for college, even with diligent, long-term savings and student work-study programs, plus scholarships and loans. College costs have been in the news recently, partly because it’s getting harder and harder for students to bear the burdens of increasing college debt when for years tuition, room and board costs have been rising faster than the inflation rate. When I was a college student, the price of a private college for a year was about as much as one would have to pay for a compact car; today, one could buy three or four comparable entry-level automobiles for what it costs to attend most private colleges, and it's not because cars are cheaper than they were. Students are graduating deeply in debt. Is it worth it? No wonder there's such pressure on colleges to prepare students for careers instead of preparing them for life. Not only does the public wonder why colleges are charging so much more these days, but also whether that model can possibly be sustainable.
Neither Tufts nor Brown are quite the country-clubs that some critics of higher education make the top-tier private colleges out to be, but they each have a large administrative superstructure (many special schools, such as engineering, medicine, undergraduate liberal arts, a graduate school, etc., each with their own staffs of deans, associate deans, assistant deans, and administrators; higher administrators such as provosts and the president, each with their associates, assistants, and staff; financial officers, development officers, and so forth). Colleges like to brag about their low faculty-to-student ratios; they don’t publish administrative staff-to-student ratios. I’d like to see figures charting changes in these ratios over the past fifty years. I’ll bet that the proportion of administrators and staff to students (and to faculty, for that matter) has increased significantly while the others have declined. Of course, I have a faculty bias here. But one figure is not in doubt: the price of attending as a student.
It’s also true that support services and quality of life amenities for students at private colleges have increased in the past fifty years, whether better food and housing, or wellness and counseling services, or a myriad of other things. This has to be paid for. Colleges and universities have also made large investments in computers and information technology, not to mention their science labs. At Sterling, at least according to their advertising literature, the college community as a whole seems to take care of counseling and problem-solving, placing additional advising burdens on faculty, who inevitably must get to know the students as people, not just as students. At a university like Tufts or Brown, it is an unusual professor these days who would know more than a few of their students each year as people, or feel part of a residential community in the same way that those who live at Sterling must. In that regard, Sterling may more resemble a private boarding school, with resident faculty who spend a good deal of time with students outside the classroom as well as inside.
It’s impossible to tell, based on a few days of meals there, about the year-round food at Sterling; but based on what we had in the student dining hall—to be sure, in the middle of a summer harvest—it is plentiful, healthful, varied, and delicious. A college emphasizing environmental studies might favor vegetarian diets, but in fact a variety of meat was also served. The cooks knew what they were doing—one had been trained in cookery at Johnson and Wales University in a previous life, for example. Certainly, the food we (and the students who were there) enjoyed was far better than the school food served at colleges fifty years ago, where our choices were often limited to “mystery meat,” “elbow patches,” powdered potatoes, and canned vegetables boiled beyond recognition. At the same time, Sterling's wasn’t the trendy and upscale food served up in some college dining halls, either.
The student dorm rooms where we stayed, on the other hand, were about as elemental as one could imagine. They would have seemed spartan even to a hired farmhand. Mine was about eight feet wide by about eighteen feet long, equipped with a bunk bed, a small table and chair that would serve as a desk, an overhead lamp, a bureau for clothes, no closet (but four hooks to hang things), and some shelves. Bathrooms were shared and similarly basic. Although these could be made more comfortable with student belongings, it would plainly be hard to spend time in them doing much other than sleeping, dressing, or working at a computer. Nesting in dorm rooms was discouraged by the nature of the nest. Instead, students would be far more likely to be outside of their rooms, either working at the college, involved with classes and study, or socializing in the community.
The Sterling model, I believe, has a better shot at sustainability than the liberal arts one I’m most familiar with as a student and professor. I’ve told my Brown students, more than once, that because of rising costs and increased competition among them, in fifty years most universities like Brown will be able to exist only as living history museums, like Old Sturbridge Village, populated by actors and tourists. And many fewer of them. On the other hand, this Sterling model, if it is a model, does not pretend to offer a broad liberal arts education. Yet it offers enough to set the students on their way in the humanities, if they so choose. In the environmental humanities division—I envision an education in ecocriticism here—there is, for example, a course in nature writing; I would welcome such a course in the regular English curriculum at any college. And no doubt through this course, the students will become acquainted with some classic and modern authors of the first rank who write about the natural world, Thoreau as well as Leopold and Erdrich and Kingsolver. And they will become acquainted with the natural world by farming. Sterling College's advertising brochure states that they emphasize experiential learning: some colleges have a farm; Sterling is a farm.
And so, turning now from the setting to the conference itself, a college that emphasizes farming, conservation ecology and environmental humanities was a very appropriate place to hold a symposium on cultural sustainability. Coupling “cultural” with something that the general public links primarily with science and technology brings a humanities and social science dimension to the discussion on sustainability. But at Sterling it is already there.
I did meet and talk with several Sterling faculty and students over the course of the symposium. A few students attended the symposium sessions. One of them, a young woman named Jessy, got into a spirited discussion with me when over supper on the first evening, I asked her what her major was. “Ecological philosophy,” she replied; it was a major she was putting together herself, with help from some others in the community. She had, in fact, been working closely with the Dean of the College, Pavel Cenki, on this, and her hands-on experience combined with readings and discussions made her an interesting and challenging conversationalist. We got to talking about “altruism” in the natural world and, somewhat to my surprise, she took the position that it did not exist. She was willing to grant the reciprocity of symbiosis, but pure altruism she believed could not be found anywhere—even among humans. The philanthropist who gives anonymously and expects nothing in return still gets the satisfaction of giving. Such satisfaction, for her, represented a return (not a gift) gained from the transaction; therefore, it could not be an instance of altruism. Nor did she consider altruism in the zoological sense to be true altruism; that is, when one animal gives to another at its own expense.
In the coming days I will write here about the symposium itself, not only my keynote address but also some things I took away from the presentations and discussions, and from a field trip where we had a chance to learn something about cultural sustainability in the local economy. Of course, it wasn’t all intellectual discourse. In the evenings we played music—I played fiddle some, and guitar; it’s a pleasure to make music with Tony Seeger and his wife Judy, and to meet new musicians such as Carol Dickson, who favored Quebecois fiddle tunes. It was good to be with some old friends, Mary Hufford among them, and make new ones. In the coming days I’ll also try make a few observations here on what remains to be done as we try to understand sustainability in a cultural setting. As Rory Turner, the founder of the cultural sustainability graduate program at Goucher College said, in his concluding remarks, cultural sustainability remains an ongoing conversation and a work in progress.
 Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in his collection of essays, A Continuous Harmony.
 When I taught there, I saw college ownership of the electrical plant as part of the College’s totalizing tendencies, which included a history of paternalism toward faculty as well as students. For example, faculty were paid lower salaries than they might earn elsewhere, but the college provided free houses (some quite nice) that were to be returned to the college after faculty left Berea. I now see this differently: we are, after all, only stewards of the houses we think we own. Nevertheless, it was pointed out to me by some disgruntled faculty then, that they would be better off owning their houses and building equity. Given the recent severe fluctuations in the real estate market, though, building equity in one’s home isn’t the sure bet it once was.
 The problem here, I think, is with the purity of the student's definition; it is easy to get boxed into definitional difficulties whereas the more important things go beyond definitions to acts of generosity, giving, and reciprocity. Relational epistemologies, which is what is at stake here, do not depend on reductionist definitional procedures; rather, they are given life through expansion and interdependent connection.