Letter to the Editor: Civilized Discourse

I listened with delight to Interim President Lyle Roelofs’ Convocation address focused on the challenge of climate change on Sunday evening, August 30 in the Chapel, and hoped that the first-years in attendance heard the rousing call to socially transformative interdisciplinary study and action that I did.

It is true that the majority of the speech represented validation of the directions Colgate is already taking with regard to assessing and responding to the seriousness of climate change. Such validation is appropriate for a Convocation address whose purpose is to make new students aware of the inspiring opportunities already available to them here as they commit to a serious educational and spiritual journey.

Yet Dr. Roelofs created a bridge from our current initiatives on campus to what needs to happen both here and beyond the Colgate campus when he articulated four daunting realities. First, no single academic discipline can answer the challenges posed by climate change. Second, the direction of our current capitalist economy with its need for two to three percent annual growth “for health” is irrational, especially given its current heavy carbon footprint growth projects (and this is certainly the case in the US). Third, an effective global negotiating body is necessary in order to strategize for the preservation of the planet. And finally, war is not a sustainable practice.

I am concerned that even in our approach to social diversity we think mainly in terms of a fairer distribution of the same kinds of power sources, goods and services that currently exist as part of the system in which production for profit motivates every aspect of our lives. The first response to the financial crisis that appeared in the Maroon-News last year was an assurance that Colgate would do everything possible to preserve its strong connections with jobs in the financial sector. There was no accompanying editorial suggesting how those jobs had to be reevaluated and restructured in the interest of a “public good.” There was no consideration of the (irrational) nature of much of the “growth” that pays the high salaries of those jobs.

Likewise, last year’s racist graffiti incident might have spurred student-initiated study groups considering, for instance, the disproportionate numbers of black and brown men dying in an on-going illegal war in Iraq, or with the reality that patterns of climate change will hit developing countries, and therefore, brown and black people, first. I state this not to undervalue students’ legitimate concerns, but rather to call for a widening of our concerns in preparation for the kinds of global agreements that climate change will require.

Then, too, understanding the link between quality public schools and social diversity at Colgate and between quality public schools and an interdisciplinary orientation in students, campus-wide discussion of the control of the standards and testing movement over public school curriculum, and increasingly over college and university curriculum as well, is in order. Related, too, the high stakes testing movement coincides with the increasing presence of military recruiters in public high schools and the continued high percentage of college age black men in prisons.

The green jobs movement is hope-inspiring but still seriously under-resourced. Although bold individuals like Majora Carter (a trip to her inspiring speaking engagment at Hamilton College was co-sponsored by Environmental Studies and Educational Studies at Colgate last year) have demonstrated how hundreds of unemployed inner-city residents can be trained to green city rooftops for heating, cooling and reversal of storm water damage, necessary public funding for such work has been scarce. Misleading reports that production for profit will seriously challenge climate change is currently justifying wrongheaded policy. For instance, the disastrous continuation of fracking, a process that fractures rock layers and explodes poisonous chemicals into the ground water and air in order to extract natural gas. And green jobs, while important, cannot alone solve the challenges to social and environmental sustainability.

As Dr. Roelofs stated, there is a great deal we don’t know. He intimated, and I’d assert, that we are not likely to find it out in a higher education system that has faculty positioned to compete by department for students. This system recently posed significant obstacles to negotiating a more robust core curriculum here at Colgate. I want to make it clear that I am not singling out Colgate here nor charging any of us with bad intentions; I refer to the tightly departmentalized structure of academia which increasingly rewards the kind of narrow research produced under the pressure of the tenure clock and disseminated in professional organizations and journals that don’t speak to one another.

Under such conditions Colgate deserves commendation for retaining a core curriculum, as well as for the maintenance of the few interdisciplinary programs like Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies, Africana/Latin American Studies (ALST), Peace and Conflict Studies, the LGBTQ minor, the new Middle East Studies, and select study groups. The Center for Outreach and Volunteer Education (COVE), too, is a source of deserved pride, as are the religious organizations that have also spearheaded meaningful self-reflective dialogue and community service.

There are specific circumstances at Colgate that do militate against interdisciplinary studies, however; one is the eight course load per academic year for students and the five-course teaching load for faculty. Here I’d propose the substitution of student-initiated interdisciplinary research related to social and environmental sustainability for two student courses per year, and cross-disciplinary faculty study groups towards the creation of bold interdisciplinary courses for one of each faculty member’s current five-course teaching assignment per year.

Another obstacle to facing the challenges outlined by Dr. Roelofs is the “work hard, play hard” Colgate student culture which tends to militate against necessary periods of self-reflection and general (not necessarily religious) spiritual nurturance. We know that cultural values cannot shift when people have no time to slow down, process their new learning and their interdependence, and excuse the cliché, really love themselves and one another.

Here I’d propose many substitutions for the wide-spread practice of excessive drinking and pick-up sex. On select evenings and during weekends students could lead brief related instruction sessions preceding dances, yoga, comedy clubs, dream analysis groups, Tai Chi and other martial arts, film-making, book groups, meditation, nature hikes and informal discussion groups on any posted issues. I am aware that much of what I propose here already exists, but it must become more visible, more defining of the culture. This will require an assertive leadership alliance between students who early identify the exceptional promise of a Colgate education with some of the equally serious students who consider leaving Colgate during their first year. The context for the offering of such leadership will be dedication to education towards joyful nurturance of the self and its sustaining communities, the species and the world.

Again, I applaud the challenging Convocation address delivered by Dr. Roelofs. I only hope that its content proves to represent our serious collective intentions. Perhaps these remarks might stimulate dialogue on the issues raised in subsequent issues of the Maroon-News. Perhaps we at Colgate can become a model for other institutions serious about re-inventing higher education in response to the global social and environmental crisies we can no longer deny.

Sincerely, Barbara RegenspanAssociate Professor of Educational Studies