Environmental Literacy, A Guide To Constructing An Undergraduate Education
Thomas Kelly, Ph. D, University of New Hampshire
Because all human activities are dependent upon and have repercussions within the environment, you have an opportunity to make a difference no matter what your interests. Whether you major in marketing, biology, mathematics or music and you spend your professional life in industry, government or journalism, your actions will have an environmental impact. So, remember whatever your major is, in a certain sense, it is an environmental one.
Ask yourself then, what kind of impact do you want to make? Where do you want to make it? How do you want to make it? These questions have important implications for deciding on the kind of college education you want. If you are concerned about the environment and want your education to reflect that concern and strengthen your capacity to assess, evaluate and judge where you fit into the environment, think about these questions. Independent of your ultimate career choice, what knowledge, skills and experiences do you want from your undergraduate education? If you are concerned about the Earth, yet do not wish to choose an environmental career, consider the notion of "environmental literacy."
An environmentally literate person understands the nature of the interdependence between human activities and the non-human world. With a modern education, so often career-oriented, if we are to graduate environmentally literate citizens, environmental concerns must be incorporated across the curriculum and even beyond the classroom. The prominence of the environment and an ecological perspective emphasizing systems such as the biosphere within the liberal arts education is relatively new. Many educators now seek to connect a broad range of disciplines in an effort to grasp complex, large-scale ecological problems. This is a tall order because there is a fundamental tension between the broad inclusive character of environment, and the practical significance of specialization to the job market or graduate school.
Moreover, recognition of the need to understand the social aspects of ecological problems has introduced questions of racism, equity, human rights, national sovereignty and national security into the environmental debate. These aspects of ecological problems are now widely acknowledged to be part and parcel of these issues. Internationally, the scientific, educational, and governmental communities agree that segregation of the so-called "natural sciences" from "social sciences" is a significant obstacle to environmental education. Accordingly, calls for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary educational programs are being heard from many quarters.
Prospective undergraduates should be aware that while intuitively appealing, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary education are interpreted differently by different schools. It is one thing to take a collection of courses from different disciplines; it is another to integrate and internalize their contents so that you can apply them to your personal and professional life.
When you are evaluating schools and deciding what kind of education you want, one consideration is the degree of disciplinary integration. Does a given program simply offer varying menus of courses from different disciplines? Or, does it offer an integrating mechanism such as a core curriculum or a culminating course or project specifically designed to aid your incorporation of the material into thinking and action? Is there a sufficient range of sciences in the curriculum to provide a graduate with a basic understanding of the materials, energy, and processes within which human activity occurs? But beware of a scientific bias in course requirements; make sure adequate study of cultural, political and economic aspects of the environment are included. How integrated are environmental perspectives with the curriculum of other majors such as international relations, chemical engineering or theater? In addition to these types of general questions, you should also frame questions specific to your interests. For example, does the university offer semester abroad programs in developing countries? To what degree does the curriculum employ field work or problem-based learning?
While a general awareness of environmental issues has been prominent since the late 1960's, colleges and universities often change slowly. Therefore you should get the most specific information you can about the school you are considering before making a choice. The institutions in this book are among the nations strongest in environmental curricula.
But of equal importance, you will be well served in your search for the best education for you, if you begin by asking questions of yourself.
Thomas H. Kelly, Ph.D. is the founding director of the University Office of Sustainability and Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of New Hampshire, where he collaborates with faculty, staff, students and others in the development of curriculum, operations, research and engagement policies, practices and initiatives related to UNH's four educational initiatives in biodiversity, climate, culture, and food. This article written in 1995 is still timely.